Return to Articles on Ayurveda
A common Ayurvedic recommendation is the daily oil massage, called abhyanga in Sanskrit. Literally, abhyanga means: smearing the body with unctuous or oily substance. While the tradition of Ayurveda is full of many types of massage and many benefits are extended to them we will examine abhyanga particularly and discuss why abhyanga is useful preventive therapy. First, we will survey the classical literature–The Great Three and the Minor Three–Caraka, Sushruta, Vagbhata and Sharngadhara, Madhava Nidanam, Bhavaprakasha. Next we will discuss a uniquely Maharishi Ayurveda perspective of abhyanga–we shall call this the Consciousness of massage. Then we shall discuss Ayurvedic and modern models for understanding abhyanga.
The knowledge of Ayurveda is said to be timeless, i.e., it’s without beginning. It exists primarily as an oral tradition even though six important texts have come down through the ages. Caraka Samhita, considered the oldest of these texts, refers to abhyanga often. In Sutrasthanam V. 78-93 the benefits of applying oil to the body are described: The body becomes firm, smooth-skinned, free from disturbances of vata and tolerant of exertions and exercise. The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to accidental injuries or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.
Caraka details further benefits of oil applied to specific areas. For example, oil gargle (gandusha) provides strength in jaws and voice, development of face, maximum taste and relish in food, non-dryness of throat, lips, absence of dental caries and strong teeth and gums. Applied to the head oil prevents headache, alopecia, graying of hair, balding. Strength is imparted to skull and hair roots and the sense organs become cheerful and complexion glows. Sound sleep and happiness also are experienced. Oil applied daily to the ears decreases diseases due to vata, stiffness in back of neck and jaws, hardness of hearing and deafness. By massaging of oil on feet, coarseness, stiffness, roughness, fatigue and numbness of feet are alleviated in no time. Further, delicacy, strength and firmness in feet, clarity of vision are attained and vata is pacified. By massage of oil in feet there is no occurrence of sciatica, cracking of sole and constriction of veins and ligaments. Rubbing over the body alleviates foul smell, heaviness, drowsiness, itching, dirt, anorexia, vulgar appearance of sweat. Vayu is predominant in tactile sense organ which is located in skin, oil massage is the most beneficial for skin, hence one should use it regularly. (1)
The others of the “great three”–Susruta and Vagbhata– offer similar but much briefer descriptions of benefits from abhyanga: “Anointing the body imparts a glossy softness to the skin, guards against the aggravation of vayu and kapha, improves color and strength and gives tone to the tissues of the body. Oily substances affused on the human organism imparts a tone and vigor to its tissues in the same manner as water furnishes the roots of a tree or a plant with the necessary nutritive elements and fosters its growth when poured into the soil where it grows.” Susruta, Su.XXIV.15-20. (2) Anointing the feet brings on sleep. It is refreshing and invigorating to the body and the sight, removes all drowsiness and sense of fatigue and softens the skin of the soles of the feet.” Su.XXIV.45-46 “Abhyanga should be resorted to daily; it wards off old age, exertion and increase of vata; bestows good vision, nourishment to the body, long life, good sleep, good and strong skin.” Vagbhata,Su.II.8-9 (3) Of the remaining three texts constituting the basis of classical Ayurveda Sharngadhara specifically declined to comment on abhyanga because it was already well known for many years Ch.XI.121-122.(4) (This writer could find no reference in Madhava Nidanam and Bhavaprakasha was unavailable.)
We would like to just state that there are a few contraindications of abhyanga as given by Susruta Ci.XXlV.22-24 or Vagbhata Su.ll.9:
1) no unmedicated oil should be used if indigestion (ama dosha) exists
2) abhyanga should be avoided when fever is present
3) abhyanga should not follow emesis, purgatives, or niruha enema
4) certain kapha aggravations contraindicate abhyanga
As alluded to above there are many types of massage including with oil, paste, powder, gloves and they may be done locally or generally. For the sake of completeness, Sarngadhara lists three kinds of topical applications (which may bear on abhyanga): anti-dosic, anti-poisonous, cosmetic (Su.XI.1). Often massage is considered a part of an important rejuvenation/purification therapy of Ayurveda, called pancakarma (meaning 5 actions). It is said to effect by moving the dosas (impurities) out of their locations to the channels of elimination and thence out of the body. As such, it is both curative and preventive. In the context of a daily routine it takes on the greater role – prevention.
Although abhyanga, by definition, employs an uncting substance dry massage (called garshana) is also beneficial. This suggests that one may benefit from only touching the body without applying oil. This leads to an interesting point unique to Maharishi Ayurveda as distinct from traditional Ayurveda – the value of Consciousness. We feel that the discussion of this point aims at the very reason mind-body medicine is a critical departure from the mainstream approach of “physical only” interactions. That is, Maharishi Ayurveda presents a model for understanding why such phenomena as placebos, nocebos, spontaneous remissions (not to mention growth of higher states of consciousness) occur. Therefore, we feel that discussion of this area has implications substantively distinct from an examination of mere massage–First we will discuss Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s conception of Consciousness and then how It comes into play during touch/ massage/ abhyanga. That is, we will discuss possible scenarios why healing and self-rejuvenation occur naturally in the body as a result of the nature of physiology – the expression of the physiology of Consciousness (Nature/Prakrti) Itself. And as a side benefit we will observe conditions which promote growth towards higher states of awareness…the goal of Maharishi Ayurveda.
Consciousness is pure existence or awareness–a silent state of dynamism and perfect symmetry. It is a field of pure potential–of pure knowledge. It is infinite in nature and capable of organizing Its infinite designs. Consciousness, the underlying basis of nature, is inherently self-referral–awake unto Itself–interacting within Itself–knowing Itself to be all that there is. (Some models describe Consciousness as comprised of higher and lower Self. The higher Self exists without ego and mind and its components, which comprise the lower Self of relative existence.) As It becomes aware of Itself It recognizes a diversity of values all in one–knower, known, and the process of knowing (the relationship of knower to known) known as rsi, chhandas, and devata, respectively. In this moment the process of symmetry-breaking occurs giving rise to manifest creation–conceived as a sequential flow of intelligence.
All change in the relative mirrors this underlying process in non-manifest consciousness, i.e., varying values or mixtures of the samhita of rshi, devata, chhandas give rise to that which we call the universe and its diversity. What this means experientially is that life is a process of creating over and over–driven by our nature to grow in happiness according to Maharishi. Life is the experience of change as balance and imbalance, health and disease, order and disorder, etc–of reality taking on infinite diversity. These are but varying degrees of the expression of the nature of Consciousness expressing its aspects–rsi (abstraction), devata (transformation), and chhandas( physicality). Sometimes we see reality as more physical–hiding the more abstract, subjective value of Consciousness as knowledge. At other times we become so involved in the transformations taking place that change over-shadows the continuum of non-change which is the nature of Consciousness and so on. The important point is that what emerges is based on what precedes–change is sequential (not necessarily gradual) —-and that this change occurs because this is the nature of Consciousness.
Whether we describe life as growth, change, reproduction or by some other model it takes a direction which we call evolution, or survival. The evolutionary path is described by Maharishi as the peaceful co-existence of opposites–where diversity of values does indeed exist. But if life is not lived spontaneously in accord with natural law then life is merely survival–without true happiness.
And finally, the concept of immortality, the perpetual continuum of change, is bound up in the notion of Consciousness. Consciousness is immortal. Its physiology is the essence of self-perpetuation. For the manifest creation to mirror immortality of the unmanifest it must mirror the physiology of Consciousness, Itself. We will, therefore pay close attention to this aspect throughout this paper.
There are three faculties of mind making up consciousness or lower Self–intellect, restraint, and memory–which serve to conceive, create, maintain, and control the direction of change. “Mind is that entity which on contact with Self, sense organs and sense objects is responsible for the production of knowledge,” says Kasture. (6, p.55) With regard to the functioning of mind there are three conditions necessary for happiness, health, or healing: 1) memory of self (what one is and one’s purpose), 2) discrimination of things as they really, 3) and restraint of desires for ephemeral pleasures. These functions are interacting and supporting. Therefore just increasing the functioning of the intellect, for example, will cause memory and restraint to be more evolutionary and vice versa. From the perspective of a biological system all levels of life–cell, tissue, organ, organism–must go through the cycle of rest, activity, and elimination always remaining aware of and maintaining self identity or dharma for health to obtain. When this process is interrupted in some way, i.e., Consciousness is disconnected from physiology because of loss of memory of Self as source, or from defect of discrimination or restraint–then disease results.
There is no healing without awareness; it is in fact a pre-condition of health and healing, according to Maharishi. Thus when mind is disconnected from body action can be self-destructive. Cancer is seen as occurring for this very reason. Cells suddenly mutate–lose their sense of purpose or dharma–then proliferate in a self-destructive growth–ultimately killing the host source. On the other hand having awareness and attention on the body while doing abhyanga, for example, can improve physiology especially if some stress, disease, or tension is “discovered”, during the process. To some extent a higher state of consciousness will have a greater impact on physiology than a lesser state of Consciousness. That is, the ability to effect changes in physiology is dependent upon Consciousness, Itself, and how lively it is in the physiology.
Why attention with awareness is important is explained by one of Maharishi’s aphorisms: wherever attention goes–grows. When attention directs mind and awareness onto the body the quality of attention improves. This improvement is a result of attention, directed away from the body by sense objects, coming back to the body. The ego functions to say to mind, “I am this.” And identification with the body occurs. Then Consciousness has the knowledge of being aware of a more intimate value of self (in this case the body). Equally important, attention becomes one-pointed as the mind is not attending to many things at once. Thus the process of self-referral is re-established. This is the equivalent to the expression that mind-body integration occurs when activity is performed with awareness. So in this context abhyanga is a yogic exercise (one would hardly describe the self-massage as exercise in the sense of running, etc. yet there is that value, too.) which can facilitate the growth of higher states of consciousness by both releasing stress and by promoting improved self-awareness.
The mechanism for this change has been described by Dr. Chopra and is related to intention which gives direction to change. The direction is engendered in the silence between thoughts and relates uniquely to the entire essence of each individual. It is the product of the interaction of ego, feelings, discrimination, restraint, and memory. (This is like the action-impression-desire cycle presented by Maharishi in his commentary to the Bhagavad Gita.) The memory of our sensory existence is reviewed by intellect and ego. Then desire coalesces–the what and why are determined. Intention at the level of Consciousness is the desire to grow in happiness–to create ever anew. It is the self-referral activity which keeps one on the path of spontaneous fulfillment–dharma. In the body this activity expresses as the process of natural healing.
In the process of giving oneself a massage it can be assumed that one has the intention to touch the body and even to bring some good to the body. This intention to touch is in itself sufficient to guarantee that both self-referral awareness and healing starts even before touching begins, for as Dr. Chopra states, the mechanics for the fulfillment of any desire are inherent in the desire itself.(5) This occurs because the path of the expression of Consciousness is cleared by Consciousness Itself. The samhita of rsi, devata, chhandas is always present everywhere in some degree. Where ever attention goes some organizing power must manifest–some change occurs. At quantum levels this effect is significant but probably not so significant at macroscopic levels of life. If, however, change at the (sub)atomic level does occur this could affect an entire progression of structures and events. In other words we don’t even need to touch the body for some benefit to accrue.
If one is allowed to perform “Ayurvedic reasoning” with a universal causal relation-- “Law of Similarity and Dissimilarity”-- another way of understanding this process may be described. Caraka declares: “Similarity of all substances is always the cause of increase and dissimilarity the cause of decrease--both effect by their application.”
sarvada sarvabhavanam samanyam vrddhikaranam hrasaheturvisesas ca
pravrttirubhayasya tu. Su.I.44.
One way to express this law is in the sayings: What you see you become. What you hear you become. What you eat you become, etc. This means that adding a quality to the body by ingestion, contact, or exposure, etc. increases that quality in the physiology. For example, if one feels cold and sits next to a fire one will feel both warmer and less cold. If one eats cold, dry food frequently then coldness and dryness in the physiology will increase, etc.
Because everything in the universe is vibration we can use the analogy of the tuning fork to further illustrate this law: A tuning fork, a two-pronged metal implement that gives a fixed tone when struck, vibrating near a second tuning fork of same tone will start the second tuning fork to vibrate. Movement or vibration in one causes increase in movement or vibration in the other. The opposite quality of non-movement is reduced. The interesting point is that direct physical contact is not necessary to bring about change. Thus, in our consideration of Consciousness “contacting” or re-connecting with Its expressed value of physiology it may be supposed that the value of Consciousness–perfect intelligence, self-referral functioning, etc.(we grant the absurdity of attributing any quality whatsoever to Consciousness) –is infused in the physiology…like increases like and decreases the opposite. Health increases and disease decreases.
Summarizing this section the point is simply that awareness is the basis of change. When one does abhyanga intention mobilizes and directs Consciousness, and during the process of touching or massaging or even reflecting upon the body the healing process is initiated. Even more importantly, self-abhyanga is a kind of yogic activity which disperses stress through the mechanics of Consciousness operating in the physiology–expressing Its own nature of being self-referral–and promotes the growth of higher states of awareness; this is the basis of prevention. It is important to remember that there many ways to heal the body but true prevention, i.e., immortality, is achieved only when self-referral obtains.
Oil massage has several components which we shall discuss separately:
1) touch as emotional pleasure from stimulation
2) touch/pressure releasing tension and removing impurities as pleasure
3) oil has qualities and actions which are imparted to the physiology and
which brings about changes and pleasure
According to modern physiology the skin functions as an enormous sense organ. Its millions of nerve endings serve as antennas or receivers for the body, keeping it informed of changes in the environment. Specialized receptors make it possible for the body to detect sensations of light touch (Meissners corpuscles), and pressure (pacinian corpuscles) as well as pain, heat, and cold.(6, pp.109-112)
The emotional connection to sensory stimulation has long been understood. The classical texts describe this stimulation of the senses as both normal and pleasing. This point is made in the Upanisads (see Katha Upanishad I.iii ) and throughout the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krsna. For example, Vagbhata warns: “The sense organs should neither be strained very much nor should they be fondled very much.”
na pidayedindriyani na caitanyatilalayet. Su.II.29
In the first chapter of Caraka’s section on principles one finds a description of how pain and pleasure inflict the body: “Excessive use, non-use, and inappropriate use of time, intellect, and sense objects is the three-fold cause of both mental and physical diseases. Both body and mind are the locations of diseases as well as pleasures. Balanced use is the cause of pleasures.”
“kalabuddhindriyarthanam yogo mithya na cati ca dvayasrayanam vyadhinam
trividho hetusamgrahah. sariram sattvasamjnam ca vyadhinamasrayso matah.
tatha sukhanam yogastu sukhanam karanam samah.” Su.I.54-55.
In a later section we find a description of this three-fold cause of disease: “Too much indulgence in very hot and very cold objects, and in bath, massage, anointing, etc, is excessive use of tactile objects; total abstinence from them is negative use; and the application of tactile objects such as hot and cold etc. without the usual order; and the touch of uneven surfaces, injury, dirty objects, organisms, etc, is perverted use of tactile objects.” Su.Xl.37
tatha tisitosnanam sprsyanam snanabhyangotsadanadinam catyupasevanamati-
yogah, sarvaso nupasevanamayogah, snanadinam sitosnadinam ca sprsyanam-
In the section on anatomy Caraka declares: “Contacting the organ of touch with mind gives rise to pleasure and pain experiences.”
sparsanendriyasamsparsah sparso manasa eva ca dvividhah sukhaduhkhanam
vedananam pravartakah. Sa.I.133
And finally, Caraka describes an important link between mind, touch, and all the senses: “Out of all the senses, the tactile sense alone pervades all the sense organs and is also associated inherently with mind so due to pervading of tactile sense, mind also pervades. So the condition of all the sense organs produced by the overall tactile sensation, because of being harmful, is known as unwholesome conjunction of sense organs and its objects, which is of five types and three aspects. The objects which are accepted properly are known as wholesome ones.” Su.Xl.38
tatraikam sparsanamindriyanamidriyavyapakam cetahsamavayi, sparsa-
navyaptervyapakamapi ca cetah; tasmat sarvendriyanam vyapakasparsakrto
yo bhavavisesah; so yamanuparsayat pancavidhastrivikalpo bhavatya-
satmyendriyarthasamyogah; satmyartho hyuvasayarthah.
This is an important connection. It asserts that mind is not localized in any part of the body and that by touching any part of the body, and only a part, we can make an impression in the mind–especially a pleasurable one. That is, touching the body can access the emotions–promoting a sense of well-being–mental and physical. Depending upon how massage is done (for example, superficial or deep) it can “trigger” different ways of releasing stress or bring pleasure but the outcome should always be an improvement of well being.
Modern physiology gives another view of how touch can help physiology by bringing pleasure through direct stimulation of the organs of touch. As Chopra writes massage soothes the two master systems of the body, the nervous system and the endocrine system.(8, p.205) “Nervous and endocrine systems are seen as communication systems connecting all cells with information about what is happening in the body, which provides knowledge and instructions for control and integration.” (7, p.194) This pleasure from touching is mediated through the limbic system which causes the secretion of hormones physically equivalent to health and happiness.(5) Massage or touching, from the perspective of modern physiology, has been found to increase secretion of human growth hormone (HGH). Growth hormone is believed to speed up the movement of digested proteins (amino acids) out of the blood and into the cells, and this accelerates the cell’s anabolism (build up of amino acids to form tissue proteins), hence this action promotes normal growth. It's also responsible for increased protein synthesis and decreased oxidation of proteins. Growth Hormone also affects fat and carbohydrate metabolism (7, p.265). HGH enhances the utilization of fat – gives your body the ability to break down fat cells more efficiently. HGH is one of several hormones that maintain blood sugar within a normal range. In this respect, for example, recent research has shown that touching (massage) can have a dramatic effect on infant growth (9). Further, Dr. Bernie Siegel has reported that chemotherapy patients experience profoundly improved recovery rates from chemotherapy when they receive a full body massage just prior to chemotherapy. (10) In fact, scientists now believe that HGH has a role in most healthy functions of the body, including sexual function, proper operation of stomach and bowels, liver, immune system, and all glandular systems.
Summarizing this section we understand an additional benefit of massage comes from touching the senses in a pleasurable manner–lightly, for example. The emotional benefit provides physical well being as the mind is calmed, which reduces tension throughout the body.
Caraka described 107 points in the physiology (called marmas) which are most lively in expressing the connection of Consciousness (our most fundamental nature) to physiology. It is said that touching these vital points can have both positive or negative results. Proper massage of these points (including such exercise as yoga asanas) helps dissolve stresses or remove blocks accumulated there (11). Removing stress improves physiology directly.
Susruta (Su.XXIV.29-32) described the effects of rubbing with characteristic emphasis upon the devata or pitta value: “Rubbing and friction tend to dilate the orifice of the (superficial) ducts and increase the temperature of the skin. Rubbing specifically improves the complexion of females and gives a lovely appearance, cleanliness, beauty, and suppleness to the female form. Friction pacifies vata, cures itches, rashes, and eruptions.” Therefore, by the Law of Similarity and Dissimilarity the heat generated in this fashion balances the cold vata and also helps liquefy impurities which block physiology. The relaxation of tissues brought about in this manner helps promote elimination of impurities. And the motion of rubbing provides the impetus for moving the impurities to the channels of elimination.
Dr. B. Dash writes about this matter in this way: “During physical exercise or ordinary work, some metabolic products get accumulated in the neuro-muscular junctions (marma points?) leading to fatigue. If the neuro-muscular junctions are kept clean, and if both nerve and muscle tissues are toned up, then the person could avert fatigue in spite of hard work and physical exercise. This is possible through massage therapy.” (12, p.22) He suggests that movement of soft tissue probably helps wastes (free radicals?) and nutrition to flow in appropriate manner by helping to relax tension in the tissue. (12, p.23) When waste and tension are removed then tissue and organs return to their ground-state status of natural functioning–a restful alertness where sensory apparatus is ready and able to function.
In this section an additional benefit is realized from deeper touching or massage. There is no evidence that this and the former section obtain benefits which are mutually exclusive. Rather, the idea is simply that stress may be released from different levels of the anatomy, depending upon the type of massage–light or deep.
This section does emphasize that the connection to healing can be through the body first and then the emotions and nervous system. Thus another avenue of releasing stress and providing pleasure and well-being is added to the above aspects.
So far we’ve considered only benefits from touch without oil. Abhyanga is about applying oil to the body. Therefore, the fact of benefiting from oil massage must have something to do with the properties of oil itself, also.
Caraka describes 4 type of uncting substances: oil, ghee, muscle fat, and bone marrow. Maharishi Ayur-Veda emphasizes the first 2 of these–oil and ghee–because of their superior benefits. Sesame oil is the best of oils for strength and unction according to Caraka:
sarvesham tailajatanam tilatailam visisyate balarthe snehane (Su XIII.12).
Further, it is sweet, with astringent subsidiary taste, penetrating, hot, readily absorbed, aggravates P and K, is constipating and anti-diuretic, the best among vata alleviating, strength promotion, beneficial for skin, promotes intellect and appetite. It destroys all diseases due to combination (of drugs) and processing.” Su.XXVII.286-294. Vagbhata gives this description: “Sesame oil possesses the properties like penetrating deep into the tissues, and spreading throughout the body fast; it causes [aggravates seems a more appropriate meaning] diseases of the skin, is bad for the eyes, capable of entering into even minute pores, hot in potency, not increasing kapha, it makes lean persons fatty and fat persons lean, is constipating, kills worms; with appropriate processing it cures all diseases.” Su.V.55-56. (Translator, Bhishagratna states in a footnote (Vol.II, p.484) that Dalhana declares that sesame oil penetrates into the deepest level of tissues in only 5-10 minutes.)
Oil performs these actions in the body: it destroys vata, softens and lubricates, and removes retained wastes. These actions promote an extremely important “releasing function” in the body. Toxins, metabolic and digestive wastes circulate and collect in the body channels. Oil promotes the proper functioning of these channels by loosening, smoothing, softening, and cleansing actions. This can be experienced as the release of stress. As Vagbhata warns in a chapter on prevention–”All efforts should be made to clear out the dosas and waste products at appropriate times. Too much of their accumulation leads to their aggravation and even cutting short of life itself.”
yateta ca yathakalam malanam sodhanam prati atyarthasancitaste hi kruddhah
Thus the intimate process of life–growth, change, elimination, etc. is protected and facilitated and a “natural” state of restful alertness is promoted. The importance of these qualities and actions can be appreciated from another angle by relating the “Law of Similarity and Dissimilarity” to the three dosas –their qualities and functions.
Because we control, reduce, or pacify a quality by applying the opposite quality we have a powerful balancing principle. “Vayu is non-unctuous, cold, light, subtle, moving, clear, and rough in qualities and is pacified by substances having opposite qualities,” according to Caraka–
ruksah shito laghuh sukshmas calo tha vishadah kharah
viparitagunairdravyairmarutah samprashamyati Su.I.52
Cold, dry, light, moving, rough, etc., are the qualities which describe the effects of vata dosa functioning in the physiology; i.e., vata moving in the physiology naturally makes everything cooler, drier, etc. If one’s mind-body type is vata predominant then one should be more sensitive and mindful of the effect of cold air, cold, dry food on the body and take heat from the environment to balance the cold–for example, warm and unctuous food or even sesame oil (it’s heating when metabolized). If one were to take in from the environment more of the cold quality, for example in the form of cold food or cold air, then the physiology would not function properly–it might become stiffer or slower.
More importantly, vata, the principle of movement in the physiology, has the responsibility of moving the qualities of all dosas throughout the physiology. Vata sets in motion and maintains all forces in the body and it can actually disturb functioning in pitta and kapha. Therefore, controlling vata is necessary to promote normal physiology–the balanced interaction of qualities in physiology. Hence, when comparing the qualities of sesame oil described by Caraka to qualities of vata we find that oil is heavy, oily, hot, smooth, and pervading. These qualities exactly oppose–meaning balance, control, reduce–the effects of vata dosa. Sesame oil is therefore an important means to control and balance all of physiology.
Caraka states that intellect is promoted by use of sesame oil. Ayurveda holds that the qualities of smoothness, stability, oiliness, etc., promote balanced bodily functioning because vata, processing all sensory experience through the central nervous system, is pacified by these qualities. By adding smoothness to the body the mind interprets this quality as comfort–a state of relaxed or restful alertness. Thus, as in this case, we can influence the mind by affecting the body. This means that both emotional and physical comfort result because mind and body are mirror images of one another. They are the dual expression of the one underlying reality–Consciousness. We will always know the condition of the mind by examining the body and vice versa. From a therapeutic or prevention standpoint, if we treat one aspect–mind or body–we automatically treat both. The benefit of establishing mental and physical balance is improved intellect–improved faculties of discrimination, memory, and restraint. Balance implies mental calmness or restful alertness and relaxed, yet dynamic physical functioning–it is efficient functioning. In Maharishi’s words it means do less and accomplish more. This further implies that perception and understanding of all sensory input are enhanced.
Caraka states that strength and longevity are promoted by daily use of sesame oil.
In the qualities of sesame oil–hot (pitta), astringent (vata), heavy (kapha) we find a balance of influence. Strength partially arises from astringency, a drying quality which promotes compression, constriction, and healing.(6, p.111) Heat is necessary to liquefy toxins (Caraka calls them ama). Once liquefied vata moves them out of the body. Heaviness provides stability and potential for activity. We can say that this balance of influence promotes strength and immunity. Balanced physiology is the best means of preventing disease and health can mean longer life.
Modern physiology gives the understanding that the sense of smell is related to the presence of mucus on the olfactory membrane. Salt (molecules of scent) is dissolved in the mucus and this sets up a reaction which leads to the experience of smell. Application of oil to the nostril helps culture proper functioning of tissue and serves to improve smell sensitivity directly by keeping the membrane moist.
Caraka states that appetite is normalized. Appetite and digestion go hand-in-hand. Appetite is the normal or healthy desire for food but hunger is variable according to digestion. If digestion is too speedy then hunger can become voracious, for example. Digestion is such an important process according to Ayurveda–in fact, it is regarded as the root of all health. The digestive fire actually determines how well sesame oil can be utilized by the body through bhrajaka pitta. As we have seen above sesame oil helps to promote balanced functioning–by balancing vata, the wind that fans the fire is balanced (samana); by balancing pitta the cooking of the food is balanced (pacaka); and by balancing kapha the food is appropriately moistened and loosened for cooking (kledaka). The understanding of this from the modern view corroborates the Ayurvedic one nicely.
The digestive process is governed by the autonomic nervous system which has two facets– sympathetic and parasympathetic. During conditions of high activity or emotional arousal sympathetic system functioning prevails. This prevents secretion of digestive juices and peristalsis in the intestines. For example, those people who eat while working or who eat “on-the-run” might suffer from indigestion. While at rest or during calm the physiology is dominated by parasympathetic system functioning–digestion and elimination proceed normally. Further, pacifying the nervous system with abhyanga can help digestion if it can interrupt chronic emotional imbalance because chronic emotional imbalance contributes to disturbed digestion. From the point above relating to digestion we can find an additional benefit from good digestion–no ama or toxic residue is produced in the physiology to impair physiology or sensory functioning. Thus abhyanga also contributes to a qualitatively better life by promoting many side-benefits.
The functioning of the sense organs benefits from the lubricating and releasing actions of sesame oil. Sensitivity is proportionate to proper functioning. From our discussion above recall that sesame oil makes tissue stronger and more flexible. This means that the senses can work efficiently. The fact that dirt, toxins, and other stresses are released by the presence of sesame oil means that these “ filters”, which cloud perceptions, cease to impair sensitivity and accuracy of sensory experience. Therefore, as Caraka states, expect good hearing, taste, healthy sensitivity to touch, vision, and smell from regular application of sesame oil.
From the modern view research has shown sesame oil to be anti-oxidant (13, p.286) and bacteriostatic. (5) It, at once, discourages growth of germs, bacteria, fungi, and viruses and scavenges free radicals in super-abundance. Daily use is said to prevent athletes foot fungus, for example. Research shows that aging and disease correlate positively with free radical super-abundance. E. Smith reported findings that showed sesame oil reduces or reverses growth of human colon cancer cells in vitro. (14, p.8) In other research Smith reported significant reductions in bacterial colony counts in scrapings taken from sulcus between tooth and gum as a result of gargling with sesame oil. (14, p.8) Other research, soon to be published, shows sesame oil to have significant inhibiting effect on malignant melanoma, unlike olive and coconut oils , for example. (15) Research at MIU on “substance M:” found that substance to inhibit uptake of serotonin into cells in vitro (substance M was later identified as sesame oil). (16) This is important because Serotonin is identified with states of well-being in humans and researchers have found positive correlation between positive mental states (presence of serotonin) and immune enhancement. (17,18)
Dr. Hari Sharma, writing in Freedom From Disease, explores the vast literature of research on free radicals and presents, what he calls, “a dual model paradigm.” He proposes that the free radical, in its various forms, is responsible for disease and the effects we call aging and that this suggests a single cure approach: “The free radical paradigm has been a breakthrough in the field of medicine by highlighting mechanisms of molecular damage, thus providing insight into the initiation and progression of a wide range of diseases– even a single explanation for diseases that…appear totally unrelated.” (p.72.) “The discovery of free radicals in every living cell has led to a practical and powerful new approach to prevention.” (p.19)
Sharma states that research has clearly shown that free radicals are the real culprits in heart disease, arthritic inflammation, gene mutation in cancer, etc. (p.1.) Oxy radicals can slow secretion from the body’s glands, starving the body of needed hormones and speeding up the aging process.”(p.3)
He describes various free radical producing processes: For Example, free radicals are created as toxic waste of normal cellular activity. Another source arises when mind and body come under stress–free radicals are mass produced. (p.3) “Stress races the body’s energy creating apparatus leading to increased production of free radicals and ROS, involving nervous system and endocrine system.”(p.27) “Constant stress generates a constant flow of free radicals…the stress syndrome over-excites the body. High levels of cortisol in the bloodstream cause cells to shut down most of their normal maintenance activities and focus on energy creation. Even muscle tissue is broken down for use as fuel.”(p.66) Other sources include the battles fought by the immune system and injury caused by chemicals and other pollutants.(p.48)
Dr. Sharma reviewed the literature relating to the free radical scavengers and some interesting findings emerged: For example, research showed that endurance during physical exercise can be improved by taking special doses of vitamin E. It is believed that it protects against creation of excess lipid peroxide (a free radical).(p.125.) Such findings suggested to Dr. Sharma that our treatments with sesame oil must have a similar basis:
“Sesame oil is a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids, and it also contains potent free radical scavengers. If cell membranes contain damaged molecules (lipid peroxides and their degenerated descendents), then an influx of ghee and sesame oil could provide intact molecules to replace them.” (p.286).
Ultimately Dr. Sharma would agree (see chapter 7) that the free radical paradigm can be described in terms of the flow of information within the cell, particularly, and throughout the mind-body, generally. Cell repair mechanisms seem to be able to repair the DNA damage done by free radicals automatically. For example, replacing damaged genes or gene segments with new information in the form of perfect molecules (sesame oil components, for example) restores DNA intelligence to its prior pristine status. This is self-referral functioning at the sub-cellular or sub-molecular level–memory of purpose and the ability to carry it out.
There is a final point which pertains to the stress-free or restful alertness condition promoted by abhyanga, which we have alluded to several times. Dr. Fred Kingsbury, writing in a Network Chiropractic newsletter, suggests that this condition may be the result of transcending induced by the sense of touch. He writes: “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi Program, has stated that the human nervous system can and does transcend on any sense…In Network chiropractic, the gentle, non-specific stimulus in our contact points is also emphasized strongly. Dr. Epstein has stated many times that this allows the system to behave less localized and linear and, therefore, can ‘peak’ into the quantum field. My feeling is that the nervous system is transcending to whatever degree with these network contacts, and allowing the practice member to reconnect (to whatever extent) with their higher Selves.” (19) This quotation is not intended to validate Network Chiropractic itself. Rather, what is of interest is the possibility that transcending can be induced through the sense of touch. The experience of the transcendental state of consciousness occurs only when the mind and body are not releasing stress. At such times when the physiology attains the status of restful alertness this is essentially equivalent to transcending in the traditional, meditative way. Whether this actually occurs during abhyanga is another issue, but it does promote the necessary conditions.
This section has analyzed the effects of using sesame oil, which further augment the scope and depth of the benefits from doing abhyanga. The sesame oil itself has many important qualities which promote direct improved tissue functioning of the sensory organs, and which improves both mental and physical well-being in other ways, as well. Oil seems to access both the body and emotions directly and simultaneously.
More importantly, the purpose of any activity is to produce health as the basis for happiness, long life, and the growth of higher states of consciousness–according to Maharishi Ayurveda. Each of these aspects discussed above has shown that stress is released and tissues are nourished to function with increased vitality and flexibility. Growth of Consciousness in the physiology results from these procedures.
The single-cause paradigm proposed by Dr. Sharma is based upon extensive research findings of a multitude of researchers spanning more than 20 years of experimentation. This model suggests that the free radical can be viewed as the single physical cause of disease and degenerative functioning. Of special interest is the observation that both the emotions and the physical body contribute to the production and elimination of free radicals. The model shows how the free radical can be controlled in the body by a battery of modalities including such simple things as sesame oil applied to the skin. Whether one views the greater benefit accruing from stimulation of the sensory apparatus, or from stress-releasing manipulation, or from the effects of the qualities of the oil, or from the direct infusion of Consciousness, Itself, sesame oil massage done daily seems to be a simple but effective preventive task which can improve the quality–if not the span–of one’s life.
The Ayurvedic model utilizes another kind of understanding–the cause and effect of similars and dissimilars interacting in the universe. Maharishi Ayurveda emphasizes this causal connection in the context of an underlying wholeness which is said to be self-referral awareness. It is Itself the knowledge of how to perpetuate Its functioning indefinitely with infinite diversity. All disease is simply a mistake of the intellect–a loss of memory–according to Maharishi. And as we noted above, Caraka lists mistake of the intellect as one of the three-fold causes of disease, which amounts only to a more detailed description of the mistake of the intellect theme.
The juxtaposition of these models provides enhanced appreciation of the wholeness of life and of the understanding of it through approaches fundamentally diverse. The connection between mind, body, and Consciousness in Ayurveda seems more spiritual and less physical because of the underlying reality–Consciousness; in the modern paradigm with neuropeptides and free radicals the connection is seemingly more materialistic and mechanistic. Advocates of the modern paradigm would hardly assert that decreasing free radicals is a way to higher states of consciousness. The ancient wisdom seems much more encompassing and integrated (science, philosophy, and art of medicine). Stated in another way Ayurveda would say that any specific benefit is also a general benefit–treating one problem works on the entire field of mind-body. Further, because Ayurveda aims at the level of cause as well as cure it has the element of prevention unlike the modern approach. The modern approach seems more bent on reductionism–specifics and fragments. However, together they are complementary–presenting a view of health as on-going interactions of our dual nature of mind-body / spirit-matter. We think, as Dr. Sharma and other advocates of the emerging paradigm embracing Consciousness and matter, that this is a more useful science. Thus we have presented both views together.
At the beginning of our discussion we mentioned one ancient source of Ayurvedic wisdom – the Susruta Samhita. In this work Susruta gives a complete definition of health: Health is the balance of doshas, balanced digestion, tissue formation, elimination, and fullness of bliss in mind, body, and senses. Su.XV.38. Health from the perspective of Maharishi Ayurveda is merely the expression of the nature of Consciousness operating in a lively way in the physiology. Prevention is the basis of permanent health and lively self-referral is the basis of prevention. Our discussion has focused on only some of the benefits of abhyanga with sesame oil. Taken together, however, these benefits describe health as defined by Susruta. Sesame oil alone seems to function at a very fundamental level–perhaps at or near the level of DNA–as indicated by the cancer research findings. The oil and massage operating together contribute to the various components of health–awareness, purification, and balanced functioning. The mind-body integration and purification which takes place form the basis of the growth of consciousness as well. These form the basis of immortality. Both cure and prevention depend upon these aspects and are directly addressed by this simple daily task. We have seen that from modern and ancient paradigms abhyanga does indeed promote strength and immunity also. The case for longevity, itself, however, has not been proven. Nevertheless, health which includes fullness of happiness or bliss is fullness of life–not to be reduced by considerations of time. This is truly the essence of immortality.
1) Caraka Samhita, editor-translator Priyavrat Sharma, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1981
2) Susruta Samhita, K.L. Bhishagratna, translator-editor, Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, India, 1991
3) Vagbhata–Astanga Hrdayam, translator K.R. Srikantha Murthy, Krishnadas Academy, Varanasi, India, 1991
4) Sarngadhar-Samhita, translator K.R. Srikanta Murthy, Chaukhambha Orientalia, Varanasi, India, 1984
5) Chopra, Deepak, Magical Mind Magical Body Audio Series, Nightingale Conant Corp.,Chicago, Ill., 1990
6) Kasture, H.S., Concept of Ayurveda for Perfect Health and Longevity, Sri Baidyanath Ayurveda Bhavan Pvt. Ltd., Nagpur, India, l990
7) The Human Body in Health and Disease, Thibodeau, G., Patton, K., Mosby Year Book, Inc., St. Louis, Mo.,1992
8) Chopra, Deepak, Perfect Health, Harmony Books, New York, New York, 1990
9) Helders, PJ, Cats BP, Van der Net J., “The Effects of a tactile stimulation/range-finding programme on the development of very low birth weight infants during initial hospitalisation”, Child Care Health Development, l989; 14 (5) : 341-54, quoted in:
Carr, Timothy “Medicine at the Mind-Body Interface: The approach of Maharishi Ayurved, Australian Association of Ayur-vedic Medicine, Manly, Australia
10) Dr. Bernie Siegel, Presentation to MAAA, Cambridge, Mass., June13,1992
11) Herriot, Eva M. , “Ayurvedic Sense Therapy”, Yoga Journal, January-February 1992
12) Dash, Bhagwan, Massage Therapy in Ayurveda, Concept Publishing Company, New Dehli, India, 1992
13) Sharma, Hari, Freedom from Disease,Veda Publishing, Toronto Ontario, l993
14) Maharishi Ayurveda Review of Scientific Research 1990
15) Minkler, Penny “Studies by Drs. Smith and Salerno Show Sesame Oil Inhibits Cancer Growth” reprinted from (The Source, Fairfield, Iowa, 1992 ?)
16) Grant, James D., editor, The MIU Research Review, Vol. I 1989, p. 22., MIU, Fairfield, Iowa, l989
17) Bujatti M, Riederer P. , “Serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine metabolites in the Transcendental Meditation Technique. Journal of Neur Trans 1976; 39: 257-267
quoted in: Carr, Timothy “Medicine at the Mind-Body Interface: The approach of Maharishi Ayurved, Australian Association of Ayur-vedic Medicine, Manly, Australia
18) Dillon K, Baker K, Mincholl B., “Positive emotional states and enhancement of immune system”, Inter Journal of Psychiatric Medicine l985-l986; 15: 13-18, quoted in: Carr, Timothy “Medicine at the Mind-Body Interface: The approach of Maharishi Ayurved, Australian Association of Ayur-vedic Medicine, Manly, Australia
19) Kingsbury, Fred, Network Chiropractic and the Vedic Perspective, The Networker, September/October 1992
Fair Use Source: