Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Saturday January 20 2018
Temazcal: Traditional Healer or Pleasing Dominatrix?

Alvin Starkman

View in magazine >
Rate this article: Thank you for your vote!

Curandera Doña Mariana chants while controlling your body with the laying of water over hot rock, as the mysterious meandering of a range of herbal bouquets piques the olfactory sense. She methodically swats almost every inch of your torso and each limb, with varying degrees of assertiveness and pressure. Yet she is ever so gentle; she reassures you of her command over process and purpose: relaxation, rejuvenation and healing: “Qué salga el mal; qué entre el bien,” she cajoles. Out with the bad; in with the good.

Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera is a native Oaxacan temazcalera, expert in the ancient pre-Hispanic science and ceremony of temazcal. The heart of temazcal is entry into a dark chamber filled with steam and select aromatic plants and herbs, and being carefully guided through ritual stages by one who has learned function, effect and procedure through years of training.

Temazcal is akin to the Iroquois sweat lodge of which many of us have heard and read in the course of our childhood education into the disappearing cultures of our First Nations, the original inhabitants of our homeland. Who would have thought that we could ever have such a first-hand experience during modern times? It’s just one of the treasures for visitors and -in my case- residents of Oaxaca as well as other Mexican destinations.

The History

Doña Mariana’s pedigree dates to the knowledge of curative plants and uses of the temazcal she gained from her Zapoteca grandmother, supplemented by thirty years of training and experience as a nurse in Oaxaca. Zapotec is one of sixteen indigenous cultures still thriving today in the state of Oaxaca. It is one of several which count temazcal as an important method for healing through sweat and herbal medicine.

Historically, many societies have considered sweating as being both therapeutic and healing. Hippocrates based a well-known saying, “give me a fever and I can cure any disease,” on his knowledge that sweating removes toxins. Many viral agents and bacteria cannot survive at much above normal body temperature, so when we sweat we can literally rid ourselves of some illnesses. Important endocrine glands are stimulated by an inner rise in temperature, with impurities in many body organs being flushed out as capillaries dilate and the heart increases its pace to keep up with the demand for blood. And in a sweat bath where rocks are heated and water is poured over them, an abundance of negative ions is released into the air, combating fatigue and tenseness.

Doña Mariana uses fifteen plants and herbs -predominated by eucalyptus, rosemary and basil- in the course of conducting a temazcal. The grounds of her home are her pharmacy, where she has an impressive garden of flowering plants, bushes, trees, herbs and grasses.
She explains how she controls the temperature and vapor, and uses fragrant herbs and branches. The healer provides patients with assurances before, and in the course of the temazcal, that she is in careful control of the bodies and minds, allaying any preconceived concerns or stressors one might encounter as levels of temperature and steam increase.

The Process

I will take you through my latest temezcal experience, with my wife, so you can understand the process. Draped in a cotton sheet, I was seated with only my partner and the curandera, eyes closed to the blackness of the small, low-roofed thatched hut. In the darkness, my body is patted and rubbed with leafy twigs as I listen to quiet words in Spanish and in an indigenous tongue, including deliberate chants and sweet songs. Surges of different herbal scents sweep in front of me, reminiscent of waves of heat I’ve encountered while slowly paddling down a tropical lagoon. “Qué salga el mal; qué entre el bien.” (“Let the bad go out; let the good come in”)

I’m being cleansed, that welcomed relaxation taking over my soul. As I float into a native past I am now coming to better understand and appreciate, I hear “En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo” (“In the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit.”). It’s one of several incongruities in Oaxaca, as there is an ongoing pride in cultural traditions of indigenous populations while there is the knowledge of the destruction heaped upon the populace by the conquest and The Church. Even though the Spanish once tried to destroy the temazcal tradition because of its association with worship of deities, it survives with most aspects of the purity of its tradition intact.

Doña Mariana leads us out of the lodge on our knees, a new awakening, with fresh dry sheets enveloped around us as we drop the soaked ones, without inhibition. Her assistant is ever so attentive, directing us to the adjoining massage area with mattresses on the floor, with soft, colorful hand-embroidered swaths of cloth embracing the walls. Jesus and The Virgin are watching over us, as they are the focal point of the room. At the same time, Doña Mariana, now joined by her able helper and masseuse, continues to be our sole source of comfort, guidance and reassurance.

Several minutes of calm and quiet follow, lying face down, alone in the room as it should be, with only my life partner, reborn together, as soft relaxation music begins. We are resting in silence, though my mind slowly returns to the practicalities of life. Will the young Zapoteca massage each of us? Has Doña Mariana finished taking us to a certain point in the journey, now turning over control to her apprentice? With the momentary nakedness in the presence of three women, the experience takes on a subtle undercurrent of healthy sensuality, at least for me, and perhaps for my partner.

Not the thought process to which one might normally admit, I would think, but no matter. It would perhaps continue, and build, if no one entered the room for an hour. And it would make no difference if I was to be massaged by the younger masseuse or Doña Mariana. I would be equally satisfied and fulfilled with the 20-year-old Oaxaqueña or the 60-year- old temazcalera touching the totality of my body, as the process ends with a full massage “from the tips of your toes to the top your head”.

And so beside one another, we partake in the final phase of the process, each of us massaged simultaneously, the continuity of the temazcal in tact as creams and unknown substances are rubbed into our bodies, again producing currents of natural fragrances, although different from before.

The two women leave within a few moments of one another. When the music ends, quiet and complete serenity returns. After several minutes we prop ourselves up with pillows, and a tray with cups of lemongrass tea and glasses of mezcal is placed before us.

“Qué salga el mal; qué entre el bien” at least until tomorrow, or perhaps until I have an opportunity to experience a vision quest.

For more information you may contact Alvin Starkman at:


Rate this article: Thank you for your vote!
Picture Gallery:

Feria Nacional del Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico: Annual Festival Skyrockets
Mezcal, the timid little sister of tequila, has always had a rough time of it both in Mexico and further abroad. But at the begin...
Oaxaca Mexico Food Festival Magically Combines Mushrooms with Ecotourism, Study & Cuisine
Every summer during the rainy season in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, southern Mexico, both tourists and Oaxacan residents alike gat...
Wood Carvings (alebrijes) in Oaxaca, Copal and Sustainable Industry
Oaxacan wood carvings, the colorful fanciful figures popularly known as alebrijes, have been collectible folk art since the 1980s,...
Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas and Palenque: a driving tour Part II
Palenque to Orizaba, or other stopovers in Veracruz If you intend to spend the night in Córdoba or Orizaba, you might want to...
Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas and Palenque: a Driving Tour Part I
Introduction This 2,000 kilometer driving tour serves the needs of vacationers to Oaxaca who also want to take in the sights i...