Let’s Talk: Castor Oil Baths vs Packs

Yesterday I shared a quick post on my social media about a Castor Oil Bath and got a lot of inquiries so I thought I would dive in a little deeper here!

a little bit of castor oil history first..

Castor oil can be a fun (or scary) topic- depending on who you ask 😉 I remember my poor Oma being MORTIFIED when she heard I use castor oil for so many things! This is because back in the 1800’s – early 1900’s it was known as a strong cleanser and laxative so parents often gave it to their children to help with internal issues when they weren’t able to go to a doctor… however, sometimes it was just seen as a punishment (because it tastes so gross!). In fact, it actually WAS used as a punishment sometimes for children and even TORTURE in adults by some Italian Mobsters and the Blackshirts by force-feeding large quantities to intimidate and cause dehydration in their opponents/rivals…. nasty hey?!

Okay so now that I’ve COMPLETELY terrified you of castor oil, let’s talk about the benefits and why the heck I would even use this torturous oil?!

castor oil bath – AYURVEDIC & ashtanga uses

When I learned about this practice it was actually in my personal Ayurvedic studies years ago before I even started going to school for all this stuff! I completley fell in love with it’s soothing and healing capabilities.. and how simple it was to do! I actually didn’t practice it as a bath, but as a shower and used it as a self-massage with oil, also known as Abhyanga. I began this practice to help with calming my nervous system, increase circulation and the overall appearance of my skin as I always struggled with skin issues and scarring. As I read and learned more, I found it also had a number of other health benefits such as: improved strength, vision and stamina, strengthened bodily tissues, lubrication of internal organs, bones and joints, improved blood/lymph flow allowing for support in healthy detoxification, improved mental clarity, increase in metabolism, strengthening of the immune system as well as better sleep and overall health.

It’s quit an intricate process when you first learn how to practice Abhyanga – see my notes below on a great website that details how to practice! But for the most part, this is the way that is simple and easy for most to start with. I love doing baths but if I am in a rush, the shower works perfect. 🙂 although I now use Castor Oil it is also commonly used with: Sesame oil, Coconut oil and Sweet Almond oil.

Because I haven’t been to India (..yet) or learned specifically from anyone directly (all of this has been self-taught for the most part) I won’t have much direct-insight or knowledge on the traditions or history other than what I have read. It’s a beautiful practice with so much culture, knowledge, history and wealth that I highly encourage you to read or ask more about it! I’ve also included a few quick reads that you can refer to.

 “In India, bathing has always been accorded the status of a sacred, healing ritual. Ancient Ayurvedic texts speak of therapeutic baths with rose petals, honey, milk, and turmeric, preceded by a luxurious full-body massage with warm oils and followed by skin treatments with rich herbal pastes and fragrant floral waters. These Ayurvedic baths were designed to restore balance to the body, mind, and spirit.” – Purusha Ayurveda

Not only are baths sacred in India, but bathing and water in general is very sacred all around the globe. Greece regarded water as a gift of health from the gods and places such as Peru, Egypt, Africa, Persia and others knew of the importance and power in water’s cleansing properties. Combined with their bathing rituals a majority of them would include sacred essential oils, herbs, flowers, salts and more.

If you have been following along for a while, you may know that I am a fairly dedicated Ashtangi. I had my first taste of Vinyasa/Ashtanga in 2013 and absolutely fell in love! I officially began the Mysore practice in about 2017 where I stumbled along and got a bit more regular. In 2020 I got even more dedicated and officially began the Ashtanga & Ayurveda Teacher Training earlier this year in February 2021 and am on track to complete the training next month. That being said, I am learning that the Castor Oil Bath (or shower) is quite the common practice in the Ashtanga community!

“Pattabhi Jois recommends that a student takes oil bath every Saturday (on his or her day of rest or once per week) at the start of the morning. After oil bath, one should rest for the day and avoid the following: strong sun, cold water, yoga or heavy work of any kind. For men, tradition prescribes that oil bath be taken on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday. For women, oil bath is prescribed on Tuesday or Friday; Guruji provides that his female students can take oil bath on the day off, Saturday. A woman should never take oil bath during menstruation, rather, she should take it on the fourth day (following the first three days of menses, during which time she has abstained from yoga practice). If one is not able to take oil bath on a given Saturday, he or she may take it on one of the above appropriately listed days.” – Living Mysore Magazine

However, although this practice does have a variety of benefits, it is also very important to note when you should and should not partake in castor oil baths. This is something I love so much about Ayurveda and Ashtanga- they work in conjunction with the cosmos, our body, our mind, our soul and the energetic flow of nature. In Ashtanga we recognize that our body is made up of about 70% water, meaning (like all things of a watery nature) we are affected by the phases of the moon. For this reason, we do not practice on Moon Days (Full Moon or New Moon). The typical Ashtangi will practice 5 – 6 days a week (usually Mon-Fri) and on their rest days will partake in a castor oil bath to help support optimal recovery and rejuvenation…. cause that Mysore practice can be INTENSE!

“Oil bath is a traditional, weekly Ayurvedic home remedy still practiced widely in South India. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois routinely recommends oil bath to his yoga students especially for the relief of back and knee pain as well as stiffness. Weekly oil bath reduces excess internal heat (pitta in Ayurveda) particularly in the joints, liver, and skin. This heat is generated by poor lifestyle, including consumption of oily, processed, and difficult to digest foods, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to stress, air pollution and inadequate sleep. This imbalance increases with the heat generated by yoga practice and hot climate. Eating an over-sufficiency of healthy foods that are deemed “heating” in Ayurvedic terms, also adds to this imbalance.” – Kimberly Flynn Williams

Like everything in life, too much of something can also be bad! Know when you should and shouldn’t partake in certain practices and always always ALWAYS listen to your body. As my yoga teacher says, the MIND is TRICKY – it will lie to you. However, the BODY will never lie. If it does not FEEL right, don’t do it. It is good to get in touch with how your body feels instead of thinking how it may feel. These are a few of the times that it is recommended not to practice castor oil baths:

    • If you are or could be pregnant and generally not when you are breastfeeding
    • If you are menstruating or about to menstruate – it’s generally a good idea to wait until after menstruation (although I have seen debates around this – see my notes below)
    • If your body is in a state of high stress such as physical illness or signs of illness, indigestion and/or constipation. Again, too much of a good thing can not be good. Cleansing and detoxing the body can be very beneficial but also very energetically draining. Too much detoxing at once can be too taxing on the body and can do more damage than good.
    • If you have just eaten or are about to eat/practice strenuous activities; this is intended to be a rejuvenating, restful practice. Ideally practiced in the morning on a  day of rest where you can leisurely take your time and then rest, relax, meditate, journal, read or sip tea. Do not eat big meals before/after and avoid strenuous activities.
    • Ideally do not practice on Moon Days or on your Asana practice days.

Practicing Abhyanga (self-massage) and oil baths/shower will have a lot of the same benefits however, it truly depends on the oils you use, how you practice, your intention behind it and what state your body is in. Some benefits could be:

    • Calm and soothe the nervous system which may help with fatigue, stress, soreness and inflammation throughout the body
    • Increased circulation in the flow of blood/lymph throughout the body could improve integrity, recovery, flexibility and range of motion in muscles, joints and connective tissue- especially in the wrist, ankle, hips and knees while also stimulating the internal organs
    • Increased blood circulation could also help by: lowering blood pressure and improve cardiovascular/respiratory health, increasing metabolism and supporting optimal neurological and immune health
    • Massaging helps to loosen deep-seated toxins and releases them into the excretory system for elimination which helps with overall clearer, healthier skin and complexion
    • Help to release emotional tension, discharge pent-up memories, and leave you feeling cheerful, optimistic, and relaxed.
    • Oil Baths/Showers may also help with relaxing tense muscles, opening clogged pores, moisturizing tissues, uplifting mood/mind/emotional balance, removes sweat/dirt/environmental toxins from the skin and enhance energy levels and improve overall mental clarity
    • Other benefits may include: slowing the aging process; lengthening the life-span; helping prevent injuries; preventing headaches; slowing balding and greying of hair; and according to Harish Johari in Dhanwantari, oil massage increases intelligence, wit, stamina, sexual vitality, and self-confidence.

I personal start by doing a self-massage (Abhyanga) with sweet almond or castor oil, depending on how my body is feeling and depending on what I have! Different oils offer different benefits. Castor oil I feel is more powerful and detoxifying whereas almond is a bit sweeter and more gentle/soothing. Research what oil is right for you and your complexion or work with an Ayurvedic practitioner to determine the type of medicated oil that’s most appropriate for your constitution or imbalance:

    1. Start by warming your oil under warm water
    2. Begin massaging, starting with the scalp/head and slowly working throughout the body. I was originally taught to start with soft light circular or long stroke touches, depending on the area of your body, and slowly increasing friction to create a more vigorous massage. Aim to massage and move circulation towards the heart or centre of the body.
    3. This should be a nourishing, slow and self-loving massage. No need to rush- take your time and notice every part of your body that you may have forgotten. Give thanks, appreciation, love and respect to your body as you nurture and care for it.
    4. At this point, you may lay on a towel in savasana (on something you don’t mind getting stained.. because castor oil will stain!) or get into a warm/hot bath for a minimum of 15min but no more than 45min (some recommend no more than 30min even). If you choose to have a bath I highly recommend you prepare the bath BEFORE massaging the oil on so that it is ready for you to get in. Some ideas to add to your bath:
        • Essential Oils (addd directly to the carrier oil or bath salts)
        • Add carrier oils (castor, almond, sesame, etc.) directly to the bath
        • Bath Salts such as epsom, ancient sea salts, coarse salts, dead sea salts, etc.
        • Plants, herbs and/or spices – dried, fresh or powdered
        • Candles, incense, music, essential oil diffusions… make it a sacred time
    5. Once you are finished in savasana or the bath, it is important to have a hot shower to rinse off the remaining oil and to clean the tub! It may take a few washes to get the castor oil off as it is super thick! Use natural gentle aromatherapy products and avoid harsh synthetic fragrances/products, which add to the toxic burden on your body and will diminish all of the beautiful work you have just done.
        • Traditionally there is a paste that is made/used to clean the body that helps to remove the oils however, I have yet to try it this way! Stay tuned..
castor oil pack – other benefits & uses

Castor oil also has a variety of other benefits. Most will know the oil for its powerful healing properties when used as a castor oil pack as it helps to increase circulation, decrease inflammation and helps to heal the tissues/organs underneath the skin… especially when it comes to tumours, detoxification, cramps, internal discomforts and more.

In times when it is not suggested to be practicing Abhyanga or Oil Baths/Showers, castor oil packs could be a good alternative when dealing with acute symptoms. Here is a quick and easy way to help relieve some instant pain!:

    1. Get a few layers of undyed wool or cotton flannel large enough to cover the area of concern (for me, I LOVE using these for menstrual cramps or lower back issues) and soak with castor oil.
    2. Prepare a hot water bottle while the fabric soaks and prep up some plastic wrap that will be used to wrap/secure the flannel in place (yes, this process can be messy so get comfy and use old fabrics!)
    3. Place the ‘castor oil pack’ (flannel) over the affected area of the body and secure with the plastic wrap.
    4. Find a comfortable position and place the hot water bottle on top. Ideally you want to be here for a minimum of 30min and up to 1hr.
    5. Remove, rinse/clean with a simple natural product (something as simple as water and baking sodas is perfect!) and you’re good to go! The Castor Oil Pack can be stored in a container in the fridge and can be used about 20-30 times!


With love,
Heidi MacAulay
“Eat more plants. Do more yoga. Read more books.”

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