Temazcal Healing

Mexican women revive the traditional art of herbal steam baths

| November/December 2000

During her 30 years as a nurse in a hospital in Oaxaca, Mexico, Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera witnessed Western medicine's neglect of the patient as a whole person from several perspectives--in the operating room, as a hospital administrator, and at the Universidad Benito Juarez, where she trained nurses.

'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.

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