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Cultivating Self Love through Abhyanga

written by Adriana Lee

Love is a verb.

At a conference with the Dalai Lama, Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist philosophy & meditation teacher & writer, posed a question. That question has become a well-known story that many Westerners can relate to.

“What do you think about self-hatred?” I asked when it was my turn to bring up an issue for discussion. I was eager to get directly to the suffering I had seen so often in my students, a suffering I was familiar with myself. The room went quiet as all of us awaited the answer of the Dalai Lama, revered leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Looking startled, he turned to his translator and asked pointedly in Tibetan again and again for an explanation. Finally, turning back to me, the Dalai Lama tilted his head, his eyes narrowed in confusion. “Self-hatred?” he repeated in English. “What is that?”

“All of us gathered at that 1990 conference, India-philosophers, psychologists, scientists, and meditators were from Western countries, and self-hatred was something we immediately understood.”

Many of us immediately understand the concept of self-hatred. The intrusive thoughts that tell us we’re not good enough. The constant comparison. The self doubt.

But when it comes to self-love, we’re at a loss.

It’s a nice concept. A quote we see on Instagram. Something we’ve heard while lying in Savasana.

But for many of us, that’s all self-love is.

On good days, we feel self acceptance. On bad days, we spiral into self-hatred.

If you search for self-love meditations on YouTube, you’ll see endless videos of all different lengths. All meant to help you cultivate self-love. And maybe they work, maybe they don’t. But it’s certainly a start.

For me, my self love journey began with action. Abhyanga, specifically.

During a training called Eat, Breathe, Thrive - a training that uses yoga and psychology to help people heal from eating disorders - I learned to practice abhyanga to help cultivate self-love.

Abhyanga is a self massage practice using warm oil.

The assignment was to spend 20 minutes or more alone, naked, and in front of a mirror giving yourself a full body massage with oil.

I cried the first time I did it.

Spending that time with my body - my body that I had starved, spoken negatively about, and wished were different - taught me to love myself.

Here’s the instructions I received:

  • Set aside 20 - 40 minutes where you can be alone & undisturbed.

  • Create a sacred space for yourself - light some candles, dim the lights, put your favorite essential oils in your diffuser, anything that will help you set the tone. You may want some hot tea or a soothing beverage as well - though alcohol is not recommended.

  • Decide on an affirmation that will help you cultivate self love. “I love myself” “I am enough” “I’m worth it” “I love my body” Anything that resonates with you is perfect.

  • Warm some oil - sesame oil, apricot oil, coconut oil, or any other oil that is safe for your skin is perfect. You may choose to add a few drops of essential oils as long as your skin isn’t sensitive & they’re safe topically.

  • Massage the oil into every part of your body, from head to toe.

  • Take plenty of time on each body part. Explore what pressure feels good, spend more time on the places that feel like they need it.

  • Be present throughout the experience. If you hear negative thoughts arise - use your affirmation.

  • Breathe deeply throughout the entire practice.

  • When you’ve spent a minimum of 20 minutes in self massage & you’ve finished, rinse the oil off with warm water.

  • Journal about your experience. Write down any thoughts that came up, any feelings that came up, any memories. Write down your affirmation & any other affirmations that came up during the process.

Love is a verb. It’s an action - not just a concept. You know this to be true - you’ve cooked meals for people you love, you’ve made homemade gifts, bought gifts, sent flowers, written out cards, given pep talks, sat & listened, and have taken so many loving actions for those you care about… but what about you?

Take loving action. This process can be scary, emotional, awkward… but try it anyway. You deserve to feel self-love.

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