Mexican women revive the traditional art of herbal steam baths
'There were thousands of beds in the hospital and only a few doctors,' she says. 'Their consultations were short; they didn't have time to ask about the patient's problems. The doctors filled out lots of prescriptions, but many illnesses are caused by the heart and the mind, and those were not being addressed.'
About six years ago, she decided that Western medical treatments left many patients incompletely healed and so she began to treat people using a centuries-old treatment she had learned from her Zapoteca Indian grandmother, a traditional herbal steam bath called a temazcal.
Temazcal is part of the Oaxaca region's rich cultural heritage. Horacio Rojas Alba, M.D., of the Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales, writes in an article titled 'Temazcal: Traditional Mexican Sweat Bath,' (Tlahui-Medic, 1996) that although the baths are now used by tourists to treat stress, the Nahuatl, Mixteca, Zapoteca, and Mayan Indians relied on them to treat a variety of illnesses. The Spanish attempted to destroy temazcalsacross Mexico because they associated them with the worship of indigenous goddesses. According to Rojas Alba, they wiped out many of the bath houses but were not able to erase the practice.
Temazcalscan be built in three shapes: an Aztecan-styled dome roof, a Mayan-styled rectangular building, or a Sioux-styled triangle. Arroyo Cabrera's temazcalis a dome, designed to contain heat. Its low ceiling keeps the steam hovering around bathers but is high enough for them to sit up. The temazcalera, a woman trained to be a healer, can control the level of heat in the dome by opening or closing a vent in the ceiling.
Still considered the domain of women, the baths are thought to be especially effective for women who have disorders of the menstrual cycle, who want to increase their fertility, or who suffer from ovarian cysts, says Rojas Alba.
In the steam bath, temazcalerascombine herbs, heat, humidity, rest, and massage to create what Arroyo Cabrera describes as a potent remedy for the mind, body, and spirit. And it all begins in the garden.
Curving graveled paths through roses, daisies, and hibiscus lead to the hut that contains Arroyo Cabrera's temazcal, which is built from adobe bricks and set in the back of a breathtaking walled garden behind her bed-and-breakfast, Las Bugambilias. Many of the herbs she uses in the treatments come from this garden or from a larger one she keeps in the mountains. She sometimes supplements her supply with herbs she buys at the market.
Treatment, which costs about $40, begins when the bather disrobes and crawls through a small, low door. While the bather rests beneath a cloth cover, nurse assistants heat volcanic rocks with a wood fire. When the rocks are hot enough, the temazcalera adds boughs of herbs and water, and a fragrant vapor fills the little room. The nurses may beat the bather's body lightly with fresh branches of herbs.
Which herbs depends on the condition being treated. Rosemary, basil, and eucalyptus are central to most treatments. Arroyo Cabrera's grandmother taught her how to combine and use about 15 plants and herbs. Most are used only externally.
Elena Solow, an artist from New York, says she was wary because she has high blood pressure, but once she slipped inside she could feel the powerful healing energy. Arroyo Cabrera 'really gives of herself in the process of treating a patient,' Solow says. 'Her skills and knowledge of herbs are ancient. You can feel that when you breathe in the herbs. The smells open up your sinuses, and right away you are just happy.'
After 10 to 30 minutes in the steam, the bather emerges, wrapped in a sheet, and must lie down and rest until the body stops sweating, usually from 30 minutes to an hour. The temazcaleraprovides a cup of tea, often made from some of the same herbs used in the bath. After the cooldown, the temazcaleramassages the bather.
The massage is invigorating and completely different from other bodywork, says L.A. Heberlein, a software company president from Seattle. 'While it is gentle, it is also really deep. They did amazing things with the hip joints by their sitting on [my] feet.'
Temazcals, says Rojas Alba, are experiencing a rejuvenation in Mexico. Arroyo Cabrera's bath can be busy; she sometimes gives up to four three-hour baths in a day, and has now trained other indigenous wo-men to be temazcaleras, in order to pass along the traditional knowledge and keep up with the demand.
Mexico's Medicinal Herbs
University of Georgia ethnobotanist John R. Stepp studies indigenous uses of medicinal plants in Mexico. According to Stepp, these herbs are among the plants used by Arroyo Cabrera and other Oaxacan temazcaleras. Common names for these herbs vary by region, as do traditional uses.
Basil (Ocimum spp.), commonly called albahaca: diabetes, headaches, and the 'evil eye.'
Chamizo(Baccharis glutinosa): gastrointestinal problems.
Eucalyptus, called alternately eucalipto or kampor: coughs and respiratory illnesses.
Hierba del cancer(Castilleja tenuifolia): reportedly restricts the growth of tumors.
Hierba maestra(Artemisia mexicana), a New World relative of wormwood: deworming. A decoction of the leaves is used to stop vomiting.
Hierba santa (Piper sanctum), a common name used throughout Mexico to refer to a member of the pepper family: used to cure respiratory problems.
Mallow(Malva spp.), a relative of the hibiscus: dysentery, gastrointestinal ailments; also used as an antiparasitic.
Pepper tree(Schinus molle), also called piru: used by Arroyo Cabrera in her baths. Other uses are undocumented.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis): stomach ailments and a wide variety of pains.
Rue(Ruta chalapensis), commonly called ruda in Oaxaca: headaches and the 'evil eye'; used in shamanic ceremonies. A tea made from the leaves treats stomach problems.
Santa Maria (Heliocereus speciosus): stomach ailments.
Go for it
Las Bugambilias Bed and Breakfast
Sol Sierra Destinations
Lists several resorts that have temazcals.
Tlahui Language and Culture School
If you would like to dive more deeply into Mexican herbal medicine, the Tlahui language and culture school offers a beginner's course in applied Mexican ethnobotany that includes study and use of medicinal plants in the temazcal. Cost is about $2,500 for an intensive, eight-week course, including lodging, educational materials, and transportation from the airport.
More info at www.utne.com
From Herbs for Health (July/Aug. 2000). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from Box 7708, Red Oak, IA 51591-0708.