Do you ache all over from your Ashtanga practice? Are you angry or irritable? Could you be described as hot headed? Are you tired or not sleeping well? If you answered yes to any of these questions and certainly if you answered in the affirmative to multiple you need Oil Bath.
If you want directions for oil bath and some helpful videos you can scroll down now to skip my small divergence on the meandering blog path.
Oil bath is very special to me, not just because it has been super helpful over the years keeping my body and mind in tip top shape, but because it provides a very direct parampara connection between me and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Guruji taught the method of oil bath directly to Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn. Kimberly taught the method of oil bath directly to me. BOOM! The handing down of traditional knowledge at its best. Kimberly used to spread the method of oil bath to many ashtanga practitioners, both while in India and at home. She got permission to write up the directions from Guruji so that the spread of knowledge could be a little less time consuming – I have quoted her entire article below so that you too can have information directly from the source. Now I have taken to spreading the method of oil bath. I go so far as to host oil bath parties when I’m in Mysore to teach people new to the ayurvedic remedy the hows and whys. Kimberly and I shot two videos (view them below) – one on why and one on how – in a small apartment in Manhattan’s East Village to put up on YouTube. As of this writing the why video has 13,855 views and the how has 14,669. Not too shabby.
For my part I have discovered over the years that many people are doing oil bath wrong. “Incorrect method, no benefit!” Guruji used to say. Moreover, people are doing oil bath wrong even after being told how to do oil bath. To attempt to remedy this I have put together a little do’s and don’ts for our intrepid oil bathing friends. Think of them as the yamas and niyamas of the oil bathing process.
Oil Bath Yamas (The Don’ts)
1. Do not fill your bathtub with oil. “Bath” in case is the Indian version, not the western version. By extension, do not stand in your bathtub and pour a bottle of oil over your head – this is not oil shower.
2. Do not spend 45 minutes or some other lengthy amount of time massaging oil into your skin. This is not necessary and will inadvertently add to the amount of time the oil has been on your head.
3. Do not throw dry soap nut and arapu powders (brown and green powders) onto your skin. The powders are meant to be mixed into a paste with water. If you do not have access to these powders you could also you chickpea power or calamus powder to remove the oil. Of course nice organic castile soap and shampoo also work.
4. Do not wear nice clothes while doing oil bath. You will ruin them.
5. Do not take oil bath while menstruating.
Oil Bath Niyamas (The Do’s)
1. Use good organic oil. Guruji recommended castor oil and when that was unavailable almond oil. After consultations with my Ayurvaidica I have used sesame oil and coconut oil depending on the season. If you have access to an Ayurvaidica they should be able to give you good information on which oil is best for you.
2. Have time to rest after your oil bath. You will be tired and you should take advantage of that feeling to let the body rejuvenate itself.
3. Keep warm after your oil bath. Snuggle under the covers and enjoy a hot water bottle between your sheets.
4. Start slow and build up slow. Oil bath is powerful stuff. So maybe you don’t get a huge reaction from oil on your head for just 15 minutes, have some patience, you will start to see results sooner than you think if you stick to the traditional method.
5. Stay out of the sun after oil bath.
Oil bath is a traditional, weekly Ayurvedic home remedy still practiced widely in South India. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois routinely recommends oil bath to his yoga students especially for the relief of back and knee pain as well as stiffness. Weekly oil bath reduces excess internal heat (pitta in Ayurveda) particularly in the joints, liver, and skin. This heat is generated by poor lifestyle, including consumption of oily, processed, and difficult to digest foods, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to stress, air pollution and inadequate sleep. This imbalance increases with the heat generated by yoga practice and hot climate. Eating an over-sufficiency of healthy foods that are deemed "heating" in Ayurvedic terms, also adds to this imbalance.
Excess heat can be felt in the joints as pain and stiffness and in the back, often in the lower right-hand side and hip, as a nearly debilitating pain. This heat also contributes to a short temper, burning anger, red skin, pinkish acne, and redness in the eyes. When a daily ashtanga yoga practitioner still carries extra weight, especially around the middle, has difficulty with weight loss or with digestion, and has a regularly sluggish bowel, these are all signs of surplus heat.
In India, oil bath is customarily taken with castor oil that is later removed from the skin and hair with a special herbal paste made of equal parts soap nut and green powders mixed with water. Castor oil delivers the best results, but is nearly impossible to remove without these powders. Guruji suggests that, after leaving India, the yoga student can replace castor oil with almond oil, which easily washes off with bath soap.
Daily baths in India are taken by pouring water over the head from a bucket while standing in the bath, a river, or other body of water. It is in reference to this bath that oil bath is so termed. In other words, the student is not soaking in a tub of oil; rather he or she is using oil first on the head. Oil is rubbed into the scalp which draws the heat upward through the body, where it finally exits through the crown of the head.
Pattabhi Jois recommends that a student takes oil bath every Saturday (on his or her day of rest or once per week) at the start of the morning. After oil bath, one should rest for the day and avoid the following: strong sun, cold water, yoga or heavy work of any kind. For men, tradition prescribes that oil bath be taken on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday. For women, oil bath is prescribed on Tuesday or Friday; Guruji provides that his female students can take oil bath on the day off, Saturday. A woman should never take oil bath during menstruation, rather, she should take it on the fourth day (following the first three days of menses, during which time she has abstained from yoga practice). If one is not able to take oil bath on a given Saturday, he or she may take it on one of the above appropriately listed days.
Directions for Oil Bath
Note: When using castor oil, first place the bottle in warm water to thin out the oil for easier application.
1. Apply ample amount of oil to your head, rubbing into the scalp and through to the ends of your hair.
2. Leave oil on the head for the allotted time. For your first oil bath, leave the oil on your head for only five minutes. Continue increasing the time weekly by five minute increments until the oil is left on the head for a full two hours (a 6 month process); this is the maximum recommendation. At this juncture, you should practice two hours weekly, not exceeding this time.
Important: Years of accumulated heat should safely be relieved in stages. Therefore, it is essential to carefully follow the time recommendation. Inappropriately increasing the prescribed minutes may lead to a cold, vomiting, chills or diarrhea, all of which are symptoms of too much heat rising too soon.
3. Having completed your allotted time for oil on the head, generously apply oil to the whole body. As you rub oil over your body, take time to rub and massage elbow, knee and shoulder joints, along the spine and into any areas that are chronically sore. You need not apply oil to the face. This step should take an additional five to ten minutes.
4. Take a very hot shower or bucket bath. Let the hot water run over the scalp as you massage the existing oil deeper into the crown. Continue to rub the oily skin focusing on the joints and spine. This is an important step as the hot water opens pores and draws internal heat from the skin and joints. This shower may last five to fifteen minutes.
5. Apply soap and shampoo, or soap nut and green powder mixture to remove oil. After turning off the shower, lather up with soap on the skin and shampoo in the hair to remove almond oil. If castor oil is used, then apply soap nut and green powder mixture rubbing the paste over the whole body and through the hair and scalp. Be careful and avoid getting soap nut powder, dry or wet, in the eyes or nose, as it will cause a burning sensation. As you rub the paste over the skin, it will turn from dark to light green which indicates that the oil is being absorbed.
To make the paste, in a large bowl mix equal parts soap nut powder and green powder with enough water to create a paste with a honey-like consistency. Soap nut is active in absorbing the castor oil and can make the skin feel very dry. Green powder leaves the skin and hair feeling soft and smooth.
6. Take a second shower or bucket bath to remove oil and lather or special paste. Take this shower at a warm, comfortable temperature and use enough soap and shampoo to remove the almond oil. If you are washing off soap nut paste and castor oil, be sure to close your eyes when rinsing your hair; you'll probably want to follow up with shampoo. This shower lasts up to ten minutes.
You have successfully completed oil bath.
7. Wash the shower/bath area. The shower floor will be very slippery and the drain may be clogged a bit. Scrub the shower area well to avoid slipping and pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to keep it open. If you have used soap nut paste, you may be faced with a muddy mess. Clean all surfaces and be sure to pour boiling water down the drain.
8. Rest over the next few hours, avoiding hard work, strong sun and swimming in or drinking cold water. For the daily ashtanga practitioner, it is important to take a full day off, allowing the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate for the coming week of practice, study, work and family life.
If the desired results of oil bath are not felt at first, don't give up. Continue to include this time-honored treatment in your weekly schedule and be confident in the radiant health benefits it bestows.