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.

Sweat baths, of course, are used known in many cultures of the world, both ancient and modern. The sauna of Scandinavia is famous, as is the hamem of north Africa and Turkey. In the ruins of Pompeii there are the remains of sweat baths, and in India, people lay in the sun, covered with leaves to protect themselves from the burning rays of the sun, to bring on sweating. It is, of course, a well-known part of the culture of our own Indians, and in this form, the sweat lodge, they, too, are enjoying renewed popularity.

[Temazcalli Training Course]

The traditional Mexican sweat bath, however, differs in several ways from the others. It is not primarily used for ceremonial purposes, as is the sweat lodge of our indians, nor for relaxation or bodily cleansing or for general well-being, as are most of the other sweat baths, It is and was, as far back as we can trace it, a therapeutic instrument, an arm of the medical practices developed in what anthropologists like to call, Mesoamerica, that vast area that now includes Mexico, Guatemala and Belice. We know it best, in its ancient forms, through the Aztecs, and Temazcal, as it is still called in contemporary Mexico, is a Nahuatl word, taken from their language.

It was, when the Spanish conquerors arrived in this, for them, New World, an integral and important part of the medicine which they found here. If was, as best we can make out from the sources still left to us, used in the healing and easing of almost all kinds of medical conditions, including, as we sail see, pregnancy and child birth, it still is.

The Spaniards were appalled and outraged by this, to them, barbaric practice. Not only was it inextricably interwoven with pagan beliefs and ritual, as is all ancient traditional medicine, but, most shocking of all, the bathers entered into these small, dark chambers, all sexes and size together, naked as the day on which they were born. The Spaniards were convinced that some sort of unspeakable orgiastic rites were taking place, and so they set themselves to forbidding the practice and destroying the baths wherever they found them. In the Penal Code and Order for Governing of the Indians, proclaimed by Charles the Fifth, the emperor of Spain, it was declared "that Indians who are not sick shall not bathe in hot baths under penalty of one hundred lashes to be followed by two hours bound in the marketplace..." Later, the proscription was extended to the sick as well.

But there were some among the conquerors who were impressed more favorably by this practice and, fortunately for us, recorded their impressions of what they had seen. It is from these accounts that most of what we know of ancient practice has come down, and it is worth quoting some of their observations. In the Magliabechi Codex, one of the few books which come down to us from those days, a caption under a native drawing of a Temazcal observes, "This is a drawing of the baths of these Indians which they call the temazcalli. At the door of the bath there is an Indian who is the advocate for the sick, and when a sick person goes to the baths he makes an offering and stretches his body on the ground in veneration of the idol which they call Tezcatopocatl and who is one of their principal gods. They used in these baths other Infamous reliquaries and many naked Indians bathed and committed great ugliness and sins in this bath".

[Temazcalli Training Course]

Sahagun, the industrious Franciscan friar who recorded so many of the indian customs of his day, tells us that: "It [the Temazcal] is used firstly in the convalescence of many sicknesses, so that they should finish healing more rapidly... All sick people benefit from these baths..." And he goes on to list sicknesses that he throught especially responsive to the sweat bath: traumas, broken bones, contusions, skin problems and growths, among others. He mentions, as well, that it is also good for "pregnant women who are close to giving birth as there the midwives can do certain things so that the birth is easier... ", and it is "good for the mother shortly after giving birth so that she heals and to purify the milk..." Another of the early commentators on indian customs of those times, Clavijero, observes that "...the temazcalli has always been used in many sicknesses, especially in fevers caused by some form of constipation of the pores... and those who have been injured or stung by some poisonous animal. It is also a remedy which is effective for those who need to get rid of thick and tenacious humors. When a more copious sweating is needed, the sick person is placed near the ceiling where the vapor is thicker. It was also used in the treatment of fractured bones, syphilis, lepra, pains in the chest and back, spots and growths on the skin, blows and contusions, stiff necks,..."

Temazcaltoci: The grandmother of the baths

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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