There’s a part of me that’s always been curious about Native American rituals, dating back to when I spent part of my junior year of college interning at a newspaper in Tucson, Arizona. When I came back to campus, I decorated my apartment with cacti, read way too much Carlos Castenada, and even signed up for a class on the Navajo language (which I dropped after discovering it was one of the most difficult languages to read or speak, ever).
Nothing piqued my curiosity quite as much as a temazcal, also known more vernacularly as a “sweat lodge.” I had a chance to do one at last year’s SATW conference in Guadalajara, but it conflicted with a daytrip to Tequila (booze took precedence over self-enlightenment). After fellow SATWer Amy Walters Weirick wrote up a blog post for me about her temazcal experience, I became more convinced that I needed to try it, if only for a little bit, just to see how the whole thing worked.
At Hacienda Tres Rios, an award-winning eco resort that sponsored me on a recent Twitter trip, a temazcal was included in our itinerary. I chose to go; my husband Don did not (slthough Tres Rios is an all-inclusive resort, the temazcal is an extra activity). While I enjoyed the experience, I don’t think it’s something that people should enter into lightly; the excessive heat generated in some temazcals has led to health issues and even death for some participants (most notably in Sedona last year, when 7 people died).
If you are curious about participating in a temazcal, here are a few things that you might want to know before you go:
1. It’s not a spa treatment. Many resorts put temazcals on their spa menu – and that’s a mistake. First off, a temazcal – at least one that bills itself as authentic – is more of a cultural experience than anything resembling a treatment that you might find in a spa. It’s run by a leader, who invokes Native chants and traditions dedicated to asking the spirits for guidance. And it’s also more rigorous than any spa treatment that I’ve ever had: two people from our group left the domed building where the temazcal took place before the ceremony was over because the heat was so overwhelming. Calling a temazcal a spa treatment is not only disrespectful, it’s potentially dangerous.
2. You will get dirty. Before our group entered the temazcal, our leader purified us with sage and asked us to respect the Earth by covering our faces and bodies in mud. I loved this part, as it reminded me of the mud I encountered at the Dead Sea. I slathered on the mud, only to regret putting it on my forehead later when dirty sweat dripped into my contacts. Forget modesty; everyone around you will be in the same state of dishevelment. Wear a swimsuit or clothes that you don’t mind getting muddy.
3. It’s really hot. And long. Imagine being in the hottest sauna that you’ve ever experienced. Now stay in that sauna for two hours – or more.
At our temazcal, the leader said that we’d be going through three doors on our journey. At each “door,” he filled our hut with rocks that glowed from the heat. The hut was then sealed, allowing the steam to fill the pitch black room. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat so much in my life, including the time I ran the half marathon. The feeling wasn’t entirely unpleasant, but I did keep sneaking drinks from the bottled water I brought in with me and moving lower to the ground where the air felt cooler.
4. Find out if – and how – you can leave, if necessary.This is where temazcals can get tricky. Generally, the ritual frowns upon people breaking the circle – and most leaders will encourage participants to stay inside if at all possible (the deaths last year in Sedona occurred because the leader refused to let people leave). Even at our more low-key temazcal, things got a bit ugly when one writer felt that she couldn’t breathe. While the leader let her out, it didn’t happen as quickly as any of us would have wanted it too – and it let to some negative feelings about the experience.
To prevent this, temazcal leaders should say up front what their policies and procedures for leaving the sweat lodges are – and resorts and tour operators that sponsor the activities should be upfront about what the health risks. Don’t do it if you have high blood pressure, get claustrophobic or have a hard time with extended heat. Bottom line: If your heart feels like it’s going to explode, you should have the right to get out FAST.
5. Things get weird in there. In a traditional temazcal, the ritual leader will ask you who you are and what you are searching for. And he’s not looking for smart-ass answers either (sincerity is the best policy here). You may also be asked to chant, beat the ground with leaves and herbs or ask a spirit for guidance. I kinda enjoyed seeing the more spiritual side of my travel companions, but if you aren’t the sharing or New Age-y type, a temazcal may not be your thing.
6. When it ends, you’ll feel like you survived something (although you might not be sure what). After we were released from the temazcal, we stumbled out into the sunlight, taking huge gulps of fresh air. I wrapped myself in a towel and downed a bottle of water as my heart rate went down. Although others looked at my purple face with concern, I felt fine – almost as if I had undergone a long workout. We ended the temazcal with fruit, sugary tea and a cool dip in a nearby cenote.
So in the end, was the temazcal worth it? For me, it was, as I had always been curious about the experience. I enjoyed the cultural aspects of the ritual, as well as the bonding that took place inside the temazcal (as one participant said, “we all sweat together.”) But it didn’t lead to a greater level of enlightenment or relaxation (I found more Zen while snorkeling through the cenotes the next day). And I don’t think people should go into a temazcal without seriously thinking about the health risks or uncomfortable moments that they might face.
Have you been to a temazcal? What was your experience like?