Inside Mexico’s temazcals: How the ancient Aztec healing ritual taught me self-reliance

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I’m curled in the fetal position in Mexico, wearing nothing but a swimsuit, in the near-pitch black of an adobe dome so small I had to crawl inside on my hands and knees. Outside, the air is 32 degrees. It’s late July, rainy season in Nayarit, on the western coast. The jungle is steaming gently in the golden afternoon light. 

Inside the dome, it’s a different matter. It’s even hotter – at least 39 degrees – the kind of heat that makes you gasp, then wish you hadn’t as your lungs singe like steak on a barbecue. 

It’s my first temazcal ceremony: a pre-Hispanic wellness ritual, popular with Mesoamerican tribes for thousands of years. Between the heat and the sense of claustrophobia, a result of being so tightly wedged between strangers, I rather wish I wasn’t here.

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Every time you feel overwhelmed, return to your breath

The same idea has clearly occurred to another first-timer, an older man who stands up (or rather rises to a crouch) and lunges for the only one of the four doors that remains open. 

“No, no, no,” says Sol, the temazcalero (spiritual guide), kindly but firmly. “This is a sacred space. We are all on this journey together. It’s true that this is not an easy ritual, but that’s what makes the medicine so powerful. Every time you feel overwhelmed, just return to your breath and trust that you are safe.” The would-be deserter sinks down slowly, resigning himself to his fate. I try and do the same. 

The name temazcal derives from two words in the ancient Nahuatl language – temaz meaning sweat house and calli, which means home. The ritual is a chance to sweat out toxins, as well as rebalance the mind and body. It is becoming increasingly popular among Mexicans to treat mental-health conditions, such as anxiety and mild depression, as well as skin complaints, circulation issues, respiratory illnesses and sleep problems. 

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The ritual is a chance to sweat out toxins and rebalance the mind

Although every ceremony is different, depending on who is running it and where, they share certain characteristics: four doors, each symbolizing one of the elements; a pit in the middle of the dome, filled with stones heated over a wood fire outside; four rounds, usually around 15-minutes each, with the doors opened briefly in between, so more stones can be added.

This particular temazcal is a small, private event in Sol’s backyard, an idyllic swathe of green in Las Lomas, a pocket-sized pueblo (village) with just 135 residents. I’ve been invited through a mutual friend. However, every community in Mexico has its own (mostly donations-based) temazcal, as do many hotels. 

At Paradero in Todo Santos, private temazcals are offered, alongside a selection of wellness rituals inspired by Mexico’s indigenous cultures. Pitched among a patchwork of jungle and cenotes (swimmable sinkholes), Chablé Yucatan offers ceremonies rooted in Mayan spirituality.

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Every community in Mexico has its own temazcal

At my temazcal, the firestarter (in charge of heating the rocks and bringing them inside) is a man named Hector. As he stokes the enormous bonfire before the ceremony, he explains more about its symbolism. 

“The shape of the structure refers to the resemblance between the material and spiritual worlds. The half you see represents Mother Earth’s womb. The other half is in the underworld where the spirits sit. The fire represents the wisdom of the grandfather and the stones the grandmother. The whole ceremony is a journey of rebirth – no one comes out the same.”

Once the first stones have been brought in, the door is covered and we’re plunged into darkness. Waves of panic rise in my throat. How will I get through the next hour? I can’t stay in a normal sauna for longer than 10-minutes. Sol’s voice merges with the steam: “Now is the time to set your intention: why did you feel drawn to seek out this medicine?” 

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The whole ceremony is a journey of rebirth

I try to pinpoint exactly what’s making me so afraid. Gradually, I realize it’s the first time in a long time I’ve felt so completely out of control. As a self-employed, solo travel writer, I’m normally calling the shots when it comes to how I spend my time. 

Of late, I’ve had a creeping sense that I’m living within my comfort zone – sure, my job involves adventure, but only those that I actively seek out. Going back to my intention, the words that come to mind are “surrender” and “trust”. Surrender to the fear, the claustrophobia, the physical discomfort. I can’t call on my support network, distract myself with social media, or sink a glass of wine to get through this one. All I’ve got is myself – and I just have to trust I can cope. 

Sol beats a drum that represents a mother’s heartbeat. He breaks into a chant called Tierra mi Cuerpo, which has four lines repeated four times. Regular attendees join in and I’m briefly distracted from the heat as I snatch the odd word with my limited Spanish: “Earth is my body; water is my blood; air is my breath; fire my spirit.”

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Sol beats the drum and begins chanting

Each of the 15-minute sections represent a different element. As per the chant, the first is earth. I become aware of the dust below me absorbing my sweat and then, bizarrely, an urgent sense of gratitude for my mother far away back home, whom I haven’t seen for months. 

For the first time, I realize how brave she was to become pregnant for a second time after the traumatic birth of my older sister. How strong her desire to bring me into the world must have been to go through that whole process again, barely 16 months later. When the door is uncovered, I’m amazed to feel tears mingling with the sweat.

Gradually, we work our way through water, wind and fire. Each has a physical symbolism: droplets of water flecked on our hot skin with a bundle of fragrant herbs, a second door briefly opened to create a cross draft, and some extra stones added to make the temperature even hotter for the fiery finale. For each element, the group sings three more songs, some in Spanish and some in Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Mayans.

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The heat has squeezed everything from me

When I crawl out after an hour, my back and legs are screaming to stretch. I’m unclear if I’ve been slipping in and out of deep meditation or consciousness. The heat has squeezed every drop of liquid from my body: sweat, tears, everything.

However, the dominant feeling is a sense of empowerment, as well as a presence more complete than I’ve ever experienced. The jungle seems even greener, the mango someone hands me tastes nectar-sweet. When I see Sol, he looks me in the eye and asks: “Better now?”. Happily, I nod.

Follow in Imogen Lepere’s footsteps by joining Flash Pack’s new 10-day adventure in Mexico, which takes  in the rainbow-colored streets of Puebla, an all-action Lucha Libre wrestling match, street food and mezcal in Oaxaca, and the Pacific Coast beach town of Puerto Escondido.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: ©Cassandra Bradshaw, Adobe Stock & Unsplash 

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