Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Self Care For The Autumn Season

One of the very first Ayurvedic practices that I ever learned was the nourishing practice of abhyanga, or anointing the body with oil. This is a practice that can be done at any time of the year, but it is one that I particularly love to indulge in during the autumn season. The Ashtanga Hrdayam, which is a foundational text of Ayurveda, states that-

“Abhyanga should be practiced daily. It wards off old age, protects against the effects of exertion, and reduces aggravation of vata dosha.” (Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana: II: 8-9)

According to Ayurveda the autumn season is the one in which vata dosha is most prone to aggravation. What does this mean exactly? It is a recognition of the fact that in the fall we tend more towards imbalances that are characterized by an increase in the very specific gunas (qualities) of cold, dry, light, rough & mobile. In our physical bodies, this may be experienced as drier skin and hair,  a digestive capacity that seems more erratic, or a tendency towards cold hands & feet. Mentally and emotionally there may be greater restlessness or even a sense of being scattered and anxious. Many people say they have trouble falling asleep (or staying asleep) when vata dosha is aggravated, and their mind feels busy even when they are at rest.  This can all be exacerbated by the fact that autumn is a busy time of year for many of us as, and if our summer season was particularly intense, we may even find ourselves feeling depleted as September rolls around.

Now a daily oil massage might not be able to remedy all of this, but let me tell you that it can help a lot- plus it feels really good.

To remedy the symptoms of excess vata we would aim to bring in qualities that balance out the excess cold, dry, rough, light & mobile (or erratic) aspects of the dosha. Abhyanga can be a wonderful way to do this. Traditional abhyanga oils would be made with medicinal herbs and oils that are specific to the individual or the pattern of imbalance. When I went to India the Ayurvedic massage therapists would have the herbs warming in the heated massage oil all day long and the entire room was filled with their medicinal smell.
I like to work with this idea by creating seasonal oils. This means that in the autumn season I will reach for heavier or more moisturizing oils, and will infuse them with warming or otherwise therapeutic herbs before adding various essential oils to the mix. Avocado, sesame, sweet almond and jojoba all make great choices for carrier oils for the fall season. In the photo on the right you can see some infusions I am making with herbs such as douglas fir needles, juniper berries, mugwort, ginger and calendula blossoms. These will be strained off after 4-6 weeks and used as a base for my autumn abhyanga blends (see the end of this article for a simple recipe).
My first Ayurveda teacher taught me that the  Sanskrit word sneha means oil, but it also means love or affection. She taught me that to lovingly oil our skin can be an act of radical self-care, radical because so many of us are challenged by offering affection towards ourselves and in particular towards our own bodies. I always think about this when I practice abhyanga, and though it is a quick practice that can be done in just a few minutes, I try never to rush through it. Sometimes it is the only true act of self-care I can manage in a day, and so I try to give the practice my full attention, thereby offering myself as much love as I can.
The practice itself is very simple and is best done before taking a warm shower or bath.

  • Create or buy a massage oil blend that you will enjoy (avoid synthetic oils or fragrances)
  • Warm the oil using a hot water bath- simply place the oil bottle in a cup of warm water to do this
  • Massage the oil into your skin using long strokes on your limbs (always moving in the direction of your heart), and gentle circular motions on your joints
  • Massage your belly in a circular motion that moves up the right side and down the left
  • If you are going to wash your hair in the shower then try massaging your scalp with oil- it feels SO good!
  • Jump in the shower or bath and continue to massage the oil into your skin
  • Avoid using soap (except in spots you consider necessary)- oil is very cleansing and will nourish your skin as well
  • Pat your skin dry with a towel when done and notice how good your skin feels

This is such a wonderful ritual to do before bed and will help you to sleep deeply. Struggle with insomnia? Try massaging a small amount of oil into your feet after the bath and then put warm socks on prior to bed. You will sleep like a baby. I also like to do this on cold mornings as it increases my circulation, reduces stiffness, and makes me feel like I have been wrapped in a warm hug. I am not exaggerating when I tell you it is one of my all time favorite practices of self-care.
Want to try it for yourself? Here is a simple recipe for you to try.

Autumn Abhyanga Massage Oil Recipe

This recipe can be made in two steps by creating an infused herbal oil as your base, or you can skip step number one and create a lovely massage oil using essential oils only.  This oil is warming, will increase circulation, decrease stiffness, and calm a restless mind. This oil is made with a 2% dilution (essential oils to carrier oil) which is a standard dilution for adults, but you can cut it down to 1% if preferred (for very sensitive skin or use by children).
Step 1 (optional): Mugwort & Juniper Infused Oil
This makes a lovely dark green herbal infused oil that increases circulation and is great for sore muscles. Mugwort is also a famous dream herb so it can be very nice to use at night. I chose a recipe that utilized dried herbs as they are easiest to get and make an infused oil that is less likely to spoil. There are methods of making infused oils with fresh herbs but if you are new to making infused oils this is a good place to start.

  • fill a 500 ml canning jar 2/3 full with a blend of dried mugwort, 2 TBS gently ground juniper berries, 3 TBS dried ginger root- I love to buy my herbs from Harmonic Arts on Vancouver Island
  • cover with a blend of 2/3 sesame or almond oil, and 1/3 avocado oil
  • seal jar and label, place in a warm dark place for 4 weeks, shaking daily
  • take the lid off your jar and place it in water in a double boiler pan, warm on low for 1-3 hours, stirring regularly
  • remove your jar from the water and dry the outside of the jar very well (water will spoil your finished oil)
  • let cool to room temperature and strain off herbs using a muslin bag or double layered cheesecloth
  • store in the fridge for up to 6 months (you will likely use it up way before then)

Steps 2-4: Make Your Massage Oil 
Your massage oil can be made with basic carrier oils or your infused oil. If you do use your infused oil you will no longer need to keep it in the fridge once the essential oils are added as they help preserve it. 

  • fill a 250 ml jar with your infused oil or a blend of  2/3 sesame or almond oil, and 1/3 avocado oil
  • add 20 drops vetiver oil, 35 drops ginger oil,  25 drops clary sage oil, 16 drops red mandarin oil
  • shake well and label
  • run a warm bath, anoint yourself with love & enjoy!

We will be making abhyanga oils and other Ayurvedic self care products at my upcoming Autumn Wisdom Workshop at Om Town Yoga on Sept 24th. Join me if you can!