Sitting in hot temperatures and sweating is a wellness ritual that is practiced around the world in some form or another. The exact method and purpose are unique from country to country or culture to culture. In Mexico, they call it Temazcal and it is vastly different than other sweat baths. While it is ceremonial and deeply spiritual, it is first and foremost a therapeutic instrument and was an integral part of Mesoamerican medical practice.
What is a Temazcal Ceremony?
A Temazcal is a traditional Mexican sweat bath led by a shaman, Temazcalero, or another experienced healer. It is, traditionally, a medicinal practice to purify you physically and spiritually. I’m not even going to compare a Temazcal to a sauna because they are completely different experiences.
Temazcals traditionally last at least two hours, heat your body up to 104 degrees, and follow an important sequence of sessions. They are held in a small dome structure made of mud, clay, or other natural material, that is completely dark inside. Rocks are heated over a fire outside of the structure and then transferred into the tent throughout the duration of the ceremony. You enter through a small opening, lay on the ground, listen to drums or chanting, and get washed with medicinal herbs as you sweat out your ailments.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, they noted that a Temazcal was a regular, almost daily, ritual among the Mexicans. The custom was preserved and is still a part of modern-day healing in Mexico.
History of Temazcal Ceremonies
Temazcal is a Nahuatl word, the language of the Aztecs. The ritual dates back to the ancient Mayans. They performed Temazcal ceremonies on soldiers returning from battle. It had a much wider use than that, however. The Spanish conquerors documented its frequent use and called it an integral part of the medicine they found there. It was used to treat and heal almost all ailments and support pregnancy and childbirth.
Temazcalteci, the goddess of the sweat bath, was worshipped by people who had Temazcals at their homes. She represented a grandmother figure who taught how to use medicinal herbs to maintain health and drive away illness. It is not uncommon to find a photo of her hanging in a Temazcal.
There are certain requirements to be in alignment with the ancient Temazcal doctrine. Each carries with it a spiritual meaning. The symbolism goes much deeper than what I share here, but you’ll have to experience a Temazcal to glean it all.
The small, dark, steamy environment of the dome-like sweat house represents a mother’s womb. When sick people crawled in they were returning to the womb to reconnect with the self and be reborn again healthy.
The inside should be small, dark, warm, and humid – resembling the environment of a uterus. The door must be closed to cut off the outside world to allow everyone to be in complete darkness and look inward. The entry must be small and low to the ground. Re-emerging through the small entry represents rebirth.
Cosmic Cardinal Directions
The orientation of the Temazcal and its elements should be in alignment with the cosmic cardinal directions – north, south, east, west, and center.
East corresponds with the element Fire and represents new beginnings. The fire heating the stone should be placed on the east side of the Temazcal.
The south corresponds with the element water and represents life, renewal, and perseverance.
West corresponds with the element earth and represents the darkness that everyone must face in life and within themselves.
North corresponds with the element air and represents wisdom, communication, and reflection.
The center corresponds with spirit and represents reunification with self and all things. This is where the hot stones should be placed.
Mesoamerica was a cultural region that extends from central Mexico through most of Central America. So naturally, the Temazcal ceremonies are going differ slightly based on the cultural and tribal origins of the shaman or guide. Some may incorporate music, chanting, different symbolism, different phrases that you say when you enter the Temazcal, etc.
Generally, however, each person is cleansed with the smoke of copal (an aromatic tree resin) and then says a phrase (which varies) but is along the lines of “for all of my relationships” before they enter. This is both a request to enter and to ask that the purification extends to all of your relationships.
There are typically several sessions, or rounds, to the ceremony (4), and yes they also coincide with the elements and cardinal directions and elements. Some Temazcal ceremonies last around 2 hours and others can last much longer. Part of the purpose of the duration is to enable the participants to connect to their inner strength in order to overcome the challenges that the ceremony presents.
The Temazcal ceremony is not particularly pleasant. It can be challenging for those who are not used to exposure to heat for longer periods of time. The temperature is similar to that of a Bikram yoga class, but it’s a steamier and smaller space and the duration of the ceremony is much longer. It can be a very tough and emotional experience so be open to whatever may come up for you.
Afterward, you can usually cool off in a natural pool, or cold plunge. You’ll likely enjoy fresh fruit and the company of the community you just created.
Benefits of a Temazcal Ceremony
There are amazing benefits for the physical body, and if you let yourself fully commit you’ll experience transformative mental and spiritual benefits as well.
The heat activates thermoregulation (increased blood flow and sweating), stimulating both superficial and deep blood circulation. Increased circulation brings more blood to all of the muscles, organs, and tissues, and supports joint health.
This can happen in all high-heat environments including exercise but the Temazcal facilitator is thought to control the heat, the timing, etc, to maximize the healing effects of the bath.
Medicinal herbs are placed on the heated rocks and diffused when water is thrown on them. These support the immune system.
The extreme sweating that happens detoxes the body of toxins and heavy metals – cleansing and purifying physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The heat, the intention setting, and the ritualistic components are believed to purify the mind in addition to the physical body.
Overcoming the challenge of completing a Temazcal ceremony contributes to personal growth. It allows you to see your capabilities more clearly.
The ceremony is believed to heal old traumas, to release fears, anger, negativity, and energy blockages. Anything that is not serving you anymore, holding you back, or keeping you stagnant is released through the power of the ceremony.
Temazcals have been used to treat anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
Where Can I do a Temazcal Ceremony in Mexico?
Traditional Temazcal ceremonies can be found all over Mexico. There is a particular concentration in Tepoztlán. For the best Temazcal ceremonies, and experiences check out these posts – Temazcal Ceremony Tulum, and Temazcal Ceremony Oaxaca [coming soon].
*Always do your research to ensure you are participating in an ethical ceremony, meaning the bulk of the money goes directly to the Temazcal hosts, and back into the local community. While Temazcals are not major tourist activities, you still want to make sure you are not supporting an exploitative experience.
Things to Know Before Doing A Temazcal
Hydrate….a lot! Drink extra water the day before and the morning before the ceremony and then replenish afterward.
Don’t wear your favorite bathing suit or clothes because you’ll likely be sitting on a natural floor or bench – earth, dirt, clay.
Always show respect when you are invited to engage in a cultural experience. In these moments I like to think about the phrase “you have two ears and one mouth for a reason”. Listen, observe, and show gratitude.
Go in with an open mind – the ceremony will be what you make of it. Let yourself submit to the un-comfiness, the heat, the close proximity to others, and the components that are out of your comfort zone.
And of course, don’t push yourself past your limit. If you need to exit, it’s okay.
If you are ever in Mexico, Guatemala, or another central American region and have the opportunity to participate in a Temazcal ceremony, I encourage you to do it! You will not only reap the many benefits, but you’ll connect with the culture on a deeper level as well. Cheers!