It looked like a pyramid for a pygmy god. Or a doghouse for a royal Mayan canine. It did not look like something my 5-feet-8-inch body would fit into. Especially with five other people joining me. The peaked structure was covered in pink stone and sat right next to the beach at a resort just south of Cancun. I would be spending more than an hour inside for a “truly magical experience” that the resort called a Temazcal. That’s a fancy, exotic name for a sweat lodge—a phrase that the marketing department realized was hardly enticing.
I’m quite sure I would never have tried this sweat lodge thing if I hadn’t been on a vacation with an adventurous childhood friend. I was a little nervous because I’d heard that people have died in sweat lodges (but that’s usually when the ceremonies have not properly managed). I was hoping a luxury resort would have its act together.
Our experience started at sunset. As I stood on the beach in my bathing suit, our shaman Ricardo held up a clay incense burner in front of me and pointed it to the north, south, east, and west. I did feel some movement inside my body during these proceedings, but I think it had more to do with eating too much lobster dunked in butter at lunch.
Into the Womb
My friend and I, plus two young women and a young man, got on our hands and knees and crawled into the small door that supposedly represents the womb of Mother Earth. “So, does this make us the sperm,” I cracked. No one laughed. That’s when I realized the others were taking this way more seriously than me.
The room inside was so low that I couldn’t stand up or even straighten up when down on my knees. I didn’t have room to even raise an eyebrow. We sat on mats, and Ricardo brought in a metal basket of coals, which had been cooking in a fireplace a few feet outside, tended by a hotel worker.
My friend appeared to be blissing out, but I immediately hit the dirt and moved as far from the embers as possible.
With a drummer outside keeping a steady beat, Ricardo closed the blankets over the opening in the little house; we were in complete darkness except for the glow of the embers. While we sat cross-legged, we were instructed to close our eyes, which with the darkness seemed like overkill, but I complied. Ricardo chanted something I should have understood. I speak Spanish, but I couldn’t quite get what he was saying, but wondered if it included some slang for “suckas!”
I could feel the room growing warmer. And warmer. Beads of sweat formed on my face, and before long, the sweat was dripping from my nose and chin. Ricardo splashed ladles full of herb-infused water over the embers, which made sizzling sounds and smoke when the water hit. I was hoping he’d spray some over my way—I was sure I’d make sizzling sounds too—but no, this was an exercise in suffering.
Total Bliss… or Hellish Inferno?
It became so hot that when I breathed in, my nose and lungs stung like I was breathing jalapenos in their gaseous form. Ricardo advised us to cover our nose and mouth when we breathed to reduce the pain, but this made me feel I was suffocating. He then said that we could lie on the floor where the air would be cooler. My friend appeared to be blissing out, but I immediately hit the dirt and moved as far from the embers as possible. I was growing woozy by the time Ricardo lifted the blankets, signifying the end of the first of three 20-minute sessions.
He told us we could leave the hut for a five-minute break if we needed it, but I didn’t want to be the only one to cry uncle, so stupidly I stayed. I thought the cooler air from the opening would be all the relief I needed. As we sat, Ricardo passed around pieces of melon and mango and glasses of water. Then a worker brought in a new basket of embers and Ricardo closed us in again. I tried to keep my mind from the Game of Thrones scene where Khaleesi shuts up some baddies in a vault and leaves them to die. The rippling panic when my mind determined to go there and the stinging in my nose were making it hard to breathe again.
I tried to summon up the grit that has allowed me to endure countless bikini waxes.
Ricardo was speaking in heavily accented English now, telling us we were cleansing our bodies of toxins. I tried to summon up the grit that has allowed me to endure countless bikini waxes–some by Russian women who I’m sure once oversaw a Gulag—but in those cases I can see the payoff. What’s the payoff here?
I was flat on the mat again by the time he opened the door at the end of the second session.
Making an Escape
This time I couldn’t help myself; I had to get out of the pit of claustrophobia. I looked at my happy friend and shrugged, then crawled out—the only escapee. I lay on some flagstone, filling my lungs deeply and looking at the stars overhead. When Ricardo brought in the next set of embers, I dragged myself back inside for the last session because I’m way too stubborn to give up.
For this session, I sat near the door trying to get slivers of fresh air through the blankets, like a dog sticking its nose up to a slightly cracked car window. Somehow I made it through one more session, willing myself to not pass out. This time I had to up my self-talk, so instead of bikini waxes, I reminded myself that I’d been through hours of natural childbirth—twice. But again, an imbalance in the payoff.
This time I needed a stronger dose of courage.
Then it was over. The door was open again and we were all instructed to climb out. I made sure I was the first one, scampering on my knees like an eight-month-old after a shiny object.
“I feel clean,” my friend exclaimed with a satisfied sigh.
“I feel sick,” I said, envious of her higher tolerance and higher mental state. The best part of the experience was the plunge in the dark ocean; I swear I heard a sizzle. Exhausted from all that sweating, I headed straight to bed.
In the middle of the night, I threw up twice. I wasn’t sure if it was the lobster or a delayed verdict on my time in that small, dark hellhole. Or my payoff? As I lay on the bathroom floor, I thought how much I preferred this cold tile. I decided the closest I wanted to get to a sweat lodge again is walking by the door of the sauna at the YMCA. My friend would tell you something completely different about the experience, but she’s not writing this story, is she?
A version of this story was published in February 2017.