Sweating it out in a Temazcal
by Alma Maria Rinasz
In mid-April 2013, a fierce forest fire blazed across Cerro Verde, on the outskirts the central Mexican city of Morelia, Michoacan. The blaze stopped short of consuming a traditional temazcal on Carmen Magallon’s property. “It was the guardians that saved it” Magallon says, smiling as she shows us the extent of the damage to perimeter of her property. It is May 4th, 2013 and I’ve come to Carmen
Magallon’s home to partake in a temazcal. She is the temazcal guide at Juata Xunhapiti. As I look around as she points to a water tank that nearly exploded from the heat at the back of her property that sits on a steeply inclined hill, I can’t help to think that there is some irony in that nature’s fire stopped short of consuming a human made structure that is used to cleanse and purify. Forest fires clean out the old to make room for the new. I am about to learn first hand how purifying a temazcal can be. Together with a group of nine people two hours after Carmen’s tour, we are sweating, moaning, chanting and laying awkwardly on the temazcal’s hot wood floor.
|Overlooking Temazcal Cerro Verde.|
|Temazcal Cerro Verde|
Photo credit: Carmen Magallon
What is a temazcal?
Jose Alcina, a scholar at Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), describes a temazcal as a “mesoamerican steam bath”. In essence, it is an integral part of traditional medicinal practices. In Mexico and Guatemala the nahuatl word temazcal or temazcalli refers to the “house of steam” and is characterized by rituals, steam, aromatic plants, herbs and herbal remedies. It has many names besides temazcal, similarly, the building can vary depending on local customs and tradition. “A temazcal is a construction [that can be] made from different materials, traditionally...clay [or] a kind of adobe, built in a round iglu shape.” In Vincenza Lillo Macina’s seminal work on the Mexican temazcal, the author interviews people in different parts of Mexico who use the temazcal. The temazcal can be rectangular, dome-like or even underground. Nonetheless, Lillo Macina explains “the temazcal is a representation of the Earth’s interior, it is a cave.”
Carmen explains that the temazcal is a pre-hispanic practice that has different goals: it is space to facilitate physical healing for respiratory, circulatory and osteo problems, as well as detoxification. But the temazcal also has a ceremonial component. In Magallon’s words “it can be used as a space for offering and giving thanks to nature, to mark certain dates, for example planting time, the rainy season, harvest, or rituals to honor the patron saint of a town. The use of the temazcal also has a social aspect to it. It has been used to resolve conflicts between peoples; when pueblos, neighbors would have problems, the elders would enter the temazcal to reach agreements.”
The Modern Day Temazcal: Reclaiming the Past
The temazcal has traditionally covered three main aspects of human needs: medicinal, ceremonial and social (as a mediation space). Today the temazcal is being reclaimed by traditional and alternative medical practitioners. Just as Ayurveda and yoga have become “the go to” practices for many of those in the West seeking traditional, holistic remedies to ailments, the temazcal in Mexico is an essential element in traditional medical practice that is being used once again as a way for people to find emotional and physical well being.
The Mayas used temazcales and as Magallon points out in our interview, it is common to find temazcales in tourist centers [in places like the Yucatan peninsula.] And you can even see the ruins of a temazcal in Chichén-Itzá. On May 4th, though, the temazcal is not a far away archeological ruin that I would one day love to visit, but a reality that hits me like a brick in the face. When we first come upon Juata Xunhapiti temazcal, my husband Alex jokes “it is a hobbit house”. We were soon to find out that this temazcal was nothing like the hedonistic hobbit hole since I am sure that Tolkien did not envision his Hobbits panting and sweating to no avail.
The day began with Oki Do Yoga with Reiki Master Veronica Onofri. After about an hour of stretching and aligning ourselves, we changed for the temazcal. Carmen offered Alex and I sheets: you can tie them around yourselves like Roman togas she explained. I chose to go for all or nothing; I wore my birthday suit and the sheet. Alex wore his boxer briefs and shorts.
|Oki-do Yoga. Photo credit: V. Onofri|
We walked down the steps towards the temazcal. It was lovely day with white puffy clouds scattered in a clear blue sky. As we descended, birds chirped and flitted from tree to tree. There was a river rock ying-yang sculpture in the side of the hill to our left. Balance. I breathed deep and set an intention for the temazcal: I want this temazcal to help me establish balance in my life. We approach a wooden, raised deck that serves as a kind of vestibule area. Carmen is there with green enameled chalice. She is beginning the ritual. This takes me back to my Catholic school days. The thick smell of copal, the solemnity of approaching Carmen one by one, the narthex-like wooden deck leading to the temazcal; it’s as if we are going to take communion. I’m not consciously aware of these parallels until later.
|Cleansing with copal|
We each individually ask permission to enter the vestibule area. Here Carmen observes the ritual of cleansing us with copal, a type of incense that has been used in Mesoamerica for thousands of years. After the cleansing, Carmen explains how we must enter the the igloo shaped temazcal. We approach the temazcal and one by one, we stand before the door and ask Teteoinna, who I later learn is the mother of the gods, permission to enter. We must also state why we are entering; Carmen asks us to “state your intentions.” And I must pause.