by Megan Murphy, Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner
Fall has arrived. We see the leaves turning; we feel the crispness in the air. We may start to crave a hot cup of spicy tea steaming in our hands, or a bowl of homemade soup. The dark, cool, early evenings might inspire us to stay at home after work instead of going out. We find ourselves subtly beginning to change as nature itself is changing all around us. It feels as though this change is a long awaited respite from the drudgery of the lengthy, hot and active summer days. Now there is shifting away from the incessant outward energy of summer and a movement towards the inward energy of an approaching winter. Whether we are aware of it or not, our bodies are responding to this shift. They may be whispering to us to begin to slow down, eat differently, and stay warm. And while it would be wise of us to acquiesce to these calls of our bodies, our modern lifestyle rebukes this inclination in favor of a year-round, unchanging devotion to speed, multi-tasking and stress. So without much cultural respect for the seasonal rhythms, we’ve learned to tune them out and keep living as we always do – in a desperate effort to survive at an unsustainable, unseasonable pace.
All this is to say that if we pay attention, the transition into Fall can truly be a welcomed and needed change in both our internal and external landscapes. However, if we are ill-prepared or irreverent to the impact the seasonal change will have on us, it can and will take its toll on our health. The rough, dry, light, clear, cool, and erratic (windy) qualities we now see in our external environment are the same qualities that are entering into our bodies. These environmental influences affect our physiology because we are a microcosm of the larger macrocosm of nature. As the leaves on the tress begin to shrivel and dry, so may we see our skin become dry and scaly. As the wind sails quickly past the trees, moving in every which direction, so may our minds have trouble focusing and anxiety, overwhelm, or trouble sleeping can ensue. Other symptoms like colds and flus, constipation, exhaustion and joint pain, are all more likely to rear their ugly heads during the transition into Autumn. Why? Because all of these seemingly unrelated aggravations share a common thread – the vitiation of the elemental force of air as it manifests itself in our biology.
The element of air and its effect on our body-mind can be thought of, most basically, as a reflection and symbol of the state of our nervous system. The nervous system is upset by an environment that has cold, light, dry, rough, clear and changeable (windy) weather – coincidentally, the exact atmosphere of the Fall. What it prefers instead is an environment that is warm, insulated, moist, soft, safe and consistent. Intuitively, this makes sense to us. It is not very likely that when we’re stressed, depleted and exhausted that we’d like to hike 10 miles up a steep, unsteady cliff with the cold, rough wind howling at our backs. No. What sounds best is a quiet evening sipping a hot cup of tea by the fire with a good book, soft music playing, and a loved one by our side. The point here is that in the face of the Fall season, the nervous system needs extra nourishment and care in order to maintain its stability. If we keep walking up that cliff without looking back, finding shelter or taking a break, we will undoubtedly feel the consequences of the excessive accumulations of air in our bodies.
Fortunately, Ayurveda (the ancient holistic medicine of India and sister science to yoga) knows exactly how to support us in maintaining a strong nervous system during the Fall season. For thousands of years Ayurveda has endowed those who choose to practice its teachings with a powerful tool called ‘snehana.’ Snehana is a Sanskrit word with many connotations, but one that most perfectly can be translated to “loving embrace.” In this case, it is referring to the loving embrace of warm sesame oil, gently applied to the entire body, from head to toe, in a sacred process called abhyanga (pronounced, “auub-hee-un-guhh”).
There is nothing more completely soothing and relieving to a thread-bare nervous system then the conscious, tender application of warm oil. It has all the qualities the nervous system needs to relax and rejuvenate – warmth, softness, moisture, and centeredness. It puts the ground under our feet when the whirlwind of our lives leave us disoriented, distracted, uncomfortable and on edge. It wraps a jacket around our nervous system and zips it up, protecting us from the harsh external world and all its demands. This practice of anointing the body with oil, or abhyanga, has other applications to our health as well. Besides providing us with a much needed loving embrace, abhyanga improves circulation, regulates sleep patterns, slows aging, increases longevity, strengthens immunity, gently detoxifies and gives tone and vigor to the skin (1).
During the Fall and Winter seasons, Ayurveda recommends that warm oil massage be practiced daily in the morning. There are professional body workers who are trained to perform traditional Ayurvedic abhyanga, however it is not practical for most of us to receive this kind of treatment on a daily basis. Rather, the self-administration of warm oil onto one’s own body is a far more practical and potent practice. It offers us the chance to slow down and connect with our bodies in an open, intimate way. Every time we practice abhyanga we communicate to ourselves that we are committed to loving ourselves unconditionally and that we accept our bodies exactly as they are. We are given an opportunity to say “thank you,” with every loving touch, to each and every part of our bodies, and to acknowledge all that our flesh and bones endure as we walk through life. This is real medicine; and here, much healing and letting go can unfold. It is a safe space for our nervous system to unwind and revive.
Abhyanga is both an act of reverence to the Fall and its antidote. It allows us to move through the seasonal transition with health, grace and groundedness. It gives us a way to step off the merry-go-round of daily life and into a moment of remembering what’s important and sensing gratitude for what is. It is Ayurveda’s precious, loving embrace.
For more information on the author of this article and on how to perform abhyanga, please visit Certified Ayurvedic Pracitioner, Megan Murphy’s website at: www.rootvitality.com. Above photo credit: Megan Murphy.
1. Welch, Claudia. Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life. Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2011. Print.