Barefoot Massage in India: The Cofounder of Sarga Bodywork Shares her Experience

A person lying facedown receiving barefoot massage from a therapist standing over them
The following blog post is sponsored by Sarga Bodywork.

By Jivatma Massaguer, co-founder of Sarga Bodywork.


Have you ever received a massage in a foreign country?

It has always been fascinating to me how different massage protocols around comfort, bolstering, draping, nudity, sanitation, cost, and ambiance vary from one country to another. A great example of this for me, are some of the massages I have received in India.

The first time I experienced a Keralite massage performed with the feet (also known as Chavutti Thirumal), I was in my teens. Chavutti Thirumal is a traditional Ayurvedic style of barefoot massage native to the South Indian state of Kerala. Having been raised in India, I didn't have much to compare it to, however after living and working as a full-time massage therapist in the US for several years, I remember thinking what a different experience this would be for some of my American clients.

Let me paint a picture for you of my last massage in south India:

I am greeted by Kumar, my therapist, a stocky Indian man in a loincloth. He signals for me to follow him into a traditional south Indian style home and then into a small, dark room with a single lightbulb hanging from a wire from the ceiling. The walls are brick-and-mortar and the roof is the traditional keet style, made of woven coconut fronds. There is paint peeling off the walls and the floor is sticky with layers of the locally pressed, herb-infused sesame oil that is commonly used for massage. An oil lamp burns next to a statue of Ganesha on a wooden altar in the corner. On the floor in the treatment room there is a thin coconut mat that is dark with oil from many past treatments. Kumar hands me a piece of fabric and a string and tells me that he will leave the room while I undress, tie the loincloth around my waist, and lie face down on the mat.

I remove my clothes and try to find an oil-free corner to leave them on; I settle for the bathroom doorknob. After donning the loincloth, I lie down on the coconut mat. Kumar comes back into the room and asks me to place my arms above my head on the mat in a starfish position. After pouring copious amounts of warm sesame oil on my back, he reaches for the rope hanging from the ceiling and begins working on me with his feet. His strokes are long and fluid, running from the full length of my arms to the opposite foot, crossing over my sacrum. He moves with both strength and grace. It feels like he is dancing. He then continues to work with more specific pressure with his heel around my glutes and shoulders and then guides me into different positions; a back-bend cobra position with forearms on the floor, a child's pose, all along continuing with broad, vigorous strokes. The treatment ends in a seated position as Kumar pours a generous amount of oil to my head and rubs my skull with his palms, whisking my hair back and forth. He stops abruptly, mumbles a short prayer in Sanskrit and tells me he will leave the room while I shower and get dressed.

I am left sitting there in the semidarkness. I slowly get up to make my way to the adjacent bathroom. It is a small room with a cement floor and a hole in the wall to drain the water directly to the garden outside. There is a metal spigot with a bucket under it, and a smaller plastic bucket to scoop water with. A bar of bright orange soap sits on the windowsill. I fill the bucket and scoop the cold water on my body, following with soap. There is no way to wash off all that oil with cold water and a little piece of bar soap, so I shake off the excess water and oil and I reach for the towel that was left for me hanging on a coconut rope. I put my clothes on and head outside into the bright, hot Indian sun.

Kumar is waiting for me with a big smile on his face. "How are you feeling, ma'am?" he asks. "Very good," I respond. "How much do I owe you?" "Two thousand rupees (~ $25 US), please," says Kumar. I pay him and walk to my motorcycle parked in the shade under a jackfruit tree. As I walk on the dirt, I can feel my sandals kicking up sand, and it sticks to my oily legs. For the rest of the day, I am left in a peaceful state. I leave the oil to soak into my skin and hair for a few hours before washing it off. For the rest of the week I can smell the herby, earthy oil in my hair.


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