Having walked the path of training to lead a Temazcal (sweat lodge) in the Mexica tradition, I’ve decided to write an article to explain in detail how a Temazcal ceremony is organised and run. This coming January, I have the intention to go up my 4th sacred mountain for my 4th Vision Quest, and upon its completion, god willing, I will ask for my elder’s (Abuela Gloria) blessing to lead the temazcal ceremony myself. This is my own account of the sacred ritual organisation and running, and I share the below lines with the understanding that are many ways this sacred ceremony can be conducted, as well as that I in no way attempt to prescribe what is correct and what is not through this article. To do justice to the whole process, I have decided to separate my writing into two parts. I hope you find the below text useful and that it may help you better understand what happens during a sweat lodge ceremony the next time you attend one.
What is Sweat Lodge?
Sweat Lodge, also known as Temazcal (Mexica Tradition) and Inipi (Lakota Tradition), is an ancient purification ceremony from the indigenous peoples of North America and Mexico. During sweat lodge, we symbolically move into the womb of Mother Earth to be reborn, strengthened, and renewed.
As written by Françoise Bourzat in her book, Consciousness Medicine, “sweat lodges are conducted as a group in a dome-shaped hut made of canvas or cloth blankets over a wooden structure built upon the earth. Stones are heated in an outdoor fire then brought in and placed in a central pit. The entrance of the dome is shut, and water is poured over the hot stones while the leader guides the group through songs and prayers. The physical intensity of the heat, the disorientation of the darkness, and the potency of the prayers initiate a state of internal softening and emotional surrender, shifting the participants beyond habitual states of functioning.”
In its essence, a sweat lodge is a spiritual rebirth where we connect with ourselves through the four elements of nature (fire, water, air, earth), meditation, singing, and prayer. By connecting to our essence, to what was there before our life history happened to us, we are able to shed our past and open space for a new life to grow from within.
Before the Ceremony
On the days I go to help Abuela Gloria with her temazcal, I normally go to her house around 8:30 am where I would meet with her other helpers, my brothers and sisters from the medicine family/community formed around Abuela. We go early around that hour so that we have time to slowly organise the space and set up before everyone arrives, we also enjoy a cup of coffee prepared by Abuela.
The first thing we do is clean the ashes from the fire and prepare the space for the new fire to be lit. We also take out the stones from within the temazcal and organise them in 4 lines of 7, 28 in total. At this point we might also prepare the logs that form the base of the fire, 2 thick logs, about 1m long and 7 less thick branches. I will explain the significance further below.
Once we have set this up, kind of like an ancestral mise en place, we start with the tobacco prayer to call in the 7 directions. Abuela lights a tobacco cigar and we stand in a circle around the place of the fire to pray. The Mexica tradition has its way of praying and I believe within it there are different forms, however as Abuela Gloria says – what matters is the essence, not the form.
To open the ceremonial fire we share the tobacco and everyone shares a prayer or blessing in relation to the energy of the direction Abuela asks them to pray. We pray to the 7 directions in the following order – East, West, North, South, Above, Below, and Around; and each one has its own wisdom, element, and symbolism:
East – Tlahuiztlampa (the place of light) and its regent Quetzalcoatl are related to Air, the mind, beauty, spiritual wisdom and the light we carry inside of us.
West – Cihuatlampa (the place of feminine essence) and its regent Xipetotec are related to Water, our emotions, renovation, renewal, and our ability to let the past die.
North – Mictlampa (the place of rest and transformation) and its regent Tezcatlipoca are related to Earth, our dark side, our shadow, our ancestors, and our ability to look at ourselves with honesty and discernment.
South – Hitztlampa (the place of spines) and its regent Huitzilopochtli are related to Fire, realisation, will power, and all the medicines, fasts, trials and our ability to overcome adversity and manifest into reality our plans and desires.
Above – Father Sky, the divine father, the Sun, spirit.
Below – Mother Earth, the divine mother, all our food and our bodies, everything that nurtures us.
Around – All life that surrounds us, everything that grows, has life, breathes, lives and dies, all the spirits and guardians of the territory.
While every direction has its theme and a general direction that guides the prayer, as Abuela says, the best prayer is the one that comes from the heart. The prayers to open the fire are also connected to the health and wellbeing of everyone participating in the sweat lodge, and it is also an opportunity to extend a blessing or ask for the health of a loved one going through a challenging moment. Once we have finished the opening prayer the firekeeper for the day places tobacco on the ground. From East to West, then from North to South, and then in a circle. Then everyone else takes a handful of tobacco and places it on the ground as they feel is right.
Once we have done this we lay down the logs to build the foundation of the fire. We start with the two thick logs which are placed in such a way that they form a straight line to the entrance door of the sweat lodge – they represent the Mother and the Father. Then the 7 less thick logs are placed perpendicularly across, they are called the children (los hijos) and they represent the 7 generations that lived, the 7 generations that are currently alive, and the 7 generations yet to be born. We greet the heavens and the earth holding the logs towards the sky and touching the earth before placing them in their positions. Once this is done tobacco is again sprinkled abundantly over the logs to consecrate them.
Arranging the stones is the next step. Each one of us takes a stone and offers it to the heavens and the earth before placing it on the structure formed by the logs. We place the stones in the following order, east, west, north, south, south-east, north-west and in the center; thereon we proceed to put all remaining stones in a spiral. Once all the stones are placed, the firekeeper starts the fire and we begin to heat the stones, often referred to as the grandmothers (abuelas piedras).
Having started the ceremonial fire the helpers tend to the fire and the remaining tasks, such as ‘clothing’ the temazcal with blankets so that we seal it and create a pitch-black environment inside, as well as creating bundles of medicinal plants for the water to be poured over the stones and ones to clean the stones from the ashes as we take them out of the fire before we place them inside the dome. Upon the arrival of all participants, they all enter the house and sit in a circle. Sitting in a circle is very important, as no one is above or in front of another, we are all equal in the circle. In this initial moment, Abuela receives any tobacco offerings that participants might have brought (tobacco is the biggest gift you can give a medicine man or woman, it is a way to symbolically entrust them with your heart and a great show of respect). Once all tobacco is received Abuela passes around the tobacco so that everybody can take 1 cigar and pray with it. We hold it between our hands and once we have our prayer complete we unravel it within the basket that Abuela provides. It is a way to define our intention/prayer for the ceremony as individuals and also give it potency by uniting everyone’s prayer.
We then share rapé (a medicine applied through the nose that comes in powder form and is based on tobacco, it is used to cleanse the breathing canals) and tobacco water (pure tobacco infusion) that is snorted through the nose to unblock our nostrils, cleanse mucus and help us breathe very well within the sweat lodge. We then change into our clothing for the sweat lodge (swim trunks or traditional skirts for men and dress for the women) and we get ready to enter.
The Supporting Roles
There are several supporting roles to conduct a temazcal. I will give an explanation of the ones we have when we engage in the ceremonial practice led by our beloved elder Abuela Gloria. While in some traditions certain roles are reserved for a man or a woman, Abuela Gloria talks a lot about the sacred duality and the parity between men and women, how both are equally important and how each of the roles can be and has been completed by both men and women.
The firemen/firewomen are the ones who start and close the ceremony. They are the ones to enter the temazcal last and the ones who leave it first, making sure that the order of the ceremony outside the sweat lodge is maintained. Working with the fire requires a lot of attention. We cannot be around the ceremonial fire and be on our phones, thinking about other things or not paying attention to what is going on in front of us. It is a true honour to take care of a ceremonial fire and be the fireman/firewoman for a sweat lodge. When there are two or more firemen or women there is usually someone who is selected to be in charge and he or she leads the team.
Starting the fire takes some patience. You have to watch not to make the fire too big too soon so that you don’t heat the stones too quickly. When we do that, the stones break and they have a much shorter life. The fire teaches you himself, Abuela Gloria says – observe carefully and move a little here and little there – don’t interfere too much.
It is important to keep the fire very organised – should a piece of wood fall from it, we put it back within the flames. Also, the firekeeper sweeps around the fire regularly so that we keep an organised space. As the fire grows bigger it is important to make sure that the flames are equally engulfing all the stones. And at the same time allow for heat to build up gradually so that we do not heat too quickly.The fire keepers are also the ones that bring in the stones – upon entering a stone, we say – entra abuelita sagrada (the sacred grandmother stone is entering).
The carrier of the sacred smoke is another of the roles. When there is no designated person to do that, it is usually the firekeeper that does it. This person has the responsibility to cleanse the temazcal before everyone enters with sacred smoke. The are different tree resins (copal) that can be used for that, as well as cedar and white sage. Before entering the sweat lodge every participant receives the sacred smoke right at the entrance. After that they enter the sweat lodge, say their name at the door, and then crawl to their sport on all fours. The first to enter and last to leave is the leader of the temazcal. First enter women, and after that men.
While all roles are equally important and the ceremony cannot proceed without any one of them, the deer man/woman role is usually taken on by someone who is very close to the ceremony leader and who has their trust, sort of a right-hand person. The deer man/woman enters second to last to the fire keepers and is the second to last to leave, right before the ceremony elder. They assist with bringing in the stones with the help of actual deer or elk antlers, bringing in the drums and rattles, the medicines to be placed on the stones, and the water. This person is in constant communication with the firekeepers coordinating the different tasks required to run the ceremony. In the ceremonies that Abuela Gloria runs, the deer man/woman is also usually the second to share a prayer and a song, right after Abuela Gloria herself.
Once the stones come into the sweat lodge, it is customary for medicines to be placed over them – these include copal (tree resin that emits sacred smoke to cleanse), herbs such as lavender, cedar, sage, and bear root (osha) as well as different aromatic and medicinal plant potions. This task is carried out by the Medicine Man/Woman. They are also usually the one who shares a prayer right after the deer man/woman and are someone that has the trust of the ceremonial elder.
The second part of the article will cover what happens during and after the temazcal ceremony. I hope it has been an interesting read so far and that this information will contribute to your understanding of the ceremony and will make for a more profound experience when you next go to participate in a sweat lodge. If you are yet to engage in this sacred ritual, I hope that this account will motivate you to participate one day. May you hear clearly the voice of spirit in your heart and may your heart always guide your steps through life.
Get in contact with us if you would like to find out when we hold our next sweat lodge and other ceremonies.
Aho Mitakuye Oyasin