This is the ultimate stress reliever and the luxurious gem of Ayurveda. One of the most pleasurable and relaxing experiences you’ll ever have, it gently washes away the stress and tension from your mind and body. The therapy involves the continuous pouring of warm oil onto the third eye (central forehead).
It feels amazing! But most people (even Ayurvedic practitioners!) don’t have a true understanding of which specific conditions it’s indicated for. So let’s understand a bit more about this sensuous treatment.
The reason it feels incredible is because the effect of this incredible tactile experience on the mind. It’s warm, the oil feels soft, and the slow movement is comforting, and people respond by relaxing deeply.
Shirodhara is traditionally performed 5-7 days in a row or more, increasing the time a little each day until mid-point and then decreasing again. That means each day, the therapeutic effect and feeling of the mind cleansing itself goes deeper & deeper.
Shirodhara is 1 of 4 ways to oil the top of the head in Ayurveda.
Let’s zoom in on shirodhara. If you’ve hung out with me already, you’ll know that I emphasize getting really specific with which qualities you need and which doshas need balancing. So let’s have a look at these with regards to shirodhara.
If you can imagine cycling through 5 liters+ of oil on the head, you can quickly understand that this treatment donates heavy, oily, slow, dulling effects. So the immediate tactile relief is to deeply relax and still the mind. People describe it like they’ve gotten a complete holiday for the mind, because the internal dialogue stops its chattering and you drop into a deep timeless peace.
Shirodhara is a type of seka, or dhara, a group of treatments involving pouring liquids on the body. In Ayurveda, streaming liquids continuously treats the rasa & rakta dhatus, and is done over a local area, over the full body, or over the head, as in shirodhara. If you think about it it makes sense: use flowing liquid to affect the body tissues that flow. The action (karma) of the flowing substance informs those tissues, and has an effect to influence & reawaken their functions.
So if your practitioner determines that a contributing factor to your health problem is rooted or showing up in the blood or lymph, you’re likely to be recommended an appropriate seka pouring treatment that the flowing tissues will respond to. Makes sense so far?
So seka pouring treatments contribute to a coherent program for healing the problems of superficial-flowing tissues like lymph, interstitial fluid, cerebro-spinal fluid, and blood. This is enhanced when combined with appropriate nourishment which produces the best quality rasa and rakta, digestion being the primary factor in the quality of the rasa tissue.
Generally, seka is used when you don’t actually want to remove something from the body. (In Ayurveda we distinguish between treatments for the purpose of removing something from the body, and treatments which add something to the body). An example is when there’s an injury and localized swelling. You just want to open the channels and reset the direction.
Combine what you know now about the qualies (slow/oily/heavy) and that dhara or seka is primarily working on the flowing tissues rasa & rakta, and you get closer to understanding it’s true effect of shirodhara. It resets the flow of Vata and circulation in the brain, sensory organs, hormone control centers. Don’t forget it’s beyond the vascular flow; rakta and especially rasa have a special effect on the mind.
I’ve used shirodhara very effectively for clients with insomnia, heat sensations in the head (for example, after a trauma to the head), high Vata causing worries, anxieties, and tension, and for combating clients’ stressful periods where they’ve overworked/stressed/grieved/worried themselves to near- or full-blown burnout. In addition, I’ve observed over the years it contributes to balancing hormone activity and brain activity, softening the hair and reducing hair loss and greying, and preventing or recovering from fatigue and restoring sleep patterns.
Your practitioner will control the amount of warm/cool qualities by using the appropriate substances (see below) and regulating the temperature.
In Vata or PV conditions, I’m selecting medicinal herbal oil in a sesame base and warming the oil slightly more than body temperature. When treating Pitta, if using oil it should never warmed more than body temperature, and your practitioner should consider if cooling substances like buttermilk or even water are more appropriate. In fact, even though in the west we’ve adopted oil shirodhara almost by definition, in authentic practice of shirodhara, the most common substance used is actually buttermilk!
Buttermilk opens channels, and it is drying, light, and cooling when applied externally. It’s drying effect triggers a reduction in mucus and liquid Kapha in the head, and it’s lightness can contribute to overcoming KV conditions including depression. It’s cooling effect will balance pitta when used externally.
In primarily Kapha-aggravated conditions, it is contraindicated.
Which brings us to the very, very important contraindications for shirodhara…Ready?
Shirodhara should only be performed after the last meal was digested, minimally 2-3 hours after eating and when you don’t feel anything in the stomach.
You should not have a recent or current cold or fever or other indications of high Kapha or ama in the head & upper chest region,etc.
If you feel any blockage in your sinuses or heaviness in the head, if your nose is blocked, it is not the moment to enjoy shirodhara.
It shouldn’t be performed during Kapha hours (3-4 hours after sunrise and after sunset) and not after sunset, with the exceptions made in cases of severe insomnia.
Your practitioner will help you determine whether there is too much ama to perform this and other oil-application therapies.
Afterwards your head should not be exposed to wind including fan or ventilation, sun, outdoors, so bring a wrap to cover head & keep the head warm after treatment.
You see theses are similar rules to applying oil to the body generally.
If you’re clear of these contraindications, this is going to be your new go-to treatment for feeling amazing!