Sunday, June 16, 2024

My first temazcal made me feel like I’d been reborn

I’m trembling a bit from pure anticipation and excitement. I am minutes away from my first temazcal experience and, to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t even heard of it before officially moving to Mexico this year. Knowing my appreciation for health and wellness, local friends encouraged me, rather profusely, to try it.

So here I am.

Where, exactly? 

I’m in the town of Tepoztlán, in a mountainous area of Morelos hailed as both an energetic and spiritual epicenter, the fabled birthplace of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. I thought it the ideal location to pop my temazcal cherry. 

temazcal bath in Joya Ceren in El Salvador
The temazcal is a Mesoamerican practice going back centuries, as this temazcal bath artifact at the Joya de Ceren archaeological site in El Salvador attests. (Photo: Govt. of Mexico)

The word temazcal, derived from the Nahuatl temazcalli, which may be translated as “house of heat,” refers to both the experience and the hut itself. The tradition is at least 1,000 years old.

Because of its healing properties, it was often practiced before and after battles, sports tournaments, and childbirths. It remains a common ritual in Mexican culture.

While I wait in my fluffy, white robe and a bikini for the shaman to arrive, I fill out a health form, scanning the various conditions listed: blood pressure, heart problems and some others that I can’t translate. Trusting that my health status is up to par, I tick “no” to all and sign my life away just as he appears.

Andrés is native to Tepoztlán and has been leading temazcal ceremonies for at least 10 years. He gets started almost immediately, inviting me to stand before him and close my eyes.

He breaks out in Nahuatl chants while dousing me with sage smoke to clear out negative energies. To purify my mental state, I repeat a few words at his behest before entering the small sweat lodge, inside which we will spend nearly an hour. After a few minutes of ritualistic purging, we enter the hut. 

Temazcal in Jalisco
A temazcal is frequently spiritual. This leader in Jalisco blows on a conch shell and instructs participants to face the four cardinal directions. (File photo)

Temazcal huts are traditionally made of wood, cement or volcanic stone. Along the rounded walls are benches to sit. Hot volcanic rocks are placed in the center, which produce a thick steam when mixed with water.

Aside from the burning rock, sage or copal (an aromatic tree resin) are added to assist in cleansing the body physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Andrés seals the door of the tiny hut, rendering the space pitch black, with the exception of a reddish outline of burning coals. The heat intensifies quickly, and I feel a burning sensation on my skin.

The rule of the temazcal is that once you’re in, you’re in. No one leaves. If it becomes too much, you may lay on the floor to escape the heat. A decade in Miami noticeably increased my tolerance, so I feel completely fine and rather enjoy the skyrocketing temperature. 

Andrés hands me an opened aloe leaf to slather on my skin throughout the ceremony. I generously apply the sticky goo to my legs, stomach, neck and face. At times, he pours a bucket of water over my head to temporarily cool me down. Together we breathe, chant and consciously “let go” of our figurative “weight.”

There comes a point where I feel a little snap in my psyche, and I surrender absolutely.

When time is up, I’m instructed to exit through a tiny door to my right. A pang of disappointment shoots through my stomach. Must this magical experience come to an end?

Indigenous ritual in Mexico involved in burning the tree resin copal.
Copal has been used since pre-Hispanic times in Mexico for numerous kinds of indigenous ceremonies. (Photo: Álvaro de la Paz Franco/Creative Commons)

The door opens, and I see it’s actually a small tubular slide, similar to those you’d find in the children’s section of a water park. I hold my nose and plunge into a cold pool, views of the magnificent mountains surrounding me.

After about seven minutes, Andrés guides me out of the pool, wraps me in my white robe and gestures for me to lay down on a wooly blanket. While I stare at the trees above me, he covers me with another soft blanket and hands me a hot tea. It’s beautifully loving and almost parental.

Something strange happens. I start to laugh. Uncontrollably. Every cell of my body is vibrating on high frequency, and I can’t stop giggling. I shake and I laugh and I feel, in a sense, like I’ve been reborn.

Scientific studies have documented so many potential benefits of a temazcal, it’s challenging to list them all. Here are just a few:

  • Flushes out toxins  
  • Clears skin conditions
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Cleanses and strengthens the respiratory system
  • Lessens risk of dementia and Alzheimer
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Increases attention span
  • Balances mind, body and spirit

The temazcal experience can be found throughout Mexico. The rituals vary from super luxurious to traditional and rugged. They can be private or with a small group. If you have a specific intention (i.e. increasing blood flow, releasing past trauma) a ritual can be crafted accordingly.

Regardless of your reasons for participating, one thing is for certain. If you live in Mexico, you’ve got to try temazcal!

Bethany Platanella is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Mexico City. With her company, Active Escapes International, she plans and leads private and small-group active retreats. She loves Mexico’s local markets, Mexican slang, practicing yoga and fresh tortillas.  Sign up for her (almost) weekly love letters or follow her Instagram account, @a.e.i.wellness.

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