Temazcal, Mexico City, Mexico ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.

A Temazcal is a Traditional Mexican Sweat Lodge… Just Don’t Call it a Sauna

1024 768 Cyndie Burkhardt

While planning a trip to Tepoztlan, a small town 90 minutes outside of Mexico City, one activity caught my attention: “experience the pre-Hispanic tradition of the temazcal, a sweat lodge ritual that will connect you as a person and as a group.”

I was curious, what’s so special about temazcal? Turns out, it’s a traditional Mexican sweat lodge. Meaning, herbal concoctions are used, a ceremony, ritual, or healing is performed (depending on what you need), and temazcal “therapy” can bring about holistic healing of body, mind, and spirit. It’s all considered a form of detoxification, regardless of the condition you want to address. I was a little skeptical of this panacea that supposedly cures everything from rheumatoid arthritis to depression, but I was motivated to try it.

Temazcal, Tepoztlan, Mexico ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.
Traditional Mexican Temazcal

All images ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.

Temazcal at Nacho’s place

The grounds at Nacho’s property were lush, with lots of green grass and trees, and the house itself was homey and welcoming. Everything about it was calming. I arrived with a group of fourteen people and we were divided in half so that seven of us at a time would fit comfortably in the sweat lodge. We changed into our bathing suits and headed out the back door, across the grass, and onto the little stone path toward the tiny adobe house—the temazcal. The word refers to both the ceremony and the structure itself and it means “house of heat.”

Steam, rocks, air—everything is hot!

We got on our hands and knees and crawled inside, one by one. I had no idea how small it would be. Someone said, “you wouldn’t want to be claustrophobic in here” and I immediately asked that we not talk about it. I felt that could be a very real possibility for me. Right away I had trouble breathing, which didn’t help. The heat inside was dry and overpowering.

I sat by the door hoping to catch any air that might come in during the few seconds it was open. Nacho entered last and closed the door behind him. He sat next to the hot rocks and picked up a large bunch of leaves. He dipped them into a bucket containing an infusion of medicinal plants and he splashed the liquid toward the rocks. Steam flared up and there was a wonderful herbal scent, I thought I recognized lemongrass. The therapeutic effects are an added benefit of exposure to the steam. Then he fanned the leaves toward us, creating more heat in the room, and he “hit” our outstretched legs with them. He said it was to bring heat into our bones.

An intimate ritual

The little room was full. I knew most of the people casually and sitting together in a close-knit circle, in a bathing suit, our bodies touching, was more intimacy than I expected.

Nacho asked each of us to say our name, age, and what we wanted to get out of the ritual. When the first person said their name he asked them to sing it. With a large (empty) water cooler bottle across his lap, he sang the name with them and beat his makeshift drum. We all joined in and it proved to be a clever icebreaker. Some people revealed more information than others but we all shared a common desire for some sort of personal change. We switched our body positions a few times and we were told to reflect on what we had said and how we felt.

I meditated on my own circumstances as much as the group dynamic and the fact that I revealed personal information to strangers who might judge me. Things were slightly out of my comfort zone but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I made a conscious decision to let the chips fall where they may and focus on my intention for being there. 

Nacho inside the temazcal, Tepoztlan, Mexico ©2019, Cyndie Burkhardt.
Nacho splashing an herbal infusion with leaves
I confess

I must own up to a confession. I lied about my age. Most people were in their 20s and me being twice that, I panicked. When I was in my 20s I thought a 30-year-old was ancient. Here I was the age of these people’s parents. Worse than that, I was sure gossip would spread quickly and the whole travel group would know my secret and they’d carry judgements. Up until now my age wasn’t an issue, in fact I was proud of it. But here I was in a detoxifying, healing ceremony stressing about what younger people would think of me. I knew it was ridiculous while it was happening.

We returned to sitting cross-legged and Nacho repeated the intro exercise. Only this time we could change our responses if we wanted to, and a few people did. Our brief ritual (45 minutes) wasn’t enough time for something profound but I felt the experience helped me to further along a healing process I’d previously begun. Plus, I confronted an unexpected fear in the moment and decided to accept it and be ok with it. That was empowering. When it was my turn to speak I reframed my feelings to reflect the change I wanted, as if I was already living it. 

A final clearing

There was a small bowl filled with large chunks of fresh aloe. We rubbed it on our bodies—feet, legs, face, hair, everywhere. Nacho offered us herbal tea and passed around a glass that we all drank from. It was the same concoction he used to swat the rocks.

Then he left the temazcal and told us to come out one by one for a final clearing. Outside, he washed cool herbal water over me with the leaves. I shivered but it was refreshing. I went back to the house to rest and reflect on what happened. I felt content at having an introspective experience that was indeed a detox on several levels. That night I slept like a baby.

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