The practice of Ayurvedic bodywork, which originated under the umbrella of Ayurvedic medicine, has long been a powerful means of detoxifying, replenishing, and restoring harmony to both body and mind. Ayurvedic bodywork is a specialized form of massage that balances the physical and energetic layers of your being.
Though there are a number of traditional Ayurvedic practices and remedies, each one suitable for a different set of needs, the following components can be found in each of them. It is the synergy of these constituent parts that allows Ayurvedic bodywork to:
- Profoundly relax muscles
- Stimulate lymphatic flow
- Balance doshas
- Restore emotional balance
- Calm the mind
- Reestablish your connection to source energy
Prior to an Ayurvedic treatment, the therapist will consult with the client regarding current physical and mental health as well as intentions for treatment. Specifically, the therapist will determine the client’s current dosha imbalance (vikruiti). From the information provided during the Ayurvedic consultation, specific goals will be agreed upon and an ayurvedic therapies treatment program curated.
Tailoring each aspect of the treatment, from the herbs and oils to the pacing and energy work, to the client’s unique needs creates a customized treatment that is able to address individual imbalances. For example, if a client has a predominance of air and space (Vata dosha) the therapist will use slow strokes, calming essential oils, and grounding energy work to stabilize the predominance of movement found within the air and space elements. Customizing treatments in this way optimally balances the elements within a client’s body, mind, and emotions.
Oil holds a very special place in Ayurveda. In fact, it is often said that the oil is the medicine. As such, oil is used liberally throughout Ayurvedic bodywork and is the foundation of all Ayurvedic treatments. The oil binds with ama, a toxic accumulation that lodges itself in the organs and channels of the body. In classic Ayurvedic literature, excessive ama is noted as the root of all diseases. Ayurveda teaches that applying oil to the skin helps to draw the ama from the deeper layers of the body to the more superficial layers, where it can then be eliminated.
In addition to the detoxification benefits of oil, its use in Ayurvedic treatments has several other advantages. The nutritional and fatty acid profiles of the various organic oils used in Ayurvedic treatments tout powerful anti-inflammatory properties which reduce skin irritation and combat aging. Sesame oil, which is a staple in Ayurvedic treatments, has free radical fighting antioxidants that help to reduce oxidative damage in the skin. Used regularly in topical application, this translates into strong and observable anti-aging effects.
Herbs and botanicals have been an integral part of Ayurveda for thousands of years. Within the context of Ayurvedic treatments, herbs are used to balance the doshas and promote detoxification within the body. Most often, herbs are infused into massage oils. As herb-infused oils are applied to the skin, the healing properties of the herbs are readily absorbed.
Individuals with a high accumulation of the Vata dosha are likely to have oils infused with warming and relaxing herbs such as ashwagandha, bala, valerian, and licorice. More cooling Pitta-friendly herbs such as gotu kola, manjishta, coriander, and shatavari are likely to be infused for use on Pitta dominant individuals. Light and stimulating herbs such as chitrak, calamus, rosemary, and mustard are likely to be found in oils intended for Kaphas.
In certain Ayurvedic treatments, herb-infused oil is used in conjunction with powdered herbs. The powdered, dosha-specific herbs are either mixed with oil to create a paste or applied directly to the skin on top of the massage oil. Heat is then added to open the pores and encourage maximum absorption. The herbs are akin to energetic managers who provide clear directions to the cells of the human body. As the body follows the nourishing instructions provided by each herb’s unique biologic injunction, various changes begin to manifest at the cellular level. If enough human cells receive the herbal messages and make changes, the result is detoxification, nourishment, relaxation, and, ultimately, transformation of the body and mind.
Essential oils have been used throughout Ayurveda’s long history as a tool for awakening the body’s healing potential. Because essential oils have a molecular weight of less than 500 Dalton (the standard measurement unit of atomic mass), they are able to pass easily to the deepest layers of skin and into the bloodstream. Of course, ancient Ayurvedic practitioners did not know about atomic mass. What they did observe, however, was that different essential oils had definite, measurable, and repeatable outcomes when used on patients. From this information, various essential oils were prescribed to treat specific imbalances.
In an Ayurvedic treatment, a combination of essential oils will be used based upon the dosha imbalance being treated. The essential oils may be integrated into the massage oil, pressed into select marma points, added to warm facial compresses, or diffused into the room. Each essential oil is selected with the client’s goals and intentions in mind. For example, to awaken a certain marma point, an invigorating essential oil such as nutmeg may be pressed into the point whereas to reduce inflammation, an oil such as frankincense may be added to the massage oil and topically applied to the entire body. A trained Ayurvedic therapist will be able to determine which oils to use and the manner in which they would best be applied.
In Ayurveda it is commonly accepted that body, mind, and consciousness work together to create a healthy, vital, and joyful life experience. A comprehensive treatment cannot work exclusively on one aspect of being and expect to create health and wellness in the multiple layers of your being. Most Western massages focus primarily upon the body. Yet, Ayurveda understands the body to be simply one aspect of being. As such, every Ayurvedic treatment will include some form of energy work. Sometimes the energy work initiates or concludes the treatment session. Other times, it is woven into the treatment itself.
There are numerous methods of balancing energy. Holding energy centers creates stability and grounding for chaotic or disturbed energy. Moving along the energy network known as the srotas unclogs stuck energy. Circulating energy within marma points impacts the flow of prana coming into the body. Though the method of balancing energy will vary from client to client, each Ayurvedic therapist will integrate this critical component into every single treatment.
Perhaps the most important factors underlying all Ayurvedic treatments are the presence and intention of the therapist combined with the receptivity of the client. A knowledgeable therapist will clear his or her own energy prior to entering into a treatment so that he or she becomes a vessel of source energy. Likewise, a client will receive more from a treatment if he or she prepares by meditating, letting go of mental dialogue, and releasing expectations in order to become receptive on the physical, mental, and spiritual levels.
Whether you attend a health retreat or receive an Ayurvedic massage, when these conditions are met and combined with the five core components of an Ayurvedic treatment listed above, the results can be truly phenomenal. A greater level of health and well-being, vitality, peace, and harmony can be established in your body, mind, and soul.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.