Shirodhara is an amazing, unique body therapy from the ancient natural medical system of Ayurveda. Shirodhara has a profound impact on the nervous system. That means, the treatment directly and immediately calms, relaxes and has a cleansing effect on the mind and nerves. In the western alternative medicine world, there may not be another therapy that has a similar impact on the nervous system, apart from an established meditation practice. Shirodhara is a delightfully soothing and seemingly exotic experience, beneficial for insomnia, anxiety, stress and fatigue.
Because information on shirodhara is a bit scattered, we’ve compiled everything you need to know about shirodhara therapy into this one article. Here’s what you’ll learn.
What is Shirodhara?
Shirodhara is an ancient Ayurvedic therapy. Warm oil (or other liquid) pours in a continuous stream over the forehead or ‘ajna marma’, an area where nerves are highly concentrated. The pressure of the oil onto the forehead creates a vibration. The oil saturates the forehead and scalp and penetrates into the nervous system. The gentle pressure and soothing warmth of the oil allow the body, mind and nervous system to experience a deep state of rest, similar to meditation. Shirodhara is traditionally done as part of the Panchakarma cleansing process using specially prepared shirodhara oil. It is also safe and effective as a stand-alone therapy.
In Ayurveda, there are numerous benefits to applying oil to the head and scalp. Bringharaj oil is an excellent tonic for the nervous system, promotes sound sleep and is known to benefit the hair.
What Does ‘Shirodhara’ Mean?
The term shirodhara is a union of two words: ‘shir‘ meaning head and ‘dhara‘ meaning pouring in a stream or sprinkling. Thus, shirodhara means the pouring of a liquid medicine in a stream over the head of a client for a stipulated amount of time.
Shirodhara is a type of ‘murdha taila’ procedure which means application of oil on the head or ‘murdha’. Application of oil can be done in various ways:
- Shiro Abhyanga– Massaging the head with herbal oils for a fixed duration of time, usually 30-40 minutes.
- Shiro Seka / Shiro dhara– A procedure in which the herbal oils or medicated liquids (milk, buttermilk, et cetera) are poured in a stream over the receiver’s head for a fixed duration of time, usually 35-45 minutes or 60 minutes.
- Shiro Pichu– The application of a cotton pad dipped in oil over the head.
- Shiro Basti (Vasti)– Procedure in which a dam is constructed over the head of a seated client (in sitting position) using a leather cap or any other suitable material. The cap is sealed to the head with wet flour of black gram and filled with herbal oils and held there for a stipulated time.
3 Types Of Shirodhara
- Sneha dhara: uses herbal oil (tail) or ghee.
- Ksheer dhara: uses milk infused with herbs.
- Takra dhara: uses buttermilk infused with suitable herbs.
An Ayurvedic practitioner can make use of different herbal oils and ghee based on his or her wisdom and experience. Different oils can be mixed and used depending on the practical experience and judgment of the practitioner. For example, Lakshadi oil may be used in pitta disorders and Dhanwantram oil or Mahanarayana oil may be used in Vata disorders.
In predominance of Vata, Kapha or Vata-Kapha imbalances, warm oil is generally used. In case of Pitta predominance or Pitta imbalances, cool (room temperature) oils and other liquids are used. In Pitta disorders, luke warm oil like Chandan Bala Lakshadi oil can be used. If the Pitta is also accompanied by Vata vitiation, then luke warm herbal ghee likeBrahmi ghee or saraswat ghee can be used for the shirodhara.
Ksheer-dhara (pronounced sheer)
This is another type of shirodhara in which medicated milk or milk infused with herbs is rhythmically poured on the forehead from a specific height and for a specific time period allowing the milk to run through the scalp and into the hair.
Takra-dhara is a type of shirodhara in which herb infused takra or butter milk is poured from a specific height and for a specific time period continuously and rhythmically, allowing the takra to run through the scalp and into the hair.
Consider the human body as an inverted tree. The roots are at the top and the branches point downwards. The head of the human body will be the root of this tree. The central portion of the body made up of the thorax and abdomen will be the trunk of this tree and the limbs, both upper and lower, will be the branches of this tree.
Just like the roots nurture and control all the activities and well being of the tree, the head is the operational center of the entire body. It controls the function of the brain and spinal cord. It has many marmas or vital points and is the house of the master endocrine gland, the pituitary. It is one of the seats of Vata dosha (Prana Vata in particular) and also houses subtypes of Kapha dosha (tarpak kapha) and Pitta dosha (sadhak pitta).
Note: The seat of sadhak Pitta, a subtype of Pitta dosha, is considered Hridaya which translated to English is ‘heart’. But in Ayurveda, Hidaya encompasses both heart and brain. So the head, which houses the brain, also becomes a seat of sadhak Pitta.
Through the respective nerve centers in the brain, the head also controls the sense of hearing, smell, taste and sight.
So as the three dosha are represented in the head region, any vitiation in the dosha can cause respective disorders with widespread repercussions in the whole body. Here Shirodhara, through use of various mediums like oils, ghee and buttermilk, pacifies these dosha and works on the entire body indirectly. Shirodhara will make the head region strong so that the entire body works smoothly.
Shirodhara will make the head region strong so that the entire body works smoothly.
Who Benefits From Shirodhara?
Shirodhara is a great treatment for a compromised nervous system. Shirodhara can help relieve symptoms of anxiety, stress, fatigue and hypertension. It relieves tension, worry, fear and headache as well as depression. It regulates mood and gives feelings of pleasure and relaxation.
Shirodhara treatment is advised for the prevention of many psychosomatic disorders. In a healthy individual, prevention of diseases pertaining to the body, mind and sense organs is the foremost indication.
Shirodhara can also assist with the following conditions:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Shirodhara reduces excess vata dosha which is the primary dosha out of balance in PTSD. According to Alakananda Ma of the Alandi Ayurveda Gurukulam, shirodhara done with an appropriate Shirodhara Oil containing nervine herbs will deeply soothe the nervous system and help ease the symptoms of PTSD.
Insomnia and Shift Work Sleep Disorder (SWSD)
Shirodhara is traditionally known for it’s ability to assist with sleep problems. Research proves the treatment effective alone and also when coupled with herbal support.1Shirodhara with milk has also proven effective in treating insomnia.2 The process stimulates the pineal gland which produces melatonin, the regulator of the wake-sleep cycle. It calms an unquiet mind and induces rest. If your insomnia stems from working the night shift and your wake-sleep cycle is out of sync with the natural rhythms of the sun shirodhara can assist in removing fatigue, restoring energy and re-establishing harmony in the doshas or constitution.
If you’re a frequent flyer and your daily sleep rhythm is often out of sync and you suffer jet lag, shirodhara can help reset your daily pattern of waking and sleeping as well as remove built up fatigue. Travel with a Vata soothing oil or Bhringaraj oil and apply to the head before bed or find a local practitioner to receive the treatment.
Raktagata Vata is an imbalance of Vata dosha that may be correlated with hypertension. Shirodhara has proven effective in lowering blood pressure.3
Shirodhara is also a great treatment for the healthy individual looking to maintain health and enhance well being, clarity, calm and immunity. Shirodhara promotes deep relaxation, relieves fatigue and renews and reinvigorates the body and mind.
It also balances one’s energy level. If you are in need of rest and relaxation, the process will provide you that. If you are well rested the process will enhance your clarity and perception.
Shirodhara increases immunity by relieving stress and worry, and balancing the Ayurveda mind-body types or doshas so that your constitution remains strong.
Shirodhara gives deep rest and renewed energy producing an ageless and youthful countenance. Shirodhara relieves stress, worry and excessive thought. It gives total relaxation as if from meditation. This naturally relaxes and rejuvenates the face and softens worry lines.
More Indications Of Shirodhara
Various ancient texts of Ayurveda have advised use of oil on the head, like shirodhara, for the following indications.
- Headaches of various types like cluster headaches, migraines, tension headaches, headache originating at the temples, using herbal oils or milk infused with herbs
- Burning sensation in the head.
- Consequences of head injuries
- Hemiplegia or paralysis
- To control vitiated Vata dosha
- Diseases of Vata origin, mainly degenerative diseases
- Diseases of Pitta origin, mainly inflammatory diseases
- Dryness of the head region
- For healthy and long hair
- For itching of the scalp
- Premature greying of the hair
- Low level of vitality or ojas
- Cracked lips
- Heart disease
- Agni mandhya or sluggish metabolism
- Certain diseases of the ear
- Certain diseases of the eye
- Psoriasis like skin lesions
- Loss of memory and Alzheimer’s disease
- Diabetic neuropathy (as an adjunct with other treatments)
- Proper neuro-muscular coordination
- To delay ageing
Specific indications of Takra dhara
- Graying of the hair
- Burning of the hands and feet
- Disorders of the eye, ear and nose, related to Pitta and Kapha aggravation
- Skin diseases of psychosomatic origin, as in psoriasis
Specific indications of Ksheer dhara
- Hair loss
- Pitta imbalance
- For rejuvenation in summer and hot climates
- Insanity of Pitta origin (as a supplemental therapy)
- Sleeplessness due to aggravated Pitta
- Fever of Pitta origin
Who Should NOT Have Shirodhara
Shirodhara is suitable for any dosha or constitution however there are some contraindications.
Shirodhara should NOT be given to women in their third trimester of pregnancy as it is very difficult to lay on the back for 25-45 minutes at a time without feeling discomfort. Pregnancy is contraindicated in dhara where warm oil is poured all over the body. Other contraindications include brain tumor, recent neck injury, abrasions or cuts on the head, fever/chills, acute illness, nausea, vomiting, severe weakness, exhaustion, giddiness, fainting or spontaneous sweating. Shirodhara should not be given to those with a rash or sunburn on the forehead or scalp. If you have an aversion to oil then it is also not recommended for you.
- Fever in ama stage, i.e. fever of recent origin
- Excess Kapha
- Excess Ama
- Morbid obesity
- Generalised toxic conditions like septicemia
- Any acute illness
- Dehydration or person suffering from thirst
- Non cooperative individuals like children and those with Alzheimer’s. In these people shiro-pichu or the placing of cotton dipped in a suitable oil and placed on the bregma is more suitable or practical.
How Does Shirodhara Work?
There are a few ways to look at how shirodhara works it’s magic. According to Ayurveda, shirodhara is beneficial for Vata and Pitta dosha. When out of balance, Vata dosha exhibits as fear, insecurity, worry, racing thoughts. Out of balance Pitta dosha exhibits as anger, irritability, frustration, judgment. The action and qualities of the liquid used in shirodhara counters the qualities of the out of balance doshas. It soothes, nourishes and pacifies the doshas through the application of the liquid to the forehead, scalp and nervous system. In the Spring 1995 issue of the journal of The Ayurvedic Institute ‘Ayurveda Today’, Ayurvedic practitioner Ed Danaher explains how shirodhara affects stress.
Stress, according to Ayurveda, is a state of imbalance of prana vayu, sadaka pitta, and tarpaka kapha. Shirodhara reestablishes the functional integrity between these three doshic subtypes and thus helps alleviate stress.
The gentle pressure of the oil falling onto the forehead may also play a role in inducing rest.
In the procedure of Shirodhara, particular pressure and vibration is created over the forehead. The vibration is amplified by the hollow sinus present in the frontal bone. The vibration is then transmitted inwards through the fluid medium of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This vibration along with little temperature may activate the functions of thalamus and the basal fore brain which then brings the amount of serotonin and catecholamine to the normal stage inducing the sleep.
Again, it is explained in modern text books of physiology that pressure has an effect on impulse conduction through tactile and thermo receptors. If prolonged pressure is applied to a nerve, impulse conduction in interrupted and part of the body may go to rest. In Dharatherapy, prolonged and continuous pressure due to pouring of the medicated liquid may cause tranquility of mind and induce natural sleep.5
Duration Of Shirodhara
Shirodhara can be done for a period of 25 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the nature and severity of the dosha imbalance or depending on the constitution (Prakruti) of the patient. Shirodhara is usually done for a period of 7 to 14 days or as recommended by the practitioner. The relief of complaints is taken as a parameter for the number of days of treatment to be done in one stretch. Shirodhara can also be done for 7, 14, 21 or 28 days or longer in chronic and stubborn cases. Generally a small time gap is provided between two treatments and often is not continued beyond three weeks time. Shirodhara is usually done in the early hours of the morning, preferably between 6am and 10am. In high Pitta conditions, it can also be done in the afternoon.
Shirodhara And Other Ayurvedic Body Therapies
Shirodhara can be combined with following Ayurvedic treatments for added benefits.
- Sarvanga dhara– A stream of medicinal fluids poured all over the body
- Kaya Sekaor Pizhichil – A stream of herbal oils poured all over the body
- Sarvanga Abhyanga– A full body massage with herbal oils
- Patra Pinda Sweda– A leaf bolus fomentation
- Abhyangaand Patra Pinda Sweda – A combination of full body herbal oil massage and leaf bolus fomentation massage along with shirodhara
- Shashtika Shali Pinda Swedaor Navarakizhi – A rice bolus fomentation
- Padabhyangaand Sarvabhyanga– Foot massage and full body herbal oil massage
- Vastior Basti – Therapeutic self-administered enemas with oil, milk and/or herbs.
How To Get A Great Shirodhara
If you’re new to shirodhara and would like to receive a treatment ask your therapist to observe these three key points. Take a free Dosha interview and get connected with your qualified Ayurveda practitioner or trained therapist for the therapy.
- Observe Silence
No music should be playing during shirodhara, cell phones should be turned off and there should be no interruptions and no conversations taking place. Any noise will disrupt the experience of disengaging from outside stimuli and experiencing mental rest.
- Be Mindful Of The Room’s Temperature
In cooler climates and during the cooler seasons of the year the room should be ‘toasty’ warm throughout the treatment. I keep a space heater on hand to make sure the room is warm enough.
The head will be wet with oil during the treatment so it is very important that the client does not get cold during the process. If so, the experience could become unpleasant.
Vata body types can be additionally soothed with a few layers of blankets. In the warmer months of the year I still keep blankets on hand for the person that is susceptible to cold or has poor circulation. I make sure the temperature of the room is comfortable and avoid cold air conditioned rooms for shirodhara when possible.
- Choose The Proper Liquid
Shirodhara oil should be carefully chosen for one’s constitution and the climate. Consult a qualified Ayurveda practitioner or trained therapist for a proper shirodhara. Sesame and sunflower oil can also be used. Sesame is heating and is good for vata dosha. Sunflower oil is cooling and benefits pitta dosha. The two are often blended together.
Use caution when choosing coconut oil. Coconut oil has a cooling action on the body and can actually make the body cold. It should not be used on someone that has a vata imbalance or on the vata dominant person. It may be used during the hot summer months for someone with a pitta imbalance (too much heat in the system), or it may be blended with oils that have a heating action on the body to negate it’s cold effects.
How To Prepare For A Shirodhara Appointment
When scheduling an appointment for shirodhara, keep in mind that you may need additional rest following the treatment. Shirodhara cleanses the mind and senses. Make use of this time and avoid unnecessary stimulation after your treatment. Avoid large crowds (concerts, restaurants/bars, large gatherings) and make the remainder of your day peaceful. This is your time for mental rest. Eat lightly before your appointment. Shirodhara has an effect on the digestive system and a full stomach is not advised.
Your hair will be saturated with oil. Dress appropriately and comfortably. Wear an old shirt, something you don’t mind getting oil on. It is advised to leave the oil in your hair for at least a few hours following the treatment. It’s best to leave the oil in your hair overnight.
Prepare to cover your head following the treatment. If the weather is cool, windy or cold, bring an old warm hat, again something you don’t mind getting oil on. An old scarf works well to cover the head and hair in warmer weather. A plastic shower cap also works well.
Get Up Slowly
After Sarvanga dhara or whole body oil dhara, relax for about half an hour, 10 minutes on the table and then preferably on a recliner for the next 20 minutes. Getting up from the table should be after taking a lateral position and should be done slowly. The body should not be exposed to cold. Doing so might induce some symptoms like cold, muscle cramps, headache etc.
A light massage should be done after shirodhara on the head, neck and whole body and the oil wiped off with a soft cotton towel.
Use warm water for bathing and drinking purposes. Following shirodhara a warm water bath should be taken. Alternatively water boiled with Nirgundi (Vitex negundo), Nimba (neem) or Dashamula (‘ten roots’) can be cooled and used for bathing. The client is advised to take a refreshing warm water bath after going home or after a few hours.
Wash your hair like this
If your shirodara was done with oil and you have a lot of hair, the easiest way to remove the oil is to add the shampoo to your hair before adding water. The shampoo will grab hold of the oil so it can be easily rinsed out.
Avoid Caffeine For A Few Days
Caffeine creates disharmony in the body. It deranges all of the doshas and will have an immediate negative effect on your nervous system. If you are in need of a pick-me-up try juice or a piece of fresh fruit. Drink hot water instead of cold water or cold beverages.
Mind Your Colon And Enjoy Some Kitchari
After shirodhara it’s important to keep the colon clean and kitchari is a great way to do that. Oil based laxatives can also be given to flush out toxins from the gut that accumulate due the use of the external procedures like massage and shirodhara. If constipation develops, the person will suffer from flatulence, distension of the abdomen, sounds in the gut, sluggish metabolism, indigestion, tastelessness and an increase in the dosha aggravation.
Kitchari is a light and delicious stew that is highly nutritious and also easy to digest. Enjoying kitchari post-shirodhara will assist in the cleansing process and help maintain the balance of the doshas.
Eating And Drinking
Keep a reasonably light diet and do not eat unnecessarily or in excess.
What To Avoid After Shirodhara
The person who has received shirodhara should abstain from the following for at least the same number of days as the duration of the treatment. That is, if the treatment has been done for seven days, the restrictions should be followed strictly for at least the next seven days.
- Indulgence in sexual intercourse
- Getting sexually stimulated
- Strenuous physical exercises
- Excessive exposure to sunlight (use an umbrella or a hat)
- Forcibly withholding natural urges or reflexes like defecation, urination, hunger, thirst, sleep, sneezing, etc
- Exposure to cold or intake of cold foods
- Excessive sleeping
- Very high or low level pillows
- Exposure to strong winds or dust
- Emotions like grief or anger
- Late nights
- Walking for long distances
- Speaking or shouting in excess
- Speaking loudly
- Excessive and prolonged use of electronic gadgets
- Driving for the next 24 hours
Possible Side Effects Of Shirodhara
Shirodhara has been researched to be a safe procedure if it is used for appropriate conditions and the appropriate materials and methodology is used.
- Shivering is observed in some due to excess feeling of coldness. In such case the procedure is stopped immediately and the person is covered with warm blankets and the heat in the room is turned up. This generally can be managed without any complication.
- A feeling of heaviness in the head can occur in some people. They are rested and are given a Vata pacifying tea which generally takes care of the problem. They should have warm food and water for the next few days.
- Dizziness can be felt in a small amount of people. If dizziness occurs they should rest in a left lateral position and the back of the neck and shoulders should be massaged gently. They may take warm saffron milk to drink after half an hour. Giving gentle massage to everyone after shirodhara and resting the person for at least a half hour though minimizes this side effect.
- According to many experienced Ayurvedic practitioners, if eyes are kept open during shirodhara chances of giddiness Eyelids should be comfortably closed and padded with cotton to avoid this complication.
3 Tips For Continuous Self-Care
It is possible that for some people the effects of your shirodhara may not be immediately known. Continue to care for yourself and over time you will notice a change. If the effects of your shirodhara were felt immediately follow the below three tips to maintain the peaceful qualities.
- Keep A Proper Diet And Lifestyle
Eat well. A diet high in sugar, caffeine and refined products will eventually take its toll on the body and mind. Choose whole grains like rice, oats and whole wheat. Enjoy fresh fruit for a snack and eat vegetables daily. Choose high quality protein and dairy products. Avoid caffeine.
- Keep A Regular Schedule For Eating And Sleeping
A regular daily routine maintains health of the doshas. Wake and sleep with the rise and setting of the sun.
Meditation is the ultimate cleanser for the body and mind and provides the same mental benefits of shirodhara – relaxation, separation from thought, rest and renewal.
1 Pokharel, Sanjay, and Ajay Kumar Sharma. “Evaluation of Insomrid Tablet and Shirodhara in the Management of Anidra (Insomnia).” Ayu, Medknow Publications Pvt Ltd, 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215320.
3 Kundu, C, et al. “The Role of Psychic Factors in Pathogenesis of Essential Hypertension and Its Management by Shirodhara and Sarpagandha Vati.” Ayu., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22048535.
4 Charaka Samhita, Sutra sthan, chapter 5
5 Pokharel, Sanjay, and Ajay Kumar Sharma. “Evaluation of Insomrid Tablet and Shirodhara in the Management of Anidra (Insomnia).” Ayu, Medknow Publications Pvt Ltd, 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215320/