Temazcál, an ancient Maya ritual

By Michelle da Silva Richmond

Rejuvenation is not simply a diversion on the resort strips of Cancun and the Riviera Maya running down eastern Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It’s a way of life. The area’s magic combined with the natural beauty of its surroundings sets the stage for the vast array of therapeutic treatments to be found there, and the clever use of indigenous herbs used in the revived rituals practiced by the ancient Maya promises modern-day road warriors spiritual as well as physical relief from stress.

Maya shaman welcomes visitors to the temazcál ritual, recently introduced on Isla Mujeres' Garrafón Natural Reef Park.

Many large resorts house luxurious full-service spa facilities offering an ample roster of tempting treatments -- many of them drawn from pre-Hispanic recipes. Day spas and small “mom and pop” roadside stands abound in larger towns such as along Playa del Carmen's 5th Ave., offering "quick fix" stress relief.

Tradition dictates, however, that visitors to the area indulge in a ritual which provides a unique source of spiritual and physical healing: the temazcál.

In the beginning

Temazcál hut at the Viceroy Riviera Maya. Photo courtesy of the hotel.For hundreds of years, Mexico’s ancient cultures have indulged in the temazcál (from temazcalli meaning "steam house" in the early Nauatl language), a purifying steam bath intended to heal the body and cleanse the mind as well as the soul. Unlike steam baths or sweat lodges of indigenous cultures of the north -- which were used for ceremonial reasons -- the temazcál was used primarily for therapeutic purposes.

Sweat baths, of course, have been used throughout the world, often combining the exotic elements of a Turkish bath, a Finnish sauna and a Native American “sweat hut.”

The traditional Mexican temazcál, however, differs in many ways from the others. While it does contain certain ceremonial elements, it has been used -- for generations -- throughout Mesoamerica as a therapeutic instrument and for medicinal purposes.

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived, as much as they tried they couldn't eradicate this custom, which they found to be "barbaric" and "pagan." They were especially appalled by the fact that participants of all ages and all sexes entered these small chambers together -- naked as the day they were born. The invaders were convinced that some sort of sexual ritual was taking place, so they tried to forbid the practice and destroy the temazcál​ structures.

In fact, Spain's Charles V issued a proclamation in "The Penal Code and Order for Governing the Indians" declaring that, "Indians were not to bathe in hot baths under penalty of 100 lashes, to be followed by two weeks bound in the marketplace…." The rest, as they say, is history and the ritual flourishes to this day in Mexico -- especially on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Modern-day rituals

Priestess prepares hotel guests for a temazcál cleansing ritual. Photo         courtesy of Azulik Hotel.Modern-day rituals are conducted by a shaman (Maya priest), usually last for two hours and are often conducted on the beach (although some are conducted in jungle settings).  

A short ceremony celebrating Mother-Earth’s gifts of fire, water, earth and air set the pace for this unusual experience. Participants are led into a stone igloo (or pyramid) where they go through a series of exercises to purify the mind, body and spirit using special herbs, hot lava stones, steam, natural teas and candles. Herb-infused water is poured over heated volcanic rocks to extract toxins from the body -- as it sweats -- and enhance energy flow from within, as guests form a circle inside a stone structure.

It is said that the high heat and humidity reached inside the hut, along with the amount of sweat produced, leads to healing. Allegedly, every quart of sweat lost during the ritual is the equivalent of a full day of work by the kidneys. Whether or not this has been medically proven, participants tend to leave feeling lighter, and generally much better.

When finished, you complete the cleansing by throwing yourself into the sea (or cold shower, if you're in the jungle) and nibble on fruit.

It isn't just a “spiritual” experience -- you may just lose a few pounds along the way.

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