The word ‘Abhyangam’ is composed of two Sanskrit words, abhi and anga. Abhi means ‘towards’ and anga, in one of its meanings, refers to ‘movement’.

Abhyangam is a synchronized massaging of the body towards the direction of the movement of arterial blood. In practical terms it means massaging the body in the direction of the body hair. The scientific reason for this is to increase the blood flow towards the most distal parts of the body and avoid overwhelming the heart through increased venous return if the massage is done towards the heart, or in other words, in the direction opposite to that of the body hair.

Abhyangam may be done using oil, herbal powder, herbal pastes or ghee. It is a part of the daily routine suggested by Ayurveda. It is used for relief of pain, stiffness and tiredness. It also forms an important part of snehana or oleation which is an indispensable prelude to Panchakarma treatments, the five Ayurvedic detoxification therapies.

Abhyangam not only prepares the body for Panchakarma, but also helps to mobilize the dosha from the periphery toward the core in order to get them eliminated through the body orifices. The Vata dosha is particularly pacified by Abhyangam but even Pitta and Kapha can be pacified using different massage mediums like ghee and herbal powders respectively. Abhyangam is considered an important treatment modality for balancing the dosha.

The difference between Ayurvedic massage (Abhyangam) and regular massage

Abhyangam and other types of massage are the same in that both involve the basic manipulation techniques that have been developed through experience by different schools and have been passed on from generation to generation. Interestingly, Ayurvedic texts do not give details of the procedures involved in Abhyangam but mention ‘samvahan’ which means gentle rubbing, ‘peedan’ which means pressing and squeezing and ‘mardan’ which means pressure massage, which corresponds to modern day massage techniques. Different Abhyangam techniques have been developed over centuries. Marma massage and Kerala foot massage which were traditionally used to heal injured warriors were carefully guarded secrets. Now they are being taught to other seekers as well.

Abhyangam differs from other massage in that it invariably uses oil for massaging the body. Unlike massage which is used more for recreation and relaxation, Abhyangam is a therapeutic procedure in many Vata disorders. Different oils are used to encourage different therapeutic effects on the body. This type of distinction is not made by modern day massage therapy, unless combined with aromatherapy.