Most adult Americans have heard of Timothy Leary, the LSD proponent from the 1960s. Oaxaca, Mexico, is famous for temazcal and its principal modern champion Maria Sabina. But far fewer people have heard of it or her, although she is as renowned as Leary. Before I visited Oaxaca, I was not aware of either temazcal or Sabina.
Temazcal is an ancient indigenous ritual performed in Mexico to cleanse the body and rid it of bad humors. It is performed by the equivalent of an indigenous shaman called a curandera. The literal translation is close to “healer,” but the actual act of performing temazcal (the ritual is called the velada) is far more spiritual than medical, so the curandera may be closer to a tribal priest.
This ancient ritual has flourished in the area near Oaxaca, in the southwestern corner of the country, home to many indigenous tribes. Temazcal began with the Mazatec tribe in pre-Hispanic times to cure the sick, assist with childbirth and cure tired muscles after a ball game; but today it may be performed by a wider group of practitioners for general health purposes. There are even commercial applications of the process.
The ritual always involves the use of herbal ingredients. Maria Sabina opened up the ritual to Westerners and made famous the use of psychedelic mushrooms in the process when she was featured in a famous 1955 Life magazine article. Following that, her mushrooms became referred to as “magic” mushrooms. People from many places around the world flocked to Oaxaca to partake of her temazcal ritual. The most famous participant was, perhaps, John Lennon of the Beatles. But other pilgrims to Oaxaca over the years have included Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger.
If you don’t like tight quarters, very hot water or sweating, temazcal is not for you. The process takes place in a very small room. You usually are naked. Very hot water is used to create steam in the room so it becomes difficult to see as the sole light source is a single votive candle. Steam is created from pouring water over very hot stones, much like in a sauna. On a mesh above the stones, herbs are placed to infuse the air. It gets so hot you may even need a towel to cover your face or to assist you in breathing. Although usually circular rooms, early archeological digs have discovered rectangle temazcal baths.
Today, the shape of the room is not important, just that it is tiny. The room is made of stone or brick to keep the heat in and is so confined that you need to crawl into it. The curandera sits in the room with you near the hot stones, chanting in a rhythmical mantra-like way and keeping the steam pouring out. Sabina’s process involved ingesting the mushrooms prior to entering the room.
After you emerge from the caldron, you get a “massage,” which can be anywhere from a hard stretching of every muscle in your body to a moderate rubdown.
The ritual is somewhat similar to sweat lodges and other “purifying” treatments. No doubt these derived from the ancient traditions of the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Sabina died in 1985, but her temazcal continues. She claimed before her death that the influx of Westerners coming to temazcal “to find God” was contrary to its intended purpose to cure the sick, and she went so far as to say Westerners had bastardized the process to the extent that the magic mushrooms no longer work.
If this bath process sounds interesting to you, you should put a trip to Oaxaca on your list and follow in the footsteps of the many others, including celebrities, who have gone before you.
The cost is usually around 1,000 pesos, which at today’s exchange is about $55. Whether you tip is up to you. Happy rejuvenating! For other relaxing aspects of Oaxaca, look here. Let me hear how you enjoy it.