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-foot-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.
I don’t think I would 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 spiritual movement inside chest during these proceedings, but I think it had more to do with the torrid reds and yellows in the sky that shimmered on the gently lapping sea beside me.
Crawling into the sweat lodge experience—literally
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. The room inside was so low that I couldn’t stand up or even straighten up when down on my knees. 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 with our eyes closed, he chanted, and though I speak Spanish, I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying. But 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.
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.
Ricardo was speaking in heavily accented English now, telling us we were cleansing our bodies of toxins.
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. 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 sit as long as possible, but again I had a hard time breathing. Ricardo was speaking in heavily accented English now, telling us we were cleansing our bodies of toxins. I didn’t listen too much because I was concentrating so hard on my breathing. I was lying down 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 small room. 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. Somehow I made it through one more session, willing myself to not pass out. 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.
“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 half expected my skin to sizzle like those embers when doused with water. 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 I’d eaten for lunch or a delayed verdict on my time in that small, dark hellhole. 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.
Have you ever done something crazy like a sweat lodge? We’ll be running stories about people who have tried unusual treatments, products and services. So do tell.
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