Tlahui-Medic. No. 2, II/1996
I/III. The Traditional Mexican Sweat Bath Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba
Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli A.C.
I/III: Introduction. Some ten years or so ago, a renewed interest in the ancient sweat bath, still called by the name given to by the Aztecs, the Temazcal, sprang up in Mexico, a part of the movement, now so widespread in this country, to return, once again to the healing practices preserved in their traditional medicine. These sweat baths, still a living tradition in many parts of the country, are usually small round stone or mud structures looking rather like old fashioned bee-hives. Many more began to be constructed everywhere, and more and more often, people who are ailing will turn to them for relief from their complaints.
The name Temazcal, or temazcalli is made of two Nahuatl words, temas, which means bath, and calli, meaning house. At the time of the Conquest, they were found everywhere in almost all of central and southern Mexico. They were so common that the same Clavijero was led to remark that "...there is no town, however small it might be, that does not have many of them."
Although the Spanish did their best to wipe out this custom, they failed. The battered Indians preserved the custom secretly in remote places, as they did with so much of the their traditional medical skills and practices. In this way, the Temazcal has come down to modern times, and on the basis of the knowledge so carefully preserved, the contemporary revival of this healing swat bath has taken place.
In the Nahuatl culture of central Mexico, the goddess of the sweat bath was Temazcalteci, "the grandmother of the baths". She was, really, one of the manifestations of the goddess Teteoinan, "the mother of the gods", or, as she is also called, "our grandmother", the principal goddess among the higher Nahuatl divinities. Sahagun says of her that "...this goddess was the goddess of medicine and of the medicinal herbs; she was adored by doctors and surgeons, and bleeders, and also by midwives... She was also adored by those who had baths, or temazcals in their houses. All placed the image of this goddess in their baths". The cult of this goddess of the Temazcal extended throughout Mesoamerica and it is found in the other great cultures of the region --the Mixteca, the Zapoteca and the Maya. It was in great part because of this close relationship between the worship of a goddess and the Temazcal that the Spaniards found it so important to ban the use of the bath.
[Temazcalli Training Course]
The Temazcal not only involved the worship of a goddess, but it incorporated all the elements of the ancient cosmology, both in the manner of its construction and the way in which it is used; and most of these conceptions have been preserved in traditional thought and practice down to our own day. The Temazcal is a microcosm reproducing in itself the characteristics of the universe, the macrocosm. So we find in the Temazcal all elements of the different eras or cycles (known as suns) throught which, according to Aztec mythology, the world has passed and continues to pass: earth, wind, fire and water (we now live in the fifth 'sun') and through whose constant movement and life is manifest.
More, the Temazcal is oriented according to the cosmic directions: the fire which heats its stones is placed towards the east where our Father, the sun, the god called Tonatiuh, arises; he is the light or masculine element which comes and fertilizes the womb of the mother earth (the chamber of the Temazcal itself), and so life is conceived. The doorway through which the bathers enter and leave is oriented toward the south, "the pathway of the dead", which begins with birth and ends in death, to the right of the path of Sun. In this way, the ever present duality of traditional Mexican thought is manifested. Just as there are mother and father, sun and earth, hot and cold, so we are born and, in being born, we begin our path towards death.
Aztec cosmology presents us with several different levels of the heavens, and these are considered to be present in the different levels of temperatures found inside the Temazcal: the highest in the upper part of the chamber where the temperature is the lowest.
When we enter the Temazcal, according to this ancient doctrine, we return once again to our mother's womb, presided over by the great goddess, Tonantzin or Temazcaltoci, the great mother of both gods and humans. She is our beloved mother, concerned with the health of the children and she receives us into her womb - of which our own mother's womb is but a microcosmic manifestation - to cure us of physical and spiritual ills. The entrance way is low and small, and through it we enter a small, dark, warm and humid space, in this way recreating the uterus, cutting off the outside world and giving us a chance to look inside and find ourselves again. Our re-emergence through this narrow opening represents our rebirth from the darkness and silence of the womb. It is no wonder that the Spaniards were so shocked by what they found!
Temazcal produces a series of physical reactions
Physical cleanliness has always, and still continues to be, a matter of great importance to the people of Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived, the people of Mexico bathed daily when it was possible; the Europeans of those days, on the other hand, placed little importance on personal cleanliness and it was not uncommon for a month to pass between baths. Andres de Tapia observed that "Motecuhzoma washed his body every day two times.
" Clavijero noted that bathing in the Temazcal "was only a little less frequent" than regular bathing among the Mexicans.
The practice of inducing sweat has long been known to be beneficial in sicknesses of the skin, liver and circulation, in problems of rheumatism, arthritis, gout, and other chronic diseases, as well as acute problems like muscular pains, colds and congestions, and sweat baths are but of the ways used to bring about healthful sweating. The Temazcal, because of its special methods, is perhaps the most effective of this kind of curative technique, certainly the list of conditions for which it has been used in the course of centuries is the most extensive. [Temazcalli Training Course]
Overheating of the body (during the bath, the body temperature may reach one hundred and four degrees) produces a series of reactions: it stimulates both the superficial and the deep blood circulation, accelerates the frequency of heartbeats, as well as increases their force, calls into action the mechanisms of thermal regulation, activates the metabolism, and promotes sweating. All of these effects produce a great internal movement of energy and liquids, somewhat similar to the way in which strenuous exercise does, bringing increased circulation to all the muscles, organs and tissues. While all sweat baths produce these effects, the Temazcal, because of the way it works and the precision with which it can be regulated by the healer in charge of the bath, controls these body reactions to high heat to maximize the curative effects of the bath.
Its basic advantage as a sweat bath consists in the way high heat and high humidity are combined. The sauna, for example, reaches much higher temperature but the bath is drier and consequently, its curative capacities are lower. Other types of steam bath also combine heat and humidity, but the Temazcal surpasses them in effectiveness for two reasons: the person in charge of the bath can adjust -increase, diminish or direct- both heat and humidity to meet the specific needs of the patient he is treating, and the vapor is made from herbal teas, the herbs chosen for their effects on each individual patient.
The high heat and the high humidity, taken together, produce their healing effects, basically, through reducing or impeding the body's mechanism for cooling itself. The heat, higher than normal body temperature, induces sweating; the high humidity inhibits the evaporation of the sweat, the chief method through which the body normally cools itself, and thereby, blood circulation is increased, sweating is increased, and the elimination of toxins is maximized. It is said that every liter of sweat lost in the Temazcal is equivalent to a full days' work by the kidneys!
[Temazcalli Training Course]
There are two others special characteristics of the Temazcal as a sweat bath that must be mentioned. The first is that every bath is directed by a specially trained healer, most often a woman (called in Mexico, the Temazcalera). She examines the patient, makes her diagnosis, chooses the herbs that are indicated, decides on the levels of heat and humidity that are to be used, prepares the Temazcal, and then enters the chamber with the patient to oversee and manage the course of the bath. She can raise or lower the intensity of the heat during the bath through ventilating the chamber using the entranceway or the vent that is in the roof of the Temazcal, or by fanning with the fan made up of branches of a suitable herb that she has chosen, or raising or lowering the height at which the patient is placed to do the bath (heat rise, and the Temazcal is much cooler at floor level than it is towards the root, and with all gradations in between). A good Temazcalera is amazingly skillful in handling her herbal fan; she can bring down heat for the upper parts to the lower parts of the chamber at will, and if she wishes, direct currents of heat to whatever part of the body wants special attention. Extra heat can be put on your leg, for example, to deal with sciatica, or on your back to get rid of back pain. If necessary, she will use her fan to beat gently on any part of the body to increase circulation at that spot, should it be necessary. She is, by the way, trained to do massages using a variety of traditional techniques, in the Temazcal, for any condition that might require such treatment.
Temazcal: Method of sweat baths for curative purposes II/III
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