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The Mexican Temazcal: An Experience in a Maya Sweat Lodge

  • Heather Rath
  • 25 April 2011

Sweat is pouring from my pores. I am saturated with my own perspiration. My hair is wet and stringy. My breathing is laboured because of burning lungs and I am thankful we are in total blackness since I am struggling to sit upright. My instinct is to lie down in the fetal position on the floor where the air may be cooler, not so fire-hot. The steady beat of the drum haunts me with its rhythmic thump… thump… thump. How long have I been in this temazcal? Can I last this session of 45 minutes?

Traditional temazcal

The traditional temazcal (pre-Hispanic steam bath) has a round igloo shape that represents the womb of Mother Earth. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Getting Started

I have opted for detoxification and rebirth through this unique spiritual journey practised in similar ways by indigenous people worldwide. I am accompanied by a personal guide, Roberto, who first explains that the name of this Aztec/Mayan pre-Hispanic steam bath near Mérida in México’s Yucatán Peninsula comes from two Nahuatl words: temas for ‘bath’ and calli meaning ‘house.’

On the day of the temazcal, I wear only loose clothing (nudity is best, but sadly our society is different from the ancients). I am apprehensive about the coming experience, but I begin. I stand before the bath structure for a moment, admiring its igloo shape, which is said to represent the womb of Mother Earth.

Chaya leaves

Ancient Mayans' diet included chaya leaves, a leafy green vegetable with more nutritional properties than spinach. Combined with cucumber and carrot, it makes a cleansing energy drink to prepare for the temazcal. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Having eaten only lightly, I enjoy an energy drink of cucumber, carrot and chaya (a favourite leafy green vegetable of the ancient Maya, with more nutritional properties than spinach) just before entering the womb. Roberto performs the preparatory rituals. Repeating my name, he scatters incense in the four cosmic directions – north, south, east and west – representing the four elements of life: earth, water, wind and fire. Then he passes a bouquet of chamomile (for tranquillity) around me to enhance my spiritual cleanliness and detoxification process.

I am cautiously excited about this adventure. Others have warned I must be in excellent health to endure the high temperatures of the temazcal. Was I? Medical researcher Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba, Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli A.C. has studied the ritual and reports that body temperature during a sweat bath can rise to 40°C (104°F) resulting in increased blood circulation and a faster, more intense heartbeat that promotes the release of toxins from the body. Apparently every litre of sweat lost in a temazcal equals a full day’s work by the kidneys.

A pool of natural water

After the intense sweating inside a temazcal in Merida, Mexico, a cooling pool of natural water for dipping awaits. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Hot Rocks

Immediately before entering the temazcal, I utter the words In Láak’ Kech to welcome the brotherhood of man as we merge into one. Then I chant A Láak’ Kin to seal the greeting. These two phrases should be used each time I wish to speak while inside: the first to ask permission, the second to grant that permission.

On my knees, I crawl into the womb of Mother Earth. I enter through the small south-facing opening known as ‘the pathway of the dead,’ so-called because we progress toward death from our moment of birth. Our journey represents the dualities of life: mother and father, good and evil, life and death.

Additional instruments used in a temazcal

Additional instruments used in the temazcal: conch shells, the sticks (claves in Spanish), decorated gourds with dry seeds inside, and pots of incense. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Once inside, I creep clockwise in a circle, from left to right, following the path of the planets in our solar system. Sitting cross-legged on a towel with musical instruments and a sprig of basil (for circulatory assistance) beside me, I notice a bouquet of rosemary and thyme hanging from a small hole in the roof. Although I am still able to see, I know the light will soon be gone.

Hot lava rocks, heated in an external furnace that faces east where our father, the Sun, rises, are now introduced into the centre well. Their placement within the womb symbolises the moment of conception.

Roberto at the mouth of the temazcal

Roberto is at the mouth of the temazcal, ready to lead this ancient cleansing process. Because of the intensity and ritual of the temazcal, it is a group experience led by a knowledgeable guide. Photo courtesy of Heather Rath

Finally the door and rooftop opening are closed and a new cultural experience begins. I sit in pitch black space. Hot steam hisses loudly as herbal water splashes on the rocks. Roberto asks why I am here. Soaking with perspiration already, I mutter I seek a mystical journey through detoxification and a renewed appreciation of Mother Earth’s life-giving gifts.

Drum beats, herbal essences, the all-encompassing darkness, my own chanting and intense sweating, soon lift me to another dimension. And so my rebirth and detoxification begins:

Earth is my body
Water is my blood
Wind is my breath
Fire is my spirit

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Heather Rath

Since winning a writing contest at the age of 11, Heather Rath knew writing would be a major part of her life. When she grew up, she was sequentially a reporter, editor of a weekly newspaper and a monthly business magazine before becoming head of communications for a multi-national company. During this time she edited and contributed to two anthologies of southwestern Ontario writers. Her writing has been published over the years in various publications and some of her work for children has been translated into Braille. She is a member of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators & Performers). Heather and her husband, Norm, live in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Their passion is travel.
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health, indigenous culture, local knowledge, Mexico, North America, Northern America, personal experience,

4 Responses to “The Mexican Temazcal: An Experience in a Maya Sweat Lodge”

  1. gustavo says:

    The most beautiful and friendly Nahuat dictionary.
    From San Miguel Tzinacapan, Cuetzalan, for the world.
    Look for it at:
    http://diccionarionahuat.blogspot.com/
    http://www.gutlibros.com/

  2. Kamran says:

    Wow that looks truly intense! The temazcal… I wanna try it!
    Is it only from the heat that you get cleansed? I imagine the incantations and herbal waters also play a role??

    Great article and thank you for sharing it. I didn’t know!

    Regards

  3. Teamworkz says:

    Fantastic story, it sounds amazing. Would love to visit

  4. Cynthia Ord says:

    The Mexican temazcal is one of my most vivid memories from my study abroad days in Mexico. I felt so lucky to have gotten the chance to try it. Great write-up, Heather!

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