The O-i-lympics

Tongan Olympic Athlete Pita Taofatofua

During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Tongan athlete Pita Taufatofua reportedly “broke the Internet” when he carried his country’s flag in the opening ceremonies while wearing traditional island dress – and a lot of body oil. He competed in taekwondo and was only the second Tongan Olympian ever. Even more impressively, he made it to this year’s Winter Olympics after taking up cross-country skiing last year. He qualified on the last possible race after failing seven times.

You have to admire that kind of grit and determination, not to mention athletic prowess.The bigger story was that he braved below freezing temperatures to carry his country’s flag once again wearing only a Tongan skirt and sandals – and body oil.

Pita might not have known it, but oleating the body is an important self-care practice in Ayurvedic medicine known as “abhyanga.” It provides important health benefits, including adding a layer of protection against the cold, keeping the skin moisturized in dry winter air, and calming the nervous system.

I first tried self-massage with sesame oil when my skin became exceedingly dry during an extended wintry spell in January. My dry skin is evidence of my predominantly Vata dosha, one of the three primary body types in Ayurveda. When it becomes cold enough to snow, my skin totally rebels and begins to flake off in protest. My homemade lotion – while chock full of goodness – can’t really touch the dryness. Out of desperation, I decided to try abhyanga.

Oh. My. Gosh. Heaven. I could not remember when I felt so pampered and nourished. I never would have thought that something so simple (and free!) would make me feel so good. All it takes is some warmed sesame oil (preferably organic and untoasted), a towel to sit on, and a reasonably warm space to perform the massage. I tried the oil massage to help alleviate my dry skin (which it did). But here is a host of other benefits you gain by doing abhyanga, according to Classical Ayurvedic texts:

  • Imparts softness, strength and healthy color to the body
  • Decreases the effects of aging
  • Bestows good vision
  • Nourishes the body
  • Increases longevity
  • Benefits sleep patterns
  • Benefits skin
  • Strengthens the body’s tolerance
  • Imparts a firmness to the limbs
  • Imparts tone and vigor to the dhatus (tissues) of the body
  • Stimulates the internal organs of the body, increasing circulation
  • Pacifies vata and pitta (but not necessarily kapha – see note below)

Ayurvedic practitioners recommend this practice daily. My favorite is to do the oil massage while running a warm bath and then soaking immediately afterward. It’s like a spa visit without the accompanying price tag and trek back into the cold when you’re done. Just oil massage, hot bath, into pajamas, and off to bed. What a luxury, whether you’ve been training for the Olympics or just watching them on the couch!

If you’d like to try this practice, here is a great 6-minute video that walks you through the steps.

Note: Ayurvedic medicine does not recommend the same practice or oil for all body types. If you tend to be on the Kapha side (click here to determine your type), you might not even want to do oil massage. You can find more information on abhyanga for your body type here.