In my travels, I’ve come across the Native American sweat lodge ritual at far flung places like Jamestown, Va., and New Mexico. But I recently encountered one of the most elaborate of them all in Cancun where I learned about the temazcal ritual at the Westin Resort and Spa.
Native Americans from Alaska to Mayans in Central America and places in between used the sweat lodge to remove toxins from the body, but some went much further by seeing it as a way to cleanse the mind and spirit.
Besides relieving aching muscles and curing certain diseases, some Native Americans believed this "ritualized sauna experience" could purge evil accumulated during wartime and the killing of one’s foes in battle.
In Central America, the temazcal (house of heat) ritual was practiced by the Mayans for hundreds of years and is recorded as hieroglyphics on stone carvings in their native lands.
Recently, the ritual has become popular in the Yucatan and has found its way into the menu of spa treatments available at many Riviera Mayam upscale resorts.
The Westin Cancun has created a typical but beautiful rounded temazcal that resembles a downsized igloo on its white sand beach just below the hotel. Made of stone, the structure and its entranceway is deliberately low so that people have to crouch over to enter.
For the Mayans, the low entrance is symbolic of one’s reentering the mother’s womb. The roof does get higher as you move to the center, but the overhead space is never large enough to let an average sized person stand upright.
The ceremony, available to four to 10 people at a time, is presided over by a shaman who uses herbs, flowers, singing, prayer and music to purify the body and uplift the spirit.