Mind & Body

Warm Oil, Calm Mind

Shirodhara, an Ayurvedic oil treatment, can soothe stress, anxiety, and a preoccupied mind.

Warm Oil, Calm Mind
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I suffer from what yogis call a monkey mind: My thoughts jump around from one worry to another, keeping me in a constant state of stress. Ayurvedic medicine—an ancient Indian system of healing—has a cure for my problem: a warm oil treatment called shirodhara.

Ayurveda has been using oil to calm the mind and body for centuries. From the Sanskrit words shiras (head) and dhara (flow), a shirodhara treatment uses a steady stream of heated oil on the forehead to soothe and heal an agitated nervous system.

During the treatment, you lie on your back while a practitioner pours oil (from a special pot about four inches above your head) back and forth across your forehead for about 20 to 40 minutes. Most practitioners use herbalized sesame oil for the treatment, but some mix herbs with coconut oil or warm cow's milk.

According to Ayurvedic teaching, the gentle but constant application stimulates healthy blood circulation to the brain, while certain added herbs can provide relief from symptoms such as headache and neuralgia. You're left feeling deeply relaxed, which allows the nervous system to repair itself. It is often used to treat depression, headaches, visual difficulties, and anxiety, says Scott Gerson, M.D., Ph.D., and founder of the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine in New York.

During the first few minutes of my own session (in Rishikesh, India), I panicked and my monkey mind, started acting up. Fortunately, I was able to wait out my nervousness because within ten minutes the sensation felt deeply soothing. For the first time I can remember, my active mind was silent.


  • TIME: 20 to 60 minutes
  • SESSION: You lie on a massage table on your back, either fully or partially clothed, at an Ayurvedic clinic or spa. A practitioner pours warm oil across your forehead for about 20 to 40 minutes. After that, you relax quietly on the table for 15 to 30 minutes.

Shirodhara can be messy. During the treatment, the oil runs off your head into a basin at the end of a custom shirodhara table, but some of it will stay on your skin or in your hair. In fact, practitioners advise leaving the oil on for the rest of the day. It can stain, so bring along an old baseball cap to keep your hair from touching your clothes.

Shirodhara is usually combined with an Ayurvedic massage (abhyanga) and an herbalized steam (swedna). Go to the National Ayurvedic Medical Association website (ayurveda-nama.org) for a list of practitioners.