Experiencing a temazcal ceremony (sweat lodge) was always at the top of my bucket list before leaving Mexico. And luckily so, the universe would have it that our last Friday in Mexico happened to be the last temazcal of the season hosted by friends of ours. And we got to go!
Here is everything we learned from our first experience in a Mexican temazcal ceremony with locals. My guide includes temazcal meaning and symbolism, our honest experience, beginner’s tips, and more. For those who wish to experience a temazcal, keep reading to learn the best five things to know before doing your first sweat lodge ceremony in Mexico.
A HUGE thank you to Tania who graciously re-explained all about temazcal so that I could write this post! xx
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What Is a Temazcal?
Temazcal is, in short, a sweat lodge or steam bath ceremony. But it’s much more than that! A temazcal ceremony combines elements of ancient Native American and Mesoamerican rituals to bring cleansing to your mind, body, and soul. Many writers and those who have experienced it, describe temazcal as a rebirthing experience.
First off, I learned that each temazcal varies in tradition. The Lakota, Navaho, and Mexica (Meshika) have different temazcal ceremony methods. Therefore different tribes will conduct temazcal ceremonies differently across regions in the US, Canada, Mexico, and Latin America. So with that in mind, our experience as I detail below might not be your experience. (Past, present, or future)!For me, the temazcal ceremony was an opportunity to let go, to purify my mind and intentions, and to manifest all that I wish for others or for myself. But to understand what all of this meant, I had to dig deeper.
So I asked Tania, our host, to explain to me the processes of the temazcal so that I could better understand the sweat lodge ceremony and its importance. Here is what she described to me.
But first, it’s good to know that in Mexico, temazcals will vary depending on the traditions that are carried over from other tribes. Tania and Sol adopted differents styles of temazcal into their own ceremonies, but they mostly incorporate Lakota tradition. What’s more, not anyone can just conduct a temazcal ceremony. Sol, Tania’s partner, first went through four vision quests and four sun dances in order to be able to host private temazcals.
The Meanings and Symbolism of Our Temazcal Ceremony
Before I jump into our raw and honest temazcal experience, here are some interesting and important things to know about the various elements of a sweat lodge or temazcal ceremony.
The Sweat Lodge
Sweat Lodge is the dome-like structure you sit inside around a hole filled with volcanic rock. Water is poured over the rocks during the ceremony to create steam. There are four main “doors” or short sessions and after each round, the doors of the temazcal are opened to release the energy and to allow air to circulate. Our sweat lodge was made from strategically-designed wood sticks that created an 8-point star in the ceiling. The star shape is meant to connect everything we say or do to the stars and the universe, as at that moment we are inside the earth we are getting unified with the elements.
North, South, East, and West
Four Directions North, South, East, and West. The meanings of the four directions again change depending on tribe tradition.
- In our ceremony, the East represents consciousness, awakening, light, and knowledge.
- South represents the will, intentions, manifestation, and strength to make things happen.
- The West is where the sun sets and thus represents darkness and the dark side to everything.
- Finally, the North represents our elders, ancestors, traditions, and the air to symbolize stories.
Everything is aligned east and west. So as the light comes in by the east it passes in the direction of the west. As such, sitting in these spots inside the temazcal results in a powerful channel of energy which can be felt when you sit there. All cleansing and letting go will pass in that direction.
“Mitakuye Oyasin” is what participants say before entering into the temazcal. It’s Lakota for “for all my relationships” (todas mis relaciones in Spanish) because everything we do, say, or pray in the sweat lodge affects not only us but also all of our relationships on earth. That goes for our relationships with our families, animals, and all beings.
The Aguila / Fire Chief
Fire and the águila de fuego (fire eagle) are crucial to temazcal ceremonies. The fire is how the volcanic rocks are heated. There is a fire chief (águila) to help transfer the rocks to the ground inside the temazcal. The more rocks you add, the hotter the temazcal! So it’s common that after each door is opened, the fire chief will bring in more rocks. By the end, everyone is soaked in their own sweat and even mucus secretions. (Noses often drip heavily and it is a common bodily reaction).
The volcanic rocks are heated by fire before slowly adding them into the temazcal
Herbs and plants are thrown into the fire and sprinkled over the volcanic rocks to release fragrant aromas, meant to cleanse the mind and body. Native Americans believed plants had spirits. As such, the smoke from sage, sweetgrass, or copal (commonly used in Mexico), is used to communicate with the spirit world. They are used as medicinal purposes. In Mexico, cedar and sage are popularly used medicinal herbs for ceremonies, along with others like rosemary, chamomile, and lavender.
Altars are critical in temazcal ceremonies because they are used to connect us with the fire and with the temazcal. Traditionally, they are located in between the fire and the sweat lodge so that every element can connect us together with the fire. Sometimes a pipe is used, and you are not meant to cross this space so as to not interfere with the prayers and intentions that are going east. Tania also explained to me that altars are commonly built up with the soil from the dug-out hole inside the temazcal, giving even more connection and meaning to it as the soil represents the earth and all life that it sustains.
Instruments and Chants
Not every temazcal will incorporate music and chanting into its ceremony. However, that was the case for our sweat lodge experience. Tania and Sol use instruments such as an air drum, or water drum from the Navaho tradition, along with a rattle. In addition to instrumental music, chanting or singing in temazcal ceremonies is common. Some traditions, for example, the Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada have specific sweat lodge songs, while other traditions use a mixture of songs. The songs aren’t just for entertainment though. Most of these songs tell stories! Singing and chanting are how the meaning is shared with people and with spirits. Tania and Sol sing almost any kind of chant, like Spanish songs that are kept in the Mexican contemporary tradition.
There are many other symbols and meanings behind a temazcal sweat lodge ceremony. Loads more than I am able to describe here. But already, I hope you can better understand what a temazcal ceremony is.
But what is it really like inside?
Mats for participants to sit on around the hole where the rocks will be placed
Our Temazcal Ceremony
Our temazcal ceremony took place in the backyard of our host’s home, in a small neighboring community from where we lived in San Pancho. Tania and Sol were extremely courteous and welcoming. I had met Tania through aerial silk classes and had heard about her last temazcal of the season via a mutual friend.
We arrived early, at 4 pm, in time to see the preparation of the ceremonial fire which heats the volcanic rocks that are used inside the temazcal structure. We have seen Mayan temazcal structures in Yucatan and Quintana Roo made from stone and hard mud. But this temazcal was fashioned together using strategically-designed sticks.
In the middle was a small dug-out hole, where the volcanic rocks would be placed. As Sol and Tania would later describe, the structure of this temazcal was well-thought-out. The roof was in the shape of an 8-point star. The star shape in the ceiling represents and connects us to the stars and the universe.
Tania and Sol’s temazcal was made with wooden sticks and covered with thick blankets.
My Experience VS Paul’s Experience
If you asked my partner Paul, our temazcal experiences were completely different! While I had a positive one, Paul’s was rather frustrating. It’s hard to know what to expect, even if people tell you about their own experiences.
A couple of days before the ceremony, I asked Tania for beginner’s tips. Out of all of them, she highlighted to drink lots and lots and LOTS of water the day before and the day of the ceremony. While I took this seriously and was drinking water almost constantly, Paul drank about the same as usual. What’s more, he chose to have two cups of coffee on the day of the ceremony.
For most first-timers, a temazcal is a mental test. And for some people, it can be too challenging. Especially if you do not like cramped, dark spaces, which Paul does not. And this particular ceremony was jam-packed with people. We were around 30 people to fit into this tent. I’m still not sure how that managed to work.
Paul was able to experience the first door or session of the temazcal ceremony. The heat was extremely overpowering. Even Tania later told us it was too hot for beginners. Paul needed to exit the ceremony after the first door was opened. After that, he couldn’t make himself come back inside after that.
As for me, I stayed inside the temazcal because, despite the sense of claustrophobia, I knew I could make it through if I just focused on my breathing. The second round was tougher than the first, and I started to believe I wasn’t going to make it. But once I got out to breathe at the second door, I felt a sense of energy that grounded me and calmed me.
I was able to stay inside for sessions three and four without exiting.
Once inside, the aguila closes the door and the ceremony starts (Paul’s photo after exiting)
Entering the Temazcal
We lined up one by one to kneel at the entrance of the temazcal, acknowledge the earth and say “Mitakuya oyasin y por todas mis relaciones.” They say if you are a beginner to stay near the door, but the way we had lined up didn’t give us that option. Instead, we shuffled to the very back of the temazcal, which some people call the “Buffalo” position. Tania said she doesn’t know why the Buffalo is considered the strongest, but that it is likely because the energy is passing through that direction (west).
They closed the door to the temazcal and our hearts raced. Paul and I were squeezing each other’s hands so hard. The ceremony began with Sol speaking in Spanish, which we could understand more or less of. But not fully being able to understand the story and meaning behind what he was saying made us not as “in tune” as we could have been, I think.
Then we heard the first ladle of water being splashed onto the heated volcanic rocks, which had been burning for a couple of hours now. The hot vapor and the steam hit us like a brick wall in the face. It was pretty overwhelming to take that first breath in with all the aromas in the steam!
I tried my best to stay comfortable, with my knees up to my chest. I could feel the sweat forming. Soon, I was wiping the sweat from entering my eyes and mouth. Soon after that, there wasn’t a dry bit of dress left to soak up the extra. Every ounce of sweat now just seeped into the earth.
“Drenched” doesn’t even do it justice
The temazcal became hotter, and hotter, and hotter. We easily surpassed over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Paul said we were inside the temazcal for at least 45 minutes to an hour. And that’s after he left the first session. For me, it seemed to go by in just 15 minutes or so. Due to the intensity of the temazcal, people can lose track of time. And I think that’s definitely what happened to me!
After each session or door, the group would focus our intentions and prayers in another direction (N, S, E, W). I don’t remember much from the chants and stories, but I remember the fourth door or our last session quite well. It was about focusing on our relationships; our families and everything we prayed and manifested for was for them. I remember focusing my attention on each one of my family members. Their problems, health, and aspirations. And I also thought about my grandpa, who passed away earlier this year. It was a powerful way to end the ceremony for me.
After the ceremony
At the end of the ceremony, we opened up the temazcal. Everyone took a 15-30 minute resting period. Some of us stayed inside the temazcal and we went around the circle to say a few words. I shared how grateful I was for the opportunity and for everyone’s support. The period after temazcal is also important. Lots of people laid down with their backs on the ground. This further connects one to feel the earth and be thankful.
We all came out of there drenched with purply red faces. We all hugged each other and shared fruit and homemade pozole (a Mexican soupy dish) together. There was a strong sense of community and mutual understanding that we won’t forget. For us, experiencing a temazcal with locals and people we knew was very humbling and special!
If you ever get the chance to participate in one of the Mexican sweat lodge ceremonies, you should do so with an open mind and heart.
Sharing homemade pozole and fruit after the ceremony
The Benefits of Temazcal
There are so many benefits of temazcal. But the most prominent is of course purification of the mind and body. Some might even say it’s a spiritual cleansing as well!
The high-intensity heat (+ duration) allows your body to purge itself of toxins. Since you sweat so much in temazcal, it makes sense that you’re ridding your body of some blockages. It’s not uncommon for your mucosal glands to drain (like your nose).
Temazcal also helps to cleanse your mind. Whether you’re healing from past trauma, want to rid yourself of negative energy, or simply want to redirect your intentions, temazcal is good for that.
Temazcal benefits vary from person to person, however. The cleansing and purification from the ritual are rather subjective depending on your unique temazcal experience.
Hard to imagine there being 30 people inside that temazcal, right? A cute boy waits for his mom
What to Wear for a Temazcal Ceremony?
What to wear to a temazcal ceremony is a common question. So I asked each one of my friends who had previously been to temazcal ceremonies for their thoughts on the matter.
Almost unanimously they said to wear a long skirt or light dress and a bathing suit. For men, it was swim trunks or shorts and a light shirt.
Apparently, it’s also common for women to remove their underwear underneath their skirts in order to have a better connection with the earth inside the temazcal. But if you are new to temazcal it is completely fine to wear a bathing suit underneath, which is what I did under my cotton dress.
In general, you want to avoid wearing anything synthetic. In temazcal, you will sweat ungodly amounts! Trust me, you won’t believe it until you experience it. Wearing light linen skirts or organic cotton dresses or loose skirts is the best clothing to wear to a temazcal ceremony.
5 Best Tips for First-Timers Doing a Temazcal
Here are some beginner’s tips I put together in case you add temazcal to your Mexico bucket list!
Drink tons of water
1. Drink water constantly the day before and day of and day after the ceremony. If you read about Paul’s experience, I think he felt unwell not only because it was crowded, but I don’t think he drank enough water. He had two cups of coffee that day as well, which makes your heart race anyway. As for me, I drank water almost every 30 minutes for two days straight and it definitely made me feel more comfortable going into the ceremony. Especially because I am known to pass out when I get overheated.
2. Bring fruit or water to share after the temazcal ceremony. It’s common (and polite) to bring fresh fruit to a ceremony so that you can share it with everyone after the ceremony has ended. Eating fresh fruits and sometimes drinking agua fresca is meant to replenish your body after the temazcal purification.
Take extra clothes
3. Take an extra change of clothes and wear only light, breathable natural fabrics. The more light and breathable your clothes, the better. Natural and organic fabrics are the best thing to wear in a sweat lodge so your body can release its toxins properly. Wear only loose clothing as you’ll likely be sitting cross-legged inside. After the ceremony, you can rinse off and change into dry clothes.
Sit near the entrance
4. Ask to sit near the entrance door inside the temazcal if you are worried about the heat or space. If it’s your first time and you don’t like small spaces, you can ask to be next to the door so you get a nice breeze after each session. Being here also places you in a good position to exit quickly in case you get sick.
Get there early
5. Get there early to help build the fire, ask questions, and relax before the ceremony begins. I think arriving early and getting to understand temazcal better helped me better appreciate the experience. It gave me time to speak with the hosts and learn about the sweat lodge practices before entering into the temazcal.
Temazcal Ceremony: A Rebirthing Experience?
A temazcal is typically described as a rebirthing experience because the lodge often represents the womb of a mother or the womb of the earth. It’s as if you were going back into the womb. So when you come back out, you go through a rebirthing experience. It can be extremely powerful, but it depends on your intentions and experience.
Not everyone will come out feeling like their lives have changed. For me, it definitely aided me in realigning myself and my intentions, while letting go of negative mental energy.
You can do temazcal once a week and many people do. For others, it’s a one-time experience. It all depends on you!
So what do you think? Would you try a Mexican sweat lodge? Drop your thoughts and comments below!