“You’re Pouring Oil Where?” A Guide to Indian Ayurvedic Massage

Fitness & Workouts, India, Spa & Beauty, Spiritual Travel — By on February 11, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Meghann Foye

Lost Girls Deputy Editor

“How’s this? Too hot?” asks my therapist, brushing more warm oil over my limbs. I’m lying completely exposed on a thick wooden board in a treatment room in Kerala, India, the tropical southern coastal state below Goa.

“Ugh, cold?” I want to say, hoping she’ll cover me up with the towel, but no such luck.

“Great,” I reply instead as she continues with medium to heavy strokes to stimulate energy points as another woman heats up more of the viscous coating behind us.

I’m receiving my first real ayurvedic massage treatment in India, at The Park Vembanad Lake, a peaceful boutique hotel overlooking the backwaters of Kerala and despite the slight chill, I feel very lucky. Kerala is where the 5,000-year-old science of Ayurveda originated and I’ve been told Indian people used to take the entire month after monsoon season to go through a 7-, 14-, 21- or 28-day purification regimens. These would include daily massages in ghee (clarified butter) or oils, depending on dosha, or mind/body type. In town, you’ll find many treatment centers offering vacationers treatments for what’s ailing them.

Though there are many different treatments depending on your body’s needs, I’m experiencing a common one called Abhyangam (which the word itself means “to massage”), a relaxing treatment meant to quiet the nervous system, produce a feeling of deep relaxation, and aid sleep.

The treatment begins with a ceremonial cleansing foot bath and then, like a turbo-charged Swedish massage, the therapist applies vigorous pressure to my shoulders, arms, legs and feet, also rubbing my stomach to kick-start my organs and digestion.

I feel relaxed, yet because of my uncovered state the massage doesn’t produce the Zen I hoped. As the therapists turn me over on the board to brush more oil on my backside, I feel more like a buttered piece of toast. How much oil will there be? I wonder if there are plastic gallon containers stored away in the closets. “This one’s a dry one,” I imagine my therapist telling the other in Hindi as she finds areas of my body I didn’t know needed more moisture.

In Ayurveda, or the science of life, the body is made up of three basic energies or doshas, representing a combo of ether, air, fire, water and earth. Vata-dominant people tend to be thin, wiry and prone to nervousness, Pitas can be strong, muscular and hot-tempered and Kaphas, more docile and slower-moving. Everyone is said to be made up of a unique combination of the three. When doshas are in balance, the body will function at its fullest capacity. Because of my anxiety-prone mind, coupled with a softer belly, I’ve been given a combo of oils meant to quiet the mind, yet stimulate the body. In the herbal blend, I detect the scent of tulsi, or Indian basil, grown fresh in the area, along with cardamom and cinnamon.

Just as I’ve finally abandoned shyness, I’m covered up with a thin towel and moved up on the board so my head hangs off the table for sirodhara, or third eye chakra treatment, an energy center meant to clear the mind. The therapist pushes the pot of oil back and forth producing a thin stream onto my forehead to purify my thoughts. As one therapist pours oil into the copper pot, the other guides it slowly back and forth across my brow. At first the effect is a little funny—will she miss and get my eye? But after a half an hour, my monkey brain has settled down and I’m worried less about the amount of oil being used and more about not wanting it to end.

When we’re finished, I’m guided into a steam shower to try to remove some of the oil, but my hair stays slick even after two lathers, producing a deep conditioning effect. The therapists are right though—later that night, my sleep is sounder than ever.

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