For many of my 20 years living part of the year in Mexico, I had heard of the healing powers and health benefits of temazcals.
I knew that temazcals were similar to the sweat lodges used by North American natives, but I had yet to try one.
Mostly it was fear of the unknown. How hot would it be? Would I pass out and disgrace myself? Would I feel claustrophobic? And lastly, I worried I would be made to drink a potion that would give me hallucinations from which I would never recover.
Finally, through the encouragement of friends who said it would help my arthritis, I booked a session at Playa Larga, a beach just outside the beautiful city of Zihuatanejo in Guerrero. I knew the owner, an amazing woman named Guadalupe (Lupita) Maldonado, and felt confident in her ability to guide me through the process. And my fears.
Some call her a bruja (witch), or curandera (healer) but Lupita prefers to call herself the “mother earth guardian.” By the time the session was over, I was convinced she was all three.
I did some research beforehand, feeling that the more I knew, the less nervous I would feel.
The word temazcal comes from the Nahuatl word temazcalli, which means house of heat, or it is possibly from the Aztec term to bathe. The temazcal is a sometimes round, sometimes rectangular structure with a small entrance that leads into a cave-like room, and is generally made of volcanic rock and cement so that it will not explode in the heat.
Hot stones are placed in the center of the room or close to an outside wall, and water is added to the rocks throughout the course of the ceremony, which will include chants, songs and sometimes dance.
The compound of the temazcal I visited was enclosed by a great wooden stick fence, which led into a beautiful garden with some outbuildings. To begin, Lupita invited the 25 or so participants to join her in a large circle around an altar on the ground.
The altar included offerings of flowers, fruit, sage, seeds, corn, rosemary and more, as well as incense burners, but varies based on what is available on any given day. My friend Franco, an experienced participant at temazcals (whom I kept glued to my side), explained that the ceremony was to give thanks for our food and for the wind, fire and rain.
Lupita spoke eloquently on the importance of allowing ourselves to rid ourselves of our negative thoughts, and embrace the goodness of mother earth. She invited us to find our shadows in the sunlight and explained that without darkness there would be no light.
After the prayers, we held hands, sang and danced in a circle. Her words were translated for the benefit of non-Spanish speakers by one of her assistants. Finally, it was time to enter the temazcal.
When it was my turn, Lupita saw my nervousness and instructed me to sit close to the doorway — exactly where I wanted to be in case I needed to make my escape. Inside was a large circular room, and I was surprised to see that it felt open with plenty of room to stand if you wished.
People either squatted or sat cross-legged along the walls. I began to breathe easier as Franco explained that it was hottest on top and if I felt dizzy or simply too warm, I was to lie flat on the ground where it was cooler. And if I needed to leave, I only had to speak loudly and someone would help me out. All this helped to calm me.
Lupita was the last to enter and as the flaps of the thick Mexican blanket closed behind her, the room darkened. I could still make out the participants via a hole in the ceiling, like the hole in a teepee. This wasn’t bad at all, I thought.
The ceremony started with drums, chanting and singing and as water was added to the stones, a lovely smell of herbs consisting of basil and rosemary filled the room. Lupita encouraged us to let our emotions go — to cry, laugh, moan, sing or do whatever the feeling moved us to do, just as a baby inside her mother would.
After a few minutes, Lupita asked one of her assistants to block the light by placing a round basketlike circle over the hole in the ceiling. All thoughts that the ceremony would be continued in the semi-darkness fled as the room immediately went pitch black, a black such as I have never experienced in my life.
I closed my eyes to try and meditate as Lupita’s voice rose and fell, and I could hear the breathing of those around me. Someone coughed, and it echoed to a spot behind me, although with my back to the wall I realized it came from the other side of the room.
It was very hot now and sweat poured profusely from every pore in my body. I rubbed my arms and legs and felt a deep warmth enter my bones. I flexed my fingers, which over the last few months had been stiff, and could feel them closing into a semi-fist.
After the session, which lasted about 45 minutes, we left the temazcal for the gardens where Lupita wrapped each of us in a white sheet. We were then led to lie like mummies on straw mats under a palapa, (women on one side, men on the other), to rest and restore ourselves.
After about 15 minutes we were given a delicious hot tea, a secret recipe of over 16 herbs and spices. It crossed my mind (briefly) that perhaps this was the drugged tea I so feared, but was assured by Lupita’s daughter it was simply “tea.” Although at this point I no longer cared.
I re-entered the temazcal a second time that day, and felt very proud of myself for conquering my fears.
After the second session, we were invited to line up to pour water over our bodies to wash off the oils and sweat accumulated on our skin. It felt wonderful! When we had finished cleansing ourselves, Lupita sat on a low stool, her knees apart.
Individually we were instructed to sit on the ground with our backs to her, while she washed us as if we were newborn babies. This was to symbolize rebirth. The water from this vat smelled different, and I found out later it too was infused with herbs.
When my turn came it seemed to me and others that Lupita gave me extra attention in her cleansing. Over the next few minutes I felt the stiffness in my hands lessen as she chanted and prayed. It felt to me as I were receiving a mother’s love, and I was so moved by her tender caress that tears flowed down my cheeks.
When it was over I rejoined the others for welcome refreshments; beans served in clay cups and a choice of Jamaica juice or rice milk. And of course, more of that delicious tea.
As I spoke to other participants, I learned that each person experienced something different. Some felt they had mind-blowing clarity, while another expressed her feelings of regression into childhood memories.
One woman from Australia, sent by her husband to rid herself of a respiratory ailment, said she felt better than she had in weeks. For myself, I had no earth-shattering moments, but rather a physical healing and an intense feeling of peace.
I found that I was able to completely close my fists for the first time in months. I felt alive, newborn and energized, just as Lupita said we should. Grateful and humbled, I am confident that I had been in the presence of a true healer.
Certainly, this was an experience I will want to repeat. Who knows? Perhaps next time on a full moon? Now wouldn’t that be a trip!
Should you go:
• Arrive early and with an open mind. If you are late you might not be allowed entrance. Keep any negative thoughts to yourself, although after, questions are welcomed.
• Do keep hydrated and avoid alcohol.
• Eat lightly before and after.
• Wear a bathing suit and wrap if possible. Avoid warm and restrictive clothing.
• Don’t rinse your body over the vat of water, but step away so that your oils do not contaminate the container.
• Speak up if you feel any discomfort, dizziness or nausea inside the lodge.
The writer is a Canadian novelist and B&B owner who has lived and worked in Mexico for many years. She is also crazy about horses.