Temazcal: the Mayan Shaman Sweat Lodge Ceremony in Tepoztlán, Mexico

| © Daniel Meza / Culture Trip
Cassandra Brooklyn

Wildly popular among Mexicans but relatively unknown to tourists, the temazcal is the perfect way to experience traditional healing in Mexico. Here, visitors sweat out stress in a heated house that blends ancient practices, purification and meditation.

Mexico may be known for margaritas, music and merriment, but those looking to reconnect with themselves and with ancient traditions would do well to step into a temazcal. This pre-Hispanic sweat lodge originated with indigenous people in Mesoamerica and can be found all over Mexico, most notably in the magical village of Tepoztlán.

Unlike sweat lodges in other regions, such as Native American ones found across the American southwest, the Mexican temazcal takes place in a permanent framework. The circular dome structures are made of volcanic rock, cement, adobe bricks and/or mud, and resemble a sort of pizza oven with a door so small you have to crawl inside on your hands and knees. Depending on who you ask, its origin goes back anywhere from several centuries to thousands of years, the purpose being to heal the sick and generally improve health, or to purify the body after a physically demanding battle or sporting event.

Today, Mexico’s traditional temazcal ceremony mixes these ancient methods with mindfulness in a way that allows participants to connect more deeply with themselves and with the country. The practice encourages reflection and introspection that fit well into the Tepoztlán aesthetic, which is bursting with yoga, meditation, massage and natural healers.

A shaman or shamaness stands dressed in ceremonial clothing decorated with colorful feathers, smudging participants with sage. Participants are instructed to turn in each direction, setting an intention for the experience. Participants then crawl into the dark kiln and a thick blanket is draped over the door to block out all light. As ceremonies can last up to several hours, this is not the place for anyone who is claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.

A pit of hot rocks sits in the middle of the temazcal. The shaman pours water infused with herbs, flower petals and essential oils onto the rocks, which sizzle in the darkness. Copal-infused steam fills the little stone igloo as the shaman beats a small drum and chants in Nahuatl or Lakota. Old pros join in the chants while newcomers sit in silence or stumble their way through the unfamiliar words. Chanting typically lasts a few minutes during each of four rounds but the amount of chanting varies depending on the shaman.

The shaman may ask you to consider things like gratitude, fear, challenges or recent revelations. But the difference between this experience and similar moments in yoga, for example, is that you’ll also be asked to share your answers with the group. Of course, nobody is forced to confess their deepest secrets or fears, but temazcals usually attract open-minded soul searchers, so it tends to be a friendly bunch who encourage and validate each other.

At the end of each round, everyone calls out the word puerta (door), signaling to the fire keeper outside that more rocks are needed to increase the heat. He passes a small shovel of hot stones from the fire pit outside to the shaman, who then places them carefully on the pit, sometimes using deer antlers. Most temazcal ceremonies include four rounds, each of which is increasingly hotter. Nobody is kept inside against their will, but keep in mind that going in and out is discouraged, as it disrupts the experience for everyone else. If you’re afraid the heat (or darkness) will be too intense, ask to sit close to the door.

Though wildly popular with Mexicans, very few tourists know about or participate in temazcals. Many tourists do visit Tepoztlán, but often walk right by the dozens of stores, hotels, guesthouses and gardens offering them, heading straight for the Tepozteco pyramid hike or to one of countless bars offering two for one micheladas, one of the country’s signature cocktails. But this experience speaks to those who are looking to center themselves and return their focus to what really matters in life, and perhaps those seeking a moment of clarity behind distracting emotions caused by commotion, anger or worry.

Though most shamans in Tepoztlán speak little to no English (as the vast majority of temazcal participants are Mexican), more and more English-speaking shamans are popping up, usually hailing from other Spanish-speaking countries in Central America, and occasionally from Europe. Even if the temazcal operator you visit (be it in a hotel, massage parlor or healing center) doesn’t have an English-speaking shaman, they may be able to find one for a session later that day. Either way, it takes a couple hours for the rocks to heat up sufficiently so you’ll have time to explore the town before the ceremony. Those hoping to experience the surrounding countryside with a small group can check out Mexican food and wellness tours that incorporate temazcals.

Weekends are probably best avoided if possible, as they can get quite crowded. Mexico City dwellers eager to escape the hustle and bustle of the metropolis make the 90-minute journey (made possible by bus, private taxi or Uber) to Tepoztlán on the weekend to enjoy a bit of serenity. The village is worth spending a few days in so you may consider scoping out the city on the first day then making arrangements for a temazcal the second day, after you’ve had your fill of micheladas.

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