Heal Your Body and Soul with a Mexican Herbal Steam Bath

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Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera administers a traditional temazcal treatment to a patient.
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Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera administers a traditional temazcal treatment to a patient.
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Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera administers a traditional temazcal treatment to a patient.
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A small temazcal nestled at the back of a walled garden in Oaxaca, Mexico.

During her thirty years working as a nurse in an Oaxacan hospital, Mariana Emilia Arroyo Cabrera witnessed Western medicine’s neglect of the whole patient. In fact, she saw it 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. Consequently, she began to heal others holistically, using a centuries-old traditional herbal steam bath called a temazcal.

Reviving Ancient History

For Arroyo Cabrera, the temazcal meant coming full circle. She hails from a town south of Oaxaca, called Cienagas de Cematlan, where her Zapotecan grandmother trained her to be a temazcalera–a woman skilled in using herbs to heal in the temazcal.

Arroyo Cabrera and her family now run Las Bugambilias, a bed and breakfast on the northeastern side of Oaxaca, as well as a restaurant, La Olla, next door. Their clientele consists mainly of tourists who come to the city to relax and experience local flavor.

Originally populated by the Aztecs, Oaxaca now has a population of about 400,000 and is the capital of the Oaxacan state. The spectacular Zapotecan archeological site of Monte Alban is within a few miles of the city. The markets in neighboring indigenous villages are famous for their folk art. And the vibrant, cosmopolitan city maintains a firm grasp of its rich past.

The temazcal is part of this heritage. The baths survive today because they were such an integral part of everyday life before the Spanish arrived. Horacio Rojas Alba, M.D., of the Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales, writes in his article, “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 the temazcal to treat a variety of illnesses. The Spanish attempted to destroy temazcals across Mexico because they associated them with the worship of indigenous goddesses. According to Rojas Alba, they wiped out many of the structures but were not able to erase the practice.

Throughout history, ­indigenous cultures from Mongolia to the Mayan highlands have used steam baths to treat ­illnesses of the body and spirit. ­Outside the ­colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico, tourists can take the ­treatment in a temazcal, a ­traditional Aztecan bath house. 

Temazcals can be built in three shapes: an Aztecan-styled dome roof, a Mayan-styled rectangular building, or a Sioux-styled triangle, explains Arroyo Cabrera. Her temazcal is a dome, designed to contain heat. Its low ceiling keeps the steam hovering around the bather but is high enough for one to sit up. The temazcalera can control the level of heat in the dome by opening or closing a vent in the ceiling.

Today the baths are still considered the domain of women. They are tended by women healers, and according to Rojas Alba the warming treatment is thought to be especially effective for women who have disorders of the menstrual cycle, want to increase their fertility, or suffer from ovarian cysts.

In the steam bath, Arroyo Cabrera and other trained indigenous women combine 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.

An Intense Treatment

Curving graveled paths through roses, daisies, and hibiscus lead to the hut that contains the temazcal, which is built from adobe bricks and set in the back of a breathtaking walled garden.

Many of the herbs Arroyo Cabrera uses in her treatment come from this garden or from another larger one located in the mountains. She does much of the gardening herself, although she has some hired help. When necessary, she supplements her supply with herbs bought at the market.

Treatment, which costs about U.S. $40, begins when the bather disrobes and crawls through the brick oven’s small, low door. The room is big enough for two people to lie down in, and the temazcalera can administer treatments to one or two people at a time. The patient chooses whether to be treated alone or alongside another patient.

While the bather rests beneath a cloth cover, nurse assistants heat volcanic rocks with a wood fire. When the rocks are hot enough, Arroyo Cabrera or another temazcalera adds boughs of herbs and water, and a fragrant vapor fills the little room. The nurses may lightly beat the bather’s body with fresh branches of herbs.

Which herbs are used depends on the type of condition being treated. Rosemary, basil, and eucalyptus are central to most treatments. (For more about the herbs used, see “Temazcal medicine” at right.) Arroyo Cabrera says that her grandmother taught her how to combine and use about fifteen different plants and herbs. Most are used only externally.

L. A. Heberlein from Seattle tried the bath in October when he visited Oaxaca for the Day of the Dead celebrations. He says the room was small and slightly claustrophobic, but once the steam filled the room he began to relax.

“They stoke the oven until the poison pours out of your pores,” Heberlein says. “Then they cover the fire with boughs of herbs: rue, rosemary, eucalyptus.

“I’m a hard case. I’m president of a software company, which is enough stress for ten people, let alone for someone already as wound as me. This actually did make me feel clean, relaxed, fresh, at peace. . . . I wanted to live in their little hut forever.”

Elena Solow, an artist from New York, visited the bath a few years ago. She says she was a bit reluctant to try it because she has high blood pressure, but once she slipped inside she could feel the powerful healing energy. Solow credits Arroyo Cabrera’s talents.

“She 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 just open up your sinuses, and right away you are just happy.”

After ten to thirty minutes in the steam, the bather emerges, wrapped in a sheet, and must lie down and rest until the body stops sweating, usually from thirty minutes to an hour. The temazcalera provides a cup of tea, often made from some of the same herbs used in the bath. After the patient cools down, the temazcalera performs a massage.

Heberlein says the massage was invigorating and completely different from other massages he has had.

“They. . . give you a massage that stops just this side of chiropractic,” Heberlein says. “While gentle, it was also really deep. They did amazing things with the hip joints, accomplished by their sitting on your feet.

“I can’t emphasize too strongly that it was an intense experience,” he says.

Passing the Torch

The practice of using temazcals, says Rojas Alba, is experiencing a rejuvenation in Mexico. Arroyo Cabrera says her bath can be busy; she has given up to four baths in one day. Administering a bath takes about three hours and is very demanding, but Arroyo Cabrera says she plans to continue. She is also training other indigenous women to be temazcaleras, in order to pass along the ancient practice and the traditional knowledge of the healing power of herbs.

Some universities conduct brief courses in ethnomedicine in Oaxaca, but the wonders of the temazcal’s “fantastic, potent, complete, and perfect way of diminishing many illnesses” is Arroyo Cabrera’s specialty.

Freelance writer Denise Trunk, based in Gainesville, Florida, writes for a variety of publications. Her travels have taken her all over the world, but Mexico captured her heart years ago when she was conducting her master’s research in political communication in Chiapas.

By Denise Trunk

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