Body oiling (and other practices) during pregnancy, postpartum, and menstruation

For those confused by the many “contraindications” during these phases

One of the first things mothers do after receiving the news that they are pregnant, is inquire into all the things they should and should NOT do to maintain a healthy and vibrant body and growing baby. The list of things to avoid during these precious months is vast and effects almost every aspect of our daily lives from the foods we eat, the herbs and supplements we take, to the routines we have adopted. In this article I seek to remove this confusion surrounding at least one practice: body oiling.

In courses, books and writings which present and discuss the practice of abhyaṅga, the Āyurvedic ritual in which one oils their entire body from scalp to feet using specified vigorous strokes followed by a hot shower or bath, there is nearly always a list of contraindications which includes pregnancy and menstruation

The idea to avoid this practice during these sacred phases is rooted in a commonly misunderstood teaching about the directional flows of the female body during these periods of earthy, downward energy (the direction in which blood flows during the monthly cycle). I strongly believe that not oiling one’s body during these tender phases of a woman’s life and monthly experience can be hugely detrimental to her overall nourishment and health beyond the months of pregnancy and weeks of menstruation. 

From the classical Āyurvedic perspective I gained through training and in my research during my own pregnancy, I learned that it is in fact contraindicated to do any body oiling during the 1st trimester, as it is a detoxifying, cleansing process and encourages movement. During the 1st trimester of pregnancy, Āyurvedic practitioners will advise we avoid ANY activity that encourages movement or flow (exercise, activating spices, excess fats in the diet, sex etc.) as the pregnancy is not fully stabilized until around week 10-13.

After this, abhyaṅga in the form of gentler body oiling can certainly be done and is even indicated (using sweet almond or sesame oils) for supportive building of the bodies of the mother and baby in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters of pregnancy. The idea here is to use a generally LESS vigorous technique in applying the oil to the body during this time. Think gentle, slow strokes. 

The reason that I have gathered for why abhyaṅga is contraindicated during our menstrual cycles stems from the belief that any practice or activity that changes or contradicts the flows of the 5 directional winds (vāyus) within the body, especially at this time when downward flow is so important, can disrupt the healthy course of energy through the body systems. GENTLE body oiling on certain parts of the body is NOT contraindicated; vigorous strokes to the joints and limbs are. It is also important to mention that full abhyaṅga is beneficial again following the heavy flow days of the cycle, usually after day 3. 

Within this discussion, I present a fresh perspective on the commonly misunderstood “rule” I’ve heard in Vedic studies and yoga classes that menstruating woman should avoid āsana and prāṇāyāma, and even meditation. This idea used to confuse me, and even inspired immense anger and rebellion in some cases. Through assumptions, lack of explanation, and convoluted elucidations about women’s “dirtiness” and “impurity” during menstruation, I concluded that on some level, chalked up to its’ antiquity, Vedic sciences were misogynistic and needed a feminist update!

Following this period of confusion, I was gifted a profound lesson which arose when I finally began to observe my body and its many wise messages that are available as I bleed. The communication during the tender days of menstruation is largely: to ground, internalize, listen, reflect, and rest. The outwardly uplifting practices like intentional breathwork and vigorous stretching or exercise, do in fact raise my energy and encourage an upward experience or “high” of sorts. In this realization, I accept that these practices undoubtedly have the capacity to disrupt this natural, downward flow from my root that is necessary for a healthy cycle. By taking 3 days off of these practices to care for myself in more grounded ways (herbal baths, slow walks in nature, napping…) I am energetically honoring and working WITH what my body is experiencing and asking for. 

Abhyaṅga is one of the most important aspects of Āyurvedic postpartum care as well. For mother and baby both, it can be the treatment that ultimately grounds the body, relaxes the nervous systems, and nourishes and heals the tissues when done regularly following birth.

I have heard concern that abhyaṅga in its full practice employing vigorous strokes can push toxins from the systems into the breastmilk. From an Āyurvedic perspective, the benefit newborn mamas get from body oiling far outweighs any possible detoxification that works through breast milk from this practice. New moms have an extreme body cleanse through the blood loss after birth and then need continued nourishment as they feed their babies through breast milk and certainly need many months of rasāyana (rejuvenation) treatments through body oiling and other rebuilding processes. 

Here is some general information on postpartum body oiling:

  • Traditional oil to use for mama: Ashwagandha Bala Sesame oil
  • For Baby: Lakshadi Tailam (babies don’t get bathed after oiling in early weeks-just allow to soak in. Avoid getting oil on umbilical stump until it falls off)
  • These are the highest quality Ayurvedic oils that I’ve personally used: A. Muzda Enterprises
  • For baby oil mentioned above: Lakshadi Tailam
  • For those concerned with the mess oil may make in the shower and drains following a body oiling treatment, squirt a good amount of dish soap into the tub and down the drain, then give a nice hot rinse. I also periodically use Ecos Earth Enzymes and I’ve never had any drain issues.

Thank you for reading and happy oiling to mama, baby, and all! Jai Ma! 💕

जय मा

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