By Dr. David Frawley
Many secrets of yogic healing can be found through the study of Ayurveda, the traditional natural medicine of India. In fact classical Yoga relies upon Ayurveda for its language and methodology of healing both body and mind. Traditional Yoga therapy was included in a greater Ayurvedic context of the healing arts, including the use of diet, herbs and bodywork. A number of these factors of Ayurvedic healing are now becoming introduced into the Yoga community. Marma therapy is another important approach common to both Yoga and Ayurveda, which deserves a greater examination.
‘Marma’ is a Sanskrit term for sensitive or vulnerable points on the body. Injury to marmas quickly affects the health and vitality of a person and in the case of some marmas can even prove fatal. Another term used for marma points is ‘varma’ points. Varma refers to protective material or armor. Marmas are regions of the body that were protected in battle in order to safeguard the life of the warrior.
Marmas are commonly used in Indian martial arts (Dhanur Veda) much like sensitive body points in Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Certain marmas, touched in a specific manner, can confuse, incapacitate, paralyze, or even kill an opponent. Dhanur Veda trains a warrior how to recognize marma points as well as the different blows that can be used to affect marmas in various ways.
Yet besides their usage in martial arts, marmas have an important role in Ayurvedic medicine, which will be the main focus of our discussion here. Beside ‘lethal marmas’, which are of more interest to the martial arts, are ‘therapeutic marmas’, which are more important in Ayurveda. However, these two types of marmas do overlap and all marmas have some therapeutic value as well as some degree of physical vulnerability.
Marma Points and Acupuncture Points
There is a tendency to equate marmas with acupuncture points, which they do resemble. Marmas are points or areas on the body that can be manipulated with either acupressure (done commonly) or needles (only practiced by some Ayurvedic doctors in South India and Sri Lanka, where it is called ‘marmapuncture’).
Marmas vary in size from _ finger lengths or digits (the most common) to four finger lengths or about the width of the hand. While there can be a close degree of correlation between smaller marma points and acupuncture points, this is not always the case relative to the larger marmas. Acupuncture points are usually smaller in size and more specific in location.
Marmas in turn are not related to the meridian system of Chinese medicine but to the chakra, nadi and srota-systems (channel-systems) of Yoga. For example, chakra points like the top of the head (adhipati marma) or the third eye (sthapani marma) are also important marma points. Similarly, the end points of various nadis like the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet, the corners of the eyes, ears or nostrils are important marmas as well.
Ayurveda also treats marmas with massage, oils and aromas more commonly than with either acupuncture or acupressure. So while we can draw a comparison between marmas and acupuncture points and their treatment, we should not confuse the two either.
Nature of Marma Points
Marmas are of various compositions relative to the tissues that make them up, defined as bone, tendon, muscle, nerve or vein, including relative to channels that carry the doshas (biological humors) and channels that carry thought and emotion. Many marmas are a combination of several such factors. In this regard, all major joints like the elbow, knee, wrist and ankle contain significant marmas.
While many marmas are on the surface of the body, like points on the hands or feet, others are internal like the heart and the bladder, which are large marma regions. Blood vessel marmas, likes those in the neck, are another type of internal marma.
Many marmas are on peripheral regions of the body like the arms and legs. The head has the greatest concentration of marmas, with special marmas governing the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth and brain. Yet marmas can also be found along the front and back of the trunk as well.
Yet besides anatomically defined marmas, which are the same in everyone, other marmas unique to an individual’s special anatomical structure also exist. These can result from injury, from postural distortions and other changes in our physical structure brought on by various factors from our life-style to the aging process.
There are 107 prime classical marmas according to the Sushruta Samhita, one of the oldest Ayurvedic texts, which also mentions marmas relative to the practice of surgery. However, besides these primary marmas are many other marmas, up to 360 according to some healers. To some extent, any sensitive point on the body of a person is a kind of marma or vulnerable location. The skin itself can be regarded as a greater marma zone in which all the other marmas are contained.
Marmas are also locations in which the doshas of vata, pitta and kapha can be held, along with their subtle essences of prana, tejas and ojas. As sensitive zones, marmas can hold various emotions like fear (vata), anger (pitta) or attachment (kapha), as well as the gunas or primary qualities of sattva (calm), rajas (aggression) and tamas (inertia). In this regard the concept of marmas goes beyond modern medicine and its purely physical definitions to the main principles of mind-body medicine.
Marma and Prana
Marmas are most closely connected with prana or our vital energy. They serve as ‘pranic control points’ on the body, where the energy of prana can be treated, controlled, directed or manipulated in various ways. This is perhaps the key to their importance.
Many strictly anatomical marmas are still important pranic zones, like points by the heart or the head, because our anatomy is created by and serves to hold prana. Prana and vata dosha (which is connected to prana), for example, reside and accumulate in the empty spaces in the body, particularly in the spine and the joints. So many marma points are located in these regions. Even in a particular marma area, the main pranic point in it may shift or move over time, which means that the prana at a marma is more important than the general structure of the marma itself.
In addition, just as there are special marma points unique to a person’s anatomical structure, there are also marma points that are unique to a person’s energy patterns, expression or psychology. There are non-physical marmas located in the sphere of prana around a person, in the aura, like certain points above or behind the head. Even the more obviously physical marmas are an expression of a deeper energy that is the most important factor, not simply their anatomical location. Besides the classical fixed marmas, we must also recognize such variable and changing marmas. We should view marmas and marma therapy more in terms of prana and energy than in simply physical location or physical manipulation.
Marmas are important diagnostic as well as therapeutic points. The pulse itself is one of the prime ‘vessel’ (shira) marmas in the body, where the patient’s energy can be read and understood. Ayurvedic practitioners routinely palpate various marma points for diagnostic purposes during patient visits. Marma points are important regions for gauging the doshas, their level of accumulation and their possible disorders, particularly relative to vata dosha, which governs pain and trauma. Any painful point on the body becomes a kind of marma as long as the pain exists.
Marma therapy is an important tool of both disease prevention and disease treatment in Ayurveda. It can be used to balance the doshas, to increase agni (the digestive fire), for detoxification (reduce ama), as well as to promote energy (vajikarana) and aid in rejuvenation (rasayana). It can be part of special clinical methods (like Pancha Karma) but also part of self-care and our daily health regimen. For example, massaging marma points on the head, like those around the eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth, is an important way to stimulate one’s mind and senses in the morning. Relative to diseases, marma therapy is particularly good for arthritis and other structural problems, as well as for treating any type of nerve pain or paralysis.
The treatment of marmas, though having many methods, is primarily a matter of therapeutic touch. Ayurveda employs massage and pressure (like acupressure) to marma points. It has various techniques for massaging marma points either by themselves or along with partial or full body massage (usually the best procedure) In its typical fashion, Ayurveda uses special medicated massage oils or tailas, generally herbs prepared in a sesame oil base, of which dozens of different formulas exist manufactured by various Ayurvedic pharmacies. Certain massage oils applied to specific marmas will result in special therapeutic effects to increase energy, reduce toxins, create flexibility or bring about the changes necessary for true healing to occur.
The use of aroma therapy is another important tool for treating marmas, either with massage oils or by themselves. Aromatic oils have a strong ability to influence Prana and alter our energy. Marmas can be massaged or anointed with different aromatic oils, as per the location and conditions. As marmas are sensitive points, they are regions that aromas can penetrate easily and influence the entire body through them. Stimulating oils like camphor, eucalyptus or cinnamon are used for opening up energy at marma points, while cooling and sedating oils like sandalwood or khus serve to calm or consolidate the energy. Applying camphor, menthol or eucalyptus to the marmas at the side of the nostrils to remove congestion is such a stimulating marma therapy, while applying cooling and calming sandalwood oil to the third eye to treat headaches is such a sedating approach.
Marma Therapy, Yoga and Prana Therapy
While much of marma therapy consists of massage and direct touch, another significant portion consists of energy treatment or pranic healing, in which touch may be light or even indirect. In this regard, the prana of the healer is as important as the physical manipulation of the marmas. We can compare this to the martial arts in which a master with a strong chi or prana can stop or knock down an opponent with his own energy, using only a light touch or no touch at all. An Ayurvedic healer with a good prana can have a strong healing effect by his prana alone, even without using any significant touch or physical manipulation. This more subtle or sattvic form of touch is often best for treating the mind, emotions and deeper consciousness of the person.
A good marma therapist must therefore cultivate his or her own prana. This requires Yoga practices for the creation of additional prana (pranayama) and the ability to withdraw or focus prana on to a particular point (pratyahara), which may be a point in the body itself or even outside the body. A yogi with an awakened prana can easily become a good pranic healer and will intuitively find the appropriate marmas on the patient by the very power of his healing energy. Just as water flows to a lower level even in the absence of any other stimulus, so too the prana of the healer will naturally flow into the weak pranic or marma points of the patient.Marmas enter prominently into yogic thought and yoga therapy. As marmas carry the energy that develops from the chakras and nadis of the subtle body, they can be used to energize the physical body from within. As we practice Yoga, particularly pranayama, we will naturally become aware of these pranic control points. Great yogis have always known the secrets of marma as part of the greater science of Yoga. Many yogis practice pranic concentration on specific marmas to aid in the opening of the chakras and nadis or to simply aid in relaxation and purification of the body. In this regard, marmas can become important points in the practice of Tantric Yoga and the arousing of the Kundalini.
Marma Therapy Resources
Marma therapy is usually included in the curriculum of Ayurvedic training programs. It is taught along with Ayurvedic massage and is often used along with Pancha Karma therapy, Ayurveda’s special detoxification approach. Many Ayurvedic centers offer marma therapy either by itself or as part of other therapies. A good resource in this regard is the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA). Ask your Ayurvedic therapist about it and experience marma therapy for yourself. There is probably no person who cannot benefit from marma therapy in some manner or another. Often it is a transformative tool for both treating disease and improving energy.
Ayurveda and Marma Therapy (Frawley, Ranade, and Lele – Lotus Press 2003)
Dr. David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri), Director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies