Can you tell me about the practice of abhyanga, an Ayurvedic method of detoxifying the body through oil massage? Is it worthwhile?
Andrew Weil, M.D. | June 1, 2017
Ayurvedic medicine, the traditional healing system of India, is perhaps the oldest formal medical system in the world. It takes a comprehensive approach to healthy living that encompasses mental and spiritual well-being as well as physical health.
Abhyanga is just one type of Ayurvedic massage. I have experienced it both in India and in the U.S. In India, as many as six therapists work on you at the same time; most spas here can only afford to provide two. Abhyanga involves the use of a lot of oil, often warm mustard seed oil. The strokes are long and deep and very enjoyable.
Among the many claims made for abhyanga are that it relieves fatigue, increases stamina, improves sleep, enhances the complexion, promotes longevity, nourishes all parts of the body and neutralizes some of the effects of aging. Whether you actually get such benefits is something you must judge for yourself, however, as almost no medical studies have been conducted on the health effects of abhyanga. The only one I’ve seen is a pilot study from Germany published in 2011 that looked at the effect of a single Abhyanga massage on stress in 10 healthy women and 10 healthy men in their mid-30s. Each participant had a one-hour treatment. Significant reductions in stress and heart rate were noted as well as decreased blood pressure in those considered at risk for hypertension.
Those findings are consistent with what we know of the many health benefits of massage in general. It can reduce heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhance immune function, boost levels of endorphins and serotonin (the body’s natural painkillers and mood regulators) and increase blood circulation – all this while easing sore and achy muscles. Massage can certainly help with circulation and promote the clearing of normal byproducts of muscle metabolism, but I know of no evidence suggesting that massage of any sort can remove toxins from the body.
If you have a chance to try abhyanga, do so. You’re likely to find it pleasurable and relaxing. You might also want to consider abhyanga self-massage; you’ll find instructions for that online and can watch demonstrations on YouTube.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
A.J. Basler, “Pilot study investigating the effects of Ayurvedic Abhyanga massage on subjective stress experience.” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, May 2011, doi: 10.1089/acm.2010.0281