Temazcal Healing

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

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

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]

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

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

Pepper tree(Schinus molle), also called
piru: used by Arroyo Cabrera in her baths. Other uses are

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


Phone/fax: 0-11-52-951-61165

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

More info at www.utne.com

From Herbs for Health (July/Aug. 2000).
Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from Box 7708, Red Oak, IA

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