I had the privilege of experiencing my first “indigenous bath” (a.k.a. sweat lodge).
As part of the program, we went to Tepotzlan to a place called Amatlan. In Amatlan, we stayed at a retreat called La Puerta, where we slept in tipis, took cold showers, used all natural toilets, and ate vegetarian meals.
The journey to Amatlan felt like 9 years. We took a metro, changed trains several times, then a long hot bus ride, then cabs, then walked… and we walked right into the paradise that was La Puerta. Our student group of 40 was split into 2 groups – I was in the second group.
Surrounded by trees, hammocks, and tipis, we saw our friends, group 1, lounging around in the swings, on the grass, lying in the hammocks… and they all looked so tranquil and peaceful, almost stoned. I mean, not stoned… spiritually enlightened (?) I didn’t know it at the time, but they had just completed their temazcal.
Shortly after our arrival, we participated in a welcoming ceremony where we saluted the cardinal puntos, the sky and the earth. Then we ate, hung out, and told scary stories. I didn’t sign up for a tipi in time, so I ended up sleeping in La casa de la curacion – which was a circular meditative room with cushioned seats lining the perimeter. That was my bedroom with 6 others the first night.
Our temazcal took place in the evening after our crazy 6 hour hike/rock climbing trip with our group of 40. We were accompanied by 70 year old Don Julio, who served as our guide, and later we accumulated a pack of stray dogs on the way. There were about 6 dogs that decided to follow us the whole trip and two almost died because they couldn’t gain enough momentum to climb up the steep rocks… so some of us (like myself) had to push the dog’s rear end up the incline with my hands as I tried to climb up myself. Awesome. But you can’t just leave a dog hanging. Anyhow, the hike took us to Quetzacoatl’s birth place where many of my colleagues decided to go swimming in the (muddy) waterfall. The hike was a great chance to see everyone pull together and really help one another out and no one got hurt. I must also mention that on our way, we stumbled upon a sun ceremony where people pitched tents and were camped out Woodstock style. A group of people in costumes were chanting to drum beats and dancing around. They appeared to be making some sort of sacrifice by hanging a man with hooks from his chest, or breast area, and lifting him suspended in midair. They were pretty adamant about not allowing pictures, I understand why. And although we were invited to pass by, we were also not invited to stay. On our way back to La Puerta, our pack of dogs decided to scare some huge cows who were minding their own business chewing on grass. Thw cows freaked out and stampeded toward our group, and our group freaked out and stampeded out of the way. Exciting!
Okay, back to the Temazcal. So after the delicious meal that followed our hike, the first group departed. The leftovers stayed and hung out, like literally… laid out on the hammocks, journaling, entertaining ourselves the old fashioned way – conversation. Then the actual ceremony began at about 6:30pmish – we started building a fire. We had to salute the puntos otra vez and then we proceeded to build a fire of strictly stones (aka “stone people”) and wood (“wood people”). Then there was singing (temazcali temazcali) and the assignment of our Mayan name. We were assigned our names based on our birth day, month, and year, and then were directed to sit next to others sharing is a specific order which I didn’t get understand. After that, we lined up to be blessed by our Shaman, and crawled into the hut that would be our spot for the next 3.5 hours.
The ceremony had 4 stages which were referred to as puertas. During the 1st puerta, all of us were to introduce ourselves by Mayan name, and then state our intentions. So of course, I forget my name and make one up and embarrassed myself. But to my defense, it was hot as hell in there and I was having a hard time keeping consciousness. But my name is Qua’lin or something. :S
The first puerta ended and a few people stepped out. I decided I would stay through the second, and if that was too much, I’d leave. The second puerta was dedicated to women and we talked about our relationships with men. It was quite emotional and people were disclosing personal and difficult experiences. This puerta stood out to me the most because I had no idea what I was going to say. When it came time for me to speak, I heard these words spill out of my mouth: “to the men in my life, don’t follow me blindly, or lead me blindly, but know yourself so we can walk together.” I was so surprised. I am not articulate especially in pressured situations so I was quite taken back with the deep, meaningful words that came from me.
When the second door opened, I attempted to leave. I was feeling claustrophobc and started to feel like I was suffocating. So I asked, “Can I leave?” and he (the shaman) responded “no.” I started to panic. He let others leave, why couldn’t I?Then Jason told me to relax for a minute. So I did. I leaned back and felt the coolness of the mud underneath me and thought, now what? Am I going to pass out? Is my flesh burning? Should I fight harder to leave? Are the walls closing in on me? Yea, you’re mind sure messes with you when you’re that uncomfortable, hot, and pushing your mind to the limit. That was when the water came around and we poured a cup on our body and drank a cup. That helped and I decided to stay. The 3rd puerta was the hottest and we just fanned ourselves with herbs. The last puerta we all had to say the name of someone we want to pray for – I named my father. Michael Young.
That whole experience was 3.5 hours. We emerged from the womb of the temazcal feeling reborn. We challenged ourselves, dug deep, listened to others bear their souls as we opened up our own and we were all exhausted, hungry, and high on life. Everything seemed beautiful to me that night – the way the moonlight hit the garden, the crisp air, the people around me… The experience also made me realize that the only needs we have are for water and air. Literally, need. The word need changed for me while I was in there. Yes, we need food eventually, but we will literally die instantly without air. For once in my life, I felt what it was like to only want what I needed. In those hot claustrophobic moments, nothing felt better than the sprinkle of water on our bodies between puertas, the sip of water we were given, and the air that rushed in when the puerta opened up.
Participating in the temazcal was such an honor. It was definitely one of the most physically and mentally challenging times I’ve had. Your mind plays tricks on you and you have no where to go – when you have nowhere to go, you face yourself, your mind, your needs and desires… your fears… and you just sit there with it all. It makes me wonder if perhaps this was therapy for the Mayans. It certainly felt that way for me. Spiritual therapy.