Sure, massages are great. But let’s get a little more specific—which kind of massage really sends chills down your spine? There are lots of different techniques, and they’re all super different. Are you looking for something a little bit painful (in a good way), like deep tissue massage? Or a more reparative, training-friendly massage like you might get at Equinox? Maybe it’s a classic Swedish massage, which is what most spas offer because it’s kind of the best of both worlds. Or perhaps it’s something you’ve never tried before, like abhyanga.
What is abhyanga aka an ayurvedic massage?
The Ayurvedic practice of abhyanga, or oil massage, touts physical benefits like released muscle tension, lymphatic drainage, and more nourished skin from head to toe. It stands out from other massages due to its focus on the skin, rather than just the underlying muscles—from the oils used to the circulation-stimulating movements, it’s more like a facial massage for your whole body. For someone used to massages that my body like the lump of pizza dough popular wisdom (you are what you eat!) says it is, abhyanga isn’t that.
Your therapist’s main goal is relaxation, and in India, the practice is tied deeply to the notion of self-care. “Sneha is the root word for this type of massage in Sanskrit,” explains Ayurvedic doctor Pratima Raichur, “which also translates to mean ‘love.’” Depending on your skin type, Ayurveda suggests performing abhyanga anywhere from once a week to once a day.
What makes it different from a regular massage?
The heavy use of essential oils and focus on specific energy points in the body makes an Ayurvedic massage different from your run-of-the-mill Swedish massage. Plus, don't expect a ton of actual massaging—the treatment is much more focused on manipulating your energy fields and freeing emotional burden than working out the kinks in your muscles.
I went to visit Dr. Raichur’s Manhattan Pratima Spa, a beauty institution, thanks to her high-profile client list like model Constance Jablonski, writer Fariha Roisin, and 3rd Ritual founder Jenn Tardif, who are all Pratima devotees.
“Although there is a specific massage sequence and therapeutic technique associated with Ayurveda’s abhyanga massage,” Dr. Raichur reveals, “each session is tailored to the individual and their unique dosha.” According to Ayurveda, combinations of the elements (air, space, fire, water, and earth) called doshas occur naturally within all of us. The elements should be in a perfect ratio, but in most people, they’re a little off: you might have too much Vata (air and space), Pitta (fire and water), or Kapha (water and earth). Ayurveda attempts to even them out.
What should I expect when I go?
New visitors are advised to arrive at Pratima Spa 15 minutes before their appointment to fill out an extensive intake form—Dr. Raichur offers wellness consultations for Ayurveda newbies, but when that resource isn’t available, the form helps. “Also,” says Dr. Raichur, “therapists may observe dosha characteristics through observation.” For example, Vata dosha types usually have dry skin, while Kaphas are oilier. Pitta, an enigmatic combination of fire and water, is typically visible as combo skin. All of that is used to figure out your best massage protocol.
Here’s everything that went down
After I filled out my form, I changed into a robe and sipped a glass of water as my therapist Sabine asked a few follow-up questions. Was I usually warm or cold? Always cold. Did I break out? Yes, sometimes. Sabine determined that my dosha was mostly Vata with a little Pitta, and got to work preparing the oils we’d use in my treatment. “Our Vata oil blend is our richest,” says Dr. Raichur about the oil Sabine used on my body. She reserved the slightly lighter, anti-inflammatory Pitta oil for my face, where I’m more prone to breakouts—the a mini facial is a bonus of the treatment. (A note: if you’re sensitive to essential oils, Ayurvedic massage is probably not for you.) The oils were warmed in my room and poured all over each body part liberally.
As someone used to the quick kneading of Western massage, the sensation of abhyanga was surprising at first. As Sabine moved up my body, her hands circled in gentle, rhythmic strokes that barely disturbed my underlying muscles at all. This pressure, too, was customized just for me. “A gentle sattvic touch is used for Vata, a deeper rajasic touch for Pitta, and an even deeper tamasic touch for Kapha,” elaborated Dr. Raichur. While I thought I wanted that deeper kneading, I didn’t have much Kapha in me—had the wrong kind of massage been throwing me out of whack all along? Laying on the (heated, by the way) table felt like being on a raft at sea: the massage choreography swirled like waves lapping onto my arms and legs, and sometimes Sabine would make friction movements that rocked my whole body back and forth. I pretended I was in the middle of a storm. Was this watery sensation the Kapha I was missing?
Sabine noted that my body was absorbing the rich oil very well—a good sign for her diagnostic abilities, my scaly legs, and a very clothed commute home. “In an ideal scenario,” says Dr. Raichur, “the hours following an abhyanga massage should be slow and relaxed, with the oils left to absorb as much as possible.” While Sabine recommended emulsifying my shampoo with a tiny bit of water and scrubbing on dry hair before I got in the shower, three shampoos later I still had super oily hair come morning. But I put my hair in a ponytail, and let the oils serve as a reminder of a dreamy scalp massage for a bit longer than felt comfortable. With some patience, my hair was softer than it had been two days prior. In fact, I was softer from head to toe.
My final thoughts
You don’t have to be an Ayurvedic believer to enjoy abhyanga massage, but you do have to have an open mind about what you want to get from a massage. Will it realign every muscle in your back? Probably not. But as I floated out of Pratima’s spa, I did feel realigned somehow: relaxed, comfortable, and more at peace than I should have been on a Tuesday night in Soho. “Abhyanga is often called the glowing massage, and that glow comes from the inside out,” says Dr. Raichur. Reader, I wish I could tell you if I was glowing as I wandered home that night, but I passed out too early to tell. It was… perfect.
Ali Oshinsky Ali Oshinsky is a writer and licensed esthetician based in New York.