Being Aztec was often strenuous. Sacrificing virgins and dismembering opposing ballplayers required a fit upper body and walking up and down those steep pyramid steps was hard on the quads and hamstrings.
That’s why they invented the Temazcal, or, as the Aztecs called it, the House of Heat. The temazcal is a sweat lodge, in which a shaman performs a ritual to purify the body after extreme exertions such as battling enemies or playing ceremonial ball games. Women bore babies there and sick people sweated out whatever crud was going around.
Fact is, the ancient Mayans were enjoying good soaking sweats in hot baths way before the Romans conceived of the idea, and for more than two thousand years before the Aztecs came up with their version. But the sweat ceremonies offered by resorts up and down Mexico’s Caribbean are called by the Aztec name, because the temazcal had better PR. The written history of Mayan sweat rituals were burned by Spanish priests, while Aztec images are in collections around the world.
The temazcal above is depicted in an Aztec Codex preserved in Florence, Italy (Public domain: Wikimedia Commons).
This drawing was likely created at the time the Conquistadores came roaring into Mexico in the 1500s. But a few years ago Boston University archaeologists uncovered, in a southern outpost of the Maya realm, the remains of the oldest-known Maya sweat house and dated it to 900BC.
The Mayan name for sweat house is pib-na and the ceremony performed in it by a shaman is called the Zum Pul Che. Traditional Mayan villages across the Yucatan contain such structures to this day where taking a sweat can be part of a family’s normal routine.
Both traditional Aztec and Mayan sweat ceremonies share the same form and purpose and temazcals have been built at resort spas (like the one above at Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun) up and down the coast of Quintana Roo to offer new millennial travelers a connection to the ancients by way of therapy and ritual.
The temazcal ceremony presided over by the spa shaman-in-residence represents a return to the womb of Mother Earth to be reborn. It involves inhaling incense and meditation. If you are stressed entering the temazcal, you are not when you leave.
Often the first encounter with a shaman at a resort is his arrival on the beach or at a pool where he signals his arrival with the toot of a conch shell and offers a brief individual purification with an incense burner.
At Dreams Playa Mujeres, the shaman presides over a full-blown seaside beach ritual welcoming the sun, before returning to the temazcal to conduct the sweat bath.
The three shamans we met appeared genuinely earnest in their objective to share the spiritual traditions passed across generations.
Luis, who is the temazcal intercessor at the Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita Riviera Maya, is reluctant to call himself a shaman, but accepts it. He considers himself a teacher and a ceremonial guide. The power inhabits the ritual, not him.
The ceremony begins outside an igloo-shaped structure (one typical temazcal shape). The womb metaphor includes the heat, humidity and the darkness. The structure is also a stand-in for a cave, where Mayans believed one could communicate with the spirits of the underworld.
The ritual purports to allow participants to connect with ancestors and to absorb their wisdom.
The shaman typically waves a clay censer of billowing smoke around the bodies of temazcal participants. The smoke is produced by the burning of resin from the copal tree.
Also part of the ritual is the blowing of a conch shell, a primal sound some say is symbolic of human breath. Drum beats are also a part of the sound track.
Those experiencing the ceremony are advised to eat lightly and to drink plenty of water as the sweat house is dehydrating.
The participants enter the structure and take a seat around the central pit. Heated volcanic rocks are raked or carried in. The shaman pours a brew of medicinal herbs onto the red hot rocks and steam fills the space. The vapors create a haze and the herbal mist induces eyelids to close. Thoughts begin to meander. Meditation and reflection is stimulated. A good friend of mine reports experiencing a positive personal revelation.
As the interior of the temazcal is meant to be the womb, leaving the temazcal represents rebirth; rejoining the outside world with enhanced understanding conveyed by ancestral spirits during the ritual. The combination of fire and water are meant to purify body and spirit and to cast out whatever toxins are blocking the spiritual flow.
That’s the basic idea. Your results may vary.