I typically practice ashtanga yoga five or six days a week, and on one of my days off do a self-care ritual known as the castor oil bath, which I learned about from an article in Elephant Journal that was featured in the Ashtanga Daily Dispatch. The basic elements of the castor oil bath are to gently massage a generous amount of castor oil into the body, then lie in savasana and rest while the body absorbs the oil, and then take a hot bath or shower, removing any excess oil from the skin.
The castor oil bath is common among people who practice ashtanga yoga and is known as the “Saturday practice,” because Saturday is commonly taken as a day of rest from asana practice, and is considered a day for other self-healing practices.
While castor oil baths are perhaps best known among ashtanga practitioners, there are many people who would benefit from a weekly castor oil bath, whether on Saturday or on another day of the week, because of the myriad health benefits of self massage with oil, and because of the specific healing properties of castor oil.
Brief Overview of Abhyanga
In Ayurveda, self massage with warm oil, abhyanga, is an important part of self-care and health maintenance and is usually done on a daily or weekly basis.
In Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom, Acharya Shunya explains that self-oiling improves bodily strength by directly nourishing the skin, muscles, joints, and tendons, and enhances physical tension by removing tiredness or exhaustion. She goes on to say that daily Ayurvedic massage effects the body on the energetic level. It counteracts the aggravation of vata dosha, and also seems to release emotional tension, discharge pent-up memories, and leave the person who does it feeling cheerful, optimistic, and relaxed.
The other benefits commonly attributed to regular Ayurvedic self-massage include: slowing the aging process and lengthening the life-span; counteracting fatigue; nourishing the nervous system; increasing strength; improving circulation; improving sleep; nourishing the skin; improving immunity; helping prevent injuries; preventing headaches; slowing balding and graying of hair; and enhancing beauty. According to Harish Johari in Dhanwantari, oil massage increases intelligence, wit, stamina, sexual vitality, and self-confidence.
Different types of oils are thought to be better for different constitutions, and each oil has its own healing properties.
Benefits of Castor Oil
Castor oil is primarily an herb for swelling and purgation, but it has a wide range of other health benefits. Its use in the ashtanga yoga “Saturday practice” massage oil is probably attributable to the fact that when applied to painful joints it relieves the pain, it helps overcome inflammation of the muscles, and it is said to counteract low back pain and stiffness. Additionally, castor oil is anti-aging and rejuvenative. Its effect on the doshas is to pacify vata dosha and kapha dosha. Some people recommend that it be mixed with sesame oil for easier usage, since castor oil is very thick and sticky; sesame oil balances all three doshas.
The Castor Oil Bath
There are several ways to do a castor oil bath. Some people actually do it in the bath. I lie on a special cotton towel that I got just for castor oil baths. I warm the oil slightly by putting the jar of oil in a small metal bucket filled with hot water. Then I either apply it directly to my body or I mix it, in a ceramic bowl, with a few drops of essential oil first. I tend to use rose or geranium essential oils, which I have read increase ojas and also boost confidence. I massage a generous amount into my body with light strokes, focusing on any areas that are especially tired or sore and using extra oil in those areas. I also massage it into my hair and scalp. I usually burn candles and incense and listen to soothing music when I’m doing my oil bath, and I also make sure the room is warm enough that I am relaxed and comfortable. After I finish, I lie on my back and rest for at least five to ten minutes. Then I take a hot shower, massaging the oil into my body, and then washing off thoroughly any excess oil. Usually I have to wash my hair at least twice to remove all the oil. Castor oil can clog the drain, so that’s something to be mindful about; it’s usually a good idea to run hot water down the drain after finishing the shower. I find the castor oil bath to be somewhat intense, as well as time-consuming, so I just do it once a week at most. On the other days, I do a short self-massage in the mornings with another type of milder and lighter oil, such as sesame, almond, or coconut.
I make sure I don’t do the castor oil bath right after eating, and I normally wouldn’t do any strenuous exercise after a castor oil bath. I just find it best to put on warm, comfortable clothes afterwards, drink herbal tea, and relax. According to the article in Elephant Journal, it’s good to be especially mindful when practicing yoga or doing other physical activity the day after the castor oil bath, because it can make the muscles more supple and so prone to overstretching and possible injury. Also, I have read that it’s not advised to do castor oil baths on the day of the new or full moon, so if the moonday fell on a Saturday and I needed a castor oil bath that week, I would probably do it on Sunday instead and take that day off from practice.
There are a few instances when oil massage of and kind is not recommended in Ayurveda, including during indigestion, when there is an increase of kapha dosha in the body, or after an intensive panchakarma, or deep cleansing treatment. Additionally, it’s advised for people who are new to this practice to do a very short castor oil bath at first to see how their system reacts, and to very gradually build up to a longer time. I’ve also read that women who are menstruating should wait until their period ends before doing the castor oil bath. Castor oil baths are definitely not recommended during pregnancy and many people do not recommend them for women who are breastfeeding. In general, it would be a good idea if you are considering doing a castor oil bath to consult with your health care provider before starting this practice and get guidance about whether it’s appropriate for you. If it is, the castor oil bath can be a deeply relaxing and rejuvenating addition to your regular program of self-care.
Johari, Harish. Dhanwantari. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press, 1998.
Lad, Vasant. The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies. New York: Harmony Books, 1998.
Shunya, Acharya. Ayurveda Lifestyle Wisdom. Boulder: Sounds True, 2017.
Tirtha, Swami Sadashiva. The Ayurveda Encyclopedia: Natural Secrets to Healing, Prevention and Longevity. Unadilla, New York: Ayurveda Holistic Center Press, 2007.
Postscript (November, 2017)
In October of this year, I attended an ashtanga yoga clinic with Nancy Gilgoff. At that training, she said that when she learned this practice, she started with sesame or coconut, and then eventually transitioned to castor. She also said that after washing the oil off, she reapplies it, and that after the second application it is possible to allow the oil to be absorbed into the skin instead of washed off. With a young baby at home, I don’t have the time the do it this way, but I look forward to trying it one day.