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Temazcal in Oaxaca

an article by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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Curandera Doña Mariana chants while controlling your body with the laying of water over hot rock, as the mysterious meandering of a range of herbal bouquets peaks the olfactory sense. Traditional healer, or pleasing dominatrix? She methodically swats almost every inch of your torso, and each limb, with varying degrees of assertiveness and pressure, yet ever so gently so as to reassure you of her command over process and purpose: relaxation, rejuvenation and healing: "Qué salga el mal; qué entre el bien," she cajoles. Out with the bad; in with the good.
Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera is a temazcalera, expert in the ancient pre-Hispanic science and ceremony of temazcal. The heart of temazcal is entry into a dark chamber filled with steam and select aromatic plants and herbs, and being carefully guided through ritual stages by one who has learned function, effect and procedure through years of training.
Temazcal is akin to the Iroquois sweat lodge of which many of us have heard and read in the course of our childhood education into the disappearing cultures of the original inhabitants of our homeland, our First Nations. Who would have thought that we could ever have such a first-hand experience during modern times? One of the treasures for visitors to, and in my case residents of, Oaxaca.
Doña Mariana's pedigree dates to the knowledge of curative plants and uses of the temazcal she gained from her Zapoteca grandmother, supplemented by thirty years of training and experience as a nurse in Oaxaca. Zapotec is one of 16 indigenous cultures still thriving today in the state of Oaxaca. It is one of several which count temazcal as an important method for healing through sweat and herbal medicine.
Historically, many societies have considered sweating as being both therapeutic and healing. Hippocrates based a well-known saying, “give me a fever and I can cure any disease,” on his knowledge that sweating removes toxins. Many viral agents and bacteria cannot survive at much above normal body temperature, so when we sweat we can literally rid ourselves of some illnesses. Important endocrine glands are stimulated by an inner rise in temperature, with impurities in many body organs being flushed out as capillaries dilate and the heart increases its pace to keep up with the demand for blood. And in a sweat bath where rocks are heated and water is poured over them, an abundance of negative ions is released into the air, combating fatigue and tenseness.*
Doña Mariana uses fifteen plants and herbs, predominated by eucalyptus, rosemary and basil, in the course of conducting a temazcal. The grounds of her home are her pharmacy.
On this particular visit my wife and I walk from the entranceway, to the lodge and massage rooms through an impressive garden of bushes, trees, herbs and grasses. We are particularly struck by the flowering plants and butterflies. As I stroll I recall Dorothy awakening in Munchkinland and opening her eyes for the first time.
We are ever so methodically taken through the steps in advance. Doña Mariana explains how she controls the temperature and vapor, and uses fragrant herbs and branches. She tells us what to expect upon exiting the temazcal in preparation for the massage stage of the experience.
Our healer provides us with assurances before, and as she will in the course of the temazcal that she is in careful control of our bodies and minds, allaying any preconceived concerns or stressors one might encounter as levels of temperature and steam increase.
Then it begins... Draped in a cotton sheet, seated with only my partner and the curandera, eyes closed to the blackness of the small, low-roofed thatched hut, quiet words in Spanish and in an indigenous tongue, deliberate chants, as well as sweet song, while my body is being patted and rubbed with leafy twigs. Surges of different herbal scents sweep in front of me, reminiscent of waves of heat I've encountered while slowly paddling down a tropical lagoon. "Qué salga el mal; qué entre el bien."
I'm being cleansed, that welcomed relaxation taking over my soul. As I float into a native past I'm now coming to better understand and appreciate, I hear "En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo" --- "In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit." It's one of several incongruities in Oaxaca, as between the pride in, and ongoing cultural traditions of indigenous populations, and then the knowledge of the destruction heaped upon the populace by the conquest, and The Church.
The Spanish tried to destroy the temazcal tradition because of its association with worship of deities. It survives, with most aspects of the purity of its tradition intact.
Doña Mariana leads us out of the lodge, on our knees, a new awakening, with fresh dry sheets enveloped around us as we drop the soaked ones, without inhibition. Her assistant is ever so attentive, directing us to the adjoining massage area with mattresses on the floor, soft, colorful hand-embroidered swaths of cloth embracing the walls... and Jesus and The Virgin watching over us, a focal point of the room. No need, though, for Doña Mariana now joined by her able helper and masseuse, continue to be our sole source of comfort, guidance and reassurance.
Several minutes of calm and quiet follow, lying face down, alone in the room as it should be, with only my life partner, reborn together, as soft relaxation music begins. We're resting in silence, though my mind slowly returns to the practicalities of life. Will the young Zapoteca massage each of us? Has Doña Mariana finished taking us to a certain point in the journey, now turning over control to her apprentice? With the momentary nakedness in the presence of three women, the experience takes on a subtle undercurrent of healthy sensuality, at least for me, and perhaps for my partner. Not the thought process to which one might normally admit, I would think, but no matter. It would perhaps continue, and build, if no one entered the room for an hour. And it would make no difference if I was to be massaged by the younger masseuse or Doña Mariana. I would be equally satisfied and fulfilled with the 20-year-old Oaxaqueña or the 60-year- old Doña Mariana touching the totality of my body, as Doña Mariana has assured, "from the tips of your toes to the top your head, you will be given a full massage."
And so beside one another, we partake in the final phase of the process, each of us being massaged simultaneously, the continuity of the temazcal in tact as creams and unknown substances are rubbed into our bodies, again producing currents of natural fragrances, although different from before.
The two women leave within a few moments of one another. When the music's over, quiet and complete serenity return. After ten or fifteen minutes we prop ourselves up with pillows, and a tray with cups of lemongrass tea and glasses of mezcal is placed before us.
"Qué salga el mal; qué entre el bien" ... at least until tomorrow, or perhaps until I have an opportunity to experience a vision quest.
You can make an appointment for a 2-hour combined temazcal/massage with Doña Mariana through Las Bugambilias. Email: bugambilias@lasbugambilias.com.

*from Burchac, Joseph. "The Native American Sweat Lodge/History and Legends." Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1993.

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages.

This page has been visited times since July 11, 2007.

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