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What Is a Temazcal?

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  • Written By: Lakshmi Sandhana
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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A temazcal is a Mexican sweat bath that originated in ancient times in the area of Mesoamerica, a region that includes Belize, Mexico, and Gautemala. The Aztecs favored this type of sweat bath, and the term temazcal is a Nahuati word where temaz means bath and calli means house. The word effectively translates as bathing house and is also known as temescal or temascal. It is primarily used for therapeutic purposes to heal the body, mind, and spirit with the aid of herbs and a trained healer. A person takes the bath by entering an enclosed circular dome that is prepared by the healer, who oversees and manages the bath.

An authentic temazcal is constructed out of volcanic rock and factors in ancient cosmological ideas in both its physical structure and use. Entering the dome is akin to returning to the womb of the mother; the interior is dark, humid, and warm, and the entrance is designed to be narrow and small. The fire pit found inside the structure is oriented toward the rising sun in the east because the sun represents the masculine element that fertilizes. The person enters the structure through an entrance that faces south, which represents the journey every soul makes from birth to death. The Aztecs believed in there being several levels to heaven, and this is represented by the temperature differences that exist in various levels of the structure.

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To those who go in for this sweat bath, emerging out of the temazcal is akin to being reborn from the darkness and comfort of the womb. Steam is generated in the dome through the use of volcanic stones heated to a high temperature over which water is drizzled. The heat can be increased by adding more stones to the ones already present in the pit. A temazcal differs from ordinary sweat baths used for relaxation or general health and well-being — its main purpose is therapeutic, and it is designed to have various curative properties. The healer, also known as the temazcalera, examines the person and arrives at a diagnosis of his or her condition.

The bath is prepared according to the healer's instructions with specific herbs and heat and humidity levels that the healer feels is appropriate to the person's condition. The healer plays an active role in the bathing process by raising or lowering the heat level through changing the ventilation or fanning the person with a fan made of healing herbs. They may skillfully manipulate the herbal fan to direct heat currents to certain areas of the body that require them. Some healers may beat the fan lightly on any body part to improve the blood circulation in that area if needed. A person exiting the bath is made to lie down for a certain period of time, wrapped in a sheet, until he or she thoroughly rested.

The patient typically falls asleep during this period and is allowed to leave only after the body sweat has completely dried. The tezmacal is believed to be highly effective in treating a variety of medical conditions because of the healer's ability to adjust both humidity and heat to treat the patient efficiently. Secondly, the herbs and vapors obtained from the herbal teas are specific to the patient and condition being treated. This bath is used to treat everything from alleviating sinusitis to helping pregnant women and healing chronic conditions like arthritis. The amount of time spent by a person in a temazcal depends upon the general health of the patient, the illness or condition being treated, and the heat levels.

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