Temazcal: Traditional Mexican Sweat Lodge

Sweat it all out in a traditional Mexican steam bath

A temazcal structure for steam bath
© Suzanne Barbezat

A temazcal is a traditional Mexican steam bath that is in many ways similar to the Native American sweat lodge. Besides promoting physical well-being and healing, the temazcal is also a ritual and spiritual practice in which traditional healing methods are used to encourage reflection and introspection. While the body rids itself of toxins through sweating, the spirit is renewed through ritual. The temazcal is thought to represent the womb and people coming out of the bath are, in a symbolic sense, re-born.

This sweat lodge ritual takes place in a circular, dome-shaped structure made of stone or mud. The size can vary; it may accommodate from two and up to twenty people The structure itself is also referred to as a temazcal. The word temazcal comes from the Nahuatl word "temazcalli" (the language of the Aztecs), although many of the indigenous groups had this practice, including the Mayans, Toltecs, and Zapotecs. It is a combination of the words tema , meaning "steam" or "bath," and calli, meaning "house." The leader or guide of the temazcal experience is usually a curandero (a healer or medicine man or woman), and may be referred to as a temazcalero. 

History

Temazcales were used in pre-Hispanic times: many vestiges of ancient sweat lodges have been found within ceremonial centers, and interestingly, frequently associated with ball courts. The construction was similar to that of palaces and temples, and their size, in comparison with modern examples, shows that they were buildings of great importance.

Temazcales represented a place of transition, similar to a cave or womb - a symbolic passage between the heavens and the underworld. They were used for both ritual and medical practices by priests, warriors and players of the Mesoamerican ball game.

What Happens in the Temazcal

In the traditional temazcal, hot river rocks are heated on a fire outside the structure and are brought in when they are red hot and placed in the center of the lodge.

They may bring in a new batch of hot rocks at a few different intervals during the ritual (traditionally four times). More modern structures are heated with gas rather than with hot rocks heated on a wood fire. Participants enter the temazcal when it is already hot. In some cases, they may be encouraged to slather mud on their skin before entering the temazcal. Water that may have herbs soaking in it is thrown onto the hot rocks to create fragrant steam and increase the heat and steam.

During the time in a temazal, which will usually last between twenty minutes and one hour, the people inside sweat and may participate in a ceremony, rub their bodies with aloe, or swat themselves with herbs. They may drink water or tea inside the temazcal. Upon exiting, participants may be invited to bathe in cold water by taking a quick dip in a cenote, the ocean or a pool, or to take a cold shower. In other cases, they may be wrapped in towels and their body temperature is allowed to come down more gradually. 

If you plan to take a temazcal:

Don't eat heavy foods before entering the temazcal. Have light meals on the day of the experience, and avoid alcohol, as it dehydrates. Drink plenty of water before, during and after taking the temazcal.

Bring a bathing suit, towel and sandals or flip-flops. Usually for group temazcal experiences participants wear bathing suits. If yours is a small group you may agree to forego the swimsuits.  

Keep an open mind. Some aspects of the ritual may seem silly or strange, but if you keep an open mind and go along with it you may find that you get more out of it than you anticipated. 

Some people worry about how they will cope with the heat. If this is your case, ask to sit close to the door: it will be slightly cooler and if you need to leave it will be less disruptive to other participants. If you feel too hot or like you can't breathe, tell the leader how you're feeling and put your head down close to the floor where the air is a bit cooler. Try to relax and just be aware of how you're feeling. Some temazcaleros frown on participants withdrawing from the ceremony before the conclusion as it is disruptive for the group, but of course if you feel very uncomfortable you are always free to leave.

Where to experience it: 

You will find temazcal experiences offered in indigenous villages and day spas throughout the country, and also at a variety of resort spas, including the following:

  • Maroma Resort & Spa: Offered at dusk, this treatment includes ancient traditional, chants and meditation and aloe vera to rub on your body.
  • Rosewood Mayakoba: The Temazcal Journey treatment offers a purifying steam bath designed to tighten and hydrate the skin.
  • Tides Riviera Maya: The Tides' full-service "jungle spa" in the Riviera Maya also includes a beachfront yoga studio, fitness equipment, and a Maya Temazcal.
  • Ceiba del Mar: Participate in an elaborate, guided tour and cleansing ceremony before entering the Temazcal; once inside, you'll experience a four-part ritual once inside, with drums, maracas, and chanting.

Pronunciation: teh-mas-kal

Also Known As: steam bath, sweat lodge

Alternate Spellings: temascal

Common Misspellings: temezcal, temescal