Temazcal in Oaxaca
of herbs and flowers
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 piques 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 she is
ever so gentle. She reassures 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 our First Nations, the original
inhabitants of our homeland. 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 Marianas 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 sixteen 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
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 Ive encountered
while slowly paddling down a tropical lagoon. Qué
salga el mal; qué entre el bien.
Im being cleansed, that welcomed relaxation taking over
my soul. As I float into a native past Im 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. Its 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
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. Were
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 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 musics over, quiet and complete serenity return.
After several 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:
* from Burchac, Joseph. The Native American
Sweat Lodge/History and Legends. Freedom, CA: Crossing
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Starkman Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
) combines the best of bed & breakfast Oaxaca with a downtown
Oaxaca hotel style characterized by service and comfort. Inquire
about Alvins Oaxaca tours, completely personalized to
meet your specific interests and passions. Alvin is the Oaxaca
destinations expert for a major international travel website.
Casa Machaya is a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed &
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