Beating the winter blahs and baby blues

Name another way you can calm the 20,000,000 nerve receptors in the body’s skin in just a couple of minutes?!
—Dr. John Douillard, Ayurvedic Practitioner, LifeSpa


You’ve made it through the most depressing week of the year.

Whether the end of January is rightfully heralded as the dreariest or whether that’s mere hearsay, here’s what we have to say: there’s no reason to let the winter blahs (or the baby blues, if you’re a postpartum mother) get you down.

Ayurveda has long recognized the power of living seasonally—adopting foods, herbs, routines, and lifestyle practices that help you better synchronize your body with the world around you.

And here’s one powerful tool in this cold season (or new motherhood, as the case may be) that most won’t turn down: massage.

Now before you tell me that massage isn’t in your budget, let me interject: you can get many of the benefits of the spa experience with some warm oil, a little heat, and the comfort of your own bathroom.

Warm oil self-massage, also called abhyanga in Ayurveda, is an important part of any self-care routine. But it’s particularly therapeutic in two very specific seasons: that time of year marked by dry, windy, or cold conditions (hello, winter!) and that sacred window after a woman has given birth (hello, postpartum!).

In either case, the warm, grounding, nourishing effects of massage can help offset the havoc wreaked on our fickle constitutions and mercurial moods by the dry, empty, mobile, dark, frigid forces around us. To settle the body, invigorate the mind, and lighten the spirit, we Ayurvedic practitioners lean heavily on massage.

Why massage? The quickest and most effective way to restore balance is often through physiology—tangible substances and activities that soothe your entire system (body, mind, and spirit). Massage in particular acts as a passive form of exercise that

  • promotes circulation, which in turn oxygenates the body, reducing sluggishness, fatigue, and depression
  • releases nutrients stored or stagnant in various parts of the body
  • helps relieve congestion of the blood and lymph
  • moves wastes out of the cells and through the channels for elimination, helping all systems work better
  • softens, strengthens, and nourishes the body
  • lubricates the tissues and joints
  • gently tones the muscles
  • promotes flexibility
  • creates a hospitable environment for healthy microbes that support both physical and mental health
  • bolsters immunity
  • improves complexion
  • counteracts aging and promotes youthful, lustrous skin
  • balances the nervous system
  • soothes the billions of sensory nerves on the skin
  • induces restful sleep
  • fosters a sense of security, heaviness, and grounding energy in the body
  • prevents imbalances from dry, light, rough, mobile, and cold conditions in the external environment
  • boosts oxytocin, a feel-good hormone associated with love, bonding, empathy, and optimal health
  • decreases stress hormones
  • encourages good posture as you regain your sense of equilibrium (especially after carrying a child)
  • generally helps you get in touch with your own body again (especially after the many physical changes of pregnancy and birth)
  • takes you deeper into your own mind-body connection, and sometimes into hidden places of tension or trauma that do well to be plumbed and released

For anyone desiring these benefits, especially those laden with the chill or darkness of winter, self-massage, practiced regularly, can be an uplifting addition to your routine. For new mothers, massage is not merely a suggestion to make you feel pampered but an essential practice across centuries and cultures with healthy postpartum women, as daily gentle bodywork provides reintegration, circulation, physical health, and emotional well-being.

But you need not take my word for it. Give it a try! It doesn’t take much to get started.

1. Simple steps

While stroking your own skin should be fairly intuitive, sometimes it takes a little prompting to put us back in touch (literally!) with our own body. Essentially, you’ll be rubbing oil into your skin, starting at the extremities and working toward the heart. Use long strokes on the long bones and circular motions around the joints. Spend extra time on troublesome areas—for example, your neck and shoulders if you carry tension there. If you are short on time, then minimally massage your scalp and feet.

My friends at Banyan Botanicals (yes, I do in fact know several of them personally!) have put together some handy cheat sheets that make it easy.

Or if you prefer a visual guide, check out Banyan’s six-minute how-to video.

2. Warm space

Find a comfortable spot to conduct your massage. This is the joy of staying home—you dictate the space and make it your own! A warm, enclosed, quiet place without drafts is best, often making the bathroom ideal. Consider a space heater if your chosen room is chilly and put down an old towel, both to enhance your comfort and to protect the surface from oil stains.

Situating yourself in the bathroom facilitates the transition to a hot shower or bath afterward. Massage helps soothe but also move and open body channels; a hot bath or shower continues this process by opening the pores and gently ushering impurities out of the body. You can enhance the therapeutic action of a bath with Epsom salts (2 cups), baking soda (1 cup), and optional essential oils like lavender (10 drops), for greater relaxation and stress relief. (Take care with essential oils around babies, though.) If soaking in a bath for 15 to 20 minutes is unrealistic, then aim for at least a quick hot shower and minimize the use of soap, which removes the skin’s natural lubricants.

3. Warm oil

Select an appropriate organic, unrefined, food-grade oil. While coconut oil is popular and suitable in a pinch, it is cooling and therefore better for hotter climates and constitutions. Instead, in autumn and winter, favor sesame oil, which is warming, nourishing, and ideal this time of year. Sesame is often the preferred oil for massage in any season given its deep penetration.

You can easily pick up a quality sesame oil at your local health food store and get started immediately. Or check your pantry! You might have a suitable cooking oil on hand already. 

Here again the good folks at Banyan can help. Their organic, unrefined sesame oil is soothing and lubricating, perfect for winter and the postpartum period.

If you’re particularly depleted or convalescing for some reason, I love the more tonifying ashwagandha bala oil. In fact, this is my go-to oil for every new mother, given its therapeutic effect on damaged tissues, energy production, and strength. It rejuvenates both the muscular and nervous systems, benefiting both mother and baby.

If you’re neither depleted nor a new mama, but you’d like to experiment with herb-infused oils, Banyan offers a range of medicinal massage oils for various constitutions and conditions. Read the descriptions to learn which herbs are right for you, or feel free to reach out with questions.

4. Warm heart

This one’s all you: the mind-set that infuses your massage may be more important than the physical strokes themselves. (Remember what I shared earlier about mind-set?) Oil massage by nature invites a little love. In fact, in Sanskrit (the ancient mother tongue of Ayurveda), fat, oil, and love are all the same word! So wrap yourself in some oily goodness for a natural mood enhancer, stress reliever, and more.

Modern science reveals the merit in equating warm oil massage with love. A loving touch, given with attention and combined with moist skin and a warm environment, increases oxytocin. Often called the “feel-good” or “bonding” hormone, oxytocin provides myriad benefits for our whole body: it balances our hormones and immune system, increases the luster of skin and hair, boosts overall stamina, speeds wound healing, improves mood and behavior, heightens empathy, fortifies interpersonal bonds, and generally contributes to overall health, happiness, and longevity. But the key to producing oxytocin is sincerity, intention, and respect: be lovingly present in the massage to strengthen the surge of oxytocin. New research even correlates this hormone surge with increased concentrations of healthy microbes—both on the skin and throughout the body—that support the immune system and overall health in measurable ways. In contrast, negative emotions, stress, and dry skin clogged with chemical creams rather than natural oils inhibit the proliferation of proper microflora.

Perhaps more famously, though, oxytocin plays a key role in labor, childbirth, and breastfeeding. It stimulates uterine contractions, milk secretion, and that overwhelming sense of social connection once a newborn exits the womb. Given the primacy of mother-baby bonding, massage becomes a powerful practice in the sacred season after birth.

While self-massage is better than no massage in those first six weeks, if there’s an Ayurvedic practitioner, a trained massage therapist, or a family member willing to lend a loving hand, so much the better. That person, ideally another woman, must bring a soft heart and a gentle touch to the practice, given the new mother’s delicacy at this time.

5. Time

And speaking of time, winter is a season when life slows, retreating inward and offering space for introspection. As we see from the natural world around us, this is a time of hibernation, not feverish productivity! Likewise, during the postpartum period, time takes on a surreal pace. Synchronize yourself with the season, therefore, by adopting this more relaxed approach. Relish your moments of massage, rather than hurry through them. Find ways to dispel the whoosh of summer and autumn activity, instead inviting serenity into your routine.

Even if you don’t have gobs of free time (and who does?), you can savor the time you do have, which dovetails nicely with a warm heart and deliberate mind-set: five minutes of intentional self-care can harmonize body, mind, and spirit more than a frenzied ten. Infuse your practice with peace, regardless of the time on the clock, and you’ll reap the maximum benefit.

Winter blahs, baby blues, or not, warm oil self-massage can transform a cold and dark season and counterbalance the excess mobility of modern life. Is it time for you to give this time-honored practice a try? Let us know how it goes!

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