When To Nourish and When To Stir: A Tale of Two Treatments
By Andrea Foster, Education Director
The power of touch is well-documented to provide a wealth of benefits, from inspiring growth in infants to increasing immunity and lowering blood pressure. At a basic level, most are familiar with massage as a decadent treat to sooth tense muscles and while it very much can be that, massage can also be a healing therapy that can provide a “tune-up” for the body or address long-standing imbalance.
Massage has been a part of Ayurvedic healing from the start. The oldest Ayurvedic texts speak of a variety of ways that a literal hands-on approach is used to align internal organs, apply medication, energize stagnant systems, and, most importantly, move toxins and foreign invaders in the body.
While toxins are filtered through the kidneys and liver, infection is targeted and removed by the lymphatic system, called rasa or “river of life” in Ayurveda. Lymph is a clear substance made of white blood cells and proteins. The lymphatic system is made up of thousands of channels throughout the body that allow the lymph to flow, like a system of rivers, through larger waystations called lymph nodes where foreign invaders are fought and carried out of the body through the excretory systems (in the form of sweat, urine, and feces.) Massage can activate the lymphatic system which, unlike the circulatory system, relies on muscles to move lymph around the body.
Massage also allows direct contact with the largest organ in the body – the skin. Ayurvedic massage practitioners can deliver nourishment and moisture to the skin and deeper tissues by the tools they use and the oils they apply. This benefits you by improving your skin’s elasticity, diminishing the signs of aging, and possibly providing medicinal herbs and essential oils through the skin into the blood stream.
The two most popular massage treatments at the dhyana Center are the nourishing Sarvabhyanga and the lymphatic drainage treatment, Phenakam. Let’s take a look at both of these to determine when each is your best choice.
What is it?
The words “sarvanga abhyanga” are Sanskrit for “oil massage”. It’s a nourishing massage given using a medicated oil, traditionally in the direction of the hair. Oils are chosen to help balance the doshas and sometimes the technique can vary based on an individual’s constitution.
Sarvabhyanga uses a greater quantity of oil than a traditional Western massage. Rather than providing healing through direct manipulation of tissues, it works on a more subtle level, allowing the ingredients of the oil to seep into the body through the skin and do its deeper cellular work over the course of the massage and thereafter.
Phenakam is a massage providing lymphatic drainage. The lymphatic system drains into the subclavian vein located in the upper chest. Therefore, lymphatic bodywork involves actions moving from feet to heart and hands to heart. It can be more vigorous, intended to provide lymph movement through direct practitioner action. A practitioner will use tools such as cups, stones, gua sha, and hot compresses to move lymph on a deep, stirring level. The practitioner may also work on a subtle level on the energy of the client, moving lymph through emotional stirring, deep relaxation or vibrational healing through sound and subtle energy manipulation.
What is it good for?
Sarvabhyanga delivers healing medicine through massage oils that are absorbed into the blood through the skin. The application of rich, raw oils allows the skin to receive replenishment. The motions of the massage practitioner can unwind tense muscles, but the massage is not designed to directly affect the muscles. The treatment is particularly helpful to pacify the Vata dosha which, when aggravated, can cause dryness and stress. Vata is the dosha of air and ether, of overthinking, of aging, of anxiety and insomnia. A sarvabhyanga can sooth excessive dryness in your constitution, help you sleep, quell anxiety, mitigate the signs of aging, and settle you deeper in your body.
Phenakam can take the bodywork to a deeper level. The lymphatic system not only acts on a physiological level, but also carries deep emotional information. All emotional trauma, patterns, and experiences involve the physical body and therefore all physical healing work is intertwined with emotional work. You can imagine, then, that a phenakam treatment can reach into your emotional body, enabling you to heal old wounds and uncover life-long agreements that may have held you back. This is the most powerful work of a phenakam, shining a light on darker spots in the soul, flooding those parched places of the heart with attention and love.
The very best way to determine whether to receive a nourishing massage versus a more stirring lymphatic drainage is to allow an Ayurvedic practitioner to be your guide. A pulse consultation, or nadi vijnanam, can lay the groundwork to reveal issues your body has held from birth and what your current challenges may be. Ultimately you make your own choice whether you’re in a place to stir things up or would benefit from something gentler.
What does it feel like?
The practitioner will use long, sweeping strokes along the body during a sarvabhyanga. A practitioner may choose to include warm compresses and warm rocks to provide additional heat to cold tissues or to ground the client.
A Phenakam treatment can vary in depth and intensity depending on the client’s wishes. What this can literally feel like differs for each client. Moving shame out of the body can be painful. Releasing guilt can bring tears. Unlocking anger and fear can call upon your voice. Delving into these holding areas also can involve internal organ massage, allowing a practitioner to investigate the state of a spleen, the position of a liver, the tension in the small intestines by palpating the organs through layers of skin, fat, and muscle as well as feeling how an organ is affects its neighboring muscles and other organs.
The end of either treatment typically feels deeply relaxing. Clients have been known to fall asleep at the end of their session. You may also feel a sense of peace if you were able to let go of long-held tension or negative emotions. You may feel invigorated if you received much-needed replenishment or a new action plan to make positive change in your life. And you will undoubtedly feel results in the days to come as your body integrates the experience.
When is it right?
A sarvabhyanga is excellent care for the body for any constitution, at any time of year. You may be called to choose this treatment when in need of grounding, if you feel depleted, if your skin runs dry, if you’re having trouble with stress or anxiety, or if your sleep isn’t satisfying.
A phenakam can provide amazing results at any time. The lymphatic system always needs movement. Your practitioner can tailor your treatment to your level of comfort. Today’s ease may be tomorrow’s edge. Phenakam is also perfect to help flush the lymph system following the completion of an illness. If you have a compromised immune system or live with cancer, a phenakam can still be beneficial. A practitioner will consider the body’s abilities and capabilities and actively work to keep the treatment safe for you.
Neither treatment is recommended if you are in the midst of an immune response – acute pain or muscle spasm, fever or infection.
How can you keep the effects?
Following a sarvabhyanga, it’s recommended that you have a good soak in a hot bath to help assimilate the oils into the skin. The dhyana Center’s amenities can augment the treatment to cultivate a full day of self-nourishment, adding on a salt soak, time in the self-care sanctuary, and a nourishing drink from the Apothecary bar.
Since a Phenakam comes with a pulse assessment, you will receive recommendations for remedies to suit your particular physiological and energetic situation. You may choose to follow all, some, or none of the recommendations. Change can come gradually or all at once, as it suits your nature. Your phenakam may also be the first in a series of therapeutic treatments meant to address an issue that can’t be solved in just one afternoon. Be sure to book your next appointment before you leave the Center to ensure a time most convenient and beneficial to you.
Finally, the optimal way to keep the effects of any Ayurvedic treatment is to take charge of your own self-care and be your own practitioner, body investigator, and health advocate. Self-care is the best health care we have!