Temazcal: The Mexican Sweat Bath

During our stay in Tulum’s Akulik Hotel, we were invited to try out the traditional sweat bath called a temazcal. “That sounds pleasant,” I thought, not at all anticipating the intense and exhausting cleansing of the body, soul and mind I had just agreed to.

For centuries, the temazcal has been practiced by the Mesoamerican cultures of Mexico, including the Maya. The word comes from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. It’s a physical purging of the body, a spiritual way to reconnect with the Earth, and a medicinal tool used to fight sickness and disease. Outraged by the idea of mixed-gender and mixed-age groups of indigenous people crawling naked into a dark clay hut, the Spanish tried to put an end to the practice, but the temazcal proved resilient.

Before beginning, Laura (our temazcalera) prepared us for the experience by praying and blowing copal smoke over our bodies. She explained that we would be giving thanks to the four cardinal directions and to the four elements. We would be reflecting on our lives, and meditating on our families and the world. She placed tobacco in each of our hands and asked us to concentrate an aspect of ourselves that needed improvement, then throw the leaves onto the fire.

I’m allergic to anything with the slightest whiff of New Age-iness. A reference your “inner child” or praise for the wisdom of The Secret, will earn you a big roll of my eyes. But as Laura was entreating us to enter the womb of the Earth Mother, I decided to just go with it; to suppress my usual skepticism and make an honest effort to embrace the spiritual side of things.

As it turns out, connecting with your spiritual side is easy during a temazcal. You’re sitting cross-legged inside this pitch-black hut, the only light provided by the red-hot stones glowing in the central pit. You’re sweating profusely, and you’ve been sweating for over an hour. You’ve got this little Maya woman chanting and singing, whispering and suddenly howling. She asks you to envision your family and conjure somebody into the hut and, yes, I can do this. It’s easy. I can actually see my mom sitting across from me, right there, plain as day.

Probably, I was hallucinating. Our temazcal lasted for two hours. It got insanely hot, hotter than any sauna I’ve ever visited and at one point, I had to lay face down on the cool ground. There were four stages, called puertas or “doors”, each dedicated to a different element and a different direction. Before each puerta, new stones were brought in. These were the abuelitas, or grandmothers of the earth, and we were asked to welcome each with a song.

During the first puerta, we concentrated on the animals and plants of the world. For the second, we contemplated humanity. The third was dedicated to ourselves, and we reflected on our own lives, our own happiness. And during the fourth puerta, we were asked to think about our families and friends. There came a point during the third stage that I had a spiritual epiphany about my life. Even if it was triggered by heat fever and delirium, that was a powerful moment, and it has stayed with me.

It was early afternoon when we entered the temazcal, but by the time we crawled out, it was dark. It truly felt as though we had been newly born, and had exited a womb of some sort. I stood up too quickly, and promptly fainted. Luckily, Laura’s son was standing nearby to provide a steadying hand until I regained control.

For the hours and days after our temazcal, Jürgen and I felt amazing. A two hour steam bath is intense! I’ve never sweated so much in my life, and it really seemed like everything negative in my mind and body had been pushed out through my pores. Quite an experience, and though it’s not one I’m eager to repeat, it’s something I’ll probably never forget.

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