No one had to tell Marsha Akers that sore feet are an occupational hazard for massage therapists. “My feet hurt so bad,” she says, “that it was like pieces of glass cutting into them.” Barely into middle age, Marsha, who practices in Gresham, Oregon, had to stand on those feet all day long. “Finally, I was diagnosed as having bone spurs. I thought my career was over.” Desperate to try anything, Marsha came across an herbal oil from half a world away, and decided she had nothing to lose.
Ayurveda, the ancient holistic healing system of India, has a different vision of the healthy human—not just the gradually failing, getting through the day human, but a lively, vibrant being with energy to thrive and excel. Over the centuries, those in the know have explored how we can have that type of radiant good health.
This traditional scheme is a complete approach to health and lifestyle management. It is the ultimate self-care system, and it’s all about prevention. The techniques of Ayurvedic self-care are geared toward never allowing a symptom, but if you do, to bringing you back into balance quickly and effectively, so that you don’t have another. And regular massage is a part of that prevention.
Traditional natural healing systems have already worked out this individualized approach. If we dig deep enough, we find them all dipping from the same stream. Ayurveda has worked out the idea that people are different and need to be treated differently, and it has successfully worked out techniques to do just that.
Ayurveda gives us a measuring tool that people can master and apply. It explains the reason some people get better with one treatment program, and others require a different approach. The overarching concept of energy balance is the glue that holds all the various concepts and methods together, and it’s systematic, organized, and straightforward to learn.
Ever wonder if your skin rash, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, balding head and weak eyesight are connected? Ayurveda will give you the tools to understand the connections and reverse all of these with a new perspective on your life. Armed with the knowledge of how you are put together as an individual, you will be able to select your massage technique, medicated oil and therapy plan—even the temperature to maintain your office during a session.
People of ancient cultures experienced the natural world in which they lived, and sought to develop a way to systematically understand their relationship to it. They reasoned that they were made of the same stuff as the rest of the natural world, and were subject to the effects of circumstances in their living environment. Based on centuries of patient observations, people came to remarkable conclusions about how human bodies responded to changes in the climate, diet, season of the year, and so forth, and they put together systematic metaphors for how herbs, food exercise and bodywork interact with the body and mind of their patients.
Fundamentally, “like increases like.” In other words, an external factor, when introduced to the body, will create a similar reaction in the body of the person experiencing the change. For example, going out into the cold weather will make the body cold. Eating heavy food will make the body heavy. This seems obvious on the surface, and it is ultimately pretty easy to grasp intuitively, but putting together all the intricacies of every possible effect of every possible herbal remedy on every possible person is a daunting task.
If we think of each of these possible effects, such as temperature or moisture, as an energy, we can put together an explanation of the complexity of what it is to be a human being that is consistent and systematic enough for people to learn and apply in daily life. The cumulative effect of these internal and external factors forms the complex metaphor of “Ayurvedic energetics.” This metaphor creates a conceptual model that is intricate enough to represent an entire human being, yet simple enough to be useful.
Energetic evaluation of the body is based on experiencing the body with the human senses. According to the Ayurvedic system, the sum total of the effect of a therapy is what counts. For example, we may want to use a herbal massage oil to treat a patient with an acute inflammatory condition. But we also know that the herb tends to increase body temperature—it is “hypermetabolic, or “hot.” If the patient has a fever, or is a person who is particularly prone to develop inflammation (heat) that is difficult to control, we would think twice about using that specific remedy- the whole person would be worse off as a net total than before we started. Instead, we would seek out a treatment that had a “cooling” energy. This difference in approach can make a world of difference in clinical practice, and gives us an invaluable tool in managing a case for the best in the long term, and in treating the person as a whole human being. We don’t want to make people worse while we think they are getting better.
The art and science of energetics creates an impression from the whole, allowing us to grasp the overall nature of the remedy, and predict with great accuracy the expected consequences of its use. Using an energetic system, the properties of all treatments are collated systematically according to their taste, temperature and density, allowing the practitioner to match the actions and nature of the medicine to the individual patient, often referred to as “differential diagnosis.” A therapist using this paradigm will choose the whole of the treatment, based on the uniqueness of the case, rather than the commonality of the medical diagnosis.
Ayurveda carefully selects massage oils based on these effects:
Ayurveda has a 5,000-year history of using unique sophisticated massage techniques as integrated parts of a total healing system. Ayurveda uses massage therapy as a foundation treatment, not just for musculoskeletal disorders, but for virtually all conditions, even the most serious. Depending on the specifics of the treatment, such as the precise oil, often with infused medicinal herbs, the temperature of the treatment room, the depth and intensity of the treatment, the body region worked and the session length, Ayurvedic massage can treat just about any tissue or function.
All therapy in Ayurveda revolves around the behavior of the body energies. Our goal is to restore balance by offsetting the energetics. So, for example, if the symptoms are cold, slow, wet and heavy (obesity, chest congestion, diabetes, etc.), our massage strategy will then be to offset the prevailing energy with warming, active, rough, dry techniques and lubrication media.1
Ideally, Ayurveda recommends a massage with oil before exercise, to increase lubrication in the tissues before the movement. After exercise, when you are cooling down, you could have another massage with a dry powdered lubricant, such as selected powdered herbs, to absorb the wastes on the skin and stimulate the tissues. Follow the massage with a shower to remove the herbal powder.
Ayurveda gives special care to selecting oils and other massage media. Each oil is seen as having specific therapeutic properties, and is chosen according to the individual client and her relative energy balance at the time.
Oil massage (abhyanga) is performed with much larger quantities of oil than Western styles. This oil is very important to the medicinal aspect of the therapy. The oil is food and medicine, and must nourish the tissues properly, so the preparation is chosen specifically as medicine. The most common, broadly beneficial oil is sesame, with almond as a second choice, so most medicated oils are in a sesame oil base. The goal is to get as much medicated oil to penetrate the tissues as possible to pacify the energy being treated. 2
Depending on the energetics of the individual patient, we will choose the basic
massage oil carefully. If the patient is metabolically cool, oily and heavy,
with a tendency toward edema, we might use mustard, corn, jojoba, olive and
safflower, which bring balance to this energetic profile. If the patient is
hot and oily, with a tendency toward inflammation, we could choose between coconut,
pumpkin seed, rice bran, safflower, sandalwood and sunflower, which are cooling.
If the patient is cold and dry, with a tendency toward stiffness and constipation,
we might use avocado, castor, olive or wheat germ, which are moisturizing and
Ayurveda has a treasure trove of sophisticated remedies to offer. With a little study, a talented massage therapist can bring a whole new dimension to the work of healing.
Grandma might have given you this oil as a laxative, but Ayurveda recognizes castor as a wonderful panacea for a large number of health concerns.3 And for Akers, it was a modern day miracle. “I ended up soaking my feet in warm castor oil each night for 30 minutes,” she claims. “The relief was immediate, and continued to increase each night. Two weeks later, I was pain free for the first time in months,” she says.
Known as Palma Christi (hand of Christ) in the West, castor oil is pungent, heavy and sweet, with heating energy. Applied externally, it is analgesic and restores nerve tissue, so it is the main treatment for nerve conditions, such as pain.4
Castor oil is the main treatment for cold, dry conditions, including constipation and osteoarthritis. The Chinese also use it for joint pain.5 Following this logic, this very special oil is used in the treatment of epilepsy, paralysis, neuralgia, foot neuropathy, sciatica and many other nervous system disorders. Castor oil supports joint, muscle, connective tissue and skin health.
Castor oil, the “arnica of Ayurveda,” helps to heal tissue trauma
and treats damaged structural and connective tissue and wounds, preventing bruising.
It is not designed for acute pain relief, although it is superb for chronic
pain of fibromyalgia or osteoarthritis.
Castor oil works rapidly and effectively to prevent and reverse tissue injury. It is tissue tightening and helps to stabilize hypermobile joints, such as neck subluxations. It reduces benign masses and swellings, including ovarian cysts, breast cysts, varicose veins, swollen lymph glands, enlarged liver or spleen and lipomas. Gentle castor oil massage to the lactating mother’s breasts improves the secretion of milk.
Apply castor oil to large areas of nerve involvement or organ dysfunction, such as an involved leg, or as an abdominal pack for an affected liver, menstrual pain, constipation or general abdominal discomfort. Use it on burns, bedsores, rashes, skin itch, cracked heels, bruises, sprains, strains, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, torn cuticles and minor cuts or wounds.6
The leaves are poisonous, but they may be steamed and directly applied externally to relieve pains from bruises, injuries and stiffness, aches and pains, rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago and bursitis.
Also, apply it to infected skin, including warts and fungus, or as a spot treatment to pimples or stretch marks. In Ayurveda, castor oil is used in the treatment of disorders of the nervous system, including epilepsy, paralysis.
Castor oil is extremely messy. Traditionally, it is applied as a moist pack,
but compliance becomes a big problem when the patient is faced with the mess.
A water-soluble gel castor oil ointment is a convenient alternative. It penetrates
completely, leaving no residue.
Use it on specific areas of trauma (anal irritation, etc.). Allow it to remain and soak in as long as possible. Apply it an abdominal pack for ovarian cysts or liver detoxification. Use it as a breast pack for benign breast cysts. To prevent bruising, apply the castor oil immediately after trauma, allowing it to remain overnight, or for several hours.
The energetic characteristics of castor oil are a good match with the typical fibromyalgia patient. The treatment tends to be a little on the slow side in fibromyalgia, but, long term use can be very effective.
Akers’ pain episode was nine years ago. “My pain hasn’t returned. I feel great,” she says, “and best of all, I still keeps going full time in my busy massage practice, where I’m known for my liberal use of—you guessed it—castor oil.”
Ghee, clarified butter, from which the milk solids have been removed, is a cornerstone massage remedy, and is the premier anti-inflammatory topical. Apply ghee to hot spots from athletic injuries or inflamed arthritic joints.
Ghee, as a massage base, benefits sensitive skin. Ayurveda is known for recommending ghee, sometimes mixed with honey, as an application for wounds, inflammation, and blisters.
Shata Dhaut Ghrita (100 times washed ghee) is a traditional preparation made
from ghee. Hundred times washed ghee is prepared from organic cow milk ghee
by washing it in water, repeatedly, 100 times, using a specific prescribed method.
This procedure transforms the ghee into a soft, cooling, nourishing, silky unguent that is used as a traditional moisturizer and antiwrinkle skin cream. It produces radiant and glowing skin, especially for people with easily inflamed skin. It can be used as a daily face and body moisturizer or for facial massage. Apply it for the hot issues of sunburn, eczema and rosacea.
India is a tropical country, and in the hotter areas, it’s difficult to dry herbs in the sun in the conventional way, as they mold from the humidity. So Ayurveda has concocted numerous low technology methods to preserve the active ingredients from plants. Medicated ghee (ghrita in Sanskrit) is just such a method.
Herbs are simmered in ghee and water until the water evaporates. The spent herb is removed. That way, the fat soluble and the water soluble herb constituents are extracted and remain in the ghee. Every trace of water must be removed, or spoilage may occur. Ghee is self preserving, requiring no refrigeration, so medicated ghee lasts forever, if well cared for. Medicated ghee may be used internally or externally.
Most medicated ghee preparations are for inflammatory conditions. For example, the well-known Brahmi Ghrita contains the popular herb gotu kola, which can be used for inflamed skin.
Shatavari ghrita, which balances female hormones, is made by simmering 1 part shatavari root in 4 parts ghee and 8 parts water and 8 parts milk (or just 16 parts water), over a low heat, until all the water is evaporated and only the medicated ghee remains.
Narayan Oil is the leading musculoskeletal treatment oil in Ayurveda. It is really a concept, or category, more than a specific formula, and there are many brands and variations. But generally it contains essential oils in a neutral oil base, usually sesame oil. The essential oils have heating and cooling effects. Typical essential oils would be peppermint, eucalyptus and clove.
A complicated traditional formula includes sesame oil, Bala (Sida cordifolia), Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) Boswellia gum (Boswellia serrata) Guggul gum (Commiphora mukul), Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), Calamus (Acorus calamus), Licorice (Glychyrrhiza glabra), Triphala (Three myrobalan fruits), Angelica (Angelica archangelica), Prickly Ash (Xanthoxylum spp.), Shilajit (Mineral pitch), Fenugreek (Trigonella foenumgraeceum), Turmeric (Curcuma longa), Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans), Clove (Caryophyllus aromaticus), Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora), Myrrh (Commiphora molmol), Tea tree oil and Jivan oil.
This invigorating oil increases circulation and decreases pain. It is classic for osteoarthriris.
Amla fruit (Emblica officinalis) is the main anti-inflammatory herb
for chronic conditions. It appears in many herbal oils for hot conditions. Amla
massage oil (sesame, amla fruit, long pepper, guduchi) is used for joint inflammation
and inflamed scalp conditions.
Amla commonly appears with the main herb for hair health, bringraj leaf (Eclipta alba) in medicinal hair preparations, as inflammation is the main process that foils hair growth and health. Bringraj scalp oil often contains sesame, bringraj, amla, bibitaki and Brahmi.
The Brahmi-Amla combination brings two cooling herbs to hot tissues. A complex formula for a very cooling massage oil includes sesame, bilwa, brahmi, amla, ashwaganda, kanta kari, gokshura, bala, neem, punarnava, atibala, agnimantha, prasarani, patal twak, shatavari, mishreya , jatamansi , turmeric, daruharidra, shailja, sandalwood, pushkarmool, cardamom , manjistha, licorice, valerian, nutgrass, tejpatra, bringraj, jiwak, calamus and kama duda.
Dashmula is the famous “ten roots” formula. A wonderful, warming infused oil with these ten warming roots is used in cold conditions, such as osteoarthritis. It also finds use for anorexia, constipation, anemia, body ache, coughing and breathing problems, pharyngitis and vertigo.
As is common with Ayurvedic formulas, this formula may contain ingredient variations from different sources. It includes pipramool, the root of long pepper, a close relative of black pepper. The usual ingredients include Gokshura, Bilwa, Desmodium gangeticum, Vraria picta, Solanum surratense, Solanum indicum, Premna mucronata, Oroxylum indicum, Umelina arborea, Stereospermum suaveolens.
Ubtan is a paste made from grains, beans, nuts or flowers, to which oils and herbs have been added. Garbanzo flour is the usual base. This ubtan paste is used as a health and beauty treatment for the skin. The paste is applied about one quarter inch thick, then allowed to remain on the skin for 30 minutes or so, where it may dry. After the beauty massage, the paste is removed in a cool bath, which sometimes contains a little lemon juice, rose water, yogurt or sandalwood.
Ubtan formulas vary widely. They often contain turmeric, saffron, sandalwood or ground mustard seeds. Ubtan may be used daily in place of soap.
Ubtan for sensitive skin often is based on garbanzo and may contain cooling ghee and amla. Ubtan for dry skin may be based on wheat flour, and may contain sesame oil. Ubtan for oily skin may be a mix of garbanzo powder and triphala powder, or a water based paste of powdered triphala only.
Whole body massage ubtan
1 Tbs garbanzo flour
1 tsp mustard oil
One fourth tsp turmeric powder
Water to form paste, as needed
Beautiful skin herbal ubtan
1 Tbs garbanzo flour
1 tsp mustard oil
One fourth tsp turmeric powder
One fourth Tbs fenugreek powder
Water to form paste, as needed
Ashwaganda root (Withania somnifera) is Ayurveda’s main tonic herb, and may be used as a medicated oil or ghee. The intent is to apply enough that the herb enters the body and has tonifying effects. Just about any tired body can benefit from the gentle strength giving effects of ashwaganda oil. It is often found in a sesame complex of several herbs, including kamla, malti pushp, madhukayasti, anantmul, padmakesara, maida, punarnava, draksha, manjishta, badi kateli, choti elachi, elva, haritaki, bibitaki, amla, musta and padmaka.
Brahmi leaf (Centella asiatica), here called gotu kola, is the main
herb or nerve tissue. As we have discussed, it may be used in ghee, but it is
also common in oil. Since brahmi is cooling, the fresh leaves are infused into
cooling coconut oil. Guduchi, manjishta, haritaki and saffron will also be included
in the formula.
Brahmi massage is used for degenerate nerve conditions, including neuropathy, traumatic injury and multiple sclerosis.
People with oily bodies don’t usually get oil massages. Instead, we use finely ground, dry herbal powders as the lubricating medium. This is a new experience for most therapists, but a little experimentation might pay off. This dry method is detoxifying and stimulating for the skin, and does not contribute to the already excessive oil burden. Common powders include corn, fenugreek seed, garbanzo, millet and the triphala herb combination, which is the most widely used formula in Ayurveda. Dry powder massage requires a lot more lubricating powder than most therapists are used to, so pile it on.
Yogurt soothes the skin and detoxifies the tissue. Use it plain as a massage
medium, or use it for self massage in a bath.
Herbal yogurt combinations abound in Ayurveda. For example, as an anti-wrinkle and general skin treatment, turmeric, yogurt, garbanzo flour, ginger powder and lemon juice is applied all over the body, massaged in thoroughly, and allowed to dry, before washing off with plain water. 7
Another similar skin treatment involves 3-day-old aged yogurt, lemon juice, vinegar and sulfur. 8
Osteoarthritis is the classic cold, dry and degenerative condition. Massage for osteoarthritis should be done in a warm room, with warming oils. The focus should be on gentle increase of joint range of motion. Since osteoarthritis patients have a lack of oily, lubricating “slime” in the tissues, lubricating oil should be used liberally. The patient should not feel any pain.
Olive oil is a particularly good medium for osteoarthritis. Mustard oil, a warming preparation, is also a good choice. Narayan Oil is a centuries-old remedy for arthritis massage.
Of course, pain is the first symptom that comes to mind when most people think about the misery of arthritis. But it turns out not to be the case for those who have the disorder.9 Lost sleep is among the main grievances of arthritis victims, according to a study from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers.10 It’s the leading reason they seek medical care. Sleep disruption overshadows problems such as reduced mobility, fewer visits to family and friends and missing work or favorite recreational activities. Since massage therapy is renowned for promoting sleep, it can have a dramatic benefit in sleep loss from osteoarthritis. Soothing, warming techniques fit the bill.
Clove oil preparations, when applied topically, are superb for enhancing the
neurological response of the muscle, and can also be used in neuromuscular diseases.
Ginger oil is the counterpart to clove, suppressing the nerve signal, and is
used on muscles in spasm.
Counter-irritation, the experience of “fooling” pain by generating a superficial feeling of cold or heat over a sore area, has been known for centuries. Counter-irritants include mint oil, wintergreen oil, camphor, eucalyptus oil and turpentine oil, which arouse or irritate nerve endings, distracting the body’s attention from musculoskeletal pain. Used appropriately, they are generally quite safe.
Ayurveda is systematic and user friendly. If you dig in a little, you will find the methods easy to understand and logical to apply. As you proceed, Ayurvedic energy balancing will come through as organized, consistent and eminently useful.
There’s much to learn—and it can be easy, fun and most importantly, effective beyond even what you might imagine. Ayurvedic massage will help you change the way they see health, disease, medicine and healing. And it will tangibly impact what can do about it day to day.
Generate your enthusiasm, organize your technique and deliver your best essence, and your practice will flow with grace, power, tranquility, effectiveness and joy.
Ayurvedic Massage Media
Cold, wet, oily conditions
Cold, dry conditions
|Vitamin A||Sunflower||Wheat germ|
|Blue corn/corn||Barley||Fenugreek seed|
|Fenugreek seed||Fenugreek seed||Garbanzo|
|Triphala (herb combination)||Triphala (herb combination)||Triphala (herb combination)|
|Basil, Tulsi (Holy basil)||Gardenia||Cedarwood|
|Sage||Vertivert||Tulsi (Holy basil)|
Method 1 (Simple procedure)
Simmer ashwaganda (typically 1 part) and ghee (typically 4 parts) together. Strain. Bottle. No water remaining.
Method 2 (Traditional Ayurvedic procedure)
Place in pan together:
1 part herb
4 parts ghee
16 parts water
Gently heat, stirring occasionally, until all water evaporated. Strain.
Method 3 (Best yield)
Decoct oil and water phases separately. Combine. Simmer to remove all water.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is a health educator who lives in Eugene, Oregon, where he serves as the herbalist for The Yogi Tea Company. He teaches Ayurvedic massage CEU classes around the country. His most recent book is The Way of Ayurvedic Herbs.
1 Douillard, John, Encyclopedia of Ayurvedic Massage, The, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2004, p. 47
2 Atreya, Secrets of Ayurvedic Massage, Lotus Press, 2000, p. 85
3 Kapoor, L. D., CRC Handbook of Ayurvedic Medicinal Plants
4 Tierra, Michael and Lesley, Overview: Planetary Herbology, www.planetherbs.com
5 Tierra, Michael and Lesley, Overview Planetary Herbology http://www.planetherbs.com/articles/introduction_to_planetary_herbol.htm
6 Johari, Harish. Ayurvedic Massage..Healing Arts. Rochester, 1996.
7 Yogi Bhajan lecture, 6/29/95
8 Yogi Bhajan lecture, 12/01/82
9 Marcus Adam Top Complaint Among Arthritics Isn’t Pain http://www.healthscout.com/template.asp?page=newsDetail&ap=1&id=91385
10 Study shows sleep disruption to be chief complaint Arthritis Foundation http://www.arthritis.org/resources/news/news_sleep.asp