Mexico Healing Traditions
The first blast of wet heat shrouded my lungs until I felt like I was suffocating from the thick air. As a Bikram yoga instructor, I spend most of my time in closed quarters with penetrating heat and high humidity, so I was not expecting such a reaction. I thought I would be relatively unfazed by the scorching temperatures in my first temazcal.
A temazcal is a traditional Aztec sweat lodge, a small adobe, brick, or stone hut that is filled with intense heat and steam to detoxify the body, while the building’s cocoon-like darkness relaxes the mind. Steam baths, or sweat lodges, are common to both Maya and Aztec cultures. The Maya sweathouse is called zumpulche, while temazcal is derived from the Aztec’s Nahuatl language, combining the words temas, “to bathe” and calli, “house”.
The Aztecs used the temazcal for pregnant women, before and during childbirth. It also has been used to treat everything from infertility to broken bones and respiratory problems.
Today native cultures carry on the temazcal tradition. A number of spas across Mexico have incorporated the temazcal into their lists of therapies, focusing on its emotional and spiritual healing properties, as well as its physical benefits.
“When you enter the temazcal, you enter mother earth. You go inside and when you come out you are completely cleansed—reborn,” says Andres Orvananos, temazcalero (leader of the temazcal ritual) at Armonia, the spa at Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Holistic Retreat and Spa in Cabo San Lucas.
I experienced the temazcal at the Westin Resort & Spa Cancun. Our temazcalera, Margarita, started the ritual by honoring the four directions. We faced east, representing connection and renewal; south for hope and laughter, our inner child; west for humble respect; and north to honor wisdom, the knowledge of our grandparents.
Margarita led us through a narrow entranceway along a floor covered with leaves from castor oil plants. An attendant brought in hot rocks and placed them in an open pit in the center. Margarita poured a brew of rosemary, basil, and rue over the rocks, creating a sizzling steam that engulfed the hut. It took several minutes for my lungs to acclimate to the heavy air.
We sat for a time in silence. Margarita asked us to look at the rocks and describe what we saw in the fiery embers. Though I couldn’t find anything symbolic, the shapes flickering within the ashes entranced me, and I felt my mind begin to still.
Each temazcalero or temazcalera uses a slightly different method. “Each temazcal has its own energy. It’s a meeting of the souls,” explains Sergio Ortiz, the temazcalero at Aventura Spa Palace Resort on the Riviera Maya. Ortiz salutes the four directions, as well. “That helps situate ourselves, our center.”
The temazcalero at Hosteria Las Quintas Eco Spa in Central Mexico helps open the four vortexes of energy, while cleansing and balancing the seven principal chakras of the participants. Some temazcaleros use copal, a sacred incense, and pass its smoke over each participant’s entire body before the entire body before she enters the hut.
The temazcalero at Ikal del Mar in Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya leads a meditation inside. “People play drums, meditate, and sing Mayan chants. The temazcalero feel the energy of the people and decides whether to lead a relaxing mantra or more energetic singing,” says Claudia Maqueo, spa director at Ikal del Mar.
The Paraiso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso in Cancun, enhances the temazcal experience with native music and promotes its sessions as therapy to help alleviate contusions such as sprains or bruises, muscular tension and spasms, asthma, bronchitis, acne and sinusitis.
At the Westin, we stayed in the hut for nearly an hour. However, the traditional temazcal can last two hours or more. Margarita passed around a skin cleansing mud concoction and refreshing slices of papaya. Ours was only a shortened taste of a true temazcal, but even so I felt empowered, like the experience helped me tap into an inner strength and give me a clearer focus.
Temazcal is just one of a growing list of ancient Mexican traditions working their way into modern day spas. As Western society begins to search for alternative medicines and healing arts, the popularity of these old-world cures will increase and help to preserve some of the region’s long-held traditions. Aside from the basics, such as using local fruits like papaya in skincare products, spa directors are consulting with local communities to help create an authentic spa menu.
“Guests like a sense of place. They are going to Mexico and want a treatment with a Mexican feel and style,” says Shian Wing spa director at the One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, which incorporates cinnamon in its Aztec Aromatic Ritual. The Aztec and Maya have historically used cinnamon as an antioxidant and antibiotic. The scrub in the treatment is made from cinnamon, clove, and ginger. “It’s an ancient village recipe,” says Wing. “The spiciness of this wrap is traditionally used as a curative treatment to heal headaches, arthritis, and muscular aches.”
Numerous spas are using indigenous Mexican plants in spa treatments. The sap from chaya, for instance, traditionally is taken as a purgative and the leaves are made into a tea for a general tonic. The edible parts of the chaya plant, which taste like spinach when cooked, provide important nutritional sources for protein, vitamins A and C, and minerals such as calcium and iron.
“Chaya helps purify your body,” says Gloria Guerrero, spa director at Ceiba del Mar in the Riviera Maya. Ceiba del Mar incorporates chaya into its body scrubs and creams. In the spa’s Scalp Muk Pol, chaya is blended with another traditional Mayan fruit tree product, achiote. “Achiote protects skin from the sun and nourishes the skin,” says Guerrero. The mixture also helps with exfoliation.
The herb damiana was an ancient aphrodisiac of the Maya and continues to be used as both an aphrodisiac and general tonic. Some spas are integrating damiana into beverages as well as skin products. The spa at Esperanza resort uses damiana and honey in a body wrap for its couple’s treatment, Parja Alegre en Damiana.
“Damiana is used in our couple’s treatment because it has been known for its aphrodisiac properties,” says Tara Grodjesk founder of Tara Spa therapy, who helped design the spa and treatments at Esperanza. “The couple’s treatments at Esperanza are experiences to realign the energy of two people and remove inhibition and encourage a deeper connection with one another. The herbs and fruits and oils that we use enhance this intention by awakening the senses and releasing stress and defense mechanisms and opening to greater receptivity. Damiana’s properties work in just this way, making it a delightful drink for the skin as well.”
Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos incorporates damiana into its Desert Flower treatment. India S. Wood—doctor of Oriental Medicine, licensed acupuncturist, and developer of Las Ventanas’ treatment—contends that damiana also contains building blocks for hormone production. Damiana can be ingested for hormone balancing or it can be absorbed in the skin, which also helps cell rejuvenation.
In the Chiapas region, Lacandon Indians historically used the sacred tree tepescohuite to cure many illnesses. Today the bark treats third degree burns and sunburned skin, and helps to regenerate new cells. The product is making its way onto spa menus, including Ikal del Mar’s Sea and Land treatment. The tepescohuite, which is mixed into an herbal mud with basil, thyme, algae, and other ingredients, aids in detoxifying, firming, and stimulating tissue, which promotes the drainage of liquids and accumulated lipids.
Paradise Village Palenque Spa in Nuevo Vallarta mixes tepescohuite with aloe into a gel, and uses it as a soap and hydrating cream. The Apuane Spa at Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita also mixes tepescohuite into an exfoliation scrub for its Chamomile Scrub and Vichy Hydrotherapy Body Treatment as well as the bark of the tree in its detoxifying Herbal Seaweed Mask Body Treatment. According to Punta Mita, the tepescohuite is not only good for burn relief, but also for cellulite reduction.
Healing remedies can also depend on location. In the desert regions, nopal, or prickly pear cactus, is traditionally used to treat stomach disorders, and the Aztecs often blended the sap with honey and an egg yolk to heal burns. Locally grown, nopal is also a source of vitamin C and amino acids; it helps the body pull fluids back from the tissues into the bloodstream, which diminishes cellulite and fluid retention.
Cactus is becoming popular at some spas, including Las Ventanas al Paraiso. Their Nopal Anti-Cellulite & Detox Wrap uses nopal to help eliminate toxins and reduce fluid retention. A dry brush using an ayate cloth made of cactus fibers prepares the skin for the nopal mask and wrap. A full-body massage with a detoxifying cream follows.
Traditionally, the natural remedies in ancient cultures were combined with other treatments, such as massage. “Massage is an important part of the practitioner’s repertoire,” says Dr. Marianna Appel Kunow, author of the book Maya Medicine (University of New Mexico Press, 2003). Kunow has studied the work of curers in the Yucatan Peninsula, once a Mayan stronghold. Male Mayan curers practice a more therapeutic massage for problems like pulled muscles, while women focus on massage for prenatal care.
Many spas in Mexico offer indigenous ingredients and locally inspired therapies; some focus more on pampering, while others are designed for healing. As the interest and availability of indigenous cures expands, more people from Western societies will learn the power of such traditional treatments as my temazcal experience.
Mexico's Healing Spas and Wellness Centers
Aventura Spa Palace, (800) 635-1836, www.palaceresorts.com
Ceiba del Mar Spa Resort, (877) 545-6221, www.ceibadelmar.com
Esperanza, (800) 745-8883, www.esperanzaresort.com
Four Seasons Punta Mita Apuane Spa, (800) 819-5053, www.fourseasons.com/puntamita/index.html
Hosteria Las Quintas, (877) 784-6827, www.spalasquintas.com
Ikal del Mar, (888) 230-7330, www.ikaldelmar.com
Las Ventanas al Paraso, (888) 767-3966, www.lasventanas.com
Maroma Resort & Spa, (866) 454-9351, www.maromahotel.com
Maya Spa, (877) 532-6737, www.maya-spa.com
Maya Tulum Spa, (888) 515-4580, www.mayatulum.com
Mision Del Sol, 52 (777) 3 2 0999 ext. 187, www.misiondelsol.com
One&Only Palmilla, (877) 472-5645, www.oneandonlypalmilla.com
Paradise Village Palenque Spa, (800) 995-5714, www.paradisevillage.com/spa.htm
Paraiso de la Bonita, +52 998 872 8300, www.paraisodelabonita.com
Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Holistic Retreat and Spa, (800) 990-8250, www.pueblobonito.com
Rancho La Puerta, (800) 443-7565, www.rancholapuerta.comSpa at Hacienda Los Laureles, 011-52-951-501-5300, www.haciendaloslaureles-spa.com