Earth is my body
Water is my blood
Wind is my breath
Fire is my spirit
We are rhythmically chanting this verse inside a Temazcal (prehispanic steam bath) at Na’Lu’um (Maya for Mother Earth) just outside Mérida while sweat pours from our open pores and runs down our drenched skin. As we chant we each play an ancient instrument: the drum, the sticks (claves), the conch, or a pair of decorated gourds filled with dry seeds.
Our guía, Roberto Garcia, leads us in our quest to experience the therapeutic and spiritual purifications of an Aztec/Mayan sweat bath or Temazcal. The name comes from two Nahuatl words: temas which means bath and calli meaning house.
Shaped like an igloo and low to the ground (you cannot stand up inside), the Temazcal represents the womb of Mother Earth. We are returning to the womb to be reborn, refreshed and detoxified. Before entering, we drink a juice of chaya, cucumber and carrot for energy. A few hours prior to our session, we have eaten only a light lunch.
The area surrounding the Temazcal is blessed with incense in the four cosmic directions: north, south, east, west, which also represent the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire. Roberto asks our names. With our eyes closed and arms held out to our sides, he invokes our names while performing a ritual of cleanliness and dedication as he passes a bouquet of chamomile (for tranquillity) around and over us, seeking to release our toxins and renew our spirit.
We wear simple, loose clothing, although the original baths were taken in the nude. We will experience two, and not the four doors, of the Temazcal. Our two sessions are expected to last between 30 and 45 minutes depending on our comfort.
Following the pre-ceremony, we are ready to enter the womb of Mother Earth through the small, low opening oriented towards the south, “the pathway of the dead”, which begins with birth and ends with death. This symbolizes the duality of life: mother and father, hot and cold, good and evil, left and right, birth and death. As soon as we are born, we begin our journey towards death.
As we each kneel at the opening, we are instructed to utter In Láak’ Kech to greet and welcome the brotherhood of man as we merge into one. We bow reverently to our Earth Mother and then say A Láak’ Kin to seal the greeting. These two phrases are used each time one of us wishes to speak inside the Temazcal: the first one to ask permission to speak, the second granting that permission.
Inside the womb, we must move clockwise in a circle, left to right, following the movement of the planet system around the sun. Each of us sits on a towel with a sprig of basil (for circulatory powers) lying on the top-left side of the towel. Beside Roberto lies a wooden serpent-carved staff of Kukulcan representing the four elements: earth, water, wind and fire that will keep us safe while we are together in the chamber. The musical instruments are near us. A bouquet of rosemary and thyme hangs from the top of the Temazcal below the small opening on the roof.
A ceremony prepares the lava rocks that have been heated in a separate fireplace facing east where our Father, the sun, rises. Their placement in the center well of the chamber symbolizes the moment of conception within the womb. As each red hot rock is lowered into the center space, we are asked to use a piece of hardened copal tree resin and draw a cross to denote the four directions of the universe and the four elements of life. Pails of herbal water are placed near the hot rocks to produce the steam.
Finally, the door is closed and the hole in the top of the structure is sealed. We are in complete darkness and, after the hissing of water, we feel the high heat emanating from the hot lava rocks.
We now begin our journey of rebirth.
Roberto welcomes us into the womb of Mother Earth and asks our reasons for coming. While we sweat, it is his job to gauge the heat of the bath and our comfort level. It is our job to look within ourselves for spiritual cleanliness while the sweating removes our physical toxins.
Picking up the instruments, we chant and sing; we also practise deep breathing. Sometimes we kneel, sometimes we lie in the fetal position, all the while we sweat profusely. We take our chamomile bouquet and begin rubbing the herb over our entire bodies, beginning with the left leg and foot, to help remove our toxins.
Without us realizing the passage of 45 minutes, Roberto suddenly instructs us to call for the opening of the door. As the cool night air slowly enters the chamber we are invited to eat slices of orange. We do not leave the Temazcal session, but during the break, we receive additional lava rocks inducing the same respectful ceremony.
Again the door and top are sealed and we are plunged into darkness once more, ready to continue our sweat bath.
When the second door session ends – after approximately 30 minutes – we exit the womb in the same clockwise direction we entered. Crawling backwards out of the chamber, we are greeted by attendants who encircle us with white, fluffy towels. We can take a cool dip in a non-chlorinated pool or a cool shower, bearing in mind our pores are open, and remain so, for at least an hour. It is wise we do not get chilled or take ‘aires’ or drafts during this time.
Once we cool and return to normal, we sit beneath a clear night sky in which floats a crescent moon surrounded by bright stars and enjoy a fresh fruit cocktail, a drink of rice, soya and chocolate, and finally a delicious vegetable soup prepared without condiments.
The Temazcal is reputed for its positive health benefits. Research from Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba, Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli A.C., attests to this theory.
He reports that overheating of the body (during the bath, the body temperature may reach 40 C /104 F) produces a series of reactions: it stimulates both the superficial and the deep blood circulation, accelerates the frequency of heartbeats, as well as increases their force, calls into action the mechanisms of thermal regulation, activates the metabolism, and promotes sweating. All of these effects produce a great internal movement of energy and liquids, somewhat similar to the way in which strenuous exercise does, bringing increased circulation to all the muscles, organs and tissues. While all sweat baths produce these effects, the Temazcal, because of the way it works and the precision with which it can be regulated by the healer in charge of the bath, controls these body reactions to high heat to maximize the curative effects.
The high heat and high humidity, taken together, produce their healing effects, basically through reducing or impeding the body’s mechanism for cooling itself. The heat, higher than normal body temperature, induces sweating; the high humidity inhibits the evaporation of the sweat, the chief method through which the body normally cools itself. Blood circulation is therefore increased, sweating is increased, and the elimination of toxins is maximized. It is said that every liter of sweat lost in the Temazcal is equivalent to a full day’s work by the kidneys!
My husband and I are convinced of the Temazcal’s physical and spiritual benefits and are ready for another close encounter with the sweat bath.
Directions from Merida:
To get to Na’ Lu’um, turn off the Mérida pereferico at the Cancun exit on highway 180. Then take the Mayapan exit onto the Carretera Merida-Chetumal to Km 22.9. The Temazcal is performed Tuesday and Saturday.