Ayurvedic Oil Therapy

International Integrative Educational Institute   


Ayurvedic Oil Therapy

Ayurvedic massage

India’s traditional healing system, ayurveda, is making a splash, or rather a splatter, in the world of American massage and bodywork. It’s a bounty of outstanding, effective, thoroughly proven techniques that help people get healthy and stay healthy.

This primordial holistic healing system is a comprehensive approach to health and lifestyle management. And massage and bodywork techniques underpin a vast storehouse of ayurvedic therapeutics. Probably more than any other global holistic healing system, ayurveda has a long history of using sophisticated, albeit low tech, massage techniques as integrated parts of a total healing system for virtually every medical condition. Ayurvedic massage affects not only the physical body, but also the vital energy, the mind, the intelligence, and the consciousness.

Thorough, vigorous ayurvedic massage is a type of passive exercise. Regular massage is the key to good health and is indispensable for prevention and cure of diseases, so it is an important part of daily life in India.

Each of us is unique. As different as our bodies are, so, too, are our bodywork requirements. Ayurveda recognizes this and advocates an individualized program for each client. Highly personalized treatment regimes are the essence of ayurvedic therapeutics. Therapists develop each specific program from assessed imbalances of the primal metabolic forces (doshas).

Ayurvedic Reflexology
Bodywork becomes therapeutic when we start to release deeper patterns and stresses in the body through the network of reflex (marma) points. The core of clinical ayurvedic massage, these marmas figure into virtually all aspects of bodywork methods. Manual massage, deep pressure, essential oils, gems, herbal pastes, and herbal oils may all be used in marma treatment.

Three of these marma points are so important that they are called the great marmas (mahamarmas). One of these, called hridaya, is in the center of the chest over the heart, in the middle of the sternum, and regulates the heart in its role as the seat of the mind and consciousness. It controls the circulatory system, blood pressure, stamina, vitality, and immunity. Similarly, it connects to emotions, including sadness, happiness, frustration, and indecision.

Warm sesame oil massaged into hridaya reduces the sadness, confusion, and indecision of vata dosha. Cooling sandalwood oil or the sweet oils jasmine or rose are useful in reducing the frustration of pitta and will help promote calm sleep.

A second great marma, called basti, is just below the bladder, about four finger widths above the pubic bone. It regulates apana vata (downward moving energy). Apana controls the large intestine and promotes the release of toxins and wastes. This marma balances the muscular system, adipose tissue, the urinary system, and the reproductive system. It treats low-back pain, constipation, and a range of urinary difficulties. Warm sesame oil or castor oil on this marma reduces vata dosha. Applying aromatic oils, like nutmeg, to the basti marma, will be grounding, while cardamom oil helps reduce gas.

The third mahamarma, sthapani, is between the eyebrows (the third eye). This point controls prana, the mind, senses, and endocrine system. This point helps develop concentration, clarity, meditation, and focus in the mind. Massage at this point will calm anxiety, decrease depression, relieve mental stress, resolve headaches, and promote sleep. Lavender oil is superbly calming at this point, while stimulating oils (camphor, mint, or basil) exalt the mind and open the senses.

Hot Oil Soaks Penetrate and Heal
Ayurveda has developed an exceptionally effective and deliciously soothing system, basti karma (“washing procedure”) that involves marinating certain local areas of the body in warm oil. It seems to be one of ayurveda’s best kept secrets.

These localized basti treatments involve applying a warm medicinal oil—usually ghee, but often also sesame oil—to a specific contained area and allowing it to penetrate for twenty to sixty minutes. (Basti means bladder, from the original enema bags that were formed from animal bladders, but also is taken to mean wash. The term also refers to a usually medicated enema. Here, we use the term for three separate meanings—bladder, bladder marma, and wash—which can be confusing.) These oil or ghee washes create very deep, penetrating heat that allows the healing qualities of the medicated oil to profoundly infiltrate the tissue. Except for the eye treatments, the oils should be just about as warm as the client can stand, which, depending on individual sensitivity, is about 100ºF.

The three mahamarmas are great places to begin with basti therapy. These treatments detailed here are more effective when they are done regularly, for example, every day for three to four days.

Massage with a Doughnut
In typical basti karma, dough is made with black garbanzo flour, or whole wheat flour, and water. Black garbanzo flour is often preferred because of its sticky consistency. Try both, or a combination, to suit your style. The dough is shaped into a small round ring (otherwise known as a bagel) about four to five inches in diameter and is placed on the area to be treated. Edges are glued to the skin with a few drops of water; warm herbal oil is then gently poured into the well or squeezed in with the cotton gauze. When the oil cools down, it is squeezed out and replaced a few times with more warm oil.

Getting the knack of making the dough and constructing the ring in this exceptionally low-tech process is a bit like being a French pastry chef and a structural engineer at the same time. Persistence pays in learning ayurveda (and dough architecture).

Ghee Cools Inflammation
There are four kinds of fat described in ayurveda—ghee (oil of clarified butter), oil, vasa (animal fat), and bone marrow (yup, massage with bone marrow). I believe ghee is the best among all fat substances and thousands of formulas for medicated ghee are described in ayurveda for the treatment of countless illnesses, especially those of inflammation.

Ghee has the impurities (saturated fat, milk solids) removed. Ayurveda considers the milk of eight kinds of mammals (cow, buffalo, goat, sheep, camel, elephant, mare, and woman) safe for human beings, and ghee can be prepared from these eight kinds of milk. In normal circumstances, cow’s milk ghee is best for human use. (And just when would normal circumstances include elephant ghee, anyway, you ask . . .)

Ghee massage is used to cure disturbances in pitta and vata. The ancient Susruta Samhita text claims ghee is good for all parts of the body, and it is the ultimate overall remedy for pitta (inflammatory) problems, and is the medium (anupan) of choice for mixing medicines for these conditions. It is also used to support the treatments of diseases, rejuvenative treatments (rasayana), and aphrodisiac treatments (vajikarana). Furthermore, ghee is said to promote memory, intelligence, quantity and quality of sexual secretions, as well as to enhance digestion. We do know from modern science that ghee is rich in phenolic antioxidants.1 It is good for growth of all seven dhatus in the body (plasma, blood, flesh, fat, bones, marrow, semen) and is suited to people of every age. Ghee makes all sensory organs more efficient, enhances hair growth, and improves the complexion and skin health. In particular, it aids in the formation of bones and facilitates healing of traumatic injuries, including fractures. Ghee is lauded for sexual vitality and for building nerve and brain tissue. Long a favorite of yoga practitioners, it lubricates the connective tissues and promotes flexibility. The revered sage Acharya Vagbhatta describes its healing properties in the cases of burns and wounds.

Ghee’s benefits increase with its age. Aged ghee (up to one hundred years) reduces all three doshas and dispels blockages in the srotas (body channels).2 It treats alcoholism, fever, and vaginal pain. Since it has a special ability to clear the manovaha srota (mental channel), it used issued for mental diseases, namely epilepsy and psychosis. Medicated ghee, clarified butter in which herbs have been extracted (ghrita), is a famous preparation method for treating pitta conditions. For example, the well-known Brahmi ghrita contains the popular herb gotu kola, and is applied for a broad variety of brain and nerve conditions.

Netra basti. This procedure may be called netra tarpana. In netra (eye) basti, warm ghee bathes the entire eye, one eye at a time. Build the flour dough ring around the orbit to encircle the entire eye socket. Of course it’s crucial to proceed with extreme caution here. Using ghee that feels just barely warm to the finger, begin slowly pouring the ghee into the dough ring, starting at the lateral edge. With the client’s eyes closed, fill up the dam with warm liquid ghee until the eyelashes are completely submerged.

The client’s eye is then open during the treatment, staring up through the yellow pool of liquid ghee. The client will be able to see, but the image will be blurry. This incredibly relaxing “eye bath” treatment nourishes the deep connective tissue of the eyes, improves vision, and is beneficial for eye strain, dry and itchy eyes, sty, optic neuritis, early cataract, macular degeneration, and Bell’s palsy. In general, it helps to balance the doshas in the head.

Although simple ghee is common for netra basti, triphala ghee or other herbal oils, such as chrysanthemum flower, saffron, and bala root are also used. Netra basti lasts for eight to twenty minutes per eye. Empty the dough well by tipping the head to the side and pouring the ghee into a small bowl. Vision will be a little blurry for a few minutes, but will quickly clear.

Netra basti may be followed by a few drops of soothing cucumber juice in each eye and application of a few drops of soothing medicated oil into each nostril. People often get an immediately measurable improvement in visual acuity. For a fun experiment, use an eye chart to measure acuity before the treatment. Recheck an hour later. In some cases, netra basti is contraindicated for conjunctivitis, blepharitis, corneal ulcer, and glaucoma. To soothe and rejuvenate burning, pitta aggravated eyes, apply one drop of lukewarm ghee to each eye at bedtime.

Shiro basti. This is a ghee or oil wash of the entire top half of the cranium (shiro=head). A specialized tall, leather cylindrical container resembling a hat is set atop the head and sealed around the rim with sticky dough. Imagine Abraham Lincoln’s hat.

Fill the top hat with warm oil, and—voila!—oil basti for the skull. Shiro basti with ghee treats headache and dermatitis of the scalp. With castor oil, shiro basti treats facial palsy, insomnia, anxiety, dandruff, facial paralysis, and other neurological disorders, and improves memory. It is usually done daily for a series of seven days, repeated every month or so.

Hridya basti. Hrid basti, hrud basti, or uro basti are other names for hridya basti, which involves building a flour dam atop the heart (hridya=heart). This therapy at hridya marma helps nourish, strengthen, and balance heart functions, and rejuvenate the heart. It strengthens the heart muscle, increases the contractile force of the heart organ, and benefits ischemic heart disease, cardiomyopathy, and congestive heart failure. This treatment relieves deep seated anger and sadness. Give it a try for frozen shoulder, too.

Warm, medicated oil or ghee is left on the chest for twenty to forty-five minutes. This is also an effective treatment for asthma and other respiratory problems. Many heart problems involve pitta dosha, so coconut oil and the infused oils of bringraj and amla are good possibilities. Rose petals are a great addition to the oil in hridya basti. For a special hridya basti treatment, try a warm concoction of ghee, milk, and rose petals. Open your heart and let stress melt away.

Kati basti. This is a simple therapy with profound effects. In the subtle body, the nadis emerge from manipura (navel) chakra and supply energy to the upper and lower extremities and back. Kati basti has wide use for any pain, strain, or tension in lower or upper back.

The dough ring is about four to five inches in diameter and is placed on the back around the painful area. Usually it is applied to the lumbar-sacral area of the spine, which is a major site of vata. The warm ghee is poured or swabbed onto the lower back in the dough ring. When the oil cools down, it is squeezed out with cotton gauze and the procedure is repeated a few times.

The indications for this therapy are backache, degenerative spine changes, compressed discs, osteoporosis, sciatica, hip pain, shoulder pain, and spinal cord compression. Most of the time, vata dosha is the culprit in this area, so warm castor oil, or dashmoola oil, work well for kati basti. Brahmi oil will heal nerve damage. St. John’s wort is not a typical ayurvedic herb, but its nerve and connective tissue healing infused oil is tailor-made for kati basti.

The healing properties of herbal oils used for this basti deeply clean and fortify the blood, build strong muscle and connective tissues, and lubricate the joints. Kati basti is likely to alleviate most types of low-back pain. This special technique is aimed at providing relief by bathing the lower back for twenty to fifty minutes.

Sthapani basti. Treating this mahamarma may be done with simple manual massage or with a dough well. Castor oil, sesame oil, and ghee are all appropriate. To treat the vata of the nervous system, use calamus root-infused oil on this marma.

Chakra basti. This basti, also called nabhi basti (navel basti), is applied to the umbilical region. The nabhi marma is the vital center where all of ayurveda’s seventy-two thousand nadis (subtle energy pathways) converge. Hot oil wash here acts on the solar plexus and balances the digestive fire. Use it for indigestion, gas, and constipation. Emotionally, it facilitates the release of deeply seated emotions.

A little further down is basti (bladder) marma. Use a warm ghee basti (wash) over that reflex point to open energy circulation to the bladder and pelvis. This area treats premenstrual syndrome and other menstrual irregularities, frequent urination, and blocked urination.

Janu basti, the knee is soaked in warm medicated oils, medicated ghee, or herbal decoctions in a dough ring for twenty to thirty minutes. It promotes the strength of the knee by improving circulation. Use it for knee arthritis or general knee pain.

Greeva basti involves bathing the back of the neck using warm medicated oil, ghee, or herbal decoction in the flour dam for twenty to thirty minutes. Use it for any type of chronic pain in the neck region, including frozen shoulder.

Vishuddha basti at the throat treats thyroid dysfunction or conditions in the throat chakra.

Vaksha basti is done over the adrenals, slightly above the kidney area on the back, to rejuvenate these glands and the entire posterior thoracic area.

Ayurvedic basti procedures are unusual and profound ways to enhance your bodywork treatments. Expertly treated, marma points on the body can literally give life. Working with these three important marmas and warm oil techniques goes a long way in creating balance and health in the body, mind, and spirit. With a caring attitude, tender hands, and some soothing, warm oil, we can bring the gift of health to people in new and exciting ways, and maybe grow a little in the process, too.

1. “Liquid chromatographic method for the determination of nine phenolic antioxidants in butter oil: collaborative study. Journal of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists International (AOAC). July/August 76(4) (1993): 765-79.
2. Bhagwan Dash, Massage Therapy in Ayurveda (New Delhi: Concept, 1992), 92.