If the Native Americans have sweat lodges, the pre-hispanic Mayans of Mexico had the temazcal.
“Temazcal is an ancient ceremony similar to the sweat lodge ceremonies of other cultures and was practiced by many Mesoamerican cultures. The word comes from the Nahuatl language and translates as ‘house of heat.’ Mayans used temazcal to treat illness, aid in childbirth, purification… This spiritual renewal in the Mayan tradition is often connected to the goddess Ixchel.”From ‘Mayan Temazcal Ceremony’ by The Working Grillos at yucatanliving.com
I didn’t necessarily know all that when I agreed to join one but as these things happen, it was exactly what I needed.
If you’re reading this to know what to expect: it’s HOT. It’s a sweat-in-your-eyes, go-lay-down, snot-dripping-from-your-nose, question-all-your-life-choices kind of hot. It’s a hot that honestly needs to come with a warning. But therein lies the medicine should you choose to take the invitation.
In my case, saying no to such a clear invitation would have been quite the waste – especially since the temazcal was right in our backyard. The temazcal hut was on the property we were living in during our month-long stay in Puerto Aventuras, Mexico. On normal days, it was just a dome of branches tied together. On this day, the dome was covered with thick Mexican blankets and a huge blazing fire was sitting in the firepit nearby.
Walking to it, I saw a thin woman preparing herbs and buckets of water. She was darker than me, and her skin looked more weathered in a way that I’d call beautiful. She was going to be our shaman that day, Gina. With her was her “fire man,” Juan – a stocky Mayan man with a red undertone to his skin and wrinkles around his eyes.
They didn’t speak much English at all and I didn’t speak much Spanish at all. My partner and I joined a group of Russians and their Spanish-Russian translator. Spanish, Russian and “muy poquito Ingles,” – basically I understood very little of what was verbally being said.
Floating in an experience without words, the only other option was to be present. Without words, it was easier to see the truth: that each action taken is sacred.
Before entering the temazcal, each of us were given sacred tobacco to hold close to our hearts. We were to transmute our intentions and prayers into the plant and throw it in the fire. I prayed hard. Then, she blessed us with the smoke from copal, turning us around, lifting our hair from our backs, to make sure we entered clean.
The order you enter a temazcal is also the order you leave. Being where I was in the circle around the fire, I was the first to enter after our shaman lady, Gina. The inside of the temazcal was dim and there was anticipation in the air. Then, once everyone was seated, the first round of “abuelitas” came in. “ABUELITA!” We’d chant each time they entered. Abuelitas means grandmothers and in this ceremony, our abuelitas were the huge volcanic rocks that had been sitting in the firepit for hours.
The abuelitas create the heat, the water creates the steam. Together, they created a heat that rose and rose with each round of abuelitas to enter. Four rounds to represent the four directions. Four rounds to represent different relations. Four rounds to sweat, cry, and connect with the part of us that is often hidden by comfort and distraction.
Four rounds of Gina leading us through singing and shouting. I couldn’t understand any of her songs, but I could understand the emotions behind her strong alto. It was the same emotion behind the sighs and moans and clapping of our Russian friends: complete gratitude for finally, finally being able to release all of the bullshit. Gratitude for all these material things, the rocks, the herbs, the water, suddenly transforming into holy tools even for just one blissful hour.
By the third round, I remember clearly no longer being able to sit up because of all the steam in the air. All I could do was to prostrate myself like a child to the fire, listening to each breath come and willing myself to breathe the next one. By the fourth round, all of us were on our backs, completely surrendered to the heat. The abuelitas had done their work on us.
I left the temazcal following in Gina’s footsteps, just like how we came in. I felt refreshed and also, like I’d been hit by a bus.
In our earlier conversations, one word that Gina tried to tell me and somehow translated perfectly in my brain was: womb. The temazcal was a womb. To enter was to die, to stay was to go through the process, to step out was to accept that hey, things can be new again.
Then the evening ended with sacred tobacco and a joint shared with our shaman and our Mayan fire man. And thus, the sacred conceals itself mysteriously in the mundane again.
A chant I learned from Gina: