“So, do you feel reborn?” asked a middle-aged lady sitting on the bus riding back to Oaxaca City. Earlier that morning we rode the bus to Teotitlan de Valle together. I had told her that I was heading to a temazcal in the village.
“I am so jealous. I wanted to go to one, but was told that it was fully booked,” the woman replied, looking a bit forlorn.
I first came across a description of the temazcal in one of the guidebooks I read prior to my trip to Oaxaca. The temazcal looked like a cross between an adobe igloo and an underground fort we would build in the snow as children. It was described as a native sweat lodge – “a place that will help renew your soul and give you the strength to achieve your goals". Who couldn’t use a little spiritual renewal? Help reaching my goals would just be icing. Maybe this would be a life-altering experience.
When I mentioned the idea of going to a temazcal to my husband, he raised his eyebrows and looked at me dubiously. You see, I like adventure, but I like it to be planned adventure. I want surprises, but not too many. “Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this?” he asked.
I had never participated in a native ceremony, but I’d heard a lot about them. My mother – who goes by the name Blue Morningstar – became part of the Cherokee nation about 12 years ago. She is a regular at pow-wows and has participated in peace pipe ceremonies. According to my mother, these ceremonies have brought new meaning to her life. Besides, they’re fun. Maybe this temazcal would help me better understand my mother and help me learn something about myself.
The name temazcal is composed of two Nahuatl words, temas, bath and calli, house. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, tezmacals were popular throughout the central and southern parts of Mexico. So, the Spanish “explorers” did what conquerors do; they tried to wipe out the custom. Not so fast. The native people secretly preserved their temazcals in remote places, as they did with many of their traditional medical practices. The fact that temazcals have survived, in spite of a conquering power’s efforts to obliterate them, appealed to me.
The more I read about temazcals, the more curious I became. I was eager to visit one, but I wanted an authentic experience. Some descriptions made it sound like a Mexican mikveh. While my mother converted to Cherokee-ism, my parents are both Jewish. My mother swears that native people of the Americas are actually the lost tribes of Israel; now was my chance to see if she was right.
Like the temazcal, the mikveh is used for ritual purification. Religious Jewish women go to the mikveh monthly – at the end of their cycles or prior to significant life cycle events – like before a marriage or after mourning the death of a loved one. Men can also go to the mikveh – typically to seek spiritual purification before the Sabbath or after a long illness. Like the temazcal, the body and spirit are supposed to be cleansed after a mikveh.
I was also intrigued by the slightly feminist tone of some of what I had read about the temazcal. In the Nahuatl culture of central Mexico, the goddess of the sweat bath was Temazcalteci, "the grandmother of the baths". She was thought to be the manifestation of the goddess Teteoinan, "the mother of the gods". The cult of this goddess is found in many cultures in the Oaxaca area: the Mixteca, the Zapoteca and the Maya. Some historians believe that the close relationship between the worship of a goddess and the temazcal is one reason the Spaniards set out to ban the use of the bath. I supposed the male conquerors felt threatened by people who revered an all-powerful female goddess – another reason to try it.
Philosophical and spiritual transformations aside, the whole description of the ceremony had a bit of a spa-like appeal. I had read that many temazcals included a massage and I must confess, I struggle between my desire for an authentic experience and my tourist mentality. A little schvitz, some herbs, and a massage – how bad could that be?
My temazcal experience took place at Casa Sagrada – a beautiful hacienda located in the hilltop village of Teotilan de Valle, about a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca City. As we approached, I wondered, “Would Casa Sagrada be authentic and life transforming or a tourist trap?”
Prior to entering, we wrapped ourselves in a large swath of natural cotton fabric, sarong style. We were not given specific instructions, but I believe that we were supposed to be naked, except for the cotton wrap. Since we would be in a small, dark cave with strangers, I opted to keep my underwear on. Perhaps this was the first sign that I was not temazcal material.
The temazcal leader, Alejandro, was a tall, strong Zapotec man with long curly, black hair and professorial glasses. Prior to entering, he spoke to us in a soothing voice about “finding a comfortable place”. “In life,” he explained, “you have places that are good and places that are bad for you.” We were instructed to find the right place for ourselves, a place of harmony and comfort. This should have been a giant warning sign for me. I feel most at peace on a breezy, deserted beach or mountaintop, not scantily clad, crouched in a 100-degree hole in the ground.
This temazcal was six feet by eight feet, subterranean and rectangular. To enter I lowered myself down a chute backwards, tumbling into a dark cave. The opening was covered with Mexican blankets. Initially, the heat in the temazcal was gentle and smelled faintly of herbs, maybe a mix of sage and rosemary. I settled in a cozy corner in the rear of the cave and sat in a lotus position, which allowed me a few inches of space above my head. As more people entered, it became increasingly difficult for everyone to claim a harmonious space. In fact, one young woman announced that she was not comfortable, so we shifted to give her more room. With six participants and one leader, it was now officially crowded. I wondered if this temazcal should have a four-person limit.
Alejandro began the ceremony by chanting, I assume in Zapotec. As he added more heat to the temazcal, I began to lower my head to a place where the air was cooler. Inching downward I found myself practically in Alejandro’s lap. That seemed a bit, well, awkward, so I tilted sideways towards my husband. Everyone was getting hot and sweaty now – knee to knee, thigh to thigh – not a place to focus on your need for personal space. I kept opening my eyes. It was pitch black, but I could see the beads of perspiration dripping off everyone’s faces as they chanted. You’re not supposed to look, I know.
Did I mention that I don’t like to sweat? So why was I wrapped in this skimpy cotton sarong in this sweat lodge? The experience became more intense. In a mystical whisper, Alejandro asked us to share what was in our hearts. ”What animal spirit or landscape guides us?” Oh no! I had no idea that there would be an oral exam. Of course, he tapped me with his herb stick first. I thought that I would get extra credit if I combined an animal and a landscape so I quietly (almost inaudibly) said, “I’m thinking of a sea otter frolicking on an iceberg.” I was trying to conjure images of Alaska in an effort to stay cool – blue glaciers, icicles, snow, frigid oceans. Perhaps these thoughts would prevent me from collapsing from heat stroke.
Breathlessly, Alejandro told us that the world was going on outside of the temazcal without us. “We are here and everyone else is living their lives. We are gone and our absence is not being noticed. It is like we are dead.” Not exactly a cheerful thought. Of course, the earth turns without us. Happens every night when we sleep. Since I have spent countless hours wondering if anyone would notice my disappearance, I decided not to think about being dead, at least not at that particular moment. I tried to turn my thoughts back to the temazcal.
Next Alejandro invited us to chant. I’ve taken yoga classes, I’ve done some chanting, but this was different. First, the temazcal was very small. Sound reverberated to an eardrum-piercing level. And it was hot. Second, the chanting went on forever. I never knew you could chant Mi Ohm, my spirit, in a wide variety of keys, with such a range of emotion. Not being much of a singer, I did not participate at first, another behavior that demonstrated I was not giving the temazcal ceremony a chance. Eventually, I got so bored, I started chanting, to pass the time. I assumed that each chant would be the last one, but it kept going. Finally, we had exhausted our lungs. We sat in silence.
Out of nowhere, I felt a stick beating me on the back, took me by surprise because it did not appear in any of the pre-temazcal literature. Was I not following the temazcal rituals? Then Alejandro whacked each person’s back with the same herb stick. Once each person was “anointed with the herb stick”, Alejandro prayed again in Zapotec, hard to distinguish the words. His eyes were shut tightly. He rocked back and forth. Everyone’s eyes were closed except for mine. I needed to know what was happening. As I said, I don’t like surprises.
To conclude the ceremony, Alejandro quietly murmured, “Now, as you prepare to leave the temazcal, please tell us what is in your hearts.” Uh-oh. He tapped me gently; I did not know what to say. I was speechless. He explained that I should share my life goals and speak from my heart. Oh boy. That’s an essay question – not a pithy temazcal declaration. I was silent hoping he would move on to the next person. Time passed, in silence. He said, “It’s okay, no one is judging you here.” I requested an extension. Everyone else had something confusing and vaguely spiritual to say. People talked about learning to connect from inside and outside and taming the jaguars within (oops…what happens in the temazcal stays in the temazcal). When he returned to me, I made a statement about working to ensure ethical and responsible world leadership. My life goals were political, not spiritual.
As each of us exited, Alejandro said he was a midwife; we were entering the world as new born babies. He swaddled us in Mexican blankets. We were brought a cold, herbal tea that tasted a lot like the scent in the temazcal (minus the body odor).
I wondered. Are these Mexican blankets clean? They felt damp, but that could be from the perspiration. My new temazcal buddies curled into fetal positions on the floor and rocked. Alejandro encouraged everyone to relax and take a nap. “Re-enter the world gently.” I pulled off the blanket and asked where I could find a cold shower. I sensed that I might be ruining the moment. Alejandro encouraged me to wait for about 10 minutes and not shock my system. I found out later that this was because he wanted to take the first shower. This temazcal did not include a massage. I was disappointed, but decided to focus on the more immediate concern, lunch. All that sweating and chanting made me hungry.
Was this temazcal a tourist trap or an ancient ritual carefully preserved? I suspect it was the former. Later in the trip I heard that people take hallucinogenic mushrooms prior to participating in an authentic temazcal ceremony. Thankfully, that was not part of the Casa Sagrada experience. I’m still trying to figure out if authentic means a hippy white man’s interpretation of pre-Hispanic culture, or a genuine spiritual journey.
I don’t think my heart was open to the experience. I’m not sure that I was, or ever will be, ready for spiritual renewal. Even after a shower and the tea, I felt overheated and disheveled – not exactly reborn.
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