Self-care sometimes feels like a modern phenomenon, defined by “treat yourself” online shopping sprees and nightly bubble baths. But really, the concept is as old as time — or at least as old as Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old holistic healing system that originated in India. At its core, Ayurveda sees individualized, daily self-care of the mind, body, and spirit as the surest path to lasting health... so it makes sense that its ancient techniques have seen a spike in popularity in 2019. Abhyanga, an Ayurvedic detox massage, and shirodhara, an anxiety-easing facial treatment, are two such practices that have started to pop up on spa menus — a trend that I can totally get behind.
“Abhyanga is the application of warm, herbalized oil to the entire body using a rhythmic flow in the direction of your body's natural lymphatic circulation flow,” Regina Feldman, the founder of Los Angeles’ VEDA Spirit spa, tells The Zoe Report. It’s essentially a slippery, light pressure massage that improves digestion, boosts circulation, and strengthens the immune system… and it feels incredible. And since the lymphatic system is the body’s natural detoxification center (it collects toxins and filters them out of the body), abhyanga’s combination of healing oils and lymphatic drainage technique makes for a more effective (and enjoyable) detox than a juice cleanse.
There are two things that really set abhyanga apart from more modern massages: its individualized approach (based on the Ayurvedic concept of doshas, or body types) and its focus on the mind-body connection. “Our practitioners first assess the type of oil and herbs best suited for the individual and their needs,” Feldman says. “For example, someone with more heat [or inflammation] in their body does well with a coconut oil base, while others require a more heating oil, such as sesame.” Before the treatment starts, the practitioner says a few words of affirmation, and sets a healing and loving intention. (The Sanskrit word for oil, sneha, is actually the same word for love.)
“An abundant amount of warm oil is then poured onto the skin, which feels so nourishing and ensures that almost every part of the body is infused with this ‘love,’” Feldman tells TZR. Love really is the only way to describe it — during my abhyanga treatment at VEDA Spirit, the flood of heated oil and the gentle, swooping pressure literally felt like a warm hug. Within minutes, my mind and body were completely relaxed (i.e., I zoned out).
“Once the massage sequence is finished, we follow with a five to 15 minute swedhana, a steam treatment,” Feldman explains. This is hands-down the most luxurious part; the steam opens up your pores and allows all that oil to soak in, softening the skin in the dreamiest way. This step is practical, too: “While the body sweats, it detoxifies impurities that the oils and herbs helped loosen,” Feldman explains. “A shower after the treatment is optional, although we recommend leaving the remains of the oil on the skin.” Trust me, you won’t want to shower — the silky oil just feels too good.
Post-abhyanga treatment, I was desperate for more Ayurvedic self-care: Enter shirodhara, an oil massage concentrated on the forehead — or the third eye, to be more specific.
“Shirodhara is a form of Ayurveda therapy that involves a continuous pouring of liquids over the forehead, an area where nerves are highly concentrated,” Patty Rook, the spa director at Glen Ivy Hot Springs Spa in Corona, California, tells The Zoe Report. “It involves gentle head massage specifically in alignment with the third eye, or Anja chakra.” This area is home to the pineal gland, which produces melatonin, a hormone related to serotonin that modulates sleep patterns — so shirodhara is basically like pressing a button that instantaneously relaxes the nervous system.
“Warm oil pours in a continuous stream over the forehead, beginning at the scalp and coming up to the forehead, then the third eye,” Rook explains. The sequence repeats in a zig-zag pattern, which feels totally foreign and yet incredibly soothing, before the remaining oil is poured on the scalp. “The gentle pressure and soothing warmth of the oil allow the body, mind, and nervous system to experience a deep state of rest,” Rook says. It’s true: I was so far gone and blissed-out during the treatment, I might as well have been in a meditation class.
“The therapist then massages herbal oil into the scalp and hair, and three inhalations will close the service,” the spa director explains. It’s recommended to leave the oil on your hair for 24 hours as a deep conditioning treatment (which I did, and my hair has literally never felt so soft and healthy). Afterwards, expect better sleep, reduced anxiety, and less stress — whether you want to attribute that to your freshly-cleared third eye chakra or the more scientific stimulation of the pineal gland is up to you.
Before you rush to book an abhyanga or shirodhara treatment, there are a few risks to note. “Abhyanga is not recommended when you are menstruating, pregnant, severely constipated, or have a fever,” Feldman says, noting that you shouldn’t have a big meal beforehand, either. Women in their third trimester of pregnancy shouldn’t receive shirodhara. “Other contraindications include brain tumor, recent neck injury, abrasions or cuts on the head, fever or chills, acute illness, nausea, vomiting, severe weakness, exhaustion, dizziness, fainting or spontaneous sweating,” Rook adds.
Barring those restrictions, I suggest penciling yourself in for one (or both) of these Ayurvedic detox treatments ASAP. But don’t just take my word for it — I mean, anything that’s stood the test of time for a staggering 5,000 years has to be pretty good, right?