The wailing of the conch shells heralds the start of our Temazcal ceremony at the Real Resort in Cancun. We were an unlikely trio of women that evening: a New York City Jewish beauty, an African-American radio talk show host from Chicago, and me – a red-haired California transplant and aging divorcee living in Maryland.
Although strangers initially, we were about to embark on a journey of purification, detoxification, and rebirth that would ultimately bond us into a special sisterhood. This sisterhood is the Temazcal, a traditional Mayan sacred ritual of cleansing and symbolic renewal.
Lucio, our shaman and guide, tells us that he performs this ceremony to celebrate the New Moon and Full Moon each month. He says that since Temazcal is a holistic healing ritual, it can be done for couples before their wedding as well as honeymooners, vacationers and individuals seeking to commemorate new beginnings.
For the three of us, we each had our own reasons for entering the dome.
Sweat Lodge of the Mayans
According to Lucio, ‘Temazcal’ comes from the Mayan word temazcalli and literally translates as the “steam house” or “sweat lodge,” a term more commonly used by Native Americans. “The Temazcal is a health care method used by ancient American cultures for healing and curing in a preventive and corrective way.”
“Mayans thought that every single object was alive – a chair, a table,” adds Lucio. “So they treated the Temazcal as a living entity, as a being with soul. They also believed that sickness arose when the soul was weak and viewed the Temazcal as a holistic healing method to deal with the total body and soul.”
Lucio explains that the Temazcal experience helps to seek our inner identity, to develop empathy for our brethren, and to promote open communication:
Temazcal helps us find what we are looking for, whether it is introspection of self, conscious awareness, or simply the art of meditation. The process helps us find the magical and forgotten art of open conversation, of listening and of revealing from the heart. It helps us realize that we are all part of the same energy force and that we share something bigger than self. We are all brethren.
Calling the Initiates – The Smudging Ceremony
Clothed in white cotton garments, an embroidered sash tied around his waist, Lucio secures his coal-black hair with a beaded red headband around his forehead. Priests and priestesses dressed in colorful ceremonial garb guard the way to the temazcal.
Lucio asks the first initiate to approach the dome-shaped adobe sweat lodge – a symbol of the mother’s womb. Elise from New York is the first.
Standing in front of the entrance with her hands outstretched, Lucio methodically waves a bundle of smoldering herbs, fanning the swirls of smoke around her body, in tribute to the four winds. This is repeated for each of the rest of us.
This ritual, a common practice among many indigenous tribes, is known as smudging – the burning of herbs for emotional, psychic, and spiritual purification. The concept is that the trail of smoke will attract and disperse negative energy, pushing it into another realm.
This prepares the individual to enter the ceremony as being both physically and spiritually cleansed from bad spirits and negative thoughts, thus permitting healing to occur without negative distractions from either the healer or the participant.
It is said that the elders teach that individuals must enter the sweat lodge – the Temazcal – with a good heart and walk in a sacred manner, so that they may be purified and healed of past wounds.
Now that we have been symbolically cleansed, each of us in turn takes a pinch of tobacco to add to the flame outside the Temazcal entrance. We then honor our brethren by saying, “to all my relations” and enter clockwise, through heavy water vapor and murky darkness, until we find our special space.
The Time of No Time
The wooden doors are closed, exposing us to the full brunt of burning copal resin and heavy, hot vapor. I feel my breathing as it becomes heavier. Darkness is interrupted only by the diffused red glow from the hot lava rocks.
Lucio declares that this is “the time of no time” – where everything from the past merges into the present. Where there is no time, there is only our presence.
The traditional ritual begins with a bundle of aromatic herbs and sweet smelling grasses. In turn, we swivel to our left and tap our partner on the shoulders and torso with a bundle of aromatic herbs. Each tap releases the herbal essence and permeates the thick air.
The essence penetrates the pores of our skin, releasing toxins and symbolic poisons that are in our lives.
We are asked to state our intentions and to honor our air time by opening up with “Ahoo” and ending our conversation with “Ahoo.” This respects our talking time and ensures we do not transgress on another’s conversation. We each reveal an inner truth about ourselves, trusting others to respect our vulnerabilities.
Sweat Your Prayers
By now, I am sweating profusely through every pore; beads of sweat trickle down my forehead, neck, torso, and extremities. My breathing feels labored, so I lay on the ground to breathe the cooler, less dense air. More revelations follow, and then Lucio has us douse ourselves with ladles of cooling water.
The cycle repeats: more sweating, more cooling water. We are asked to share a happy childhood memory. Easy for some; more difficult for others. Then we focus on conscious and rhythmic breathing – first deep and drawn, followed by shallow and rapid.
Then there is the belly laugh – a cosmic joy that makes light of ourselves, yet connects us with the positive energy source. Without reservation, we burst forth with sounds of utter joy from deep within our bellies (our howls of laughter must surely have people outside the Temazcal wondering what is going on).
The doors are finally drawn open, marking the end of the ceremony. The late afternoon sun lightens the interior of our ceremonial abode. Cool air rushes in; jolting us to reality, grounding us in the here and now.
The three of us walk the 50 feet to the spa for a quick cold pool plunge designed to bring down our body temperature. We are then brought prepared plates of fresh fruits to restore our mineral balance.
Giddy from the experience, we agree that we feel peaceful in a serene sort of way. We openly embrace each other and our new found friendships, recognizing that we are now initiates of the Sisterhood of the Temazcal.
What do you think about the cleansing ritual of the Temazcal? Share your thoughts below.