Surviving a Mexican sweat-lodge religious experience

Editor’s note: Recent news stories about sweat lodges, have been grim, to say the least. That being said, clearly, the sweat lodge experience is intense and not for the faint of heart. Contributor Lynn Rosen while traveling in Mexico had a chance to experience a hard-core sweat lodge. Here is her story.

The temezcal or Mexican Huichol sweat lodge is a traditional native aboriginal cleansing ritual where water is poured over hot rocks and steam is enclosed inside an igloo-like shelter.

“Temezcals are a way that all the Indians here in Mexico used to cure themselves spiritually and physically and mentally. It helps for lots of things. It’s a clean thing. Because they say when you’re sick in the physical part, that means that the problems started spiritually. It’s gonna be very rustic. Here in Mexico, we have many temezcales. But this tour, not many people would do it.”

Red flag. We should have known when Esmerelda, our tour guide, in her delightfully fractionated English, gave fair warning.

We were a few dozen or so unsuspecting and perhaps vulnerable souls, eager and willing — even in light of the morning’s headlines of “sweat lodge spa deaths” in Arizona — to experience a sweat lodge.

We wanted to really feel the Huichol Indian experience; to be with the mud and not afraid of nature.

We poked along in our tour coach through early morning Guadalajara traffic as Esmerelda gave us some deep background over her tour bus mic.

“We’re gonna have some mud baths and then some cold water to get fresh. To get all the mud out.”

“There’s gonna be two inipi. One is mud. The other – they put the arches made of branches and cover it with cloth. It’s like the womb of the mother. What you’re gonna do is like to be reborn. Get rid of all the bad feelings.”

Forty-five minutes outside the city, we turned off on a rocky, muddy dirt pathway into remote farmland. Off to the left was a neatly groomed grassy patch with a couple of inipi or igloo sweat lodges, a thatched roof shelter and a bonfire in the center fueled by the Huichol natives who lived, farmed and practiced temezcal here on their land.

As we clambered through the mud and entered the Huichol compound, the medicine woman, Theresa, and her 17-year-old daughter, Nayeli, cleansed each of us with sweeps of sacred feathers and fumes of copal incense.

Before entering the sweat lodge, Esmerelda told us, “The average tourist – they do go, but it’s not the majority. It’s gonna be very hot and it’s gonna be very small, very rustic.”

We kicked off our shoes, changed into swim suits and shorts, then slathered one another with warm mud, glopped from buckets prepared with herbs by the medicine woman, our guides inside the inipis or sweat lodges.

Before we entered the medicine woman talked about our spiritual journey to come and promised rebirth. We encircled the bonfire and threw our negative feelings, in the symbolic form of tobacco leaves, onto the burning logs.

Then, one by one, we got down on our knees in the mud, gave a prayerful thanks to our mother earth and ancestors and backed into our make-shift sweat lodge.

Sitting cross-legged, here we were — 15 muddy, sweaty, anxious, near-naked and curious journalists, sitting in the darkness, in a claustrophobic circle around an open pit, on wet ground, awaiting our spiritual rebirth. The tent flaps closed around us.

One of the guides beat his drum and chanted his native teachings and cleansing lectures.

“There is no race. Only the human race. We will soon be reborn. Dip your head to mother earth and breath. You will breath fresh air.”

The flap opened and a red-hot pitchfork laden with red-hot lava rocks thrust into the tent and dumped the molten-hot rocks into the pit. The guide threw water on the glowing rocks causing an immense cloud of blinding, searing hot steam.

“Cast off your foibles, faults and follies,” he chanted.

Another, then another, then another pitchfork of lava rock was tossed into the tent. Stinging steam rose. Mud melted. Sweat cascaded. Tears flowed. Prayers howled. Hopes, secrets and wishes gushed as our group shifted into a hyper-heated altered state.

The spiritual guide continued chanting. “Keep your strength. Your body is strong and can do this.” The onslaught of heat, mud and steam poured on relentlessly for an amazingly disorienting three hours. (The normal steam bath at a fitness club is only 15-20 minutes; and it is suggested that anyone using the steam bath drink plenty of liquids.)

Then, the flaps were opened and fresh air swept through the lodge. Covered with mud and sweat, we slowly backed out of the lodge one by one into the grassy Huichol compound. There, we were each gratefully greeted with soothing buckets of cold water drawn from a cistern to rinse off our residual caked body mud.

Refreshing tea, fresh papaya and a myriad of other local fruits rewarded our spiritual and physical tribulations. We all rested flat-on-our-backs and meditated. Then, we, the newly reborn and forever-bonded mud sisters and brothers, rose to strip off our mud and sweat and change into dry, clean clothes.

Photos by Lynn Rosen. This story was edited from the original piece with more photos, first posted on Visit High on Adventure for more details on finding your own sweat-lodge experience.