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The Temazcal: Rebirth and New Beginnings

The Temazcal: Rebirth and New Beginnings

As we step into a new year, we often reflect on the passing year, and look forward to the new year, a fresh start. Perhaps you made a New Year’s resolution, started that new project you had out on hold or maybe you set yourself a new goal for 2019? Whatever it may be, a new year represents a milestone to start over, to reevaluate and reflect.

So it seems fitting to share with you a practise that cleanses the mind and body and leaves you feeling revitalised, the Temazcal. They common amoungst the lives of many of our weavers, especially those who live in the cooler climates of the highlands, such as Quiche and Huehuetenangango. The tradition that has been used across Central America throughout history by civilisations including the Aztec, Zapotec and Maya and continues to thrive in it’s use today, across regions of the Western Highlands of Guatemala and Southern Mexico.

So, what is a Temazcal?
Well, it is a type of steam bath. Like most, it consists of a small structure, built from stone or wood, within which is placed heated rocks, with herbs or branches. As water is poured onto the heated rocks, aromatic vapour fills the chamber and offers bather healing benefits.

For centuries, humans have built steam baths for warmth, cleanliness and purification. They have been present throughout time across Russia, Scandinavia, Turkey, Japan, Native North America and even Italy, where the Romans used them. They cleanse the pores, remove impurities from the skin and leave you feeling rejuvenated.

In the Guatemalan Highlands, Temazcals are a key part of living. If you were to travel to the home of a Trama Textiles weaver, you would be likely to find one, either attached to their house, or just outside. In many of these communities, where access to electricity may be limited and the climate is cold, the Temazcal provides an effective way of cleansing the body and maintaining good health.
And they are used by families, not just for washing, but for domestic, home therapies as well, for a huge range of health worries and illness.

And it is this that sets Temazcals apart from other steam baths; the fact that the Temazcal is and always has been, predominantly used as a medical practice and tool for healing the sick.

As with the North American counterpart sweat lodges, the Temazcal is still entwined in ritual and spiritual beliefs and is much more than a simple steam bath for general well-being. Because, as with many cultures originating across the Americas and in addition, those to the Far East, health is seen by Mayans as something that must be treated as a whole, approaching the Mind, Body and Spirit. It extends beyond a solution to the visually present physical ailments, and brings not just a cleansing of the body, but also the mind, and spirit too. The Temazcal is a link to the elements of the earth and the cosmos and carries important spiritual energy and connections.
But, its focus remains in its powers as a tool of medicine.

Meaning Behind the Structure
Traditionally, a Temazcal consists of a small dome with a narrow opening which the bather must crouch through to enter and exit, which symbolises the path that begins with birth and ends with death. In dying, we are re-born and so here, life begins again.

Inside, the chamber is totally dark and filled with heavy, hot air that fills the lungs and surrounds the body. This protective space, that engulfs the bather represents the sacred womb and Mother. The heat from the stones, is the Father, that fertilises the womb.
Hot air at the top of the chamber emanates the celestial skies of the cosmos, and cool air at the lowest point is the Earth. The movement of air in the chamber, from the branches and leaves aids the movement of celestial forces to encourage healing.

A visit to a Temazcal could be aided by a family member, or it can be a much more complex ritual, led by a shaman. In Mexican Temazcals, these Shama are referred to as Temazcalteci. A ritual or ceremony can last many hours depending on the individuals ailment. Preparation would often involve a herbal tea, to be drunk before entering the chamber or a herbal infusion is poured onto the rocks. Rocks are often volcanic, to withstand the heat (easily found in a country such as Guatemala, where there are 37 volcanoes). The number of rocks in the chamber, the amount of steam and the selection of plants will all be prescribed to heal appropriately. Inside the womb, the bather is led into reflection and introspectiveness, giving thanks to life; to the elements and the energies that surround them.

As such, the Temazcal is used in both a deeply spiritual sense, combining spiritual understanding and healing benefits for mind, body and spirit, alongside domestic and practical uses, giving home therapy, to cleanse and cure.

Richness of Diversity in Guatemala
As with the diverse variations from community to community of textiles colours and patterns, celebrated here at Trama, or the array of languages spoken or religious practices, there is also variation in the use of Temazcals. Plant and herb recipes vary across communities and even between families. Some one hundred different plants, roots and herbs have been identified to be used in ceremonies, with infinite combinations. And as with the weaving patterns, the knowledge has been learnt and passed on over time.

Remedies are used for anything from simple ailments such as colds or flu, or for more serious health concerns . They can be used for the elderly, arthritis, for burial or for childbirth and play a vital role in supporting women whilst they are breastfeeding. Many mid-wives across Guatemala, advise the use of a temazcal at least 2-3 times during breastfeeding.

These simultaneous similarities and variations are such a rich element of Guatemala and the complexity and vast diversity of the Maya culture.

Moving Forward
These days, the Temazcal is gaining popularity beyond Mayan households, and is being experienced by many as an alternative holistic treatment or spa experience. As the modern world continues to increase in its intensity, with new technologies and lack of opportunities to ‘switch off’, many seek new ways and experiences to find state of being in which we can find peace or new perspectives. Or ways to connect to the elements around us in a more spiritual sense. The Temazcal offers these connections with self, mind, spirit and so its popularity gains momentum.

But, however a Temezcal is experienced, there is no doubt about the impact it has on the bather. Spending time in a dark, hot chamber forces one to think differently and face a different reality. It can provide a revised way of thinking and a restart along with all the health benefits it offers.

So, a Temazcal can offer both physical and mental well-being. A fresh start, for a new beginning and a new year.

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