Shirodhara: A Mind-Balancing Treatment From Yoga’s Sister Science
You may be reading this and thinking “Shiro-what?” and that’s okay! I had a similar reaction when I was first introduced to this ancient, impactful practice. Shirodhara is made up of the two Sanskrit words “shiro” meaning “head” and “dhara” meaning “flow.” It’s a classical Ayurvedic treatment for the mind that involves pouring a warm liquid, usually oil or milk, over the third eye and allowing it to flow off the crown of the head.
My first experience with Shirodhara was when I went on a pilgrimage to India. I was staying at an Ayurvedic center and was receiving various treatments. Shirodhara was one of them. I remember being slightly agitated that my hair was getting oily, but after a few minutes, I was too blissed-out to really care.
During my studies with Boston Ayurveda School, I received a much longer treatment that also involved a full body oil massage. Although I knew what to expect, I was still shocked over how long the benefits lasted. For about two weeks, I was sleeping much more soundly, I felt way more focused, and I also had a lot more energy.
What is Ayurveda and how is it related to yoga?
Ayurveda is a 5,000 year old science that is often referred to as the science of life and also the sister science to yoga. It can be understood as the study of all of the qualities you see around you and how they interact with you. Ayurveda helps you find balance with the body you’re in and the qualities you were born with.
You are both with a specific blueprint that’s unique to you. Everything on earth is made up of the elements fire, water, earth, air, and ether. These elements come together to create the three Doshas. Pitta Dosha is made of fire and water. Vata Dosha is made of air and ether. Kapha Dosha is made of earth and water. Your dominant Doshas are set with you from the moment of conception and cannot be changed.
Traditionally, yoga is understood to be more than just the asanas, or poses. It’s a system that helps you connect to your soul and to recognize that you’re not your body or your mind. Ayurveda helps you find balance in your body and in the world around you. When you’re eating the food that helps you feel your best and engaging in work or relationships that fill your heart, the physical yoga practice is much more accessible.
What is Shirodhara and what are the benefits?
Shirodhara is a relaxation technique that nurtures the mind, body, and soul. This practice involves a gentle, continuous, stream of warm oil poured over the forehead, stimulating the senses and bringing harmony to your whole being. The gentle flow of warm oil over the third eye and forehead soothes the nervous system, clears mental clutter, promotes clarity, focus, and heightened awareness.
The benefits of Shirodhara:
- Encourages deep sleep patterns
- Improves overall sleep quality
- Helps to create a well-rested mind
- Can soothe headaches and/or migraines
- Nourishes the scalp
Overall, the experience provides a reset for the nervous system which may help support recovery and treatment for chronic pain. The benefits of a Shirodhara massage may last up to two weeks and it’s a great treatment to receive regularly.
What does a Shirodhara training entail?
Like any other practice, you do need to take a training in order to administer this treatment. I had such a beautiful time in my training because I got to connect with like-minded people who are also absolutely in love with the teachings of Ayurveda and who want to share these practices with others.
The training was really informative, but also incredibly nourishing for me. I got to give a practice treatment to one of my friends, which involved a lot of spilled oil, a little bit of worrying, and a bunch of gratitude for this ancient system of healing. There is certainly a learning curve with working with the equipment, heating the oil, and being present throughout the treatment.
Finding a Shirodhara massage near you
If you’re interested in receiving a Shirodhara treatment, you should seek out a professional who is certified to give them. Once you find your person, you may have to fill out an intake form or provide some information about your past and current health. This information will be used to figure out what liquid to use, whether or not certain herbs should be used, and also how long the treatment should be.
One important question to ask is whether or not you’ll be getting oil on your whole body. Sometimes you will only have oil on your head and other times you may have a full body massage.
If you’re receiving a treatment from me, you will only have oil on your third eye, entire forehead, scalp, and possibly your hair. Expect your hair to get oily as there really isn’t any way to avoid this. However, the oil is incredibly nourishing for your scalp and hair, so try to embrace it. 😉
You should avoid eating anything about two hours before your treatment and arrive wearing a shirt that you don’t mind getting a little oily. I personally try my best to be as tidy as possible, but sometimes small spills happen. Bring warm socks, for your feet, an extra shirt, and a warm hat.
What to expect during your Shirodhara massage
During Shirodhara, you will be lying down on your back on a massage table. All massage tables are different, so make sure you are clear about your level of comfort and whether you need anything specific. You may be given an eye covering that’s been soaked in rose water to keep your eyes cool.
You’ll feel a constant stream of warm oil on your forehead. Sometimes, it’ll be stable and in one place and at other times, you’ll feel the stream moving up and down and side to side. It might tickle a bit at first, but as you get used to it, you’ll start to relax. You can let your practitioner know if the oil is too hot or if you’re too cold. There may be soothing music throughout the session or it may be silent. This all depends on what your practitioner thinks will help support you most. You may hear some sounds of oil dripping or pouring because the oil is constantly being heated. You may also see some plastic on the table or the floor. This is used to collect the oil and to keep things clean.
Shirodhara isn’t always a soothing experience. You may feel lots of emotions rising up or even begin to feel a bit uncomfortable in your body. This is usually because discomfort needs to be acknowledged and it needs to rise up in order for it to be released. Try to focus on the sensation of the oil and also focus on your breath. You’re there to receive and to be.
What to expect after your Shirodhara treatment
As your session comes to a close, you’ll notice that the flow of oil slows down and will eventually stop. You may be asked to focus on your breathing or to make some small movements with your fingers and toes. You will probably feel a towel come around your head to stop excess oil from spilling into your eyes.
Every session may end a bit differently, but expect to always be oily! Your head and hair will have absorbed some of the oil and you should try to leave the oil on for about two hours. You can sleep with the oil in if you choose to. Keep your head covered if you’re going out into direct sunlight or into the cold and avoid strenuous activities. This is your time to relax and to continue receiving the benefits of the treatment.
How to wash the oil out of your hair after treatment:
- Use shampoo first and then add water.
- Oil doesn’t wash out with water, so shampooing prior to washing may help remove the oil.
- You might have to shampoo two or more times.
- Be mindful that your shower floor may be oily, so take time to clean it or inform anyone who you share a bathroom with!
“Sneha” means both “oil” and “love”
In Sanskrit, the word for “oil” is “sneha” which also means “love.” During Shirodhara, you are literally being bathed in oil and in love, so keep this in mind as you move through the next few days. Notice when you feel love and notice how you can incorporate more love into your life. You may feel like you are immersed in love and support for days after, so take time to cultivate gratitude.
These Ayurvedic practices are important to help you come back to balance and remember who you are and why you’re here. When you feel love for yourself, you can bring that into the world around you and encourage your friends, family, students, and clients to do the same!