Temazcals are relatively new to me as an American citizen of European descent, but the use of heat and steam for healing is as old as fire. John, Lydian, and I did a temazcal in Guanajuato, Mexico three years ago and one of the first things we did when we returned to Guanajuato this year was visit the Temazcal Nawi again.
Karolina doesn’t speak English, but she’s very warm toward newbies. It’s easy to follow along with the ceremony, even if you don’t completely understand what’s going on. This is the real-deal as far as temazcals go. It’s not just a rendition of a temazcal that’s been put together for tourists. The times that we’ve been to Temazcal Nawi, there was at least one or two other tourists there, but otherwise, the tent was filled with locals: people who were there to heal or to experience the spiritual aspects of the heat, humidity, and chanting.
What is a Temazcal?
A temazcal is a spiritual healing ceremony comparable to Native American sweat lodge ceremonies in the United States. In Guanajuato, Mexico, Karolina Gonzalez Perez operates a biweekly temazcal near the Plaza Baratillo.
The elements usually included in a temazcal ceremony are smudging, oils, clay, herbs, detoxifying teas, homage to the four corners, trance induction, and four to five cycles of chanting, hot volcanic stones heated by fire, and the placement of the stones in a central pit (the ombligo or “bellybutton”). The hot, heavy stones are placed in the ombligo four different times, one time for each of the four elements, with water poured on top of them at the beginning of each cycle by the hombre fuego (fire man).
The high levels of heat causes heavy sweating. The humidity decreases evaporation. So, inside the temazcal, the body sweats out toxins. It’s not uncommon for temazcal participants to sweat out over a liter of fluids, which is amazing given that the kidneys filter about that much of our blood over the course of 48 hours. It’s wise though, to drink a lot of water in preparation for a temazcal.
Temazcal vs. Sauna
I’ve never had a traditional Finnish sauna experience in Finland or any of the Nordic countries for that matter (at least not yet), but based on what little I know of Finnish Saunas and Mexican Temazcals, one of the major differences between the two has to do with the rituals surrounding the steam and the hotness. In Finland, there are some interesting pagan beliefs about saunas such as the Sauna Elf (a creature that both watches over the sauna and causes problems for people who misuse the sauna). The sauna in Northern countries seems to have more of a health-focus, while in Mexico, rituals seem to be much more spiritual. Temazcals use the benefits of trance to lengthen the period of time that temazcaleros (temazcal attendees) can endure the heat and the steam.
Everytime new volcanic stones are put into place during the temazcal, everyone inside says,“bienvenidas abuelitas” (welcome Beloved Grandmothers). Tea is passed around inside the tent while the blanket over the door remains open.
The lodge itself is shockingly primitive, but don’t let that fool you. Karolina is an excellent temazcal leader. Her drum is an old 5 gallon water container and she laughed about it when she picked it up the second time we attended her temazcal, “Remember this?” she said to me, chuckling. It was still there, even after 3 years had passed. In the dark, once the curtain is pulled down, it didn’t matter whether Karolina had a real drum or a 5 gallon water container…except that the plastic probably functions better in the steam and the humidity than a drum made of skin.
Before the Temazcal…
Before people enter the temazcal, Karolina goes through a ceremony paying homage to the four cardinal directions. She blows on a conch shell and says some words. Then, everyone in attendance gets “smudged”. I don’t know yet what kind of herbs Karolina uses to smudge the participants. It didn’t feel appropriate to ask while she was doing it, but I’ll find out next time I go. After the temazcaleros were all thoroughly smudged, we crawled inside the tent and found a spot on the bamboo mats.
Oil, Clay, Aloe…
Karolina makes a special oil for her temazcal that everyone slathers on from the tips of their toes to the tops of their heads. In addition to the oil, a big bowl of clay is also passed around. I smear it all over from head to toe, which just feels absolutely gross. The oils are supposed to help with detoxifications of the skin, but they also help make the heat easier to endure. And though it feels gross at first, once the first set of stones are put into place and the tent fills up with steam, the oil and the clay starts to melt off of my body anyway.
Toward the latter part of the temazcal, a bowl filled with slices of aloe vera leaves is passed through the group. The man next to me recommended that I take 3 pieces of it (that’s a good amount, he said). These aloe vera leaves are to be broken in half so that the slimy insides can be smeared all over the body, again, from head to toe. At this point in the temazcal, you’d think that adding aloe vera would just make a layer of muck over the skin, but all the sweating has washed away the clay and the oil. The aloe vera keeps the skin from burning and it acts as a detoxifying agent.
Each of us gets a little Styrofoam cup at the beginning of the temazcal and Karolina gives us unlimited refills of herbal tea throughout the temazcal. The tea contains chamomile and a few other herbs to help keep everyone hydrated. The tea is really bitter which helps with stomach upsets as well as general digestive detoxification.
The Five Elements
The temazcal in Guanajuato takes about 3 hours to complete. Karolina goes through each of the four elements. New, super-hot volcanic stones are brought in to the pit between elements. Each stone is welcomed, “bienvenidas abuelitas” and then the curtain is pulled down over the dome so that it’s pitch black inside. Karolina then says some spiritual things over the hot pit regarding the element in question, pours water on the stones, and then she drums and chants for 15 to 20 minutes. The rest of the group inside the tents sings and chants along with her. We didn’t know the words to the chants so we just sat and listened. The chanting makes the extreme heat and humidity much easier to endure because it induces a light trance. Of course, the trance state is a big part of the healing power of the temazcal. Being in a trance makes people more pliable and increases the average person’s ability to inwardly focus and create positive self-directed change in their lives. Trance is a common element in many healing ceremonies throughout the world for a reason.
Not everyone inside the temazcal is naked, but some people do opt to be in the nude. Personally, I choose to wear a bathing suit. Be prepared for the nudity if you’re shy about such things. There’s nudity and you’ll likely be sitting close enough to touch the person next to you. There’s nothing sexual about the temazcal even though there might be naked people in there, so chill out (so to speak) and “be cool”. The nakedness is just nakedness and nothing more.
Cold shower at the end
At the end of the temzcal, everyone lines up and we all pour cold water over ourselves from a big blue barrel. The cold water is really cold after being inside the hot tent for three hours. But the cold is refreshing. And it amazes me how clean I can feel after all the clay, oil, aloe, and sweating…a few splashes of water and I feel like a new me!
In Guanajuato, Karolina charges tourists $150 MXN to do the temazcal which takes place twice a week on Wednesdays and Sundays. There is a restroom facility there and separate places for men and women to change behind a blanket. It’s not a five-star resort, but the experience will be unforgettable. You might even feel like coming back to the temazcal again and again…
If you have a heart condition, diabetes, or any other ailment that might make it hard for you to endure extreme temperatures and humidity for an extended period of time, check with your doctor first. And remember, if you’re inside the tent during a temazcal and you feel like you need to leave, just excuse yourself. There’s only a light blanket between the inside and the outside of the tent and people will forgive you for stepping out briefly even if you don’t speak a word of Spanish.