I’m in Hacienda El Carmen, a delightful old Spanish estate that has been turned into the kind of hotel that is both wedding destination and respite from the everyday world — you can walk the restored rooms full of antiques, inside walls over a foot thick, and imagine the footsteps of the generations that called this place their home. I’m actually on a Mexico spiritual tour, leading a group of folks who are interested in a deeper experience, not just a vacation.
The hacienda boasts a spa, a small golf course, a stable, a swimming pool and multiple Jacuzzis; however, near the spa is an unexpected building: a small round mud hut called a temezcal, the native ceremonial sweat lodge. As our group somewhat fearfully crosses the lawn to the temezcal, we note the Sanskrit OM marking the doorway. We are greeted by Rosario, an elderly long-haired shaman who wears only a loincloth, and his apprentice, Margarita, whose crinkly smile endears her to me instantly. My partner Greg has done some clearing work with those who are claustrophobic, and everyone has agreed to brave the close quarters, the heat, the internal terror of the unknown.
We line up and they look at us. Greg and I had read online all about temezcals and advised everyone to dress modestly. The shaman has other ideas. He points at one woman’s top, then touches his own bare chest. “Medicine,” he says in his extremely broken English. We look at his scarred chest, the result of a trance ritual where the shamans take peyote and suspend themselves from their torsos, hooking deer antlers directly into the muscles. As Greg says, this guy is a badass.
The men take off their shirts, the women remove shorts, even underwear, until we are all in single pieces of clothing, stripped down as much as modesty will allow. The shaman and his apprentice light a wooden smudge pot and Margarita passes it all over each of us, cleansing us with the smoke from the pot’s herb and wood mixture. Next to us, a roaring fire in a low brick ring belies the sunny, warm afternoon, heating the temezcal’s stones.
The shaman explains through a translator that he is going to greet each of us in turn, looking into our eyes and connecting with our souls through our hearts. When he steps up to me, he focuses on me, our hands at chest height, palms facing each other but not touching. I keep my heart as open as possible, allowing him in to explore the truth of me. When the last of us is complete, we are told to crawl into the temezcal, coming into the “womb of the mother,” according to Rosario. This ritual is a rebirthing of sorts, he explains. As the others have done before me, I touch my forehead to the sparse grass at the mouth of the temezcal. “All my relations,” I intone properly, while connecting to Mother Earth, Father Sky, my ancestors, my family, my friends — in keeping with the intention of the ceremony.
Inside, the temezcal is still cold, since all the hot stones are still in the fire pit outside. I suspect this is an aspect of what our local guide calls “tourist temezcal,” where we are subjected to less stringent forces in deference to our delicate sensibilities. Still a little scared, we surround the center pit in the low-ceilinged hut, sitting on the thin straw mats. Using a small pitchfork, Rosario brings in 5 large rocks and drops them, one at a time, into the pit.
Most temezcals in Mexico are large enough for four entrances, I am told, one in each of the four directions, and it is through these that the super-heated stones are brought in during the ceremony. Ours has just one arched doorway, and now our shaman drops the heavy wool blanket across the entrance and we sit in semi-darkness. Margarita dabs a local tree resin onto the stones, raising the first cloud of smoke. From an enormous jug that takes up so much space it seems to be one of the ceremony participants, hovering in the doorway, Rosario ladles water. It splashes first onto the rocks, adding giant clouds of steam to the smoke, then onto us. I gasp as the cold droplets hit my face and head, trickling down into the little sundress I’m wearing.
Rosario opens the ceremony by saying his name out loud, and, in broken English because there was no room for the translator inside, what he is grateful for. He reminds us to take everyone into our hearts, even our enemies, and that the temescal will cleanse all aspects of our lives. We go around in the circle, and when it’s my turn, I find myself overwhelmed by gratitude for this country, for opening its secret heart to me and showing me a side so different from the tequila-soaked tourist towns on the border. I try to look at the other participants, but the tiny room is so filled with steam and smoke that I can see nothing, so I close my eyes and listen as we express gratitude for all the gifts of our lives.
The blanket is raised, more hot rocks are brought in, and more water douses them and us. “Stand up,” Rosario tells us, and we rise awkwardly, dripping and uncomfortable. The heat is much worse up here, and my neck curves with the ceiling and I can feel the roof behind my head. I open my eyes despite myself, my hair hanging lank in front of my face. Suddenly, I feel the desperate urge to run, panic rising as I imagine myself leaping across the fire pit and knocking Rosario out of the way of the door. Instead, I calm myself with deep breaths and grab Greg’s hand and the hand of our guest on my right. They both reassure me with the pressure of their palms and I feel myself stepping back from the abyss of panic. Later, I find out that at least half the group experienced a similar “fight or flight” jolt during this round.
The third round brings more rocks, more herb resin daubed onto the hot stones. I watch the sticky tar bubble up on the surface and listen to the intentions of the women in our group who the shaman points to and hands the resin cloth. “I give thanks for sight,” says Jude, a New Zealand woman who is a frequent guest on our tours. “And I give thanks for insight.”
“Stand up,” the shaman commands again. This time, he plays a small drum and sings, and I find myself drawn into the mournful, joyous music. Once I can follow the simple melody I open my throat to the song and in its rhythms find both peace and something to focus my mind on that distracts me completely from my fears. Though this round is even hotter than the last two, I mind it less because of the singing. For the fourth part of the ceremony, Rosario uses the last of the water and asks us to do another round of gratitude. First, he carefully explains that this native culture respects the mother, that they believe in a dual universe of a Mother and a Father God. He says he hopes this is our future and that we can be open to respecting the mother. As we go around, many thank their mothers and all mothers for giving birth, and one woman thanks Mother Earth. It’s a beautiful blending of our modern intentions and the traditions of this ancient culture. As the wool blanket is raised for the last time and we crawl out of the womb, I dip my forehead to the grass once more. “All my relations,” I intone again. “Thank you for the changes that have been wrought in me this afternoon, for the unneeded old that I leave inside this sacred space.” I rise up into the welcoming sun, the mother of us all. We made it.