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Abhyanga Massage, “Columbusing” Of A Traditional Ayurvedic Ritual 

Abhyanga Massage, “Columbusing” Of A Traditional Ayurvedic Ritual

Introducing Abhyanga Massage, The “Exotic” Indian Practice You’ve Probably Never Heard Of … Yet!

Abhyanga massage, huh? Sounds exotic!

Abhyanga is Sanskrit for… I honestly don’t know, and I don’t fully trust the internet. But it describes an oil massage, a traditional ayurvedic ritual that is often self-administered. First, get some oil; it can be sesame or coconut or peanut oil; it’s hard to go wrong. You can warm it up a little, which can feel especially great in the winter, and then you just rub it all over yourself. Hang out for a bit and soak in the oils and then take a hot bath. Well, at least that’s the quick-and-dirty version!

The “advanced” version has you covering the surface of your body in a specific order and using special oils with specific herbs that have been carefully selected based on your health and needs. That being said, as with nearly all things relating to the body, doing it regularly probably counts for much more than striving for some perfect experience that calls for the “right” oils, complemented by the “ideal” incense, perfect ambiance, and whatever “exotic” accessories are trendy at the moment. 

Various health and pseudoscientific publications make their own claims about things you “must do” or “must have” for maximum benefits, whatever that may mean. No matter how you decide to do it, keep it as simple as possible, so that you can cultivate a consistent habit.

Chronic Pain And Its Discontents

I wanted to write about abhyanga massage precisely because it is the sort of practice that can have lasting and far-reaching benefits to the physical and emotional health of women in general and women of color in particular. Chronic pain and/or inflammation disproportionately affects women, particularly Brown and Black women. Doctors have historically responded differently (read: poorly) to reports of pain from women and non-whites. Given this, women themselves tend to underreport their symptoms. We’re just starting to have wider cultural conversations about the systematic differences regarding what is or isn’t considered a “legitimate” health problem.

The medical establishment’s lack of serious attention towards complaints of chronic pain and inflammation in women has created a vacuum in which all kinds of alternative practices and remedies have been put forth. It’s almost literally a vacuum when you consider how quickly it sucks up your cash when you are in pain and willing to try anything to make it stop! I’ll be honest: a lot of it is pseudoscientific, backed by little to no formal scientific research.

That said, finding alternatives in the absence of scientific evidence is not the same as denying what evidence exists. The former is a testament to our willingness to try new things and hope for the best in the face of an indifferent medical establishment. The latter is truly anti-science denialism.

Eastern medicine, including Ayurveda in South Asia, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other branches of these traditions, places great emphasis on the healthy functioning of the lymphatic network. The lymphatic network plays a crucial role in our immunity, and we’re still learning about the mechanisms through which it does this.  We can influence our lymphatic network using yoga, tai chi, qi gong, our diet, a variety of herbs, acupuncture, reflexology, different styles of massage, among a number of other methods. The goal of all these techniques is simple: to encourage the disposal of all the unnecessary by-products of various necessary physiological reactions. Doing so seems to help our tissues to grow and repair themselves in ways that we may never be able to fully understand.

Abhyanga and the phenomenon of Columbusing. Abhyanga is a traditional ayurvedic ritual. A self-administered massage with warm oil applied to the entire body

Conditions For Columbusing Abhyanga Massage

It has always been very trendy in the West to cherry-pick from traditional eastern systems of medicine and come up with new health fads. From Transcendental Meditation to Bikram yoga, to green tea, coconut oil, and “golden milk” – all of Hollywood’s “latest” health trends have seemed very familiar to me. It is truly surreal to have the same things that were foisted on me by my mom and grandmoms now be aggressively marketed to me by women who look nothing like them.

This had me wondering why abhyanga massage had not received more attention yet. Why wasn’t it in every women’s magazine? After all, it’s a simple “DIY hack” that could be part of everyone’s daily or weekly routine. I’ve been wondering why it hasn’t been Columbused yet, and I think it’s because it’s just very hard to monetize.

For an authentic eastern/traditional medicine practice to be successfully Columbused, it has to be exotic and luxurious, upscale and exclusive. This has always struck me as absurd because the original proponents of these traditions would be considered deeply impoverished, even by the standards of their own times. If ancient yogis had to pay their version of $80 for a yoga mat, yoga, as we know it, just wouldn’t exist today! I could probably write a whole book about Orientalism and the strategic co-opting of eastern medicine by a profit-driven “wellness” industry, but I don’t want to be guilty of clickbait-and-switch.   

Real self-care is very hard to monetize. It involves saying “no”, even to loved ones. It requires turning down things you may desire simply because saying “yes” would shrink your capacity to focus on your own priorities. It involves budgets, boundaries, break-ups, and worst of all, all of the feelings.

Feeling Myself

I wish I were impervious to social trends, but I’ve been lured by various “wellness” trends. Over the last few years I have spent money on all kinds of things: adult coloring books, affirmation bracelets, “brainwave” music to help me focus, candles, aromatherapy oils, calming teas, chakra readings, self-massage tools (foam rollers, tennis balls, and the battery-operated kind) and a variety of self-help books. Admittedly, they haven’t all been a waste. But I stopped myself at crystal yoni eggs; google them at your own risk!

For me, abhyanga involves making the conscious commitment to carve out a couple of hours every weekend, come rain or shine or deadline, and to spend this time focusing on my body. The much more challenging part, especially when it’s just me massaging myself, is to remain aware of my thoughts because it’s shockingly easy for my mind to start its hyper-critical commentary.

For anybody with body dysmorphia and/or a history of disordered eating, this level of self-scrutiny is utterly terrifying. Every week? Let’s be honest, I’m lucky if I get to it once a month. It’s one thing to schedule it, and then the moment of truth arrives and there is always, always something more important, more urgent, or simply more convenient to attend to.

I recently came back to this practice because, while on a trip home, my mother randomly mentioned that my grandmother used to engage in this practice pretty regularly. In a (rare) moment of startling clarity, I realized that this was my own sniff test. If I were considering spending my money on something that claimed to enhance my health and wellness, I would ask myself if it was something I could imagine either one of my grandmothers doing. Had it been available and affordable at the time, would they have tried it out? If the answer to that question is no, then I know that I’m just not feeling it.

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