Temazcal, the House of Heath
Couple of weeks ago, ESCAPES team was invited by Andres Orvañanos to experience Temazcal at his property on the Pacific side of Baja California Sur, some 20 minutes drive from Cabo San Lucas towards Todos Santos. Andres has years of experience with temazcals, he created them for some of the hotels & resorts in Los Cabos.
And the journey began. A group of 10 people and 3 cars headed towards the property, driving through Baja Sur’s dirtroads, and enjoying beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean expanding into the horizon.
As Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba from Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli A.C.explains in his article , a renewed interest in the ancient sweat bath (or also called the house of heath) sprang up in Mexico some twenty years ago. We share with you most of his article below:
“It’s a part of the movement, now so widespread in this country, to return to the healing practices preserved in indigenous medicine. These sweat baths, still a living tradition in many parts of the country, are usually small round stone or mud structures looking rather like old fashioned bee-hives. Many more began to be constructed everywhere, and more and more often, people who are ailing will turn to them for relief from their complaints,” Dr. Rojas Alba explains.
“The Spaniards were appalled and outraged by what appeared to them as barbaric practice. Not only was it inextricably interwoven with pagan beliefs and ritual, as is all ancient traditional medicine, but, most shocking of all, the bathers entered into these small, dark chambers, all sexes and size together, naked as the day on which they were born. The Spaniards were convinced that some sort of unspeakable orgiastic rites were taking place, and so they set themselves to forbidding the practice and destroying the baths wherever they found them. In the Penal Code and Order for Governing of the Indians, proclaimed by Charles the Fifth, the emperor of Spain, it was declared that “Indians who are not sick shall not bathe in hot baths under penalty of one hundred lashes to be followed by two hours bound in the marketplace…” Later, the proscription was extended to the sick as well.”
“The name Temazcal, or temazcalli is made of two Nahuatl words, temas, which means bath, and calli, meaning house. At the time of the Conquest, they were found everywhere in almost all of central and southern Mexico. They were so common that the same Clavijero was led to remark that “…there is no town, however small it might be, that does not have many of them.”
Although the Spanish did their best to wipe out this custom, they failed. The battered Indians preserved the custom secretly in remote places, as they did with so much of the their traditional medical skills and practices. In this way, the Temazcal has come down to modern times, and on the basis of the knowledge so carefully preserved, the contemporary revival of this healing sweat bath has taken place.
In the Nahuatl culture of central Mexico, the goddess of the sweat bath was Temazcalteci, “the grandmother of the baths”. She was, really, one of the manifestations of the goddessTeteoinan, “the mother of the gods”, or, as she is also called, “our grandmother”, the principal goddess among the higher Nahuatl divinities. Sahagun says of her that “…this goddess was the goddess of medicine and of the medicinal herbs; she was adored by doctors and surgeons, and bleeders, and also by midwives… She was also adored by those who had baths, or temazcals in their houses. All placed the image of this goddess in their baths”. The cult of this goddess of the Temazcal extended throughout Mesoamerica and it is found in the other great cultures of the region –the Mixteca, the Zapoteca and the Maya. It was in great part because of this close relationship between the worship of a goddess and the Temazcal that the Spaniards found it so important to ban the use of the bath.
The Temazcal not only involved the worship of a goddess, but it incorporated all the elements of the ancient cosmology, both in the manner of its construction and the way in which it is used; and most of these concepts have been preserved in traditional thought and practice down to our own day. The Temazcal is a microcosm reproducing in itself the characteristics of the universe, the macrocosm. So we find in the Temazcal all elements of the different eras or cycles (known as suns) throughout which, according to Aztec mythology, the world has passed and continues to pass: earth, wind, fire and water (we now live in the fifth ’sun’) and through whose constant movement and life is manifest.
More, the Temazcal is oriented according to the cosmic directions: the fire which heats its stones is placed towards the east where our Father, the sun, the god called Tonatiuh, arises; he is the light or masculine element which comes and fertilizes the womb of the mother earth (the chamber of the Temazcal itself), and so life is conceived. The doorway through which the bathers enter and leave is oriented toward the south, “the pathway of the dead”, which begins with birth and ends in death, to the right of the path of Sun. In this way, the ever present duality of traditional Mexican thought is manifested. Just as there are mother and father, sun and earth, hot and cold, so we are born and, in being born, we begin our path towards death.
Aztec cosmology presents us with several different levels of the heavens, and these are considered to be present in the different levels of temperatures found inside the Temazcal: the highest in the upper part of the chamber where the temperature is the lowest.
When we enter the Temazcal, according to this ancient doctrine, we return once again to our mother’s womb, presided over by the great goddess, Tonantzin or Temazcaltoci, the great mother of both gods and humans. She is our beloved mother, concerned with the health of the children and she receives us into her womb – of which our own mother’s womb is but a microcosmic manifestation – to cure us of physical and spiritual ills. The entrance way is low and small, and through it we enter a small, dark, warm and humid space, in this way recreating the uterus, cutting off the outside world and giving us a chance to look inside and find ourselves again. Our re-emergence through this narrow opening represents our rebirth from the darkness and silence of the womb. It is no wonder that the Spaniards were so shocked by what they found!
Physical cleanliness has always, and still continues to be, a matter of great importance to the people of Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, the people of Mexico bathed daily when it was possible; the Europeans of those days, on the other hand, placed little importance on personal cleanliness and it was not uncommon for a month to pass between baths. Andres de Tapia observed that Motecuhzoma (or Moctezuma) washed his body every day two times.
Clavijero noted that bathing in the Temazcal “was only a little less frequent” than regular bathing among the Mexicans.
The practice of inducing sweat has long been known to be beneficial in sicknesses of the skin, liver and circulation, in problems of rheumatism, arthritis, gout, and other chronic diseases, as well as acute problems like muscular pains, colds and congestions, and sweat baths are but of the ways used to bring about healthful sweating. The Temazcal, because of its special methods, is perhaps the most effective of this kind of curative technique, certainly the list of conditions for which it has been used in the course of centuries is the most extensive.
Overheating of the body (during the bath, the body temperature may reach one hundred and four degrees) produces a series of reactions: it stimulates both the superficial and the deep blood circulation, accelerates the frequency of heartbeats, as well as increases their force, calls into action the mechanisms of thermal regulation, activates the metabolism, and promotes sweating. All of these effects produce a great internal movement of energy and liquids, somewhat similar to the way in which strenuous exercise does, bringing increased circulation to all the muscles, organs and tissues. While all sweat baths produce these effects, the Temazcal, because of the way it works and the precision with which it can be regulated by the healer in charge of the bath, controls these body reactions to high heat to maximize the curative effects of the bath.
Its basic advantage as a sweat bath consists in the way high heat and high humidity are combined. The sauna, for example, reaches much higher temperature but the bath is drier and consequently, its curative capacities are lower. Other types of steam bath also combine heat and humidity, but the Temazcal surpasses them in effectiveness for two reasons: the person in charge of the bath can adjust -increase, diminish or direct- both heat and humidity to meet the specific needs of the patient he is treating, and the vapor is made from herbal teas, the herbs chosen for their effects on each individual patient.
There are two others special characteristics of the Temazcal as a sweat bath that must be mentioned. The first is that every bath is directed by a specially trained healer, most often a woman (called in Mexico, the Temazcalera). She examines the patient, makes her diagnosis, chooses the herbs that are indicated, decides on the levels of heat and humidity that are to be used, prepares the Temazcal, and then enters the chamber with the patient to oversee and manage the course of the bath. She can raise or lower the intensity of the heat during the bath through ventilating the chamber using the entranceway or the vent that is in the roof of the Temazcal, or by fanning with the fan made up of branches of a suitable herb that she has chosen, or raising or lowering the height at which the patient is placed to do the bath (heat rise, and the Temazcal is much cooler at floor level than it is towards the root, and with all gradations in between).
A good Temazcalera is amazingly skillful in handling her herbal fan; she can bring down heat for the upper parts to the lower parts of the chamber at will, and if she wishes, direct currents of heat to whatever part of the body wants special attention. Extra heat can be put on your leg, for example, to deal with sciatica, or on your back to get rid of back pain. She will use her fan to beat gently on any part of the body to increase circulation at that spot, should it be necessary. She is, by the way, trained to do massages using a variety of traditional techniques, in the Temazcal, for any condition that might require such treatment.
Found only in the Mexican method of using sweat baths for curative purposes, when the patient comes out of the bath, he is carefully wrapped in a sheet or blanket, and made to lie down and rest, usually in a room or place specially prepared for this purpose, until the body completes its cycle of sweating. This period of mandatory rest varies very much from individual to individual; it can range from half an hour to more than an hour. The patient is given a cup of herbal tea, normally made from an herb chosen for his precise condition, to help replace liquids lost in the bath, and then left to rest. Most people fall sleep during this rest period, and awaken feeling refreshed and strengthened; no patient is permitted to dress or to leave until his body has dried itself completely through its own action.
These two special features of the traditional Mexican sweat bath – the skills of the Temazcalera (or in our case Temazcalero) and the mandatory rest period after the bath – may go a long way in explaining its impressive curative powers.
The practice of the Temazcal as we find it today, has carried with it almost all of the conceptions, beliefs, methods of using it, ways of constructing it, and the like, and it is almost impossible to talk about the Temazcal or understand how it works with out invoking these ancient concepts. Chief among them and essential for comprehending almost all aspects of the Mexican practice of the sweat bath, are the terms, ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ as they are used by traditional healers. It is interesting to note that these terms are used in quite the same way and for quite the same purposes in traditional Chinese medicine, as well.
The selection of the stones for heating
The selection of the stones for heating is very important. These will be heated to red hot and then doused with water, so they must be stones that will withstand such changes in temperature without cracking or exploding. We often use volcanic rock, and always avoid stones from the river. The construction of the interior wall of the fireplace must be carefully done so that construction of the interior wall of the fireplace must be carefully done so that cracks do not form with use, allowing smoke to enter the Temazcal.
It is important to remember to leave a vent hole a couple of inches wide in the ceiling for use in airing the Temazcal. This is used sometimes during the bath to lower the temperature, to clear smoke if some should have entered, or to clear out the ‘humors’ left behind after a bath.
Aloe juice spread on the body and face just before entering the bath does wonders for the skin and should be made available if desired.
Finally, herbal branches must be gathered to be used inside the Temazcal for directing the heat. The choice depends on the season and region, but eucalyptus, mullein, or the leaf of the castor bean plant are some examples of plants that may be used. A vegetable or chicken soup may be prepared to be eaten after the bath and rest period. Sheets must be gathered and placed near the entrance to the Temazcal to receive the bathers and the resting place must be prepared, with blankets, if necessary.
When all is prepared, it is time to arrange the stones. In the case of a Temazcal with a fireplace, the remaining fire is usually removed in order to prevent any smoke from entering the Temazcal through cracks that might exist in the internal wall, and the entrance to the fireplace is covered to prevent loss of heat. If the stones were heated outside, they are picked up with a shovel and carefully placed inside the Temazcal in the hole that was prepared to receive them. Often, a piece of resinous incense (copal is traditionally used) is dropped on at least the first stone to ritually purify the inside of the bath. When all this is done, the Temazcal is aired to remove any vestiges of smoke that may remain. This is done by opening the air-hole at the top and leaving the door open while someone enters and fans the upper part in a circular motion.
Now, with the teas prepared and in place, the bunch of herbs and buckets of cold water inside, the fire put out and the stones in place, the Temazcal aired out, and sheets at hand near the door, the Temazcal is ready to use.
In preparation for the Temazcal, we often fast for a day, or half a day. Certainly, one must not enter the bath until a couple of hours have passed since eating, and never after a heavy meal. The Temazcal is entered naked. Cotton underwear may be used for modesty’s sake, but it does prevent the heat from reaching the covered parts with the same intensity. Inside, the bath may be taken sitting on a low bench or lying down. The floor of the Temazcal may be covered with a woven straw mat (known as a petate) or leaves such as banana leaves.
There are some who feel uncomfortable at first with the reduced space and the heat inside the Temazcal. Usually a few deep and relaxing breaths will help to allay this initial reaction. Lying down also helps, in part because the floor is cooler than the upper parts and in part because the prone position helps to relax. It is the job of the Temazcalera to put bathers at ease, but it is strongly recommended that the Temazcal be a quiet place where one is drawn back into oneself.
After a short time has passed, the Temazcalera begins to manipulate the heat with branches of herbs. By passing the herbs near the ceiling, he or she can bring down the heat in order to make it uniform throughout the Temazcal or direct it towards a certain part of the body by fanning. Or the herbs may be used to do what is called a ‘leafing’, where the bather is gently beaten with the herbal branches. The heat that these herbs bring to the body is remarkable! Although it already felt very hot in the bath, these gentle herbal beatings bring much more heat. In the case of aches and pains, this additional heat feels very soothing. In this way, the affected area of the body is treated specifically by directing more heat to it.
Sometimes an herbal tea is used to wash the affected area, or a massage may be done. Cold water may be used over the body, including the head, while inside the Temazcal. This may be done therapeutically to cool off the outside of the body, shrinking superficial blood vessels in order to exercise them, and allowing them to swell again with the heat. It is often recommended that this be done just before leaving a Temazcal that has been very hot. It helps to assure that the heat does not rise to the head afterwards. This ‘closes the pores’ while at the same time facilitating intense sweating afterwards.
The length of time spent inside the Temazcal varies greatly, depending on the heat of the bath, the constitution of the individual, and the condition that is being treated. It is entirely an individual matter, and even may vary from bath to bath for same person. When one feels impelled to leave, it is best to do so.
Only when the body has stopped sweating should one get up and get dressed. Here, it is important to be well covered and to avoid ‘aires’, as the Mexicans say, or drafts (open car windows, for example). As the ‘pores’ of the body have been opened, care must be taken not to get cold during the succeeding twenty four hours. It is also important not to eat or drink cold foods nor to eat too heavily. Finally, some recommend not bathing for a day after wards, while others say that it is permitted as long as it is done with warm (no scalding nor cold) water and care is taken with drafts afterwards.
Thank you to Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba, Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli A.C. , for his text on Temazcal; to Andres Orvañanos, for an amazing Temazcal experience in Baja California Sur (Pacific Corridor, between Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos) – for an appointment and more info you can contact him by mail: [email protected] or phone: 624 14 772 55, to ESCAPES team and friends for a great company at this unique experience, and toLA76 Strategic Design for accompanying photos for this article.
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