I can’t remember where or when I first heard about temazcals in Mexico, but it was incredibly difficult to find one in Guanajuato. Despite the fact that there was a temazcal located only about 200 yards (maybe less) from Escuela Falcon where we trekked every day for Spanish classes, no one we talked to there seemed to know where we could do one. I began my search for a temazcal and a curandero (or curandera) early during on our sojourn, but didn’t locate Karolina Gonzalez Perez and her Temazcal Nawi y Casa de Vapor until our last 10 days in Guanajuato.
Katie, a teacher and administrator, at Escuela Falcon told me that she thought there was a temazcal nearby. She smelled the smoke “every Wednesday and Friday” she said, but she didn’t know exactly where it was coming from. Everyone I asked in Mexico was curious about the temazcal, but shy about admitting it. Even native Mexicans were interested in our experience at the Temazcal Nawi and Casa de Vapor though most had they’d never tried it themselves. I earmarked this strange social anomaly. The way people responded to the idea of a temazcal was similar in Mexico to the way people in the United States respond to the idea of acupuncture. They all wonder if it would work for them, but they were afraid to try it for themselves.
I can understand the hesitancy, especially for non-natives who don’t speak Spanish fluently. I’m sure the Spanish-speaking people are hesitant because, after being brainwashed into believing the western style of medicine in their country really works (it doesn’t work any better than western medicine in our country), they’re hesitant to try something as “unscientific” as a temazcal for whatever ails them.
My beliefs about healing and medicine are weird but I’ve earned the right to have alternative thoughts on how people heal themselves. I was sick a lot as a kid and I spent my fair share of time in hospitals with strange machines hooked up to me. As an adult, I studied western medicine, following around general practitioners, psychiatrists, and other practitioners. I worked in the medical field for many years while I finished my schooling in psychology. Then I did social work and foster care. I’ve since taken up herbalism and I take every opportunity to try different healing modalities and research what’s available (holistic dentists, polarity therapy, that sort of thing) throughout the world.
I believe in taking a creative approach to problems and that includes physical ailments. Whether you believe in your doctor or you believe in God as the purveyor of good health, the fact is, there is so much more available to people than just western medicine.
Those who are willing to allow the Forces That Be guide them to better health are more likely to find something that works for them.
At least, this has been my experience.
So we try different things in different places because I want to know what’s out there. Below is a short description of our experience at the temazcal in Guanajuato, Mexico:
Karolina was very welcoming though she didn’t speak any English. Despite the lack of English, she was a good communicator. I was pleased that she was warm and accepting. That made our experience infinitely more interesting and enjoyable.
The temazcal began with smoke. We stood in front of a giant, cement fireplace with hot volcanic rocks inside. Karolina had a vase with a sweet smelling substance that was burning inside it and smoking furiously. She moved the little vessel and the smoke across our bodies one by one, saying some words in Spanish that I couldn’t understand, as we stood in front of her with our arms extended outwards, crucifix-style. Then, she blew a conch shell toward the four cardinal directions and said a short, reverent speech about earth, air, fire, and water. We turned and faced the four different directions along with her and the others present. Then, one by one, we crawled inside the tent.
The tent was nothing spectacular to look at. It was made up of sticks, blankets, and tarps strung together in a seemingly haphazard manner. But looks can be deceiving. Though it wasn’t beautiful, it was functional. It kept the light out and the steam in. On the ground were straw mats. We slid into place around a fire pit that had been carefully decorated with fresh, green herbs of various kinds.
Lydian, John, and I ended up opposite the door with people on either side of us. A man took a pitch fork and started transporting the volcanic rocks from the fireplace outside into the fire pit inside the tent. The other people in the tent offered us bottles of lotion and encouraged us to put it all over our bodies. As the rocks were put into place in the fire pit inside the tent the participants would sing Abuelitas bienvenidas, bienvenidas abuelitas… (beloved grandmothers welcome, welcome grandmothers…) while spreading the lotion all over their bodies vigorously. The tent got warm and then Karolina crawled inside with a bucket of water.
I put one layer of the lotion all over, head to toe. I closed the lid of the container and set it down gently beside me on the bamboo mats. A woman to my right encouraged me to continue slathering the stuff on though I was already covered in the mixture. Karolina offered us chamomile and lemon tea in Styrofoam cups.
John, Lydian, and I put on yet more lotion. I felt sticky and gross sitting there on the mats with a mixture of lotion and dirt covering everything from my hair to my toenails. There was a young couple sitting next to us. The girl was wearing a blue bikini and her boyfriend/companion was wearing Hawaiian swimming trunks. I guessed that they were from Spain. He had clearly done the temazcal before while the female seemed new to the experience. Karolina removed her shirt at one point, exposing her breasts. The male member of the couple rubbed lotion on Karolina’s back. The girl turned to me and smiled weakly. She wasn’t sure what to think about the lotion, the breasts, and the rubbing, but it didn’t seem sexual to me and I smiled back at her reassuringly.
Then, after about five scorching hot volcanic rocks were put in place, Karolina closed the small portal and the tent became dark except for the flicker of a small candle burning on the outskirts of the firepit.
Karolina took a ladle and poured water on the rocks. They hissed and steamed vigorously. Everyone stood up around the fire pit and Karolina said something about how standing was a good thing to do unless we were too hot and needed air. I tried to stand, but the tent wasn’t high enough for me to fully extend and stand up straight. It was for the best because the intensity of the heat and humidity was almost too much for me to tolerate in a standing position.
Because of our position on the far end of the tent away from the door, Lydian had a minor crisis early on. I already knew that people can die in sweat lodges if they don’t pay attention to themselves and I told Lydian that if she needed to leave I would make sure that she could and I would go with her.
The air was thick. Sweat poured down my body like rain. My skin was slick with sweat and lotion. The people who were standing turned their backs to the fire pit and then sat back down again like rotisserie chickens. I sipped at my tea, afraid to drink it all at once for fear that I wouldn’t be able to get more to drink.
We made it through the first cycle, which lasted about 30 minutes.
Karolina picked up a dusty five-gallon water bottle and started rhythmically beating on it while chanting about something I couldn’t concentrate on. It had to do with one of the elements. I don’t remember which element came first. Instead of worrying about translations, I reminded myself to breathe. I definitely didn’t want to panic in this environment, although the heat and humidity was nearly intolerable. I visualized the steam going in and out of my sinuses and tried to focus on how cool the inside of my skull felt when I exhaled.
No one had told us how long a temazcal lasted and I couldn’t find much information online. I’d watched a short YouTube video in Spanish, but it never even showed the inside of the sweat lodge. Another video had a withered up old man with a feather in his hair mumbling in what sounded like a hybrid of Spanish and Mayan. I figured I could make it for 30 minutes or maybe 45 inside the steamy tent. Surely it wouldn’t last any longer than that.
Lydian started to panic after the first song ended.
“I can feel my heart pounding in my head…” she said to me. “Is that okay?” I thought about that in slow motion for about fifteen seconds and then decided that it was important for Lydian to know that
she could leave at any time. I didn’t know if she needed to leave, but I knew that she needed to know that it was okay to leave. I stopped the ritual, (“Perdon!”) and asked that Lydian and I step outside the tent for a moment to get some air.
Lydian is pretty open-minded as a 13 year old. If she says she needs to leave or stop doing something, I know that she’s hit her limit. We went outside and stood for a moment in the cool air. Karolina reassured Lydian that it was okay that she needed air. People often had to step out of the tent to get air. She said that it was part of the detoxification process. Some people have more toxins in their bodies and so they can’t tolerate the steamy environment as well.
When we crawled back inside the tent, we seated ourselves on either side of the door. John was still on the other side of the tent next to another man in the group. He smiled at us. Everyone in the tent scooted around to make room for Lydian and I in our new positions near the door. It was a very accepting group of people.
The process of opening the door, bringing in new hot volcanic rocks and singing Abuelitas bienvenidas, continued for five cycles, each about 20-30 minutes long. After the rocks were put in place, water was thrown on them, the tent would get steamy, dense, and almost intolerably hot and Karolina would chant a new song to the group about yet another of the five elements.
The chanting was calming. It kept my mind off of the heat and the steam. It made the time pass. I’ve read that shamans will chant or do rhythmic music with people who are doing ayahuasca or magic mushrooms in a ritualized fashion and the music is an important part of having a positive, spiritually uplifting experience. The more intense the heat got, the more important the hypnotic rhythms of the drumming became (all the while on nothing but a plastic five gallon water jug).
For the element of fire, we were introduced to a baby peyote cacti in a clay pot. I heard the word peyote and I thought certainly we wouldn’t be ingesting it (we didn’t). Melina, one of our language instructors at the school had talked with us about the Huichol pilgrimage to Wirikuta for peyote. Their pilgrimage and ritualized use of peyote is legal, but I think that otherwise, peyote use is restricted. I wanted to see the peyote plant up close. Karolina kept referring to it in the superlative as peyotito or something like that. I’d never been in the presence of a peyote plant. In the United States to do such a thing seemed impossible, if not illegal.
One of the other people in the group handed me the little pot with the tiny palm-sized plant. Karolina explained that peyote is the strongest of all plants. It overpowers the other plants like chamomile and lemon that have a much weaker spirit. Peyote, she told us, is good for men. It makes them more virile. At this point, I still wondered what we were going to do with the little cactus. I offered it back to the woman sitting next to me and she set it back in its place near the fire pit.
In this ceremony, we would just sit with the spirit of the peyote plant. It represented fire and the mere presence of the cactus was supposed to inspire some sort of healing experience.
A special herb was burned during this part of the ritual. The smell was intoxicating.
The candle was extinguished when we got to the second or third element and a number of the people in the tent disrobed completely. John and I joked later about “Orgy Night at the Temazcal” (there is no such thing). Americans, I’ve learned in our travels, are rather prudish in regard to nudity. Not all cultures cover themselves as religiously as people in the United States do. Indeed, a number of the people who read this article are hoping for some juicy sexual climax. Americans tend to think that if there are breasts or penises exposed, there must be something sexual going on, but this just isn’t always the case (sorry to disappoint you — see my article about Wreck Beach in Vancouver, BC). The hamman in Fez was far more “sexual” than the temazcal because it was segregated by gender. The temazcal was a healing ritual and the people who were there were using it as such. The experience was not remotely sexual despite the nudity.
Over the course of the ritual we had rubbed even more lotion on our bodies as well as fresh aloe and later, a chocolate oatmeal mixture. These substances were even worked carefully through our hair. Most of the women removed their chest coverings. The woman sitting next to me put the chocolate on my back (I wasn’t doing a good enough job of it). I had an internal dialogue going with myself about the virtues of being dirty sometimes and how proud I was of myself that I could sit in a pool of my sweat mixed with a greasy home-made lotion and chocolate on a bamboo mat in a make-shift tent in Mexico. Sometimes, our little “outings” really push the limits of my OCD. I wash my hands after I touch the counter at the bank and I soak our fruits and vegetables in bleach water when we’re in foreign countries. But I’ll go sit in my underwear on bamboo mats with a bunch of naked strangers for a sweat ceremony. I know it doesn’t make sense, but in the moment, I just do what I can not to think about it too much. The part of me that tries to avoid disease, injury, and any sort of adversity isn’t much fun. If I always listened to it, we’d just stay home and do nothing but read books.
Karolina did an adjustment on John’s spine (a few hours later, he said his back hadn’t felt that good in a long time). She went around the room doing spinal adjustments on those she felt needed it (I didn’t get one).
My little spot on the tent floor was uneven and slightly bumpy. I struggled in vain to get comfortable. I had nearly melted and because I’d given up all hope that the temazcal would ever end, I’d taken up a
position sitting with knees bent, butt on my heels. It was the only comfortable position I could find. Lydian had resorted to lying in the fetal position (Karolina had suggested this) by the door so that she could get occasional wiffs of fresh air near the bottom of the tent. John laid down on the floor across the way. Some people did slow stretching exercises. The woman next to me took up a position on her belly with her knees bent and her feet in the air.
Three hours later, we emerged from the tent.
Karolina encouraged us to get up from our position inside the tent slowly, but Lydian wanted out. So she and I left the tent very abruptly as soon as the door opened. I got up from my bent-kneed position just as the portal opened to follow Lydian out and thought I was going to pass out. We were to go over to big barrel of cold water and splash it on ourselves using old, empty butter containers. I didn’t think I was okay. My head spun. I thought I might pass out. I’d gotten up too quickly. I squatted down on the ground as Lydian threw cold water on herself squealing.
Then it was my turn. The cold water helped a little. It was very cold. I hurried through the process, still slightly bent over in an effort not to lose consciousness. I still felt woozy. Little bits of chocolate and oatmeal still clung to my skin as I took my towel over to a cement bench and sat down. John brought some water to me.
After I drank the water, I was okay. I started to feel normal again. I got up and put on my clothes and Lydian and I remarked to each other that we felt surprisingly “clean”. Like really clean. It didn’t make sense given all the sweat, lotion, aloe, and chocolate and the rudimentary shower with a barrel of water that was just sitting there outside. My skin was soft and I felt relaxed as thought I’d just had a three hour massage at a high-end spa.
In summary, the temazcal was a good experience. We’d wanted to go again on Wednesday night, but Lydian had a class at the same time and we decided we could do a temazcal in other countries in Latin America if we wanted to. Karolina is a curandera and she told me that the temazcal is particularly good for autism and women’s health problems. I’d read that some women give birth in a temazcal setting because it relaxes the muscles and makes birthing easier. Apparently, almost all women’s menstrual problems are related to a lack of heat in the “third burner” (the core of the body) and the sweat lodge helps to remedy that. People with colds and flu can benefit from the intense steam and the detoxifying effects of the temazcal.
The next day, John and I went out to walk our stairs as part of our daily workout. There are over 100 stairs leading up to our house from two directions. We walk down one set and back up and then down the other and back up 4 ½ times for our 20 minute morning routine. John set the timer as we set out on our walk the next day.
“This is hurting a little today…” John said to me halfway back up our first set of stairs. I agreed with him. My legs felt relaxed. I didn’t really want to be on the stairs at all. Up and down we went. On our sixth lap, I wondered if John had forgotten to set the 20 minute timer.
We started down the stairs for the seventh lap when the timer went off.
“Good God.” I said. “Is that right or did you set the timer for 30 minutes today by accident?”
“No…it’s only been twenty.”
Scoff if you will at healing modalities like the temazcal with all the nakedness and superstitious plant lore, but we felt lighter and stronger on the days after our temazcal experience. For hundreds, if not thousands of years, the temazcal has worked to heal other people of various afflictions.
Maybe it could work for you too.