The woman next to you lies down on the dirt floor, seeking a tiny respite from the heat; the shaman who is leading the ceremony douses the hot rocks in the center of your circle using a branch of eucalyptus; your vision blurs as sweat falls over your eyelids. This is a Mexican sweat lodge, a temazcal, and you are about to be reborn.
The temazcal is an ancient Mayan tradition in Mesoamerica. Both the ritual and where it’s held are refered to as a temazcal, a word derived from the combination of the words temal (bath) and calli (house). These days, every high-end Mexican resort or luxury hotel is willing to arrange for a curandero (healer) to come and take its guests through the stages of the temazcal, usually with a pretty hefty price tag. However, this tradition has deeper roots than modern wellness retreats: it’s as ancient and sacred as the very earth and sky.
A temazcal is an ancient Mayan purification ritual used for various purposes: purification before the joining together of two people in marriage or of warriors going off the war, or to cure a sick patient. These days, the most common reasons for holding one are to simply experience a release and have a chance to clear both the mind and body of any impurities.
The ritual generally takes place in four sessions, or puertas (doors), which are marked each time the door to the temazcal is opened momentarily to let in a cool breeze. Rocks are heated in a fire outside the hut and are then placed in the middle of the structure, which can be made from brick, stone, or sticks and blankets. The leader of the ritual, usually a healer of some kind, sprinkles the rocks with water that has been infused with medicinal herbs, usually using the branch of those same herbs.
The temazcal leader guides participants through a series of songs, chants, or sessions of offering up prayers for a specific need or desire in their lives. Sometimes, each of the four sessions represents a different element (earth, wind, fire, water) or is dedicated to a different emotional element (love, fear, doubt, anxiety). Participants are encouraged to let go of their social inhibitions, which is not (as you might start guessing) an invitation to get naked but simply an encouragement to express their emotions and experience the temazcal in a way that feels right to them.
Most temazcals end with a dip in a cool pool or a rinse with cool water, after which participants wrap themselves in towels to allow their bodies to cool down naturally. The heat in the temazcal hut may reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), which adds to the intensity of the experience and the sense of losing touch with time.
People have many different reasons for participating in a temazcal, from impressing their friends to being spiritually reborn. For most folks, it’s a combination of the physical and spiritual: the temazcal offers an opportunity to step outside of the world and outside of time for a short while. Once you’ve spent some time in the intense heat singing, chanting, or just meditating, you’ll find that it’s easy to lose sense of time and reality.
The temazcal ritual is a time to shed. Sweat allows you to shed any impurities and cleanses your skin, while the atmosphere of the temazcal sheds inhibitions, stress, anxiety, and doubt. You are even free to cry, scream, sing, or mediatate and many find that they exit the temazcal feeling like they have truly been reborn on some level.
There are two kinds of necessary preparations before taking part in the temazcal, both mental and physical. To prepare yourself physically, you should eat light, drink a good amount of water before sweating your brains out, and if you tend to have stiff joints and bones, you may want to stretch in anticipation of sitting for long periods of time. Mental preparations (which are a completely individual experience) include taking the time to set an intention for your practice before entering the hut.
It’s also important to fully understand (although you will never be completely prepared) that you will be in a dark, closed, and very hot place for an hour with strangers; if any of those things give you high levels of anxiety, you might want to rethink the temazcal. In most temazcals experiences where the participants are strangers, people bring bathing suits, though in many cases, clothing is optional. It’s important to bring a towel for the end of the temazcal ritual (and perhaps and extra one to bring with you into the hut), something to sit on if you have trouble sitting on the ground, and warm clothing to wear afterwards if you are joining a temazcal in a cold climate.
If you think you may not be able to handle the heat, be sure to sit near the door where it’s usually a bit cooler. Finally, while temazcal leaders don’t appreciate it when people leave the ritual before it’s over, never push yourself if you start to feel ill or think you may pass out.