Traditional massage is based on ancestral wisdom—and scienceThe traditional oil care for new mothers and their babies has become more significant with medical professionals backing the practice.
Reema Shrestha pours warm mustard oil in a steel bowl. She then carries it to the terrace, where a one-month-old baby girl is lying quietly on a cushion atop a hay mat. Under the warm winter sun, Shrestha then takes a dab of oil on her palms and rubs them together before softly stroking her hands over the baby’s belly. Her warm touch has the little one cackling.
Shrestha’s hands move up and down, and with it, her body rocks to and fro, making the child smile every time her head closes in. The 36-year-old has been working as a traditional oil massager for new mothers and their newborn for the last six years.
In Nepali culture, the role of oil massagers is significant during the postpartum and postnatal care of new mothers and their child. Although there have been significant changes in urban lifestyle of Nepalis in the last decade, the importance of oil massage for new mothers and the baby remains the same. In recent years, the benefits of this age-old tradition has also been backed by medical research. This has made the profession even more sought after, even though the skills are mostly handed down through observation and practice.
“It is said that new mothers are frail during the first few months of childbirth, and they need special care, and thus oil massage is necessary,” says Shrestha, who is not formally trained as a health professional but depends on the traditional knowledge passed on through generations.
But Dr Shristi Shakya, a physiotherapist, says the procedure followed by traditional oil massagers are actually scientific. “Oil massage releases sweat glands and helps in removing toxins and eases muscle tensions by improving blood circulation,” she says.
Mustard oil, the primary oil used for massage, contains vitamin E, say doctors, and acts as a natural body cleanser for both mother and her child.“Both mother and baby need to retain heat in the body during this period, and oil massage helps keep the body warm,” says Shrestha.
At the sunny terrace, after rigorous rounds of muscle kneading, Shrestha is set to perform a few exercises on the baby. She holds the little forearms of the baby straight and slowly crosses them, pressing the baby’s chest lightly while she quirkily uses a childlike voice to say, “chipa pama!” to excite the child.
She then brings her knees towards the chest and holds them for a few seconds. The massage session ends with baby’s legs stretched, one after another, to touch the baby’s head. These exercises strengthen the baby’s limbs and build resistance when the baby is ready to stand and walk.
According to Shakya, during the first month, the hands of newborns are usually closed and stiff, but baby massage slowly helps strengthen the newborn’s muscles. The regular massage helps in building their stamina by the end of four months. And this is the very objective of oil massagers like Shrestha.
Apart from muscle strengthening, studies have also found that touch is one of the vital sensories of newborns, thus, making baby massage even more significant for their healthy growth. Baby massage is also said to help newborns with their blood circulation and gastrointestinal system.
“Massaging is important for newborns, as it also helps prevent indigestion. When we bend the baby’s knees towards their chest, the process helps ease their flatulence,” says Shakya. “Babies understand touch before anything, and that is why it is good to give them oil massages.”
For new mothers, oil massage is believed to help them regain their lost strength. New mothers are in a vulnerable state after childbirth as they go through hormonal changes. During pregnancy, women gain a lot of fat deposition, while after pregnancy, their fat becomes loose, and various parts of their bodies swell, mostly the legs. The period after childbirth, especially if it’s the first time, is crucial for mothers as they are learning to feed and take care of their newborn.
“Massage to new mothers helps them ease their physical discomfort as well as their mental stress,” says Shakya.
New mothers may also suffer from urinary incontinence, pain, sleep loss and numbness. And many families turn to oil massage to support the new mother in the recovery process. This helps new mothers keep their body warm, consequently rebuilding their stamina and energy.
“Massages are also a form of assurance or support to new mothers; it makes them feel good,” says Dr Shilu Aryal, a senior gynaecologist. “That is one more reason we recommend the practice.”
Many families also fry thyme seeds, garlic and sesame seeds in the mustard oil for the massage. But doctors suggest using olive or almond oil for massage during summer, as the weather itself is balmy.
“During the first few weeks after delivery, I found myself very weak. My body felt heavy and numb. But once I started taking oil massage, I felt better,” says Unnati Bajracharya, a new mother and one of Shrestha’s clients. “At first, I wasn’t sure if this really would help me, but I can feel my body and mind recovering.”
In recent years, the business for oil massage therapists has become even more sought after. While 20 years back, they only used to earn Rs500 a month, today the monthly income on average is Rs15,000 to Rs25,000. They even have built a network in this traditional profession, where women recommend each other to the customers.
The traditional oil massagers, although an integral part of the postpartum and postnatal care, have never received any professional health training. While their work proves to be beneficial, it is just a continuity of experience and ancestral wisdom.