Mayan Temazcal Ceremony
Temazcal is an ancient ceremony similar to the sweat lodge ceremonies of other cultures and was practiced by many Mesoamerican cultures. The word comes from the Nahuatl language and translates as “house of heat.” Mayans used temazcal to treat illness, aid in childbirth, purification and for recovery after the exertion of battle or sport like pok-ta-pok.
Saunas and sweat lodges have been revered for health reasons throughout mankind’s history and the benefits are too numerous to list here. A short list includes increased lifespan due to higher levels of heat shock proteins, significantly reduced risk of heart disease, and stimulates production of beneficial hormones like IGF-1 for muscle growth and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which reduces anxiety and depression. For more information, check out this article on sauna benefits.
The temazcal is typically a round, domed structure, constructed of cement and stone. The entrance is often low, forcing participants to crawl in and out as a gesture of reverence and mimicry of human birth. The ceremony represents a rebirth in the womb of mother earth. This spiritual renewal--in the Mayan tradition--is often connected to the goddess Ixchel.
The ceremony begins with an offering of copal incense to the Mayan gods from the shaman or temazclero. Chunks of the fragrant resin are imbued with the prayers of the participants and the pungent smoke carries their wishes skyward to attract divine blessings. This process cleanses the participants and fortifies their spirits to withstand the experience.
The shaman then beckons to the four directions and the four elements with long blasts of sound from a conch shell before the participants enter the total darkness of the temazcal’s interior.
Volcanic rocks, which are heated until glowing are placed in the center of the temazcal. The stones, referred to as “abuelas” (grandmothers), are resistant to exploding under high temperature and their nickname is consistent with the sacred feminine overtones.
A bucket of fresh water, often with fragrant herbs, is brought to a boil by dropping in the glowing rocks and fills the space with perfumed steam.
Everyone sits in a circle with their backs to the wall as more hot rocks are piled in the center. The door is blocked with a blanket to keep heat from escaping and participants are lead in Mayan chants to focus the mind and distract from the smothering heat.
Earth is my body. Water is my blood. Air is my breath. Fire is my spirit.
After a period of time, the entrance is uncovered, allowing cool air to rush in briefly while new stones are added. This process is repeated four times (referred to as “puertas” or doors) and again pays homage to the four cardinal directions.
When all four doors have been passed through, participants emerge to the jungle like newborn babes, basking in the relatively cool breeze and blinking at the brightness with a hard-won sense of calm and rejuvenation.
There are many resorts and retreats offering the Temazcal experience in the Yucatan. Cost and length of ceremony can vary, but the average seems to hover around 30 minutes for around $100 USD. Check out the Working Gringos’ comprehensive write-up on temazcal and tell us about your own experiences in the comments.
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