It’s Getting Hot In Here: Sweating it out at a temascal

Mexico, Spa & Beauty, Spiritual Travel — By on March 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

By Meghann Foye
LG Deputy Editor

Lost Girls Deputy Editor Meghann Foye feels the heat on a recent trip to the Riviera Maya in Mexico.

“Anyone who gets claustrophobic, overheated or generally panicked should sit closest to the door.”

Shoot, not going to happen, I gulp, realizing I’m about as far away from the door of the ancient clay igloo as I can get and, blocking me, my fellow travelers sit with feet splayed in each direction. In the center of the round room of the temascal, or stone sweat lodge, sits a huge pit of hot volcanic stones. Crouched Indian-style along with 10 other tourists the temperature makes sweat bead around both sides of my temple. As I see the Shaman shutting the door and hear the stones starting to sizzle, I’m more than a little freaked.

The Riviera Maya covers the area just south of Cancun in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and is known for its Mayan pyramids and natural cenotes, or underground sinkholes, but I never realized there are also thousands of these temascals as well. Over the centuries, these steam bath saunas have been used in Mayan communities for ceremonies as well as a way for the ancient Mayans to detox, improve circulation, reduce stress, keep skin toned and even cleanse the body of negativity. Perfect, I’d thought as I signed up, since the night before had been filled with a few toxically delicious margaritas—and maybe a few built-up bad vibes as well.

After an hour-long ceremony outside, our little group of men and women of all ages stand outside the circular hut, meant to symbolize the woman’s womb. Entering the womb symbolized a renewal—the idea was to leave the weight of the world behind and go inside a small space so we could find our true selves again. Girls and boys typically enter the temascal at 13 as a coming-of-age ritual to symbolize the start of adulthood, or taking responsibility for oneself.

Before finding ourselves sealed-shut inside the hut, the Shaman had chanted a prayer upward to the stars, and we then repeated after him. We were cleansed with with wet sponges, then finally dropped to all fours to crawl into the opening one by one.

Now in the pit, the light from outside dims to just a few holes from the small door. The heat from the volcanic stones intensifies. Pieces of the aloe plant are passed around in a gourd to rub on our faces and bodies to cool off a bit. We’re told to sit back and keep our heads low, since the heat rises toward the middle center. As the air grows heavier, I start to feel panicky, like my lunges are filling with hot air and not expanding like they normally do.

We’ve been told what’s about to happen—that the Shaman will pour a succession of four buckets of water along with medicinal herbs on the stones over the course of the next 60 minutes, all while chanting, drumming and telling stories in the ancient Mayan language. Each bucket represents one of the four elements: water, air, earth and fire. As the room gets hotter, the idea is to connect to the soul and the heart, staying in the moment and face each fear as it comes.

With the first bucket, the steam rises and settles around us all. Sweat is now pouring from my face and body. I can’t see anything, and all I hear are the Shaman’s even words:

“Stay with each feeling. See what it has to show you,” says the Shaman, now in English.

In the darkness, everyone else seems to fade away and with each labored breath, I try to go deeper within myself, rejecting the urge to think too much. I concentrate on breathing more slowly—the heat seems to affect me less that way—and I lie back against the cool stones.

The second round of water is poured and we’re asked again to stay with the heat. I remember other times when I’ve felt this claustrophobic feeling of wanting to flee. Strangely, I’m reminded of my job as a magazine editor. Toward the end of ten years in the business, I’d felt suffocated and stuck. What might have happened had I stayed, I wonder, and faced my fears?

Water is passed around in a gourd to pour over our bodies and we have a brief moment of respite before the next bucket is poured. As the third is thrown against the hot rocks, the searing heat enters my lungs and fills the space all around my temples. I feel like my head is engulfed in its own bucket of warm water, and as I try to breathe, I cup my hands around my mouth to cool the air coming in, like an air pocket under water. To resist the urge to stand up and tear past my fellow travelers, I try to go inward again.

Another memory floods to the forefront. This time, it’s a happy one—from girl scout camp when I was younger. It was a time before I’d experienced any road blocks in life. I relive moments where I kayaked solo across the lake, went night-hiking in the silent woods with my troop and jumped in the lake right before sunrise just for fun. Where had that fearless girl gone, I wondered.

Finally, the fourth bucket is poured and at this point, I’m getting used to the experience, feeling the warmth not just from the outside, but within. It’s cheesy, but a peace enters my body and I feel proud of myself for sticking it out this far. The Shaman asks us all to take in one last deep breath and scream as loud as we can, to release all our negativity and worries and enter the world anew.

“AHHHHHHHHHHHHH,” comes a collective cry. As we finish, we all start to laugh and the Shaman does as well. Everyone else, I suspect, feels lighter, just like I do.

The exit is opened and we slowly crawl out one by one, just as we came in, the night air cooling our bodies with incredible freshness. We’re lead over to a cenote, a deep, natural well about 50 feet away, where we’re told to jump in, which will help our blood start circulating and flush out toxins.

As I lay in the cool water, looking up at the stars above, their twinkle is reflected in my eyes. I realize it hasn’t been there in a while, but I’m glad its found its way back.

Thumbnail courtesy of Mexico Despierta