All About Shirodhara Massage

Last updated September 4, 2023

While there’s no doubt that a shirodhara massage treatment is calming, the health benefits of this Ayurvedic healing technique are many—bringing body, mind and soul into perfect harmony. 

I went to Nepal with a specific goal: to see if Eastern medicine could help with my anxiety and depression. I felt as though I had exhausted Western options. A friend recommended Nepal as a place of healing and discovery. So, off I went. 

My first foray into the world of Eastern medicine was purely accidental. I was walking through the Thamel district of Kathmandu, ducking in and out of shops in search of a pashmina for my mother. A sign caught my eye. For a spa. Curious to see what types of treatments are available in Nepal, I walked up the three flights of steps.

Shirodhara: Third-Eye Massage

Perusing the menu, I noticed a massage called shirodhara. I was familiar with the name, but not the multitude of health benefits. The receptionist went on to explain that the treatment is steeped in Ayurvedic traditions, a holistic approach to mind-body constitution aligning a person’s Vata (air/wind), Kapha (earth/water) and Pitta (fire). 

These three Ayurveda energies, or doshas, are the psychological, mental and emotional health for balance and well-being. They apparently also encourage mental stillness. Intrigued, I booked an appointment for the following day, seeking something to quiet my mind and improve my health. I left the spa feeling spirited about what’s to come.

On my way back to the hotel, I started to notice signs everywhere for spas. I decided to pop into a few to look at their menus. Every one of those spas offer shirodhara massage, which they translate as the “third eye” massage. 

An Ayurveda Approach

Once I returned to my hotel room, I began researching my forthcoming treatment. I learned that the word shirodhara has its genesis in two Sanskrit words: shiro (head) and dhara (flow). Research further suggests that shirodhara massage relieves anxiety, depression, awakens intuition, improves hair health and elevates sleep quality. 

In short, shirodhara massage involves gently pouring a continuous stream of warm oil onto the forehead. Massaging the head allows the oil to infuse into the scalp, delivering a calming sensation, which subsequently passes to the internal peripheral nerves of the forehead.

According to Ayurvedic scriptures, the point between the eyebrows is the “third eye” and is the home of enlightenment. A shirodhara massage helps open the third eye, removing any blocks in your mind.

The therapy continues down the body to the tips of the fingers and the tips of the toes. Through this process, toxins are eliminated and said to improve sleep quality, depression and anxiety.

From all I read, shirodhara massage is not just popular in Nepal. It’s one of the most popular Ayurvedic treatments in the modern world.

Shirodhara Massage: What to Expect

When I arrived for my appointment, I was asked to disrobe, lie on my stomach and relax on warm towels. A young woman entered the treatment room.

Starting with my feet, she began to knead my muscles and oil my body. She worked her way toward my mid-section where a small towel had been draped over my buttocks. Removing it, she started to gently massage the soft tissue.

Another therapist entered the room. The two began working in unison, not unlike a four-handed, or Panchakarma, Ayurvedic massage. The synchronized therapists worked on my back and miraculously alleviated several years of lower back pain.

Next, I was instructed to turn over. The two of them slowly massaged my toes, moving up my legs, hips and to the curves of my breasts. Soft strokes over my neck and décolletage ensured complete decompression. Every inch of my body was now prepared for the purification.

That’s when an elderly woman entered the room. Hanging a copper pot ten inches above my head, she placed cotton in my ears and over my eyes. My shirodhara massage officially unfolded.

Let the Healing Begin

She began to drizzle warm sesame oil across my forehead, from left to right—the dhara of the treatment. Sesame oil is known as the “Queen of Oil Seeds” as it mixes well with other oils. The oil used on me remained pure, though.

This back and forth flow lasted about forty-five minutes. The oil was blended into my forehead with a sweeping motion similar to effleurage, a facial massage technique using flat palms and fingers. This artistry improves blood circulation and stimulates the lymphatic system, helping to remove waste from the body, an important function in improving sleep quality and tempering anxiety.

During the forehead massage, the elderly woman firmly pressed my third eye with her middle finger, energizing the Vata dosha. This motion awakens intuition, a clarity of mystic understanding.

The temples were next and she massaged these with a gentle touch, increasing neurotransmitter production of serotonin and dopamine, our so-called happy hormones. When she got to my scalp, she started to murmur a blessing.

As per Ayurveda, there are 108 vital points in our body in which 31 of these “marmas” are located in our head area. They are the pressure points where the arteries, veins and cranial nerves intersect. These marma points stimulate the Kappa dosha and aid in draining, cooling and relieving pressure.

She then dragged her fingers from my scalp to the tips of my hair, pulling from the roots, and tossed my health issues from their unwanted space into the atmosphere. Chanting the entire time—her language merely a cluster of sounds—but sounds I was mindful of.

East Rests in the West

With the healing complete, I felt fresh and lighter. Although one shirodhara massage treatment is effective, I was told that three treatments are better. Yet to reach complete clarity, five treatments are recommended.

The elderly woman washed away the oil from my body and hair in a bathtub filled with water heated over a fire, occasionally pouring a bit more in to refresh the temperature to a comfortable warmth.

As I closed my eyes, the smell of curry was omnipresent on her clothing. For some odd reason, I felt very much at home in this foreign situation. After the rubdown, oil and shampoo, I dressed, carefully tucking pieces of the experience in each part of my body as I covered them, so as not to lose them, or leave them behind.

I left the spa ready to continue my Nepalese adventures—conscious of the magic I had experienced in the East that I would carry on in the West. 

About the author: Elizabeth York Dickinson received her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her poetry and essays are published or forthcoming in GoNomad, The Costa Rica News, Halfway Down the Staircase and other literary publications. She currently resides in Evanston, Illinois.

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