I Did a Temazcal in Mexico and It Was Everything

My last day in San Cristobal drastically changed my trip trajectory. It probably seriously changed me as well, but whether the effects will be permanent or not has yet to be determined. It all started with the temazcal.

Brayan had come to San Cristobal to see a Shaman, who was unfortunately not there. So Claire offered up an alternative: she knew someone who could do a temazcal. The idea caught on, and by the time it was Sunday half the hostel was in. I didn’t know much about it other than what they told me, which was that it was like a sauna with someone leading chants, and it would cleanse my mind and body. Sounded good to me.

Here’s what it actually is. Temazcal is a type of sweat lodge indigenous to Mesoamerica. The structure in which the temazcal is performed varies, but it is typically a small, enclosed space with a hole in the center. Ours was in the backyard of someone’s house, and was constructed from an underlying wood structure covered in colorful blankets. It didn’t look like it could fit more than 4 people; we had 12. Somehow it worked. There was a small natural shrine in front of the lodge where we left offerings of fruit and water to be shared after the ceremony. The hole in the ground inside the lodge was for the stones, which were heated in an open fire for probably hours before we got there. The stones would be added gradually as the ceremony went on to raise the temperature.

To begin the temazcal we knelt at the door (a flap in the blankets) and asked permission to enter, then moved in to the left and around the circumference until we were more or less on top of the person before us. Then they brought in the first four stones.

Our temazcal was four doors: East for Man, West for Woman, North for Others/Family, and South for Self. For each door the leader would add four stones, shut the door, and throw water on them, causing steam to fill the lodge. He and another man beat drums and sang chants, asking us to focus our thoughts in the direction which the door was focused. Between each one they opened the door and a rush of cool air provided temporary relief as they added the next stones. After our ceremony was done we cooled down outside in various sitting and lying positions. The cold weather didn’t bother anyone. They said they were doing a fifth door, for Warriors, that would be very hot, but we were welcome to join. Everyone went back in, even those with claustrophobia or fainting issues. It was that powerful. We crawled back into the lodge over the previously bone dry but now sopping wet, muddy ground and resumed our friendly positions. They weren’t kidding about the heat. Most people agreed it was their favorite door.

It’s hard to describe what temazcal did for me. The easiest way to depict what actually happened is led meditation in a steam room, but that doesn’t do it justice. As my body released toxins my mind went clear. It focused where it needed to, showing me what was important to me, giving me answers about what I’m doing now or should do next, bringing me to a place of inner peace deeper than any meditations I’ve done before. When I exited my skin tingled with rejuvenation, and my mind silently echoed it. Everything felt good. I breathed deeply, wholly. I felt honored to have experienced this tradition.

Most of the time my eyes were closed, but when I did venture a peek it was captivating. The image is still with me, and I hope it never fades. The sun was above the blankets – a red one was on top – so the diffused light caused a red glow that intermingled with the steam, softly but barely illuminating the interior. The men with the drums were in front of me, eyes closed, soulfully beating and singing. Everyone was peacefully focused around them. It was mystical, powerful, serene, and beautiful.

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