By Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, Aug/Sept 2007.
Ayurveda takes massage seriously. During its five-thousand-year history, this ancient science has experimented with just about every natural healing technique known to humans and concluded that massage has a pivotal role to play in keeping people healthy and getting them back to health when they’re ill.
In ayurveda, massage is a pillar treatment for even the most serious conditions. Much more than a way to relax tense muscles and relieve stress, ayurvedic massage therapies are powerful balancing treatments that stimulate the body’s energy channels to accelerate healing, as well as stimulate the mind to the experience of inner wakefulness. Ayurveda says that the seven layers of skin are functionally connected to one of seven body tissue types (dhatus). When we stimulate or nourish the skin, we simultaneously balance and nourish the blood, muscle, fat, bone, nerve, and reproductive tissue as well.
Today, ayurvedic spa techniques are being integrated into American studios for stress reduction, self-awareness, and a touch of the exotic. But ayurvedic massage is intended to affect not just the physical body, but also the subtle energy body, the mind, the intelligence, and the consciousness. Generally speaking, ayurvedic massage involves little deep touch in the muscles, as it aims to stimulate the subtler energies of the reflex (marma) points and energy meridians (nadis).
Our life energy, prana, circulates throughout the body through thousands of these nadis, but fourteen are paramount. These fourteen nadis circulate prana to the sense organs, the senses, and the major organs, and all disease is the result of congestion or restriction in the nadi channels. Marma (which means secret or hidden) points are meeting places of muscle, bone, tendons, arteries, veins, and joints. There are more than one hundred marma points throughout the body, with thirty-seven on the head and neck; so they obviously play a major part in ayurvedic head massage.
More than Skin Deep
In ayurveda, therapy is determined by the condition of the doshas (for a discussion of doshas, read “Practical Ayurveda: Core Concepts,” June/July 2007, page 66). The offending dosha—the one that has become excessive—will be treated by applying therapy that counters its energetic qualities. As an example, if kapha is the culprit, the symptoms will include cold, slow, wet, heavy conditions (facial edema, nasal congestion, oily skin). Massage strategies will focus on balancing that kapha energy with warming, active, rough, dry techniques and treatment oils.1
When we massage oil into the skin, it lubricates the tissues internally and loosens stored toxins, allowing them to be transported back to the digestive tract for elimination. It also stimulates cellular metabolism (agni). Herbal oils promote circulation, improve metabolic rate, and give the skin a natural softness and glow.
The details of the treatment may vary—the exact herb-infused medicinal oil, the therapeutic setting in the treatment room, the intensity of the treatment, the chosen body system—but ayurvedic massage may be a big part of the treatment regime for just about any medical condition. And face and scalp massage are part of that picture.
Ayurveda speaks of the three pillars of beauty—inner beauty (guna), outer beauty (roop), and lasting beauty (vayastyag). Although face and scalp treatments are mainly aimed at beauty and long-term health of the skin and hair, they are also used for serious conditions of the senses and nervous system.
Ayurvedic beauty treatments are more than skin deep. They bring balance to the body’s largest organ—the skin—as an entree to balance the whole person. These experiences create an almost magical process, with therapists feeling energized and clients signing up for repeat visits.
The Sanskrit term for oleation, snehana, comes from the root word sneha, which means love. Ayurvedic oleation treatments are individualized and rather elaborate and very often involve meticulously prepared herbal oils. These medicinal oils are scrupulously prepared over a period of several days. Base oils, often sesame or coconut, are first combined with herbs and water and then gently simmered until the water is entirely removed, leaving the fat soluble and water soluble herbal ingredients integrated into the oil base. Ayurvedic herbal oils frequently have aromas reminiscent of good food from the oven, suffused with the essences of plants and blossoms. They penetrate the skin very easily. In fact, you may see visible traces of oil in the urine following massage. Ayurvedic massage oils permeate the dermis within five minutes and all seven skin layers within ten minutes, so they do not leave the skin feeling greasy. Once absorbed into the body, the massage oils have numerous effects besides softening and soothing the skin. Their nutrients go directly into the bloodstream through the capillaries. Ayurvedic oleation can be a daily health maintenance practice, and it is also used in a more intensive way to prepare for the more challenging practices of ayurvedic deep cleansing.
Self massage (abhyanga) is an important part of the ayurvedic daily routine. It supports detoxification and provides nourishment to the deeper tissues, leaving you feeling healthy, young, vital, and beautiful. We’d all probably agree that the head is one of the most important parts of the body and shouldn’t be ignored in treatment, so self massage with oil should include the head and scalp to keep the nervous system healthy. Head massage is used for baldness, graying of hair, headache, migraine, insomnia, stress, mental disorders, nerve diseases, paralysis, polio, memory loss, and high blood pressure.
Massaging the head with herb-infused warm oil is a great way to nurture the scalp and hair topically. Hair and scalp massage oils often include hair-friendly herbs to augment the treatment.
Sesame oil is the most widely used massage oil. It is a broadly well-tolerated, tridoshic oil that has a special effect on vata, which is the main dosha that usually needs attention in most people.
When it comes to a treatment that puts you in a blissful state, shirodhara is tops. It is a prominent ayurvedic treatment involving streaming a thin column of oil onto the middle of the forehead, between the eyebrows (Shiro means head, dhara means stream). This is sometimes called taila dara (taila means oil). This well-known “third eye” spot is sthapani: “that which gives support or holds firm.” This marma regulates prana, the mind, senses, and the endocrine system. The therapist attends to the client throughout and may move the stream on the forehead in a wavelike motion.
This quintessential ayurvedic method treats neck and head disorders and nervous system conditions and promotes mental clarity, memory, calm, and quality meditation. It is classic for chronic insomnia and anxiety. Essentially, it reduces high vata in the head (a major site of vata) and, to a certain extent, in the rest of the body. Shirodhara is a subtle treatment with profound effects. It’s hard to imagine that such a simple technology would be so potent, but it consistently creates a meditative sense of awareness that is focusing and isolating. Many people have emerged from their shirodhara session blissed out to the maximum.
Not unlike many Western bodywork styles, shirodhara is intended to support an egoless state of parasympathetic repose. During the treatment, the vital force of the body can organize, heal, and rebuild a state of balanced health.
Shirodhara has captured the American imagination, though it is being modified for the sake of simplicity and the marketplace. Traditionally, it’s a healing modality that’s used as part of a comprehensive program for vata disorders, which means it can be applied for such seemingly unrelated conditions as skin rashes, Tourette’s syndrome, and diabetes. A protocol could include a number of daily treatment sessions, commonly twenty-one or more.
The oils impart their healing qualities when they are absorbed through the hair follicles and scalp and into the soft tissue of the cranium. The client is encouraged to leave her hair unwashed for as long as possible after the session.
For successful shirodhara, use oil heated to 100°F. A typical treatment lasts ten to thirty minutes (ten is normal), while twenty to thirty minutes is a deeper treatment.
Simple shirodhara can be performed with an uncomplicated base oil. Even warm saltwater can work well, though sesame is the usual oil for shirodhara. It is easily available, affordable, and essentially tridoshic, with an affinity for balancing vata. It is medium weight, so it flows easily from the vessel at an appropriate rate for a good treatment.
Castor oil is the main treatment for all vata ailments, including pain, constipation, and arthritis. Following the vata idea, this very special oil is used in the treatment of epilepsy, paralysis, insanity, and many other nervous system disorders. It helps to heal tissue trauma and damaged structural and connective tissue and works rapidly and effectively to prevent and reverse tissue injury. It is astringent and helps to stabilize hypermobile joints, such as neck subluxations.
Castor oil is a standout for conditions of the head and neck—a main site of vata. It is a warming, heavy, sweet oil, so it is ideal to reverse high vata in that area. This oil is very thick and sticky, though, so it does not pass well through the vessel, and cleanup may be difficult.
Warm milk shirodhara also controls vata. Warming herbs, such as cardamom and ginger, can be cooked into the milk for relaxing effect and pleasant aroma. If milk is used, the process is called takra dara.
To treat high pitta, use anti-inflammatory ghee for the oil stream. Coconut is a major anti-pitta oil. It is solid at room temperature, though, so it needs to stay quite warm to properly flow for shirodhara.
Herb-infused oils are what make shirodhara a high art. Stimulating oils, including camphor, mint, or basil, open the mind and senses when used with shirodhara.
Cooling herb oils for pitta include lavender and sandalwood. Gotu kola and amla, both cooling herbs that increase brain function, are infused into shirodhara oils for pitta.
Spicy and warming herbs have a special benefit for the nervous system. Warming infused oils for vata shirodhara might contain clove, saffron, and nutmeg. Valerian is a warm herb with a pronounced sedating effect, ideal for vata insomnia when used in shirodhara infused oil. Dashmula, the famous ten-roots formula, is a key vata oil. A warming infused oil, it includes pipramool, the root of long pepper, a close relative of black pepper.
But the most important herb in this category is calamus root (vacha). This warming, invigorating remedy is a major herb for the mind in ayurveda and is widely used around the world. Its qualities, taken together, obviously suggest vacha as a superior remedy to pacify vata.
It is said to stimulate the power of self-expression and enhance intelligence. Ancient yogis and seers used this herb. Calamus promotes circulation to the brain, sharpens memory, promotes awareness, and increases communication and self-expression. Vacha is a general rejuvenative that bestows intelligence, longevity, and good memory.3
This herb is often combined with gotu kola, which is cooling and mild. The complementary energetics make the combination suitable for a wide variety of people. For vata insomnia, depression, anxiety, and poor concentration, calamus will warm and pacify the errant dosha.
The ancient text Charaka Samhita lists vacha medicated ghee for epilepsy involving vata and kapha. It is prepared by decocting one part of vacha in four parts ghee and eight parts water.4
I have extensive experience using vacha to treat epilepsy, especially juvenile petit mal (absence) seizures. It is dramatically effective in many forms, including shirodhara. It can often completely replace anti-seizure medication. (Caution: do not treat epilepsy casually. It is a serious and complicated condition, with many causes, and a collection of associated family and social issues.)
The mind-activating properties of vacha have been credited to the asarones. They are precursors to 1, 2, 4-trimethory-5-propenylbenzene—a phenyethylamine that is thought to be ten times as potent as mescaline.5
According to ayurvedic massage expert Prashanti de Jager, vacha rhizomes have been one of the most respected medicines in ayurveda for thousands of years and are endlessly useful.6 Use vacha with milk, ghee, or oil for a month and you will be endowed with sharp intellect and a sweet voice.7
You may also apply vacha as a medicated ghee in the nostril for general brain and mind benefit, or sniff the milk decoction or infused oil for the same purpose. Calamus oil is also sniffed for sinus congestion, and calamus decoction is used in a neti pot as a general remedy for brain conditions.
The English word shampoo originally meant massage and comes from the Hindi verb champo, which means to press or knead. Champi is ayurvedic head massage, a transformation and rejuvenation experience that brings a smoother, more youthful appearance of the skin.
A professional face and scalp massage will use copious herbal oil and will include a focus on three major reflex points (marmas) on the top of the head; fingertip work of the entire scalp; attention to the musculature of the neck, clavicle, and sternum; small effleurage; finger pressure of the entire face; work inside the orbit; and vigorous ear massage.
To experience champi at home, warm some appropriately chosen oil in a bowl. Work the oil little by little into your scalp, using the pads of your fingers in circular motions, as in shampooing. Cover your entire scalp. Gently tap your head all over with both fists. Then rub your fingers along the scalp and gently pull small tufts of hair. Slow, deliberate motions are relaxing, while vigorous movement promotes energy and circulation. Leave the oil on for at least sixty minutes or even overnight.
On the neck and face, we typically stroke only upward or medially with a light but firm touch. The pressure depends on the skin type. Sattvic touch is light, easy, and slow. It is used for dry skin or in situations when the client needs calming. Pressure aggravates vata, so a technique that is too deep and vigorous can do a vata constitution more harm than good. Rajasic touch involves moderate speed and pressure and is appropriate for sensitive skin types. Too much intensity aggravates pitta. Tamasic touch is deep and vigorous. It is proper for oily skin, whose thick, slow kapha consistency needs stimulation.
Champi can be performed with hundreds of possible oils and natural creams. Milk foam is a classic. Gradually bring half a cup of organic milk to a boil, add three to four drops of rose water, and beat until it becomes a thick layer of foam. Massage the milk foam into the face and neck. Warm, slippery milk treats vata skin.
Face massage for vata skin may use almond oil, avocado oil, saffron-infused milk, yogurt, or a yogurt and turmeric concoction. Castor oil makes a great moisturizing oil for vata dry skin. Face packs for vata do well with moisturizing apple, avocado, banana, coconut, pear, and melon.
Bala-infused oil is effective for vata face massage. Bala is probably the most widely used tonic herb, after ashwaganda, in ayurveda. Its tridosha nature is rare in the herb world, so bala is widely applicable and, for that reason, worth noting. This sweet, cold, heavy herb is particularly tonic to vata. Bala contains five of the six tastes, a very rare property, so it is widely nourishing to all the body tissues. Bala is anti-inflammatory8 and generally benefits the lungs.9 In facial paralysis, bala is prepared as a milk decoction, along with ashwaganda.
For the rest of the body, bala medicated oil treats joint complaints, muscle cramps, and nerve pain. This taila is applied in cases of frozen shoulder and similar debility.
For face massage for pitta skin, consider coconut oil. This cooling oil is the main oil into which anti-pitta herbs are infused for face massage and bodywork. Ghee plays a similar role. Also consider pumpkin seed, rice bran, safflower, and sunflower oils.
Many of us are familiar with the wonderful aroma of great quality sandalwood oil. This medicine is one of the best cooling remedies for pitta. As such, it is used to treat a spectrum of hot diseases externally, from herpes to skin rash.10 Sandalwood is the main external treatment for acne and similar inflammatory skin diseases. I created, and have used with great success, a water-based gel containing sandalwood oil, aloe gel, menthol, borax, and a few other minor ingredients for very serious cases of adolescent and adult acne.
Calendula-infused oil heals pitta inflammation. One study of calendula for wounds showed that it noticeably stimulates physiological regeneration and skin healing.11 Calendula oil heals wounds, rashes, and inflammatory skin lesions with itching, burning, and swelling.12, 13, 14 Calendula massage creams will soften and smooth the skin, heal pimples, and reduce large pores.15
Cooling cucumber is a standout for pitta face massage. Use the juice as a massage medium for the face, or shred the vegetable and apply as a pack. Apple and grape also make excellent pitta face packs. And rose water is a time-honored skin rinse for pitta.
Kapha skin responds to almond, corn, jojoba, olive, and safflower base oils; sarsaparilla root infused oil; and face packs of cabbage, cucumber, lemon, pear, strawberry, and tomato.
Ubtan is a healing paste, usually of garbanzo flour, applied as a pack. Apply about one-quarter inch thick and leave on the skin for about thirty minutes. After the session, remove the paste in a cool water rinse, to which you might add a little lemon juice or rose water. Ubtans may contain wheat flour, rose petal powder, yogurt, turmeric, and a host of other herbal ingredients. The popular herbal combination, triphala mixed with water, is an excellent tridoshic facial ubtan.
A basic face ubtan formula includes nut butter (soak nuts, such as almonds, overnight, and then blend to butter), garbanzo flour, boiled milk, and rose water. For another, try four tablespoons garbanzo flour, one and one-half teaspoons mustard oil, and one teaspoon turmeric.
For vata skin, use the juice of one lemon, one tablespoon wheat germ or similar oil, and one-fourth cup whole wheat flour.
For inflamed, pitta skin, a garbanzo paste made with water, rose petal powder, and sandalwood is often effective.
Kapha skin needs no oil, so make the ubtan with water. Use triphala or clay.
Massaging the scalp and hair stimulates the circulation, nourishes the hair roots, relieves mental fatigue, enhances mental clarity, and balances emotions. Herbal extracts, combined with selected base oils, have a beneficial impact on hair health and growth. Therapeutic herbs calm the mind, promote sleep, enhance memory, and reduce the effects of stress.
Oil for the scalp massage is customized for the needs of the client’s hair and overall body type. The therapist administers a vata (dry), pitta (sensitive), or kapha (oily) pacifying treatment and suggests individualized herbal oils according to skin type.
For vata hair (thin, dry, frizzy, split ends), go for almond or sesame oils as the base oil. Buttermilk head massage is a traditional treatment used to treat dry hair, dandruff, and hair loss. If treating pitta hair (fine, with premature thinning or graying), choose cooling coconut oil. Thick and oily kapha hair does best with olive or mustard oils.
Oiling the hair daily is a basic ayurveda lifestyle practice. Vata resides in the brain, so it tends to collect in the head and is the main element that causes disturbed sleep. Controlling vata will reduce that overactive mind that plagues us when we most want to slumber. At bedtime, apply a little oil to your scalp. Ayurveda suggests a drop of castor oil for this, but it’s a little messy. Almond works well. The anterior fontanel is the best spot.
Oil is the main general remedy for controlling vata dosha. To keep your mind on track through the day, use cooling oils for daily scalp care, including coconut and ghee. Pumpkin seed hair oil helps the memory along similar lines. Sesame and almond are also good general choices for keeping the scalp soft and moist.
Hair oils are usually made from cooling herbs. Use prepared ayurvedic hair oil made from amla fruit, gotu kola leaf, or bringraj.
Try this: Combine bringraj oil, shikakai oil, and sesame or coconut oil in equal parts. Leave the oil blend in overnight. Shampoo out in the morning.
The hair reflects the internal condition of the body. Healthy hair comes from a healthy body. In the ayurvedic system, the hair is the extension of the shushumna—the energy spine. It acts as an energy antenna and prana regulator to consolidate the energy coming through the chakras. Left to its own devices, hair will accumulate some natural scalp oil. This oil, exposed to filtered sunlight, is a major source of vitamin D for the body.
Hair is a tissue, so the body never stops producing it to replace lost strands. If you use remedies to help your hair stay healthy, remember that the changes will happen in the base of the hair shaft, and that hair grows slowly. You may not see the results of your efforts for months. In the world of hairy things, patience pays.
Damaged, prematurely graying hair, or hair loss is a sign of too much pitta in the head. To keep your hair healthy, avoid anything that promotes heat, inflammation, or extreme intensity and stress. Engage in cooling activities, such as moonlight walks by the lake and eat cooling foods like cucumber, celery, spearmint, and melon.
Bringraj is a master tonic for the hair—an herb that cools the metabolism. Use up to five grams per day as capsules or tea. Chinese medicine has a related remedy, han lian cao (Eclipta prostrata), that also cools the body and treats premature graying of the hair at a similar dose.
Amla fruit is considered to be the prime general herb to treat premature gray hair. Use one to two grams per day in capsules. Amla is the basis for the famous ayurvedic rejuvenative jam chyavanprash.
Gotu kola leaf stimulates the growth of hair and nails, as well as increases blood supply to the skin. Two or three cups of tea per day increases keratinization in the skin and hair.
He shou wu root (Polygonum multiflorum), a Chinese tonic, is considered a superior Chinese medicine to treat premature aging, weakness, premature hair loss, graying, and impotence. The action is long-term and very food-like. It lowers cholesterol, strengthens the heart, regulates and supports urinary function, and reduces smooth muscle spasm. It also treats low stamina and constipation. The Chinese common name comes from the name of a famous herbalist (Mr. He) whose infertility was supposedly cured by the herb. In addition, his long life was credited to the tonic properties of this herb. Brew a tea and drink two to three cups per day.
Many nutrients benefit hair health. Silica keeps the hair strong. It’s common in food plants, or you can take it as a supplement. Use three to four grams of silicon dioxide daily. An assortment of minerals make up the hair tissue. Usually a daily multimineral tablet will strengthen the hair. Mineral rich herbs include nettles, oat straw, and horsetail. Use any or all of these as tea in as much quantity as you like—they’re all like food. And protein is critical for strong, beautiful hair. Make sure you are getting enough.
Let’s Face It
The superb techniques of shirodhara and face massage are a valuable addition to any spa therapist’s practice. Sure, ayurveda takes a little diligence to learn, but, at its core, is organized and logical. Once you start, you will find these coherent ideas straightforward to use in your practice. The ayurvedic approach to spa bodywork will extend your scope in an eminently useful way.
Ayurveda spa therapy is fun, messy, and of course, helpful for a wide assortment of common conditions. It will help you change the way you see health and illness. It can substantially impact your bottom line and your success as a therapist. Furthermore, ayurveda can help you generate your passion, organize your performance, and deliver your best effort. Your practice may never be the same.
Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa is a health educator for the International Integrative Educational Institute (IIEI), based in Eugene, Oregon. His videos on ayurveda, shirodhara, and face massage are available from IIEI at 541-242-3314.
1. John Douillard, The Encyclopedia of Ayurvedic Massage (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2004), 47.
2. Michael and Lesley Tierra, “Overview Planetary Herbology,” www.planetherbs.com/ articles/introduction_to_planetary_herbol.htm (accessed summer 2007).
3. K. R. Srikantha Murthy, Vagbhata’s Astanga Hrdayam, vol. 3 (Varanasi: Krishnadas Academy, 1995), 387.
4. Charaka Samhita Ci 10.27.
5. Richard Alan Miller, The Magical and Ritual Use of Herbs (Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books, 1993), 58.
6. Prashanti deJager, “Medhya Herbs and Therapies,” Light on Ayurveda 4, no. 3 (Spring 2005).
7. Vagbhata, Astanga Hridyam U.39.164
8. V. R. Kanth and P.V. Diwan, “Analgesic, Antiinflammatory and Hypoglycaemic Activities of Sida Cordifolia,” Phytother Res. 13, no. 1 (February 1999): 75–7.
9. Dr. K. M. Nadkarni, The Indian Materia Medica, with Ayurvedic, Unani and Home Remedies (Bombay: Bombay Popular Prakashan PVP., 1976): 1,135.
10. Ibid., 1,101.
11. E. Klouchek-Popova, A. Popov, N. Pavlova, and S. Krusteva, “Influence of the Physiological Regeneration and Epithelialization Using Fractions Isolated from Calendula Officinalis,” Acta Physiol Pharmacol Bulg 8, no. 4 (1982): 63–7.
12. M. Grieve, “A Modern Herbal,” www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/marigo16.html#med (accessed summer 2007).
13. B. Kaplan, “Homoeopathy: 3 Everyday Uses for All the Family,” Prof Care Mother Child 4, no. 7 (October 1994): 212–3. Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?CMD=Display&DB= PubMed.
14. www.pinn.net/~swampy/marigold.html (site now discontinued).