A Mexican temazcal: Mud, sweat & tears

by Chris on October 21, 2009

A first-hand report from a temazcalli ceremony outside Guadalajara in Mexico

Our sweat lodge leader, Rosalio - aka Charles Manson

The following is a guest post, written by fellow SATW member Amy Weirick. The day that I went to Tequila, she visited a traditional Huichol temazcal, or sweat lodge, located outside Guadalajara. I asked her to write something about the experience – especially after our group discovered that two people (now three) had died in a similar sweat lodge in Sedona, Ariz.

UPDATED: NYC Architect Timo Lindman noticed from Amy’s picture that the sweat lodge that some in SATW attended in Mexico was made from natural materials that breathe, instead of being covered with a plastic tarp. Says Lindman: “Sweat lodges/saunas/banya can be really terrific things, but coercion is not part of the process, and badly built (non-permeable) lodges run by yahoos are dangerous.”

“Most people don’t take this tour.”

So says our guide, Esmeralda, as our bus pulled out of Guadalajara. On our agenda: a mud bath, a sampler of native healing rituals and a meet-up with a Shaman. All of it – along with copious sweating – is designed to provoke a mystical episode, and Esmerelda repeatedly tells our group of two dozen how special we are for embarking on such a spiritual adventure. 

 I should have known we were in for a wild ride.

In the tiny village of Buenavista, barefoot babies stared as our tour bus rumbled down the mucky, rocky road.  Old men in chewed up hats offered sideways glances.  Cows and chickens scattered as we bobbed and weaved past once-proud brick country houses , now mere walls that protect - or hide - humble hovels. 

Sweat lodge entrance

We arrived at a large fenced lawn ringed by igloo-shaped dwellings.  One, the temazcal, is crafted from brick and cement. Another, called an inipi, looks like a grass mat soccer ball emerging from the yard.  We’re welcomed at a large fire with a soul-cleansing wave of feathers and traditional copol incense. Its piney resin smoke wafted around our heads.

Esmeralda then introduced us to our healer, Teresa. With Esmeralda acting as translater, Teresa invited us in her native Huichol language to sit in a circle nad spun wildly colorful tales of Huichol ritual and belief.  She would eventually direct one of the groups in their spiritual quest.

Then Teresa presented the leader of my group: fellow spiritualist and native dance expert Rosalio. I stared. To me, Rosalio looked exactly like Charles Manson – wearing a loincloth. This does not bode well.

In a staccato cadence, Rosalio shared his beliefs, as Esmeralda translated. There is no race, he murmured, only the human race.  We are not Indians, he chided, Indians live in India.  We will reborn, he predicted, as we emerge from the temazcal.

Oh, were we.

Covered in mud, sweat lodge

But first we’re directed to a corner of the yard, where large buckets of mud are doctored with sandalwood and lavender oil.  We dipped into them, slathering the slate-gray muck on our bodies (we had been told to wear swimsuits and bring a towel).  We laid down and embraced Mother Earth, mud baking on our bodies and, we’re told, drawing out impurities – anything bad or unwanted.

Mud people, sweat lodge, Mexico

This exorcism continued as Rosalio gave us each a handful of tobacco, encouraging us to put all of our negative energy into that sprinkle of dried leaves, and then toss it into the fire. We toss it into the fire to burn away.  Illness and bad habits will be cleansed by the mud and the fire, we’re told – and oh yes, the sweat.

Crawling on our hands and knees, we entered the inipi. On the way in, we dipped our head to the earth in thanks and prayer. Little did we know that in a few hours, we’d be praying for relief.

A large pichfork bearing red-hot rocks the size of a human head was shoved in the door. The rocks were dropped into a deep pit in the inipi’s center.  Rosalio beat his drum and chanted, then fiercely tossed cups of herbal tea onto the rocks.  Thick, hot steam filled the lodge.

Soon, sweat flowed from every pore, rinsing away much of the mud - and our inhibitions. Noses ran, tears welled. A member next to me apologetically asked me to wipe her gooey face. “That’s a new twist in media relations,” I thought.

We continued to sweat. Several members of the group began to feel faint, their hearts racing from the temperature. It’s just too hot, they told Rosalio. But Charles Manson is not having it.

 ”Touch your body,” Rosalio said. “It is your strength.  You can do it.”  The members stayed, although it was unclear if it was strength or Rosalio’s chiding that kept them there.

Finally, the door opened.  Some people sighed, some gasped. All of us thought we were getting out. No dice.

Instead, another pitchfork of sizzling rocks is loaded into the lodge. More tea.  More steam. With a ferocity that seemed unexpected in a spiritual leader, Rosalio hurled cool cups of the herbal tea.  It felt cooling, yet shocking at the same time.

Just when we thought we could take no more, the door opened.  We emerged the same way we went in – head first, forehead to the ground in prayer.  We’re rinsed with icy well water.  It felt invigorating and bracing, pretty much a metapher for the entire experience.

Cool at last, we drank herbal tea and rested on grass mats – natural, we’re told, from Mother Earth. And finally, after hours of deprivation, a dazzling spread of colorful fruit was put before us.  Watermelon, pineapple, papaya, cucumbers and apples never tasted so cold and fresh. Our sweat lodge experience endsedwith a circle hug, meant to represent the endless coil of a snail’s shell. 

So was I reborn? Hm. Maybe not reborn, but revitalized … if only by the incredible weirdness of it all.  I was really relaxed, the way you feel after a butt-kicking workout. And what the heck, I do believe my skin looks just a tiny bit healthier.  The experience provided me with a mental escape that I can reflect on for some time, like a strange and interesting movie that stays with you for awhile.

Had I known of the fate of those who died in Arizona, I’m uncertain whether I would have opted for this tour.  I think back to Esmeralda’s “This tour is not for everyone” caveat and shudder a little.  Interestingly, those Arizona New Agers paid some $10,000 each for their weekend, while our day-long “authentic experience” cost only about $35.

I would recommend the experience to spirtual types and culture junkies who crave the unusual – with caution.  Eat a healthy meal and drink plenty of water before you go.  Like any really interesting travel adventure, whether you’re skiing, rappelling, or eating questionable looking chow prepared by a street vendor, you have to trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel, smell or taste right, heed that “inner voice.”  If you feel uneasy, queasy or about to pass out, get out.
 
My travel mantra has always been: “Don’t allow fear to stop you … but don’t let stupidity kill you.”  Seems to be working so far. 

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AmyMWeirick

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Nori Muster October 22, 2009 at 9:06 pm

Hi All,
I was in the larger hut with Amy. Creepily, I had heard about the people who died in Sedona, and it was on my mind. However, the Sedona version of Charles Manson, James Arthur Ray, first made the people fast from food and water for 36 hours. Plus, he had a firm rule, he would not let anybody leave if they felt sick.
Quite a gig if you can get it. People pay $10k each for a workshop and you don’t even have to feed them.
Anyways, although I was one of the people face down in the mud to keep cool, I did not feel like I would faint. The man sitting next to me may have, but he moved closer to the door, and I guess he felt well enough to stay.
I was a little worried that we didn’t have bottled water on board the bus, since I had only seen vitamin water. I was relieved to get out and have the fresh fruit, herbal tea, and (on the bus) bottled water.
The buckets of cold water over the head were intense. So ditto.
Put “James Arthur Ray” into news.google.com to find more specifics. The cultic studies universe is now tracking Ray as a cult leader.
Nori
P.S. Here are my photos of the trip: http://surrealist.org/travel/guadalajara.html

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Chris October 22, 2009 at 9:16 pm

Nori, thanks for adding your comments and your photos!

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Nori Muster October 24, 2009 at 11:39 am

Thanks Chris.

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Beth October 24, 2009 at 1:10 pm

I, too, was on this trip. The majority of us – 17 plus shaman and translator were not in the inipi shown in the photo. We were in a slightly larger portable one that was topped by grass mats and plastic sheets (very similar in design if not size to the one in Sedona). My experience was very similar to Amy’s. It was much longer (perhaps because every sentence had to be translated) and far more rigourous than I expected. With some urging from the Shaman, I chose to stay the entire time (we all estimated two hours inside the inipi) and muddle through. Smart? Maybe not.

This was described as a “LUUM, a magical mud bath” followed by a “Temazcal steam bath” – the word sweat lodge was never used. So I, for one, had no idea that this is would be the heart of the experience. With a long history of researching and participating in spiritual traditions and experieinces, I am quite familiar with the Native American sweat lodge – and have always elected to “pass” when opportunities presented themselves. I guess I should have googled “temazcal” before I signed up.:)

That said, our guide Esmeralda was wonderful (a font of wide ranging information and crucial details) and the Huicholi were gracious and welcoming, sharing long dramatic stories that required translation. The experience was certainly fascinating if not enlightening – and there is always the possibility that this was a “required experience” that I finally participated in because it was cloaked in the words “magical” and “steambath.” I will certainly always remember it.

If anyone decides to participate in a similar experience, please: 1. insist on bottled drinking water throughout, 2. remove your contact lenses as well as all jewelry, 3. pass if you have even a mild case of claustrophobia or hate saunas, 4. read about sweat lodges to be psychologically prepared.

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Chris October 24, 2009 at 1:23 pm

Beth – Thanks for your comments about your experience. They’re helpful, I think, for anyone who is thinking about participating in something like this. Full disclosure: I had originally signed up for this daytrip, along with my colleague Jayne Clark. After rereading the summary, I thought it might be more fun to go to Tequila instead (I’m a little more practical than magical, I guess :) Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

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Tracy October 25, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Thanks, Chris, for starting this discussion. It’s been really fun reading the various takes on this adventure. I was there, too, but I had quite a different experience. I was in the other group, and our leader was a woman from Chiapas who follows the traditions of her Mayan ancestry. I don’t know whether the difference was due to the fact that she is a woman or whether it’s a cultural difference – Mayans come from the jungle, Huichols from the desert – but it seemed to me an altogether gentler experience than what our colleagues in the other sweat endured. Which is not to say ours was easy! It was a pretty challenging experience, to say the least.
I wrote about my experience here:

For me, it was a rite of passage. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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Chris October 25, 2009 at 10:37 pm

Tracy – Thanks for chiming in. I was hoping that someone from the other group would add their experience, as I remember you talking about it on the bus. It did sound like yours was a kinder, gentler sweat lodge! I hope any readers here also take a look at your blog and upcoming project – it’s a winner!

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Tracy October 26, 2009 at 11:16 am

Thanks, Chris! I loved your reports from Guadalajara & thereabouts. I just subscribed to your blog – looking forward to following your travels. Buen viaje!

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Nori Muster November 7, 2009 at 9:28 pm

Here is an interesting take on the misfortune in Sedona. I find this bracing and refreshing:
http://www.truthout.org/1029099
Ceremony Is More Than a Self-Help Session
Thursday 29 October 2009
by: Bahe Rock
excerpt: I was dismayed over the abuse of a Native American sacred ceremony in such a dreadful and destructive way. As a Diné raised to respect and participate in our spiritual teachings and ceremonies, and as a person who has observed an increase in the co-optation of our religion, I am compelled to speak out. . .

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Nori December 9, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Here is an informative article about the Sedona sweat lodge guru, what a racket. He was nuts. There is still an active homicide investigation. Just FYI:

http://www.abcnews.go.com/Nightline/james-ray-employee-paramedics-mistook-sweat-lodge-mass/story?id=9283937

Former James Ray Employee: Paramedics Mistook Sweat Lodge for ‘Mass Suicide’
ABC News Exclusive: Former Employee Said the Self-Help Guru Only Watched as People Died
By DAN HARRIS
Dec. 9, 2009

Melinda Martin, a former employee of self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who was at the Sedona, Ariz., sweat lodge where three people died two months ago, told ABC News when officials arrived on the scene that they mistook it for a mass suicide.

“When the paramedics arrived, and they came, the guys like, ‘What happened here? Is this like a mass suicide?’ he said to me. And I said, ‘No, it was a sweat lodge gone wrong,’” said Martin in an exclusive interview with ABC’s “Nightline.” “There were people lying everywhere out. It was crazy. There was vomiting, you know, moaning and crying, and it looked like a mass suicide. It looked like people were on their way out. It was crazy.”

Martin said sweat lodge participants were vomiting and fighting to stay alive outside the 400-square-foot makeshift tent, where Ray led more than 60 followers in a spiritual ceremony with fire-heated rocks and steam. The guests paid nearly $10,000 to spend the week with Ray at the retreat.

[the article is several pages long and explains another previous "workshop" where a woman committed suicide]

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Nori Muster February 3, 2011 at 10:42 am

Latest news on the tragic sweat-lodge deaths in Sedona.
Nori

Sweat-lodge guru’s lawyers want to block witnesses

by Glen Creno – Jan. 27, 2011
The Arizona Republic

Lawyers for the man who led a fatal sweat-lodge ceremony near Sedona are trying to keep a couple of the prosecution’s proposed expert witnesses from testifying in his upcoming trial.

One of those experts is Rick Ross, who has a national reputation as an authority on cults and cult behavior. Ross, formerly based in Arizona, has a controversial background, including his work as a cult “deprogrammer.”

Yavapai County prosecutors want Ross to testify in their case against James Arthur Ray, who is facing three manslaughter charges stemming from the 2009 sweat-lodge ceremony. They want Ross to testify about a mind-control technique that they say convinced people to stay inside the sweltering enclosure, overriding “common sense or wisdom” that told them to get out when they got too hot.

The sweat lodge was part of Ray’s Spiritual Warrior event on Oct. 8, 2009, at a retreat center west of Sedona. Three of the more than 50 participants died – two shortly afterward and another more than a week later. About 20 people were taken to hospitals suffering various heat-related symptoms.

Ray’s lawyers also object to the prosecution’s plans to get testimony from Steven Pace, an expert on managing risk in adventure-education programs. Prosecutors want him to evaluate the safety of Spiritual Warrior’s programs, including the sweat lodge.

Ray’s lawyers say the trial is about Ray’s behavior, not corporate standards, and that arguing about it would unfairly distract the jury.

Ray’s lawyers say Ross can’t argue that Ray exerted some sort of unusual control over the people in the sweat lodge. They say participants could leave at any time, that some did so and some returned.

Ross’ status as a cult expert also came under question by Ray’s attorneys, who said he has no education beyond a high-school degree and no special training in counseling or mental-health issues.

Prosecutors say Ross hasn’t been involved in the “forcible detention and deprogramming” of adult cult members since 1990 and that his past shouldn’t be mentioned in the trial. They said Ross has testified in courts in several states and has written about cults and coercive techniques.

Prosecutors said they couldn’t comment beyond their filings due to legal and ethical rules. Ray’s lawyers didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/2011/01/27/20110127arizona-sweat-lodge-guru-james-arthur-ray-witnesses.html

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Nori June 23, 2011 at 8:06 am

New Age Guru Guilty in Sweat Lodge Deaths

New York Times
By MARC LACEY
June 22, 2011

PHOENIX — A jury found James A. Ray, a self-help guru, guilty of negligent homicide on Wednesday in the deaths of three of his followers during a botched sweat lodge ceremony near Sedona in October 2009.

The decision, delivered after a nearly four-month trial in Yavapai County Superior Court in Camp Verde, Ariz., means Mr. Ray was found to have caused the deaths of Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y.; James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee; and Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., but did not necessarily recognize the risk he put them in. He could face anywhere from probation to more than 30 years in prison on the three guilty counts as court proceedings continue next week.

The prosecutor, Sheila Polk, had pursued a more serious charge of manslaughter, arguing that Mr. Ray should have known that the way he ran the two-hour ceremony, in which hot stones were piled in the center of the sweltering lodge, risked death and that he disregarded that risk.

The case drew international attention, largely because of the bizarre circumstances and because the deaths took place at a pristine campground within sight of the red rocks of Sedona, a well-known New Age gathering place.

A motivational speaker and author, Mr. Ray seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when he was found not guilty on the first manslaughter charge. But he looked stunned a moment later when the guilty verdicts came in. Watching the verdict were relatives of Mr. Ray as well as family members and friends of the victims, many of them holding hands as the decision was read.

After the verdicts, Ms. Polk asked Judge Warren R. Darrow to order Mr. Ray into custody, but Judge Darrow ruled against the motion.

Ms. Polk had painted Mr. Ray as a reckless man who continued his ceremony, the culmination of a five-day “Spiritual Warrior” seminar that cost as much as $10,000 a person, without regard for the participants who were falling ill and slipping into unconsciousness.

The defense said the three victims were not coerced by Mr. Ray and may have died from unknown toxins in the sweat lodge, a round wood-frame structure covered with blankets and tarps. Besides the three deaths, numerous other participants were injured during the ceremony, which was intended to push people to conquer their limitations. All had signed waivers warning that death was among the risks, Mr. Ray’s lawyers noted.

“You will have to get to a point to where you surrender and it’s O.K. to die,” Mr. Ray said in a recording during the ceremony that was played at the trial. After he spoke, a chaotic scene took place, according to witnesses at the trial, who described severely ill people being dragged out of the lodge.

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Chris June 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

@Nori – Thanks for the update!

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