“Will you enter the Temazcal?”
I had been asked the question more than once at Vive Piuki Mapu (Read about it here). The Temazcal – a small, igloo-like structure – had been simply constructed with tarpaulin over a bent-branch frame the day before. I knew that a ceremony involving steam was to take place there, but by the reverent way the question was asked, it seemed this would be no ordinary ritual.
But of course, my answer was yes, and so Saturday afternoon found us – twenty Chileans and one perhaps naïvely curious Australian – standing around a fire in our underwear. Before us was the Temazcal itself, squatting on the sandy edge of the Atacama Desert. First, Andrea – the Temazcalera officiating the ritual – directed cleansing prayers and offerings to Madre Tierra, Padre Cielo, and El Gran Misterio. Each of us was given tobacco leaves to toss into the fire. Beneath its flames, on a bed of coals, a pile of stones waited like dragon eggs.
Andrea warned us to take care, as it would be very hot inside the Temazcal. It was best not to breathe too deeply, as the steam could singe the lungs. Before I had time to wonder what I had gotten myself into, we commenced entering the dome, crawling through a cramped tunnel into the darkness.
Inside, we sat in an intimate circle around a shallow pit. Some of us were given small drums and maracas. One by one, the stones were carefully transported from the fire and placed in the central pit. They glowed red and radiated shimmering heat. The last item to arrive was a tall bucket of water.
With preparations complete, the entrance tunnel was covered. We were plunged into darkness, save for the red-glowing edges of the stones. For a moment, there was silence. Then, hissing. The red glow faltered as water was poured onto the stones. Wafts of heat brushed against my skin. A drum sounded and Andrea began to sing. Every few minutes, the hissing came again as more water was poured until steam filled the dome. But before it became too hot, Andrea commanded the entrance be opened. As cool air flowed in, I wondered what all the fuss had been about. Little did I know what was to come.
Later, I learned more about the Temazcal’s history. Literally meaning ‘House of Heat,’ in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, it was performed at least 5000 years ago by the Mesoamericans and, despite colonial attempts to eradicate the practice, was adopted by societies all across the Americas. It has been used for medicinal and religious purposes, before and after important events such as Sun Dances, Vision Quests, and the commencing of war.
And of course, our Temazcal was not complete. There are four stages to the ritual. The four traditional elements – earth, air, fire, and water – are all present as well, and as such, the Temazcal is seen as a microcosmic representation of the universe as well as a symbolic womb. We had only completed the first stage – the child’s stage. Now, as fresh stones were brought in and the passage closed, the stage of youth commenced.
It began as before but quickly became more intense. More steam, louder singing, and harder drumming. I began to sway to the rhythm and soon grew painfully aware of the soreness that had accumulated in my body over weeks of travelling and camping. I turned my movements into exercises, twisting my spine and rotating my neck, all the while slapping my thighs to the beat of the drums. I wanted to join in the singing, too, but the words were unclear, and before I could find my voice the stage was over and the entrance opened for a reprieve.
In fact, the therapeutic benefits of sweat lodge and sauna practices are well-known. The combination of the heat and humidity stimulates circulation, metabolism, and heart-rate comparable to the effects of strenuous exercise. Used appropriately, they can benefit cardiovascular health and help to treat skin and muscular conditions. Research has also found positive effects for mental health as well, and, traditionally, sweat lodges have been used in the treatment of even more wide-ranging ailments.
With the commencing of the third, ‘adult’ stage, I put my doubts aside and joined the singing. I bellowed what words I could and otherwise hummed or moaned or whooped or shrieked, anything to join the hot spirit billowing amongst us. And it was getting really hot. The stones hissed again and again like an angry serpent. Andrea was practically wailing, and more than once I gagged, accidentally sucking the air deep into my lungs. When the tarp was finally thrown open, the steam was so thick that the faces of the other participants had become indiscernible. All sat wreathed in grey vapour, like the petrified silhouettes of Pompeii in the shadow of volcanic clouds.
And yet, there was still one more stage: the stage of the elder. This time I did not sing. Instead, I sat still amidst the sensory overload – the dizzy darkness, the noise, the heat – and tried to focus inwards. I had been surprised in the previous stage by flashes of negativity – old traumas and painful memories – that had suddenly surfaced in my mind. Now, I allowed them to flow outwards and upwards, as the sweat from my skin, as the steam from the stones. Perhaps I was just light-headed, but they seemed to become more distant, more detached. When I opened my eyes, all I could see was the red edges of the stones, glowing like the secret veins of the earth.
When it was over we emerged into the afternoon light feeling both purged and invigorated. We shared embraces and reflected around the fire. The intentions I had cast into the flames with the tobacco leaves at the beginning of the ritual came back to me, and I felt renewed clarity and purpose.
My own journey was just beginning, out into the great mystery of the world.