Humans are hard-wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. At a fundamental level this is a survival mechanism, but it is also, I think, something of a guiding principle for life. I don’t know when this simple idea was first distorted, but at some point pleasure became an indulgence, and as with most indulgences, usually accompanied by a hefty side of guilt, as though we can’t be trusted around pleasures. Ugh.
It happens with so many things: the incredible meal that needs atoning for, the afternoon of well-deserved downtime that ricochets into a fug of self-loathing for ‘wasting’ time, or the purchase that you loved that now, only hours later, has you catatonic with regret. I know more than a few people who spend an inordinate amount of time shoving aside present opportunities for pleasure in the quest of future achievement who are forgetting how to have fun just for the sake of fun. When you’re single-mindedly attuned to the idea of working toward a goal it can start to feel like any activity not directed toward that long-term benefit is one to feel guilty about. The paradox of living in this way is that the future will constantly, consistently recede, and those future rewards never actually make themselves known in the present.
We’re so reluctant to own our pleasures, and so we badge those who do selfish, or greedy. But here’s a novel idea: I’m working on making my life as pleasurable as possible. Even if it’s something as simple as just turning my phone off for the duration of a nap, I’m re-learning how to take pleasure in my days, even if it makes me a little less productive. To be fair, not at pleasures need a big chunk of time, but you know, sometimes they do. And almost every time that’s a possibility, I’m going to get a massage.
MEET YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM
I really, really, really love massages. Everybody needs massage, and every body needs massage. Whether to iron out the kinks of a day spent at a desk, to help ease the soreness of a workout, or just to force you to get back into your body and fucking relax, bodywork is important. Healing, proper let-go healing, happens in layers, and for most of us there’s a certain amount of time you’ve dedicate to your long-suffering body to help it function optimally. When I think of optimal health I think of ease, fluid movement, shoulders that aren’t knotted and drawn up to my ears, and flow. I think of smooth digestion and clear skin, of easy, fluid movement and a well-functioning liver, kidneys, and lymphatic system, thanks to daily movement and sweat.
Your lymphatic system is complex (and very cool) network of fluid-filled nodes, glands, and vessels that affects pretty much every bit of you. You might not think of it often (or at all), but this overlooked system is every bit as essential as your kidneys or liver. Its main function is to carry bodily waste away from tissues and into the bloodstream (things like environmental toxins and metabolic waste) which makes it, like the liver and kidneys, an essential detoxification pathway. Once those waste products enter the bloodstream they’re pushed through the spleen, aka the body’s largest lymphatic tissue and our main immune defence. Our lymphatic systems work in tandem with our circulatory systems to keep immune cells moving around freely, fighting disease, infections, and pathogens like mould and bacteria. Essentially, a stronger lymphatic system means a more resilient and reactive immune response. It is therefore crucial that your lymph move around freely, with flow, but as it happens, it does not move on its own. The thing that moves this stuff around is you.
Unlike blood, lymph does not have a pump and relies the relaxation and the contraction of muscles and joints to move it. An impaired lymphatic system means impaired immunity, and cellulite, fluid retention, and chronic pain, besides things like swollen glands, ankles and eyes, eczema, arthritis, upper respiratory, sinus and ear infections, as well as bronchitis and pneumonia. Our bodies were designed to move, to breathe deeply, and to sweat, and so exercise is one of the easiest ways to keep your lymphatic system in peak condition. Walk, jog, run, or go to yoga. Twist, invert, stretch, whatever… just keep those lymph juices flowing. Thanks to a scorcher of a summer that is well underway, I am definitely sweating daily. I’m also moving plenty, but this is just one more reason why you should be looking at incorporating massage into your life. Lymph channels cover almost every inch of your body, running just under the skin, so even a fairly light massage will stimulate it enough to have significant benefits. Great for your body, great for your skin, great for you.
If you can, go pro. Getting a professional massage is super rewarding, obviously, not just for the physical benefits it provides, but also for the enforced phone-free downtime it usually entails. They are also, and here’s the rub (pun always intended), usually quite expensive, so while the hotel spas are incredible, they’re not always conducive to a regular massage habit. This is why in Delhi I like Alaya in Saket market, where a 90-minute massage will top out at around Rs 3,000 and the therapists are quite lovely. Plus if you go between 11am and 2pm Monday-Friday you get an additional twenty percent off. I tend to choose the deep tissue massage if I’m feeling gym-sore or the lomi lomi (longer strokes) for straight up lymphatic drainage and depuffing. I carry my own towel (because I feel like they don’t always get all the oil out of theirs, and also, I’m finicky) as well as my own shampoo, but I go regularly, and that is the point.
I've recently swapped over to Urban Clap because the convenience of it cannot be beat. Download the app, pick the massage (and add-on's, like foot reflexology, or a face massage) that you want, and voila: a therapist arrives at your door with a table, oils, soothing plinky-plonky music, and an aromatherapy diffuser. I use my own oils because I'm a nerd like that, but it is a great service and I've been really impressed by the therapists overall (plus once you find one you really like you can just re-book them over and over again).
Massages usually highlight when I’ve been slacking with the self-care; if I haven’t been sleeping enough I am out cold seconds after my therapist begins work on me, but you won’t hear me complain because that snooze feels ultra-lush and I am up for napping on a massage table any day of the week. Immediately after I need to drink a lot of water (as should you), and if I’m lucky, go home and…sleep some more. The following day I’m usually much more relaxed (obviously), but also slightly more Zen in terms of my responses to things that would ordinarily cause me to wig out. I feel, basically, like I’m on really good drugs, which is pretty great place to get to.
If you can’t afford to get massages (although, in India there is always an affordable maalishwali to be found), or if the idea of adding yet another thing to your schedule gives you a migraine, try daily (or weekly) at-home self-massage. The benefits are the same, you just won’t fall asleep during. If you’re going the at-home route, it is best practiced daily, right before bed or just as you wake up, and before you shower. An additional ayurvedic practice involves using dry pulverized grains or pulses (i.e. ubtans), which still moves lymph around while also providing surface exfoliation. (Kama and Forest Essentials both make good ones, or make your own, with besan, honey, and yoghurt.)
TO START | Warm your oil. Test the temperature on your inner wrist, the oil should be comfortably warm and not hot. Use long strokes on your arms and legs, circular strokes on your joints, and always massage in the direction of the heart.
HEAD | Start at the top. Ayurvedic masseuses will first apply oil first to the crown of your head (the adhipati marma) and work their way out from there, which you can also do. I tend to just go over my entire scalp in any old fashion, but spend a little time here because your scalp is home to a wealth of pressure points. Give your ears a thorough rubdown. Work your way, next, to your neck and under your chin, which is where your glands are. Use gentle circular motions here, eventually reaching the base of your skull. Moving to your face, use little circular motions to massage all over your forehead, cheeks, jaw, and temple. Use sweeping upward strokes on your chin and spend some time on your jaw, usually home to lots of accumulated tension.
ARMS, LEGS, FEET, AND HANDS | On your body, start with your feet and legs. Massage between and under each toe, stroking upward to the ankles and eventually the legs. Use long strokes on the limbs (arms and legs) and circular strokes on the joints (elbows and knees). Pay attention to your lymph nodes behind your knees and remember to always massage toward the direction of your heart. On your hands, massage each finger and knuckle, and make sure you massage your armpits, where loads of lymph nodes reside.
ABDOMEN | Massage your belly and chest in fluid, circular motion, moving up both the ride and left sides. Massage upwards toward the chest and the heart.
FINISH | If you can, sit with the oil on your skin for anywhere between five and fifteen minutes to give it a chance to absorb into your skin before you have a warm bath or shower. If you can’t, that’s alright too.
Find Alaya at 9 PVR Anupam Complex, Community Centre Saket, opposite HDFC Bank (011-4051-4561). Open daily, 10.30am-8pm.