Kneading Your Muscles

Everyday Ayurveda by Bhaswati Bhattacharya

When most people think of Ayurveda, they either associate herbs taken as powder, decoction or ghee, or they think of oil massage. In its various forms, oil massage of the body is known as  abhyanga. It combines the benefits of the loving kindness of physical touch with a supply of moisture deep into the tissues past the interstitium highway and the fascia into the muscles. When abhyanga is done utilizing Ayurvedic principles, it can be curative for many conditions lacking treatments in conventional medicine.

Abhyanga can be done alone, applying oil with your own hands, kneading the muscles to the depth of strain one needs, which keeps the hands strong. It can be done by one therapist, who will massage the oil and allow you as the receiver to relax. It can also be done with uber-luxury, with four therapists, one near each limb as you lie on a hard table or floor.

In authentic ayurvedic hospitals, it begins with gentle non-sexual unclothing, placing you on a hard neem table, pouring unwarmed oil first on the head, then face, neck, upper back and under your feet.

Then, the therapists will lay you down on the table face up as each therapist takes hot oil and applies it in unison and in synchronized strokes, moving from the shoulders to fingernails or hips to toes in outward strokes, massaging and kneading in exacted sweeps. They move you into new positions every so often, maintaining their synchronization and their kind but firm touch. For several days in sequence, they will work on you daily for an hour in an Ayurvedic hospital, using slightly different combinations of strokes and oils but each time synchronized and firm to touch certain points. They never reuse oils, and each day they use about 250ml of oil.

The three main strokes to learn are anuloma, along the lines of the hair, usually outward; pratiloma, against the lines of the hair, usually toward the body; and circular, to be done around the elbows, shoulders, knees and heels.

Gatra mardana, or kneading of the limbs with oil, is an essential step in the bathing process. In addition to helping the oil penetrate the skin, it also presses into the tissues and releases toxins such as lactic acid and trapped old oils and oil-soluble chemicals that may have seeped in and stayed in the tissues.

These old chemicals are a burden for the body, and because some of them hamper the optimal functioning of the cells, the cleaning crew that is our immune system is called in. In modern science, this is known as inflammation. The irritant acts to stimulate the immune warriors, which arrive through the blood and lymph. These irritants are sometimes the preservatives, synthetic vitamins, unsanctified minerals, fillers, additives, coloring agents, binding agents, and artificial flavors that are in our packaged foods, milk, oil, bread, flour, eggs, salt, sugar, and frozen, canned and jarred foods.  Eating fresh food as close to its original source is the only solution.

Ayurveda says that even a hard branch dipped into oil and massaged daily will become so supple and strong that it can be bent but not broken. The healthy body that is massaged in oil daily and then subjected to injury or strenuous work will not be injured!  The onslaught of aging will be halted, which is caused by toxins staying in the tissues and creating loss of adherence between muscles and interrupting the tone of the skin.

Many patients complain that they cannot afford the time or money for massages. Self-massage is also described in Ayurveda as an important art form, one of the 64 kalaas, or cultural pillars of knowledge. Self-massage keeps the mind connected with the hands and what it touches, and makes sure we are familiar with our own bodies. It teaches us how to judge the temperature of hot oil and demands we maintain some vigilance over our body “as a charioteer has duty towards his chariot.”

The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. [email protected]  |  

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