Ayurveda, India’s traditional medical system, offers various Ayurvedic bodywork (manual therapies) to help release impurities from the body and deeply cleanse and purify the mind, body and emotions. The ancient science is a complete medical system for healing disease and preventing disease from occurring. Ayurveda bodywork is offered in two ways.
One-off, individual treatments restore balance to the body, mind and doshas when done properly. A series of medically prescribed Ayurvedic bodywork treatments are also offered in Ayurvedic Panchakarma therapy, a days-long, in-house process that attempts to restore health to the sick or injured. In this article, we’ll discuss the individual treatments that anyone can select for their own enjoyment and wellbeing.
Ayurveda bodywork calms the thoughts and allows one to connect internally, engage the senses, and experience a relaxed, peaceful state. Here is a detailed overview of ten popular Ayurvedic bodywork therapies.
1. Oil Massage Or External Oleation (Abhyanga Therapy)
Oil Massage (Abhyanga) is the application of unctuous substances (Sneha Dravya) to the body. The massage is done with mild pressure in the same direction of the hair follicles (anulomgati) so it is comfortable to the client. It can be performed as a therapeutic procedure as well as a preventive procedure. It is found effective in psychological as well as nervous conditions.
Benefits Of Oil Massage
Oil massage (Abhyanga) softens, cleans and tones the skin making it lustrous. It balances Vata dosha and increases strength, stamina and longevity. It promotes sleep, improves vision, removes fatigue and slows down aging.
Proper oil massage (Abhyanga) therapy usually takes 30 – 40 minutes.
According to the ancient Ayurvedic scholar Charaka, Vata dominates in the sense of touch (Sparshanendriya) and its location is the skin (Tvacha). Oil massage (Abhyanga) is beneficial to the skin, so one should follow it regularly. As all the senses (Indriyas) are in close contact with the mind, when they remain healthy, the mind automatically becomes healthy. In this way oil massage (Abhyanga) keeps the body and mind healthy.1
Regular oil massage (Abhyanga) improves blood circulation, induces better lymph movement, increases mobility and range of motion of the joints, stimulates or soothes the nervous system, enhances the condition of the skin, aids digestion and intestinal function, and relieves acute and chronic pain.2
READ MORE: How Ayurvedic Massage Works + Ayurvedic Massage Oils, 14 Proven Scientific Benefits Of Ayurvedic Massage, with References (Abhyanga Benefits), The Benefits Of Ayurvedic Massage According To The Ancient Ayurvedic Texts
Ayurvedic Oils For Massage
Traditionally for oil massage, specific herbal oils are used for Vāta, Pitta and Kapha body types.
In Vata body types, moderate pressure massage with warm sesame or almond oil is good. In Pitta body types, neutral or cooling oils are good. Clarified butter (ghee) and coconut oil calms and cools the body and reduces burning sensations. Herbs like Gotu kola and essential oils of jasmine, sandalwood, lotus, rose and khus have a cooling effect.
In Kapha body types, hot, sharp and stimulating oils such as mustard oil and jojoba oil along with essential oils such as cedar, pine musk and cinnamon are good for them.
According to Ayurveda, daily oil massage is recommended for the head and feet. Putting oil in the ears is part of daily routine (dinacharya). This helps prevent premature aging, relieves fatigue on exertion, and pacifies Vata dosha.
Head massage prevents headache, hair loss, early greying or balding. It promotes strong and long hair, strong skull bone, happiness and relaxation of the mind. It ensures sound sleep and brightens facial skin. It keeps the sense organs in a healthy condition and delays aging.3
Foot massage (padaabhyanga) utilizes important Marma points on the feet. Foot massage is done using the palms of the hands after application of warm oil. Foot massage prevents hardness, stiffness, roughness, tiredness, dryness, fatigue, numbness (loss of sensation) in the feet, cracks in the foot and clogging of the blood vessels. It increases foot strength. The foot becomes soft, strong and steady. It also is thought to improve eye sight, promote sleep and has an aphrodisiac effect. All the diseases related to an imbalance of Vata Dosha are resolved with foot massage. One who does regular foot massage with oil is not affected by sciatica and constrictions of the vessels.4,5
Putting oil in the ears prevents ear problems due to vitiated Vata dosha. It relieves ringing in the ears, stiffness in the neck and headaches. It also improves hearing.6
Full body abhyanga uses application of oil to the entire body and is followed by gentle massage, making the skin lustrous and firm.
2. Udvartana Exfoliation Therapy (Dry Massage)
Udvartana is the process of applying herbal powders to the skin, rubbing the powders against the direction of the hair follicles (pratiloma direction) with gentle strokes, towards the heart. During this therapy the palm evenly spreads over the surface of the skin.
This Ayurvedic bodywork reduces morbid Kapha and Vata dosha. It eliminates adipose tissue deposits (meda) and provides firmness to the body. It stabilizes the Pitta dosha that is responsible for skin immunity (bhrajaka pitta). It alleviates foul smell, heaviness, drowsiness and itching. It is useful for anorexia and sweating. It strengthens the muscles, provides stability, beautifies the skin and enhances the complexion bringing freshness.7
The usual duration for this therapy is around 30 to 45 minutes. The best time for Udvartana is in the early morning between 5 and 9am and before bathing. After Udvartana, you should take rest for 15 minutes. After relaxing, a hot water bath is advised.
Benefits Of Dry Massage
Udvartana is used for cellulite, obesity, obstruction of the channels (Srothorodha) and for body exfoliation. It is contraindicated when there are wounds, cuts, burns, oozing skin conditions and in severe painful conditions like degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) and colic. It is not recommended for those that are too lean, pregnant, and for children below the age of 10 years and the elderly (above 70 years).
Udvartana increases blood circulation, bodily secretions, absorption and elimination of waste products. It improves the nutrition of the particular area that is massaged, raises temperature locally and improves the condition of the nervous system by stimulating the cutaneous nerve endings. It influences general metabolism when applied to large areas. It helps to breakdown thickening and adhesions in sub-acute and chronic conditions and also helps in the reabsorption of inflammatory products and the absorption of fat in fatty tissues.8
Udvartana can be of two types. Reinforced friction or Udgharshan uses an herbal dry powder with no addition of oil or liquid. It alleviates itching, body odor, allergic patches, Vata dosha and stimulates Pitta, which is responsible for skin immunity (Bhrajaka Pitta). During this procedure heat is produced due to friction and dirt particles over the hair follicle are removed.
Rubbing or Utsadanam is a process of rubbing a powder against the direction of the hair follicle. The dry powder is mixed with oil in the form of a paste (Utsadana). It improves complexion, gives good appearances, cleans, beautifies and promotes luster of the skin. It is especially indicated for the beautification of women. Light or deep stroke may be used as per requirement of the client.9
3. Light Massage (Samvahana), Sleep Promoting Therapy
When only relaxation is required, a very light massage with slow rhythmic stroking on the lower legs and feet for a few minutes can induce tranquillity and sleep. This light massage is called Samvahana.
According to Sushruta it has a euphoric, tranquilizing (Nidrakara) and aphrodisiac (Vrishya) effect. It pacifies Kapha Vata dosha and relieves fatigue (Kapha Vatapaha, Shramapaha). It nourishes the skin, muscle tissue and blood (Mamsa Rakta Twaka Prasadakaram).10
4. Swedana: Sudation – Detoxifying Therapy
The process of inducing sweat is known as sudation (swedana). Sudation is performed following oil massage (abhyanga) therapy. It has a relaxing and detoxifying effect on the body. It gives relief from stiffness (Stambhaghna), heaviness (Gauravaghna) and coldness (Shitaghna) of the body.
Sudation is used for diseases caused by the vitiation of Vata and Kapha dosha, cough, cold, hiccup, asthma and pain in the ear, neck and head. It is also useful in stiffness and heaviness in the body, body pain, hip pain, backache, painful musculoskeletal diseases and sciatica.11
Sudation is contraindicated in the following conditions:12 Pitta predominant diseases like fever, inflammations, bleeding tendencies, severe diarrhea, alcoholism, pregnancy, toxic conditions, menstruation, diseases of the eye, obesity, dehydration, giddiness, general weakness, fatigue and unconsciousness. During sudation, the testicles, eyes and heart should be protected to avoid heating.
Proper sudation increases the metabolic rate, causing vasodilation and profuse sweating. It cleanses the channels (srotomukhasodhana) and hence increases blood circulation, relieves pain, relaxes muscular spasms and nourishes the skin. It helps remove impurities from the body by stimulating lymphatic circulation and drainage.13
Ideal sweating therapy provides pacification of cold and pain, a reduction in stiffness and heaviness, and softness or tenderness of body parts.14 There are several types of sweating therapies in Ayurveda including direct heat (Tapa sweda), hot substances (Ushmasweda), warm liquids (Drava sweda) and poultices (Upnaha).
5. Shirodhara: Deeply Relaxing Oil Drip Therapy
Shiro means head and Dhara means flow. During this therapy, a liquid is poured over the forehead of the client for a certain period of time which helps in restoring health and providing deep relaxation. In this procedure, the client first lies down on the table and oleation (Abhyanga) is performed. Afterwards, herbal or non-herbal liquid such as plain sesame oil (Tailadhara), herbal milk (Ksheeradhara), herbal buttermilk (Takradhara) or water, especially coconut water (Jaladhara), depending upon the situation is poured slowly and steadily over the forehead from a specific distance, for a specific period of time and in a specific manner. After that the client is allowed to rest for 5 to 10 minutes.
This process is continued for 20 to 45 minutes with an increase of 5 minutes every day. It may be done for 7, 14 or 21 days in succession.
Regular Shirodhara may alleviate dandruff, hair loss, headache (due to Vata dosha), mental stress, insomnia, depression, motor neuron diseases, and several kinds of mental disorders including schizophrenia. It is indicated16 for boils, pricking pain and burning sensation on the head
It is contraindicated in fever, cold, acute eye diseases, Kapha disorders and headache due to sinusitis. Due to the warming effect of the oil used in this procedure, there is local vasodilatation, and proper blood circulation which helps in regularizing the blood supply of the brain. Shirodhara has a sedative effect on the hyperactive limbic system, caused by stress. As the client concentrates on a particular place, the thought process decreases, and the entire psycho-physiology relaxes.
During Shirodhara, the flow of liquid on the space between the eyebrows (Agna Chakra) is the seat of the pituitary and pineal gland. It regulates stimulation of these glands and helps in hormonal balance. It also normalizes elevated cortisone and adrenaline levels, synchronizes brain waves (alpha waves), strengthens the mind and its effect is continued even after relaxation.
Important marma points such as Sthapani, Utkshep and Avarta are located in the forehead region. The Shirodhara process conditions the receiver to concentrate on this area, encouraging stability to arrive in the function of the mind.17
6. Shirovasti: Relaxing Body, Mind And Senses
In Shirovasti, an herbal oil is kept over the head with the help of a cap. The cap is fixed with a paste of black gram powder for a prescribed period of time.18 The oil is filled up to a height of 5cm (about two inches) above the scalp. Temperature of the oil (warmness) is maintained by replacing cooled oil with warm oil at regular intervals. At the end of the procedure oil is taken out and the cap is removed. After wiping off the oil with a clean and dry towel, gentle massage is performed on the shoulders, neck, forehead and back.
The usual course of therapy is 7 days. It is usually done in the afternoon or evening between 3 and 5pm for an average time of 45 minutes. It is indicated for disorders due to Vata imbalance and severe or chronic diseases of the head. It is contraindicated in acute inflammatory conditions and infections.
7. Kati Vasthi (Greeva Vasthi Or Janu Vasti): Joint Health Therapy
After undergoing massage (Abhyanga) all over the body and localized steam (Nadi sweda) on the area where this procedure will be performed, warm herbal oil is retained over the affected area by making a dam with black lentil flour. After the prescribed time, the oil is removed along with the dam and the area is wiped clean with lukewarm water.
There are several types of oil pooling treatments (Vasti). Oil pooling done over the low back region is called Kativasti. It is beneficial for low backache, lumbar spondylosis, sciatica, lumbo-sacral pain and lumbar spondylosis. It is contraindicated in localized skin lesions and open wounds.
Oil pooling in the neck or nape of the neck region is called Greeva vasti. It is indicated in cervical spondylosis and localized pain. Oil pooling in the knee joint is called Janu vasti and is indicated in osteoarthritis. The usual course of time for this treatment is 30-40 minutes daily and may be continued for 7 days or 14 days.
8. Lepa: Skin Beautification Therapy
Herbal pastes used for external application are called lepas. It should be freshly prepared and always applied in the opposite direction of the hair follicles. The herbal properties of herbal paste get absorbed through the hair roots, sweat glands and capillaries and give several benefits.
Herbal paste must be removed as soon as it dries up. Its application is prohibited during night time. Several types of herbal pastes (lepas) are mentioned in Ayuvreda.19 Some pastes are made from herbs of a cold potency and applied as thin layered to reduce Pitta (Pralepa). Some are made from herbs of a hot potency and are applied as a thick layer to reduce Kapha (Pradeha). Some are made of herbs useful in blood (rakta) and Pitta predominant skin diseases (Alepa).
The ancient Ayurvedic scholar Sharangdhar mentions three types of lepa.
- Herbal paste applied to bring vitiated dosha to a normal state (Doshagna).
- Herbal paste applied to reduce poisonous effects (Vishagna).
- Herbal paste applied to improve the complexion of the skin (Varnya).
Herbal paste cures blackish hyper pigmentation (Vyanga) and bluish hyper pigmentation (Nilika). It detoxifies and enhances the beauty of the skin. It prevents aging of the skin, reduces skin wrinkles and tones the skin.20
The ancient sage Sushruta explains a type of artery21 which covers the body like a bound network. Their openings are attached to hair follicles which carry sweat and replenish fluid (rasa) inside and outside. Only the essence of external application via massage (Abhyanga), bath (Snana), and herbal paste (Lepa) enter the body after being transformed in the skin.
The topical application of herbal paste (lepa) can be compared to a transdermal delivery system. In this process, the essence of the herbal paste after penetrating through the stratum corneum, enters the epidermis and dermis and produces its characteristic beneficial effects.
9. Ghee Eye Bath (Akshi Tarpana): Eye Nourishing Therapy
In this process, the eyes are filled with herbal ghee for a certain period of time. The client lies in a supine position. Gentle massage is done on the head, eyes and face. A trough is made with a dough around both eyes. The dough is formed into a wall about 2 cm in height around the eyes. Herb instilled ghee (a little below body temperature but in liquid form) is gently poured inside the trough for a period of time. Then the ghee and the trough is removed. Afterwards, the eyes are covered with the leaves of a lotus or rose petals and the client is advised to sit away from the sunlight for a day.
The usual time course of this therapy is 15 to 20 minutes for 7 to 14 days.
The treatment is used for feeling of darkness, stiffness or dryness in the eyes. With the assistance of a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner it may be used for any injury, eyeball deviation, falling of eyelashes, ophthalmological conditions, xerophthalmia or optic nerve atrophy.22
It is contraindicated when there is conjunctivitis.
With this process, the eye tissue is in contact with the herbal ghee and the bioavailability of herbal ghee is achieved. This therapy facilitates the action of the herbal ghee in two ways. First it allows more absorption of the active component of herbal ghee by the corneal surface. Secondly it exerts direct pressure on the cornea. This process may nourish the structures in the eyes and strengthen the optic nerve.23
10. Nasal Instillation Or Nasya: Anti Aging Therapy
Administration of herbal oils, juices or powders through the nose is called Nasya. Nostrils are the portal of the head. The herbal formulas administered through the nostrils reach the brain and eliminate only morbid doshas responsible for producing any disease. It also provides several anti-aging benefits.
The client sits or lies down in a comfortable posture. Gentle massage over the head, forehead and face followed by mild sudation (Swedana) is done. Then, slightly warm oil is instilled in the prescribed amount in each nostril. Gentle massage is performed on the plantar and palmar regions, shoulder and back. The client is allowed to spit if he or she feels discomfort due to oil in the throat. After completion of the procedure, oil on the face is wiped off and complete rest is advised. Gargling with hot water is advised.
Inhalation of herbal smoke (Dhoomapana) through the mouth may be given at the end of this procedure. The amount of oil and duration of therapy: 4-8 drops per treatment for 7 to 14 days in specific conditions. Two drops of lukewarm herbal oil especially Anu tail, a common nasya oil available in India, can be used daily for nasal instillation into each nostril for strengthening all the senses and preventing aging. It is indicated for headache, E.N.T. diseases, facial paralysis, cervical spondylitis, cataracts and hyper pigmentation.
It is contraindicated in pregnancy and immediately after taking food, water and alcohol. It is contraindicated when there is indigestion. According to the ancient Ayurvedic sage Vagbhatta, the nostrils are the entry to the head region and herbs administered through the nostril reach Shringataka (a sira marma or marma on the head) through the nose channel. They spread to the brain, and reach the junction place of eyes, ears and throat and the opening of the vessels. It removes the morbid doshas present above the supraclavicular region and expel them from the head region.24
READ MORE: Ayurvedic Herbal Smoking (Dhumpana) + Other Natural Ways To Quit, I Quite Smoking With Ayurveda (#MyAyurvedaExperience)
11. Karna Purana: Magical Therapy For Ear Ailments
Karnapoorana is instillation of herbal oil into the ears. During this procedure, the client lie in a suitable lateral position. Mild abhyanga (massage) is done with herbal oil on the lateral surface of the face and in the post-auricular area which is followed by hot sudation. Then a few drops of lukewarm herbal oil are instilled into each external auditory canal for 15-20 minutes after sunset. After that the ear is snuffed with cotton and in the morning the ear is dried with fresh cotton.
Two to 15 drops can be instilled into the ears during this therapy. This procedure can be done once daily as a routine or for 7 consecutive days after sunset for better and desired results. Karnapoorana benefits ear diseases due to vitiated Vata including hearing loss, tinnitus and other diseases related to the ears.
It is indicated when there is earache, earwax blockage, ear congestion, tinnitus, Meniere’s disease, hearing loss, swimmer’s ear, headache, migraine, neck pain and jaw pain. It is contraindicated when there is eardrum rupture, ear injury, cuts in the skin of the ears, ear wounds and burns that affect the ears.
The ears are said to be the seat of Vata dosha. Instillation of herbal oil into the ears (Karnapurana) pacifies Vata (vatashamana) and maintains its normal functioning.
READ MORE: Vata Diet: Everything You Need To Know
12. Marma Therapy For Balancing Body Mind And Soul
Ayurveda acknowledges vital points on the body where vital force of life (Prana), tridoshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) along with the three integral components of mind (sattva, rajas and tamas) resides. These vital points are known as Marma points.25 Injury to these Marma points may be responsible for serious consequences, while use of Marma therapy helps to treat many pathological conditions. The major advantage of Marma therapy is that it is non-invasive. The classical text of Ayurveda described 107 Marmas points.
Therapists utilize the hands for external stimulation, pulling techniques and massage with specific oil are parts of Marma therapy. Such techniques release blockages and restores balance to the body, mind and soul. Marma Therapy provides a pathway for inner healing, removes blocks from energy channels, and creates a harmony between all vital energies. It removes emotional, physical toughness and toxins from body, improves digestion, balances body temperature, promotes healthy skin, increases immunity and gives positive energy and relief from stress, depression and anger.
Marmas are sensitive areas so massage should be done carefully. For toning and strengthening the internal organs, massage is done in a clockwise direction. For detoxification and reducing excess doshas massage is done in a counterclockwise direction.
As it removes blocks in energy channels, Marma therapy pacifies Vata Dosha, bringing it to its normal path. Vata controls the autonomic nervous system (Vyana Vayu). It creates physical, mental and emotional flexibility. Due to increased Vata dosha, human beings after 35 or 40 years of age become rigid as it leads to degeneration. This rigidity means becoming fixed in ideas, emotions and physical movements. Marma therapy creates an opportunity to experience powerful and dynamic transformation at the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level by building a positive link with the unconscious mind.26
1. Agnivesha, Charaka, Dridhabala. Sutra Sthana, Chapter 5 verse 87. In: Acharya JT (editor). Charaka Samhita with Ayurveda Dipika Commentary. Reprint 2014 edition. New Delhi: Chaukhambha Publications. 2014;p.120.
2. Sinha Kaushal, Abhyanga: Different contemporary massage technique and its importance in Ayurveda, Journal of Ayurveda and Integrated Medical Science, ISSN 2456-3110).
3. Kashinath Charaka Samhita Sutrasthan chapter 5 verse 81-83 Chowkhambha Bharti Academy, 2005
4. Vaidya Yadavaji Trikamaji, Charaka Samhita Sutra sthana chapter 5verse 90-93, Chaukhmba surbharati prakashana, reprint 2000.
5. Ambikadutta Sashtri, Sushruta Samhita, Chikitsa sthana, chapter 24, verse 70. Chowkhambha Bharti Academy, 2006.
6. Vaidya Yadavaji Trikamaji, Charaka Samhita Sutra sthana, chapter 5, verse 84, Chaukhmba surbharati prakashana, reprint 2000.
7. Ambikadutta Sashtri, Sushruta Samhita, Chikitsa sthana, chapter24, verse 51. Chowkhambha Bharti Academy, 2006.
8. Patil Vishal Nanaso, Concept of Udvartanam, International Journal of Multidisciplinary Health Sciences ISSN: 2394 9406.
9. P.V. Sharma, Sushruta Samhita, Vol 2 (Chikitsa Sthana), with english translation Chaukhambha Vishwa bharati, Varanasi(2013), Verse-52-56, pp-497-498.
10. Vd. Jadavji Trikamji Aacharya, editor, Sushruta Samhita, Chikitsa Sthana, Anagatabyadhipratishedhamadhyaya, 24/83, Reprint edition; Varanasi, Choukhamba Sanskrit Samsthan, 489, 2006.
11. Vaidya Yadavaji Trikamaji, Charaka Samhita Sutra sthana chapter 14 verse 20, Chaukhmba surbharati prakashana, reprint 2000.
12. Vaidya Yadavaji Trikamaji, Charaka Samhita Sutra sthana chapter 14, verse 18, Chaukhmba surbharati prakashana, reprint 2000.
13. Radhika et.al. Importance of sweating therapy: an upakarma in Panchkarma IJIPSR/4 (2), 2016, 168-173.
14. Vaidya Yadavaji Trikamaji, Charaka Samhita Sutra sthana chapter 14, verse 13, Chaukhmba surbharati prakashana, reprint 2000.
15. Sushrutha, Sushruthasamhitha, editor AmbikadattaShastri, Chikitsasthana chapter- 32, sloka no 3. Chaukhambaha Sanskrit Sanstan;2002. pg no. 13.
16. Astanga Hrdayam Sutrasthan, 22 verse 24, Dr. Brahmanand Tripathi, Editor. With ‘Nirmala’ Hindi commentary. Reprinted 2011, Delhi 110007. Chaukhambha Sanskrit pratishthan, Page no-32.
17. Patel Dhananjay V. PHARMACODYNAMICS OF SHIRODHARA, International Journal of Applied Ayurved Research ISSN: 2347- 6362.
18. Vagbhata. Astanga Hrdayam Sutrasthan chapter 22 verse 23, Dr. Brahmanand Tripathi, Editor. With ‘Nirmala’ hindi commentary. Reprinted 2011, Delhi 110007. Chaukhambha Sanskrit pratishthan, Page no-32.
19. Ambikadutta Sashtri, Sushruta Samhita, Sutra sthana, chapter 18, verse23. Chowkhambha Bharti Academy, 2006.
20. Tripathi Brahmanand, Ashtanghridaya, Sutrasthan 22, Nirmala Hindi Commentary, Delhi, Chaukhamba Sanskrit Pratishthan, 2007, p259, 260.
21. Ambikadatta Shastri, Susrut Samhita, chaukhambhasanskrutsansthan, Varanasi, 2012, Su.18/12,Page no.97
22. Ambikadutta Sashtri, Sushruta Samhita, uttar sthan, chapter 18 verse 17. Chowkhambha Bharti Academy, 2006.
23. Sharma Om Prakash NETRA TARPANA – A UNIQUE OCULAR THERAPY IN AYURVEDA, Review Article International Ayurvedic Medical Journal ISSN:2320 5091
24. Vagbhata, Ashtanga Samgraha with Hindi commentary by Kaviraj Atridev Gupta, Sutra sthana chapter 29 verse 2, Chowkhamba Krishnadas Academy, Edition: Reprint 2005, Pg. no. 216.
25. Ambikadutta Sashtri, Sushruta Samhita, Sharir sthana, chapter 6 verse 37. Chowkhambha Bharti Academy, 2006.
26. Amrit Godbole, MARMA CHIKITSA: A NON-INVASIVE HEALING THERAPY IN AYURVEDA, ejpmr, 2017, 4 (12), 267-269.