In this space, humans can be reborn. For every pain that afflicts the physical, emotional, or spiritual body, there is a healing treatment that integrates the four elements. It is a ritual that brings to life a continuous dialogue with nature and eases pains, fears, and sadness – the temazcal.
Temazcal comes from the Nahuatl word temazcalli — temaz which means ‘sweat house’ and calli which means ‘home’. It is a steam bath used in traditional Mesoamerican medicine practices that acts to ease sickness and disequilibrium related to physical, emotional, and spiritual ailments.
Beyond the healing powers of the steam bath, a person can benefit from the natural, social, and cultural context of the process. The temazcal forms a part of diverse beliefs, traditions, norms, and systems of organization in Oaxaca. The social relevance of the temazcal comes from the common agreement that health equals life balance. Therefore, according to traditional doctors and those who believe in this ritual, people can broadly benefit from the temazcal because it helps restore this balance.
A temazcal is usually made from stones and adobe. For many, it is like a sauna or a steam bath, but the experience is not the same because the temazcal includes other elements such as herbal infusions and a healer – a temazcalera – who acts as a guide.
Carmen Vásquez Maldonado is from Santiago Laxopa, Ixtlán. She shared with us how she practices as a temazcalera every weekend in the valley community of San Andrés Huayapam. She considers her work to be a service. It is a job in which she forms part of the well-being of the people she guides in the temazcal.
“People come because they want to relax and feel better and they achieve that as they breathe in the herbs while resting. In the temazcal, they sweat out all the body’s toxins. Some people come to treat respiratory diseases, muscle pains, headaches, stomach aches, or to rest the body, after a fall or after giving birth.”
While the temazcal ritual varies depending on where it is performed, the space does not exceed five meters in diameter and half a meter in height. Inside the temazcal, it is between 30 to 40 degrees Celsius. It is important that any person who wants to go to a temazcal is prepared for this high temperature and that they only practice at a certified temazcal that has the appropriate security parameters and a guide who can help, adjust, and contribute to the understanding of the practice.
Some of the plants used in the steam bath include eucalyptus leaves, mullein, pepper, and rosemary. During the ritual, a mix of these herbs is sprinkled on hot stones. In her temazcal, Carmen seeks to keep people hydrated by preparing pennyroyal tea for those participating.
“It is also believed that you can connect with the earth and its surroundings via the temazcal. This is how you can cleanse yourself. Entering the temazcal, it is comparable to returning to your mother’s womb; when you finish it, you are reborn, because your body has been purified via sweating.”
The guide recommends that those who have not tried this type of ritual begin by practicing at least once a year. She suggests that those who want to purify the body, mind, and spirit should practice it once a month, and even as frequently as once a week. However, the frequency of the practice depends on the rhythm and disposition of a person’s body.
“Once a month is good to help the body to rest and relax. I first give them a massage with cinnamon oil so that the body warms up and then I send them to the temazcal. The temazcal is small and has room for one or two people. They spend 40 minutes in the temazcal or as long as each person can endure. We regulate the temperature to suit the people in the temazcal.”
The temazcal where Carmen works is from Hotel Huayapam Yù’ú, where she recommends wearing undergarments or a swimsuit. In addition to being a trained guide, she is a believer in this type of healing and performs it often in her native Laxopa where people of all ages come to be cured.
“There are people who come out of curiosity to relax and people who don’t feel well and come to heal, while others just come to chill out. I recommend that they go to the temazcal in the afternoon and that afterwards, they go rest. There is no age limit, although there are many myths that, for example, the idea that older people shouldn’t enter because of the high pressure or some disease. However, whoever wants to participate in a temazcal can go while taking necessary precautions.”
In some places, at the end of the steam bath, participants have the option to rest under a cold-water sprinkler. However, Carmen prefers to end each session with a 10-minute break in bed. “They will return home smelling of herbs.”
“The steam helps blood clots. In my town, many people go to a temazcal to heal bruises or for rheumatism. The temazcal is also recommended to help deal with sadness. Some people come and cry in the temazcal. They say that it feels better to let it all out.”
Carmen says that in Laxopa, people go to the temazcal when they feel very tired. Some women also go after childbirth. “For me, it’s a way to help people deal with stress. I am happy because they leave happy and they feel better,” says Carmen as she enters the temazcal to light the fire.