Most people who follow Ayurveda are aware of panchakarma. Basically it consists of a fivefold treatment procedure namely vamana, virechana, asthapana vasti, anuvasana vasti and nasya. Panchakarma is preceded by purvakarma and followed by paschatkarma.
In many Ayurvedic treatment centres panchakarma has been reduced to massage or to use the Ayurvedic term abhyangam. But where does abhyangam figure in panchakarma then? Abhyangam usually forms part of purvakarma or a procedure to be carried out before performing any of the five treatments mentioned earlier. Vamana in simple terms in English would be therapeutic vomiting, virechana would be therapeutic purgation, asthapana vasti would be astringent-based enema, anuvasana vasti would be oil-based enema (both vastis are for more effective because of the pre and post procedural protocols) and nasya would be procedures beneficial for the nasal passage and organs above the clavicle.
If you are healthy then abhyangam or massaging with oil should be done daily as part of dinacharya. However, if you have aches and pains, it is better to consult a vaidyar because oil massage is contra-indicated if you have ama or toxin build up in the body. This is perhaps why when you get a random oil massage done and you have aches and pains the problem often gets aggravated. However, abhyangam or oil massage if done regularly prevents the onset of many diseases especially vayu related ones such as Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, stroke etc. It is essential to tell the youngsters to do this so that they grow up to become healthy senior citizens and octogenarians.
It is however highly unlikely that many of the youngsters would see the value of abhyangam. Abhyangam has a great role to play in prevention of injury in sports. I have a tough time convincing the sportsmen in my family that oiling would make them better sportsmen. Yoga became acceptable when the west adopted it and I presume that abhyangam to prevent injuries will become acceptable if Serena Williams or Roger Federer touted it. Andy Murray is withdrawing from professional tennis because of injuries. I keep wondering if his fate would have been different if he had an Ayurvedic consultant in his team of doctors, physiotherapists and nutritionists.
Charaka has beautifully explained the importance of abhyangam. He says as a pitcher or a piece of dry leather or the axis of a wheel becomes stronger, more supple and more functional by the application of oil, so also the human body becomes stronger and resistant to disease (especially those provoked by vata) and becomes less prone to exhaustion. Abhyangam or oil massage (without skimping on the oil) would prevent many a sportsperson from wasting years of his productive years on injury breaks. One would think that by now we would have incorporated Ayurvedic protocols in our elite sports training schools and advocated it to our young sportspersons. Instead, you mention a rasayana product to these sportspersons and they look at it with suspicion. Ashwagandha is supposed to be a great rasayana drug for both healing and rejuvenating our body tissues, but I was unable to tell our sports people whether it contains natural steroids which would show up on testing. Nobody knows whether it can be consumed or not.
Instead of doing research on aspects of Ayurveda where we already have the answer, let us delve into more unknown frontiers. Maybe training our young athletes and sports persons with proper yoga and giving them Ayurvedic protocols for prevention of injuries and maintenance of health will increase our medal tally in the Olympics and other international fora. So advice for the not-so-healthy people is to not resort to abhyangam or oil massage as a one-off treatment methodology. The writer is retired Additional Chief Secretary of Tamil Nadu. She can be reached at sheelarani.