My Haunting After a Temazcal Sweat Ritual
“Warrior, why are you here?”
The echo of the words, spoken by a shaman in the temazcal linger. I hear them still at random moments. I think of them when I am alone and wondering about my purpose and I suspect that to be their intention. They were meant to stay in my mind long after the shaman has gone, living and permeating everything like the steam of lava rocks in a sacred ritual.
It’s jarring because I didn’t expect it. “It” being the shaman that took up permanent residence in my head. But I can see it now, looking back. The chanting, touching, breathing, praying — it was intended to stay with me. Of course, it was. I just didn’t expect it from an Airbnb experience that started with an over-full Uber ride.
I’d first learned about temazcals when I was in Puerto Vallarta several weeks earlier. I was on a hike with a guide looking for a waterfall in a place called Yelapa. We were a bit lost (so much for hiring a guide) and chatting about being in jungles. I mentioned that I’d once had a spiritual cleansing by a shaman in a jungle outside of Tulum, and she told me about the temazcal ritual she’d participated in the week before.
“What’s a temazcal?” I asked. Like many, I was looking for relief or a way to destress. Not finding the release in my own culture, I’ve veered toward the edges of others. I’ve tried, and practice yoga, meditation, journaling … but I needed a shot in the arm.
A temazcal, she explained, was something done by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica. It’s a sweat lodge-style ritual led by a shaman — in this case, a temazcalero. Participants enter a low stone or clay hut-like structure with steaming rocks that make them sweat like crazy. It’s good spiritually and for health and therapeutic benefits. While in the steaming temazcal, the temazcalero leads the group in a ceremony that could last up to two hours or more.
I’d always been intrigued by sweat lodge experiences and also firmly against ever trying one. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to breathe. Still, I peppered her with questions when she talked about including various herbs, oils, cacao and other elements they use in the ceremony. I was sure I’d never try one.
A few weeks later, I arrived in Mexico City and didn’t think of it again. Then, one night while scrolling Airbnb experiences, I saw the word “temazcal.” Without thinking, I booked the experience. This one seemed kitschy and therefore probably not very authentic, which in this instance, made me feel better about doing it. Otherwise, I would have never committed.
I was instructed to go to Starbucks a few neighborhoods over. There 10 of us met and carpooled in Ubers to about 30 minutes outside of Mexico City. This was precisely what I was ready to handle. Big box, commercial spiritualism. But in the end, it’s not what I would get. Not even close.
On the way there, I got to know the people I was with. There was another solo woman like me, but she was from Atlanta. There was the spiritual teacher and her staff of three women on a work retreat, two women from San Diego, and a German couple with incredibly open ideas about nudity.
I distracted my nerves by trying to keep my leg off my cramped neighbor and getting to know the others. I asked them questions during the entire ride. I was nervous because I’m an anxious breather, and I get a bit claustrophobic. Plus, my research said the heat and sweating would be intense. It was a scary thought that I’d be trapped in extreme heat and darkness with these strangers. Suddenly, I was second-guessing what the hell I was doing, thus the chatter. I needed a distraction.
We exited the freeway into a suburb. I use the term suburb to mean only an abundance of housing and some businesses. But, like everything in Mexico, it is a grand spectacle of mixed constructions, cobbled streets, and tarp and pallet shacks. Electrical wires hung in a dizzying array over the buildings that were every color of the rainbow. As we drove past, vendors shouted at us to stop and buy their wares. Believe it or not, that tactic works well in Mexico. I’ve been with many drivers who’ve stopped to make a purchase. One driver got most of his grocery shopping done this way.
Finally, we drove down a dark side road and up a hill, away from the din of the town, until we reached a large property. The city’s lights glowed in the distance, but the sound no longer came to us. We all stretched luxuriously once out of the sardine can car.
Several acres contained herbal gardens, plants and trees. There were large open spaces where we could see evidence of past spiritual rituals conducted under the moon’s light. Further back, I saw a fire, and that’s where we headed.
We walked across the lawn, spotting here and there, wheels of dried flowers lying in the grass. Butterflies flitted past, and a small dog followed at our heels. The sun set in a golden spectacle, and the night turned first pink, then blue and finally purple. Our talking turned to whispers and then silence.
The shaman, Huitzi, waited with helpers in a far corner, stoking massive stones in a big fire. The fire pit was made of clay and formed in the shape of many animals. I could see a dog, jaguar, snake, and a feathered serpent in it. I could see Huitzi less clearly. Even now, he is a faint impression of a person in my memory. I knew that he had mahogany skin and grey-black hair; he was neither tall nor thin nor young nor old. I don’t know what he wore, other than to say it didn’t catch my attention. Nothing about him caught my attention, and now I realize it must be as he wanted it.
Next to Huitzi was the temazcal. It was formed from the earth it sat on, as big as a round king bed, and low to the ground. The beige clay on its surface was shaped into patterns and whorls, like a tree that grew from the earth itself.
The shaman didn’t speak English, but Luis, our guide, translated masterfully. Huitzi gave us a small brown clay mug that rested on a tree stump next to him. It was filled with steaming cacao to open our minds, he said. It tasted like thin, chocolate-flavored hot water. While we drank, we shed our clothes and revealed bathing suits. The Germans fully undressed in the open, and I remembered that not all cultures were as conservative as mine.
Huitzi said cacao is a powerful tool to go deeper into visualization and shamanic journeying. It would assist us in energetic healing, receiving clarity and opening our intuitive abilities. We drank it and listened as he told us the history of the temazcal.
This steam sweat lodge is the setting for a 2,500-year-old ritual intended to illuminate a pathway into the inner self and begin a rebirth of love in your soul. Huitzi, a Mayan, said his family has been doing them for hundreds of years.
Then, one by one, we approached Huitzi, and he cleansed us with copal incense smoke and a blessing to cast away any negative spirits. I stood, arms out to my side as he held an orange clay pot with a long handle made of the same material. He blew the smoke around my entire body and asked me to place my hands in front to receive. I cupped them like holding water, and he blew the smoke into them.
“Be free,” he said and gestured for me to enter the temazcal behind him.
I got on my knees to crawl into the dark mouth. I couldn’t see anything, but I could feel straw mats under my hands and knees. I debated sitting right by the door in case I wanted to get out, but that would mean everyone after would have to crawl over me to find a spot. So, I found a place against the wall on the left side in the back.
Slowly, each person entered and chose a spot until we were all knee to knee in the darkness. Huitzi lit a candle, and we could see again. The clay earth surrounded us, held us — the ceiling just a foot above our heads. I could have risen to my knees but no higher.
I can’t begin to recall all that happened or was said in the temazcal. My consciousness only allows so much, and not all of it is my story to tell. But I can share some things.
Huitzi told us to let go of who we were and the problems that brought us to this place. He said we should accept that the universe had led us here and would be on a new path, a greater purpose when we left it.
“Warriors,” he repeatedly asked, “Why are you here?”
At first, I thought he wanted to know why we came to this place for this ritual and that he expected an answer, but I was wrong. He challenged us to examine why we are on earth now, in this time as the people we are in the places we dwell.
While Huitzi spoke and Luis translated, another man brought stones from the fire into the center of the temazcal. The rocks were the size of footballs and glowed a raging red. The man brought them to the door, and Huitzi took the big fork that held them and placed them in the center of the pit. Stone after stone after stone he placed. It seemed for a long time this happened, and I watched in wonder and thought it might never end. The stones thudded down and sizzled as if they had their own story to tell.
Finally, when they were stacked as high as they could be and we were already searing hot, he dropped a thick cloth over the doorway covering it. Then in a show for the last second of our sight, he threw a ladle of water over the rocks and our candle, extinguishing their glow and leaving us in steaming darkness.
Sweat was already dripping down my back and pooling on my upper lip. I shifted my weight, crossing and re-crossing my legs, uncomfortable with my choice to do this to myself. My body wanted to rebel. I turned my eyes to where the door should be but could see nothing.
Then, Huitzi began to tell a story about how he became a shaman, and I settled in to listen — forcing calm second by second. He said he found a bird when he was a boy, and that wise bird taught him many things. “Hoo, hoo, hoo,” he said, speaking in the voice of the bird. “Coo, coo,” he said.
As he told his story, he passed around a wooden tray of big aloe leaves, and we smeared them all over our bodies. “Do more, more, smash it up and put it everywhere,” he said through Luis.
“Hoo, hoo,” he continued, telling more of his story. He passed around a wooden bowl filled with honey, and we scooped it out and smeared it all over our bodies too. Vaguely, as I slathered the honey in my hair, I realized I must be insane.
“Warriors,” he said, “Do not be afraid.”
He splashed more of the fragrant water on the stones, making them steam wildly. The sweat poured from me; the aloe was cool, the honey, sweet on my lips. I’ve been running from and chasing my fear for a long time, shaman. I’m made an entire life from fear, I thought. Fear of love and death, poverty and failure. Fear too of living and success and love you’re so afraid to lose you forgo it entirely. I’ve been caught in fear’s grasp for a long time.
“Do not be afraid of fear,” he said. “Embrace it because it is your most loyal friend. Embrace your fear because when all else leaves you, even love, your fear will remain. Even as you take your last breath on this earth, your fear will be by your side.”
The stones howled when the water hit them, and I cringed back, afraid until finally, I wasn’t anymore. I thought I couldn’t breathe, but I could. Absolutely I could, and I stopped thinking about it. I stared with my eyes wide open, seeing nothing, feeling everything. I’d always thought fear was something I should despise, but maybe it can be something else? Maybe it can be the passion that fuels me.
“Warriors,” he yelled. “Why are you here?”
On and on, he talked, chanted, yelled. “Hoo, hoo, hoo,” he said, interspersing his story with the coos of the wise owl. Time passed, and many things my soul needlessly held passed with it on a current going away from me. New thoughts and emotions came to mind. What am I afraid of? We are only drawing words in water with a stick. Everything is eventually pulled into the endless flow. Nothing will change that, so why waste time being afraid?
Huitzi passed another bowl filled with orange slices, and we ate them greedily, the juice flowing freely down my face. He threw more herb water on the rocks, and they sizzled manically, and his voice rose in power and volume, the shaman and his translator yelling in sequence in two languages until my mind was filled with nothing else. We were animals, mindless and filled with the universe.
Finally, he shouted, “Warriors!” Then softly, “Warriors, be free.”
The echo of those words lives inside me, haunting, changing me for the better.