I take a deep breath as the puerta to the clay hut in which I sit is closed. Darkness permeates the space as I settle into place, readying my mind for what’s to come. Words I do not understand are chanted by a shaman while he douses the hot rocks in front of me with a bouquet of water-soaked eucalyptus, filling the cramped structure with hisses of steam. Soon, every inch of my skin is drenched. I breathe again, this time feeling less anxious about my claustrophobia and more comfortable with what’s unfolding here. This is a temazcal, and I am about to be reborn.
What is a temazcal?
Dating back thousands years, the temazcal is a prehispanic tradition practiced throughout Mesoamerica. The powerful purification ceremony was very commonplace in ancient times and was used for many purposes, from treating illness to preparing for war.
Basically, the ritual involves crawling into a rounded mud hut (also known as a temazcal), which symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth. During the ceremony – which can last for hours – the participant will chant, set intentions and not surprisingly, sweat. A lot.
Sitting on the ground in darkness provides an opportunity to connect with one’s body and soul. Crawling out of the hut (or womb) represents returning to the world as a reborn human.
Although not as commonly practiced as it once was, the temazcal still exists throughout Mexico (and many parts of the Americas, really), though most people today opt to participate in one to experience a release and have a chance to cleanse the body and mind. (The high-intensity heat helps the body to purge itself of toxins, while the meditative and intention-setting aspects of the experience help to heal the mind of past traumas and negative energy.)
The adventure begins
Marking the end of the wild ride that was 2020, I decided to start the new year by cleansing myself of any lingering bad juju by signing up for one I came across listed on Airbnb’s Experiences platform. (This has become my go-to site for finding unique activities when traveling to new places.
Unlike standard tours, these small group experiences are very intimate and allow you to genuinely connect with true local experts. If you haven’t tried one yet, you’re missing out!)
My Experience host, Luis Belmonte, picked me up in Condesa around 6:30pm and by the time we arrived at Ectagono, a sustainability-focused farm in southwestern Mexico City, the full moon was high in the sky. Despite being in the city, I felt as if I could’ve been in a small town. It was so quiet and peaceful.
As I got my bearings, nervousness set in. Here I was, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, about to participate in an ancient ritual that involved a tiny space and very high heat. What was I doing?
I then met Javier Moctezuma, the shaman that would be leading the ceremony. He had a calming energy that was immediately noticeable. Introductions were made over a cup of hot cacao. Known as the “food of the gods” to the Mayans, the beverage, made from cocoa beans, was often consumed in rituals and healing processes.
Not tainted by sugar or dairy, pure cacao is absolutely delightful and has positive effects on the mind. After meeting Javier and finishing my cup, I felt far more at ease and ready for whatever was to come.
Next, Javier led us in a dance lesson of sorts while Luis interpreted his explanation. The dance moves, which are closely linked to the four directions, followed a beautiful rhythm, created by Javier on his drum. Although we all had a bit of a difficult time following (God knows I looked incredibly awkward), our dancing together created a sense of bonding among the group and warmed us up, as the temperatures had dropped quite a bit at this point.
We’d later dance these same motions – in our minds – in the hut. We changed into our bathing suits and were ready to start the ceremony.
Returning to Mother
Before we entered the sweat lodge, we offered our intentions and prayers to the Aztec god Ōmeteōtl, each tossing a pinch of a plant mixture into the fire which heated the rocks that would be used in the temazcal. These plants helped to convey our prayers to the spirit world.
We prayed for clarity, for peace, for the end of the pandemic. For the people in our lives: our friends, our families, the new faces we’d met that evening.
Javier then performed a purification ritual, chanting over us individually and cleansing us with what appeared to be a burning bushel of herbs and leaves. We then each entered and took our spots around the temazcal, known as Tonantzi, or “our mother.”
The four of us sat in each of the four directions – North, South, East and West – to create a powerful channel of energy in which our communal cleansing could pass.
The heated volcanic rocks were then brought in, one by one, each of which was marked by Javier. As the temperature quickly rose, I found myself getting nervous again.
Surrendering fear, harnessing courage
I should mention here that another reason I chose to participate in the temazcal was because I knew it would be a mental challenge. For some reason, in recent years, I’ve become quite fearful of small spaces, and have even experienced a few panic attacks as a result. I saw this as an opportunity to confront and overcome my fears.
I turned my attention toward my breath and was able to center myself just as the door to the hut was closed off and darkness filled the space around us.
As Javier doused the rocks with water using a bundle of eucalyptus – a plant believed to have healing properties – steam began to fill the hut. Breathing seemed to be more difficult, but I continued to focus on my inhales and exhales. Slowly but surely, my anxieties eased as I freed my consciousness of the fear, bit by bit.
Over the next hour or so, Javier led a number of chants and songs and stories, all of which were spoken in Nahuatl and interpreted by Luis. It was explained that this was a way of communicating with the spirits, but also with one other. And I felt it. There I was, sitting with three minimally clothed strangers in a dark, humid mud hut in the middle of a farm in Mexico. But strangely enough, for the first time in months, I felt a sense of human connection that I had unknowingly been yearning for.
At one point, when we were prompted to once again voice the things we were grateful for, Javier attempted to call me by name, but admitted he was having trouble getting it right. (After all, Mimsie is a rather uncommon name.)
When I repeated it to him, he noted that it reminded him of “Metzi,” the goddess of the moon and night in Aztec mythology.
For the remainder of the evening, that’s what I was called: Metzi. And, I suppose if I were going to be renamed, the temazcal could not have been a more appropriate place for it to happen. As the ceremony came to a close, we exited Mother Earth’s womb, reborn new versions of ourselves.
For me personally, I felt a little lighter, a little more focused, a little braver and a lot more prepared to take on 2021 following my temazcal experience. (And could I not after having been renamed after a goddess!?)
Ready to try a temazcal?
Temazcals are offered throughout Mexico (from those in people’s homes to ones at luxury resorts) and each will provide a very different experience. Although I have only done this one, I found it to be very enjoyable, as I was able to not only benefit from the physical, mental and spiritual benefits it provided, but I was also able to understand what was being said/going on as the ritual progressed.
I really enjoyed the Airbnb experience I went on and would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to try a temazcal while in Mexico City. If this is your first time using Airbnb experiences, you can use this link to get $15 off your experience of $50 or more.
Tips for temazcal first timers
If you’re doing a temazcal for the first time, here are a few tips to help you prepare for your experience:
- Drink lots of water on the day before and the day of your temazcal. Coconut water can be especially hydrating. Also, limit your caffeine intake. You’ll sweat A LOT so arrive as hydrated as possible to avoid getting sick and/or dehydrated.
- Take extra clothes. Opt to wear light, breathable and loose clothing over your bathing suit, preferably made from natural and organic materials. Again, you’ll be sweating a lot and this will ensure you’re comfortable. You’ll also take a cold shower, clothed, so you’ll definitely want to have a change of clothes for when you leave the temazcal.
- Ask to sit near the entrance door if you’re worried about the small space or heat. Should you get sick or panic, this will allow you to exit easily and quickly.
Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Mims On the Move. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.