Last week, I had the joy of joining Natasha Gayl for a “Holiday Chocolate Truffle-Making & Self-Massage Workshop” at Hall Back Bay. Here’s a deeper exploration of the massage techniques that we taught.
As winter approaches, the days grow short and the New England chill freezes us to the bones. The effort that it takes to move from bed to work, to the yoga studio, or to wherever else we may need to be requires a greater mental effort with winter’s loss of mobility. As a defense from the cold, we begin to tense up in areas that we may not even realize we are holding – our brow lines, our jaws, our necks, our shoulders. For nearly everyone in Boston or other cold-weather climates, winter calls for a heaping dose of courage and a generous portion of self-care.
Self-massage is one self-care technique that in its simplest form is portable, can be practiced anytime of the day, and involves minimal equipment. Here are the basic principles:
Use your hands
The only tools that you truly need for self-massage are your own two hands. If you have the time, you can start with your feet and work your way up to your scalp for a full-body massage. Or if you know already which areas of your body are feeling particularly tight, you can focus your massage to those specific areas. As a rule of thumb, up-and-down movements are generally effective for muscles that surround long bones (e.g. your calves, your forearms) and circular motions are best for areas surrounding joints (e.g. the area around your kneecap). Start massaging your muscles with your palms, and when you hit an area that feels tense, tight, or “sticky”, pause for a few moments. Play with applying additional pressure by massaging with your fingers or even your elbow and breathe into any sensations that arise.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the “sticky” areas or knots that you may find in self massage are often explained by acupressure points that underlie these spaces. There are hundreds of pressure points that lie throughout the body and that may evoke various types of sensation in many bodies. When pressure is applied to the points that feel particularly tense, the brain releases endorphins, and the surrounding muscle begins to relax and release.
Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of healing and the sister science to yoga, recommends practicing an oil-based self-massage (Abhyanga) nearly each day for at minimum 15 minutes during your morning routine. However, the real world can make the duration and frequency of this recommendation a challenge. Listen to your body to decide how long, how often, and how much pressure to apply in your self-massage.
Try organic oils
Of course, you can practice self-massage without removing a single article of clothing. But if you’d like to go deeper, then get naked. Practicing full-body self-massage with a small amount of warm, organic oil can assist in moisturizing your skin as you work into tense areas of the body. For the winter, sesame oil is a wonderful, warming option to try, whereas coconut oil can be more cooling for the summer. Try this technique when your pores are open after a warm shower so that you don’t have to worry about clogging your drain. To avoid slipping on oily feet, have a pair of socks at the ready.
Try essential oils
To make your self-massage routine even yummier, explore aromatherapy. For an essential oil-based approach to this technique, dilute your essential oil in fractured coconut oil or in whichever organic oil you choose to use (fragrance-free base oils may be best for this). The possibilities are endless when it comes to scent options. Lavender can be an especially calming oil to work with, peppermint can feel cooling, and wild orange can be uplifting. Go with your gut once again in finding a scent for your practice.
A heart-warming recipe for self-massage
For a simple self-massage practice, try this heart-warming massage technique:
1. Start in a comfortable seat. Place your hands to prayer at heart center, in a gesture known as Anjali mudra. This translates to heart seal in Sanskrit. Visualize your beating heart as a symbol of courage.
2. Place a drop of lavender essential oil into your palms and rub them together to create friction. Once you’ve built sufficient heat, place both palms to stack at your heart center. Hold your hands here and take ten deep breaths.
3. Move your hands to your temples and begin tracing small circles in both directions.
4. Move your hands down to your ears and cup their outsides before gently massaging the lobes.
5. Bring your hands to the back of your neck and work your palms or your fingertips into the muscle.
6. Work your way down to the tops of your shoulders to massage your fingertips into any areas of tension in this space.
7. Cross your hands at your collarbones, and swiftly brush your hands down your arms.
8. Turn your left forearm upward, and cup your right hand around it. Begin working your palms and fingers up and down the muscles in this space, pausing when you feel tension. Switch to the second arm when you feel complete.
9. Pause when your left hand reaches your right wrist. Use your left thumb to gently apply pressure to the space that lies directly below and between your right pinky and right middle finger at your right wrist crease. This point is said by TCM to be a powerful acupressure point along the heart meridian. Pause for a few breaths as you gently apply pressure before switching to your second wrist.
10. Finally, bring your hands back to your heart center in Anjali mudra. Bring the image of your courageous heart back to mind. Thank yourself for carving space for your self-care routine into your day.