I’m not one for saunas. I’ve always wanted to be, but there’s something about sitting in hot steam that makes me very uncomfortable. Maybe it’s the difficulty breathing. Yeah, pretty sure that’s it.
My particular challenge with sauna type spaces began a while ago. I’ve lived in places where this practice is culturally relished. Tunisa’s hammams only really drew me in because of their beautiful architecture of billowy arches and ornate tiles. Yet, I could hardly withstand the hellish heat of these steamy traditional bathhouses. It was definitely not one of my common practices while living there.
Like the Turkish bath houses, Korea’s jimjilbang are also a unique experience. Gender-segregated areas are furnished with hot tubs of varying temperatures, showers, and traditional kiln saunas. I made it a personal goal to try it all, including getting my skin scrubbed off with exfoliating loofahs by a no nonsense ajumma in no nonsense underwear. Hurt like hell, but at least I left with baby soft skin.
While, I’d sworn off saunas, I recently found myself at my first Mexican temazcal. My friend explained it as a spiritual sweat lodge and while the spiritual part enticed me, the sweat lodge did not. I hesitated. She persisted. There would be a full moon that April night. It would be cleansing. It would be magical.
A sucker for magic, I said yes.
Caravanning over with a handful of other expats, I felt more comfortable knowing I was not the only novice in the group. We listened to the experienced ones who cooly shared, “It will be great.” Trickling out of cars, we made our way through a Mexican family’s dusty backyard. Smiles greeted us as we ducked under clothing lines heading towards the small, brick dome in the back.
Preparations ensued with the men taking off their shirts, women wrapping sarongs around their hips. The ceremony leaders/shamans were a young American woman and a tall Mexican man with long braid hung down his back. Smudged with sage and feathers for cleansing, our incantation consisted of words of gratitude and humility as one by one we bowed and crawled into the dark space.
I tried to be strategic as to when I entered, wanting to be standing in the open air as long as possible, but not so long that I’d be cramped being one of the last.
As the fifth one in, turns out I was cramped anyway. It was declared that the turn out was higher than expected which would make for an excellent temazcal! I could feel the enthusiasm of the experienced ones because of this. With each person entering (a couple dozen in all), the small space I’d created for myself in the dirt diminished making it hard for me to share in the sentiment. Skin touching skin, I was sandwiched by strangers and my world became acutely uncomfortable. I started to squirm. The calm of preparations alluded me; my mind began to grip for methods of escape.
The stones glowed as they were slowly and respectfully placed in the center pit. Steam curled upward, still visible as the entrance remained opened during the final minutes of preparation. The stacked pile hissed and chirped like baby birds while a water dipped bouquet of herbs hit them increasing the steam, encouraging the heat.
We were given warning when the tarp came down to cover the opening. We were told it would be pitch dark and that the heat may get so intense some may feel queasy. We were prepared with words of conviction, ones that linked us to each other as a sacred communal body. We were given coping practices. Breathe slowly. Lower your head to the ground for cooler air. Let yourself be in the discomfort.
Even with all of this, I was not prepared. Within seconds of the door closing, I honestly felt like I would die.
A friend once said, “As people, we spend our lives avoiding suffering.” While I like to be challenged, favoring hard situations isn’t a natural inclination. I think most people would agree. Skirting topics that may be divisive in conversation, maintaining the joyless job because it’s what we know, choosing numbing over healing our bodies; these are the easier things to do. Life is already hard, why create more discomfort? But, here I was doing just that.
My occasional bouts with claustrophobia came on in full force. I strained my eyes to see something, anything, and it was just black. This intensified the feeling of being trapped. I could not move my legs. Knees to my chin, I hugged myself attempting to hide my nostrils from the steam. The heat grabbed hold of my lungs and my uneasy breathing swirled into a form of inner panic.
I wanted out.
Seconds away from being the first one requesting to exit only after a couple of minutes in, I found my saving device. The woman sitting to my right (who would later become a dear friend) took in even breaths in a slow, measured way that caught my attention. I decided to mimic her and follow her breathing. My heart slowed down and I felt as if I had returned to the present moment. It was incredible and I felt indebted to her for saving my life in that moment.
Eased a bit, I pressed my head between my knees seeking cooler air. I tried to be with the discomfort as advised. Applying what I learned in yoga and meditation, I gently ushered negative thoughts away again and again, letting other pieces of the moment come forward.
The evening continued with tribal drumming, call and repeat song, and beautiful prayer. Instruments were shared and we united in sound. An homage to women as creative forces of the world brought me to tears and in a deeply inward moment, I conversed with loved ones who had passed.
The 120 minutes broke up into segments where the tarp lifted momentarily and air and light brought relief. Isn’t that just like life? Pain + discomfort followed by quiet + relief…and then, repeat.
The last minutes of the temazcal were the hardest. My mind, which had been silenced for some time, was whispering louder. “Are you getting any more out of this? Haven’t you experienced all you needed to?” I got up and asked permission to leave. One person called out: “Complete your journey, sister.” The others echoed. I considered ignoring them. But completing this ritual meant something. I sat back down and hugged myself again. How often do I do that? Hug myself. I decided to let go those last minutes, to take in this intensely individual and wonderfully bonding experience and leave control behind.
Outside the full moon greeted our sweaty, dusty bodies. We washed ourselves with buckets of water under the night sky. Taking seats here and there, we shared in eating fruit and hydrating with water. When ready, we packed in our carpool, a soft air of calm enveloping. Somewhere along the way 4 Non Blondes came on the radio. And, just like that, we all sang in unison:
Twenty-five years and my life is still
Trying to get up that great big hill of hope
For a destination.
Why that moment produced such a spirit of “right on”, I’m not sure. Maybe it was the collective energy of goodwill and the intention of hope. Maybe it was being washed in moonshine after being challenged in the dark. Or, maybe it was just celebrating the ease after the discomfort.