Tlahui-Medic. No. 2, II/1996

II/III. Mexican Method of Sweat Baths for Curative Purposes

Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba
Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales Tlahuilli A.C.

II/III: Therapy. Secondly, and, to our knowledge, found only in the Mexican method of using sweat baths for curative purposes, when the patient comes out of the bath, he is carefully wrapped in a sheet or blanket, and made to lie down and rest, usually in a room or place specially prepared for this purpose, until the body finishes of its own its sweating. This period of mandatory rest varies very much from individual to individual; it can range from half an hour to more than an hour. The patient is given a cup of herbal tea, normally made from an herb chosen for his precise condition, to help replace liquids lost in the bath, and then left to rest. Most people fall sleep during this rest period, and awake feeling refreshed and strengthened: No patient is permitted to dress or to leave until his body has dried itself completely through its own action.

These two special features of the traditional Mexican sweat bath -the skills of the Temazcalera and the mandatory rest period after the bath- may go a long way in explaining its impressive curative powers.

Before we go on, it might be best to say a few words about the concepts employed in Mexican traditional medicine. The practice of the Temazcal as we find it today, has carried with it almost all of the conceptions, beliefs, methods of using it, ways of constructing it, and the like, and it is almost impossible to talk about the Temazcal or understand how it works with out invoking these ancient concepts. Chief among them and essential for comprehending almost all aspects of the Mexican practice of the sweat bath, are the terms, 'hot' and 'cold' as they are used by traditional healers.

In traditional thought, not only herbs and materials but foods and sicknesses, as well, are thought of in terms of the categories of 'hot' and 'cold'. These are best understood as preferring to the qualities of the energies thought to be at work in whatever is being talked about -sickness, herbs, foods, materials, etc. 'Hot' will be used to describe things that are considered to be high in energy, active, and exciting in their effects. 'Cold', on the other hand, is used to describe things that are considered to be high in energy, active, and exciting in their effects. 'Cold', on the other hand, is used to describe things that have the reverse characteristics -they slow things down and reduce activity. Tranquilizers and sedatives, for example, would be described as 'cold' in nature; stimulants, 'hot' in nature. Each quality is recognized by it's manifestations: color, taste, smell, etc. It is interesting to note that these terms are used in quite the same way and for quite the same purposes in traditional Chinese medicine, as well.

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Many people think, as a consequence, that baths in the Temazcal should be good for cold sicknesses or conditions but not for hot ones. In fact, it is good for both. The Temazcal seems to promote the getting rid of excesses of both cold and heat, and to work towards balance between the two of then in the body that health requires. Sweat is thought to carry out the cold, so the more one sweats, the more coldness one had inside to get rid of. Those who sweat little are thought to have little internal coldness and incline, instead, to an excess of internal heat. The cure for a cold or flu caused by cold is to provoke sweat. Heat, on the other hand, is characterized by redness. Perhaps the easiest way to grasp this is to think of a pot of water with a tea bag in it. Before it is put on the stove, it is cold, pale or clear in color, abundant in fluid, with little or no smell. After it has boiled for a while, it is hot, dark in color, has reduced in amount and may have become thicker, and has a strong smell. The body and its excretions manifest these qualities of hot and cold in much the same way.

In the Temazcal, there is sweating and the skin turns red, indicating that both excess heat and excess cold are being expelled. Because of the dynamic relationship between the two, an equilibrium is reached.

A powerful therapy in treatment of many illnesses

The Temazcal is a powerful therapy in the treatment of many illnesses and complaints, both acute and chronic. One of the most common uses of the Temazcal however, a use of the sweat bath that is peculiar to Mexico and astonishes everyone the first time that they come across it, is for women's conditions related to menstruation, infertility, pregnancy, childbirth and the traditional forty day quarantine following it; as well as to promote the flow of milk.

In traditional classification of conditions, most problems associated with the female reproductive system are considered to be caused by cold, and for these, the Temazcal has wonderfully warming effect. It heats ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus, and 'moves' the hormonal system. A series of sweat baths are done using herbs of a hot nature, appropriate for these problems, such as 'chapulistle', 'santa maria', and 'pericon'. Women bathe in the Temazcal to regulate almost any menstrual problem.

While bathing in the Temazcal is generally not recommended during menstruation itself, its regular use is helpful in premenstrual syndrome, pain, irregularity, depression accompanying the period, and ovarian cysts, as well as infertility. We know of quite a number of "Temazcal babies". These were all born to women who came to the sweat bath for other reasons, and later confided that they had been trying to get pregnant for some time without success; the Temazcal had cured them of their difficulties.

In the case of ovarian cysts, for example, we treated a your woman, recently, whose cyst on an ovary was, according to the medical reports, larger in volume than her uterus. She went through a series of baths in the Temazcal, at the end of which, the cyst had been reduced to a fifth of the size that had been originally reported, and undesired operation had been avoided.

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Several observations seem required in relation to this case. The first is that it required, for positive results, a series of baths. That is almost invariably the case when a serious medical condition is being treated; a single bath or a few baths is rarely sufficient. In this case, along with the medicinal plants that were used in the bath itself, others were prescribed to be taken by the patient between baths. Additionally, as a supportive therapy, acupuncture was administered. A correct combination of additional therapies along with a series of steam baths, has turned out to be, in our experience, the most effective way to deal with difficult situations.

The Temazcal is also widely used during pregnancy and in childbirth, although for these purposes, it is not made quite as hot as it usually is. Births are often attended inside the warm Temazcal by a traditional midwife. Not only does the warmth help to speed labor but the baby is then born into an environment that is not so radically different from that from whence it came. The Mexican people, it seems. had 'birth without violence' long before it had to be re-invented in our time.

During pregnancy, massage may be performed on the mother inside the bath, taking advantage of the muscular relaxation produced by the heat, to manipulate externally a fetus that is in a bad position or is causing discomfort to the pregnant woman. The hot bath can be used to speed up a birth that is going slowly or to make labor stronger and more regular. It help to reduce blood less after birth. Following childbirth, the mother may take a Temazcal 'too warm the womb' that has been exposed too cold during the birthing, too calm the post partum pains, to speed the discharge of loquia and toxins, to prevent pospurpeal fever and to promote the flow of milk. Often, the infant is also introduced into the warm Temazcal, along with the mother.

Permanent and temporary structures of Temazcal

In the indigenous cultures of the United States the sweat baths are usually temporary structures; in central and southern Mexico they are usually permanent, although sometimes a temporary structure is a thrown up for some special occasion. Often they are circular in shape, quit like the bread ovens still seen in the villages, with a domed roof symbolizing the heavens. Occasionally, they are rectangular or square. They are made of 'adobe' bricks, stone, unbaked brick, mud and wattle, wood, or dug into the earth, pretty much in the same way as they were made more than 500 years ago. Clavijero said of the ancient Temazcals, "The Temazcal is most commonly made of unbaked brick... Its diameter is around eight feet [referring to the human foot] and the entrance has the height that a man may enter on his knees". The Temazcals discovered in the ruins of Xochicalco, Piedras Negras, Palenque and Teotenango are luxurious buildings of stone plastered with stucco and even decorated inside.

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And so, the Temazcal is a room small enough and low enough to preserve heat. It may be round or rectangular and it is rarely high enough for a person to stand up in. The reason for this is that heat rises, and it is hard to maintain the heat and steam in the lower part where the bathers are if the ceiling is too high.

The door is quite small and low for the obvious reason of loss of heat as well as for the more symbolic role that it plays --re-entry into the womb. The shape of the Temazcal also has to do with the control of heat; a round or domed structure has fewer spaces or corners for the heat to escape to, and also has a very nice feel inside. It has the added advantage over a flat ceiling of a little more height in the center for moving around, without increasing greatly the cubic space inside.

The nature of the materials used in the making of the Temazcal is very important. 'Hot' materials, or, at the very least, materials which are not 'cold' are preferred. While we may not have instruments to measure such things, they are within our everyday experience. For example, we have all tasted the difference between a muffin which has been heated in the oven and one which has been heated in the microwave: the temperature of each is the same, but the flavor is different. Symbolically, the Temazcal calls into play the elements of fire and earth, but these elements play a therapeutic role as well as symbolic. The heat created by a wood fire is of a different nature (it is hotter, or more yang) that of electricity, for example. Cement is colder that brick which is coincide than adobe. Just try placing your bare foot on brick and then on cement one cold morning and you will feel the difference. Metal is also very cold in nature. Hence stone or adobe are the preferred materials of which to build the Temazcal.

The Temazcal, then, is generally a small structure; commonly, a round one, just big enough for two people to lie down in, or for four seated, will measure some 2 meters in diameter (about 6 1/2 feet). The height is nearly 5 feet. There is a traditional way to measure these dimensions: you hold a string to the center of your chest (where the heart is) with one hand and hold in to the side with the arm outstretched with the other. This will give the radius of a round Temazcal, or half the length of a rectangular one. The inteterior height is the level of the heart.

A temporary or semi-permanent Temazcal may be thrown up very quickly, using flexible branches or bamboo to make the frame. Twelve branches is the traditional number, representing the twelve levels of the celestial dome. These are planted in a circle and fastened together at the top, with an external ring added halfway up, to which each branch is fastened in order to add support. A hole, called the umbilicus, is dug in the center to receive the hot stones (these are heated in a fire built outside). This frame once in place is then covered over with blankets or canvas. The simplest way is with blankels, although these absorb a let of the steam and so it may be necessary to douse the hot rocks with tea with some frequency. Woven straw mats, easily found in Mexico, makes a better covering.

Another simple way is to cover the frame with mud and wattle. Boughs are woven into the frame and slithered with a mud made from as clayey an earth as you can find, and mixed with straw --just the way that Hebrews did it in ancient Egypt before they were punished by Pharaoh. This mixture may be made more resistant to water by mixing in the slime from chopped cactus leaves that have been put to soak, or by using the water (called 'nejallote') in which the corn has been cooked before it is ground to make the dough for 'tortillas'. A little experimenting with the mixture can lead to a very durable finish. Anther traditional way to the frame is by thatching it with palm fronds. A good thatched roof can last for several years. A clay pot is often turned upside down on the peak to protect it because it is difficult to seal the thatched peak well otherwise. Blankets hung over the entrance make a door that seals well, and is easy to enter and exit through them.

For a more permanent structure, stone, brick or adobe may be used. There are a few details which must be taken into account. The first is that it is preferable not to use metal or rebar in the structure if it can be safely avoided; metal and cement are considered cold in traditional thought, and may affect energy flow wood is a good substitute. A brick floor is easier to maintain than wood (and without the danger of fire), while not as cold in nature as cement. Another consideration is the placement of the door, and of the fireplace if this is to be integrated into the Temazcal. If the fireplace is not to be built into the structure, a hole is made in the floor on one side or in the center of the Temazcal. It is best to build the bath next to the room which will be used for resting afterwards.

Some Temazcal are constructed which an integral fireplace, the backside of which protrudes into the Temazcal. In this way, the heated stones are already in place. The disadvantage of this method is that with repeated heating and cooling, cracks are almost certain to develop between the stones, allowing smoke to enter from the fire on the other side.

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Another method is to heat the stones separately and introduce then into the hole dug in the center or to one side in the Temazcal. Ideally, this can be done in a fire place which shares a wall with the Temazcal, thereby warming the inside of the bath somewhat so that the structure is not cold upon initiating the bath. The stones may also be heated separately. At one time, we heated them in our small wood-fired stone and mud bread oven. We would prepare bread dough before entering the sweat bath, and close up the oven after taking out the stones to let it cool down enough to bake our bread. After the rest period, we formed the loaves and baked the bread.

The selection of the stones for heating

The selection of the stones for heating is very important. These will be heated to red hot and then doused with water, so they must be stones that will withstand such changes in temperature without cracking or exploding. We often use volcanic rock, and always avoid stones from the river. The construction of the interior wall of the fireplace must be carefully done so that construction of the interior wall of the fireplace must be carefully done so that cracks do not form with use, allowing smoke to enter the Temazcal.

It is important to remember to leave a vent hole a couple of inches wide in the ceiling for use in airing the Temazcal. This is used sometimes during the bath to lower the temperature, to clear smoke if some should have entered, or to clear out the 'humors' left behind after a bath.

The traditional mexican sweat bath I/III
Temazcal: Preparation of the temazcal... III/III
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