The Healing Power of Temazcal (Sweat Lodge): Q&A with Abuela Gloria Nanantzin Atekokolli
Far more than just a sauna or steam bath, temazcal (sweat lodge) has been used for millennia for physical, emotional, and spiritual purification.
Temazcal is a sacred ritual, which comes from the Mexika tradition of Central America. Since its creation, temazcal has spread far beyond its traditional borders and is practiced all over the American continent and beyond.
For this interview, I sat down with Colombian elder, medicine woman, and temazcal guide, Abuela Gloria. Having attended many temazcals with Abuela Gloria over the last few years, I have come to value them not only as opportunities for physical and emotional cleansing, but also as a chance to pray, give thanks, and deepen my connection with spirit.
In this conversation, we go deep into what actually happens in temazcal, its benefits, the role of prayer, songs, and plant medicines inside the temazcal, the role of the guide, and more. Enjoy!
Take a deep dive into the world of psychedelics by subscribing to Tripsitter 🍄🌵 Consider a paid subscription if you want to support our work.
Can you tell me about your work as a spiritual guide and custodian of the ceremonies and rituals of the Mexika tradition?
My name is Abuela Gloria Nanantzin Atekokolli, which is the sacred name I carry in the tradition. I started on the path of these native traditions about 30 years ago, and I encountered the Mexika tradition around 15 years ago. It truly captured my heart, and I worked with the elders from Mexico for several years until they entrusted me with the custody of these prayers, which include the vision quest and the moon dance.
Surrounding all this, there has always been the work of the temazcal. I have been involved with temazcal since 1998, initially working within the inipi tradition but always knowing it by the name of temazcal. Temazcal is a word from the Nahuatl language that has a very simple meaning: temaz means steam, and cal means house. So, temazcal is the house of steam.
The temazcal is essentially a therapeutic steam bath, but when it is done as a ritual and according to tradition, then it becomes a sacred ceremony.
How does the temazcal contribute to our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being?
The benefit of the temazcal starts with the physical body. The medicinal steam, which you receive through your breath and your pores, acts like a full physical cleanse of the toxins that bombard us in the highly polluted system we live in today – not just from the air but also from our food.
All this toxicity that is inside us is the first thing that is purged on a physical level, along with the fatigue, anxieties, and daily worries we carry. There is a genuine sense of relief. It’s like unloading tensions and reaching a moment of harmony, entering into communion and communication with simplicity and the four elements that we are: air, water, fire, and earth.
What is the historical significance of the temazcal for the Mexika culture?
Its history spans millennia. In the structures that are still being discovered in the Mexican world of archaeology, they are finding temazcal baths of great antiquity. People used the same materials to build these baths as they used for their living spaces, and they used the temazcal as a daily bath.
Fortunately, over time, the tradition has managed to stay very much alive in the Mesoamerican world. This is what has allowed the tradition to reach us here and in different parts of the world. What’s so significant is that there has always been a place where people live, with their steam bath, their temazcal, right next to them, using it daily as a bath for physical and spiritual cleansing, as well as a space for ceremonies. Even today, many have maintained this practice, and many are returning to this custom.
What is the meaning behind the shape of the temazcal structure?
It resembles half of the earth, a terrestrial sphere cut in half because it symbolizes the womb of Mother Earth. It also resembles the womb of a pregnant woman because that is where life is created and recreated.
There, we reconnect with creation, birth, and everything we need to find when we return to the womb of the mother. On a subconscious level, we are returning to the womb of our own mother.
Additionally, the structure gives us a deeper understanding of how the universe moves. It represents the sky, the earth, and the presence of stars. There is a lot that is symbolic, and it deeply penetrates one’s subconscious. It connects us to the ancestral memory that has always been there, but perhaps a little bit forgotten.
There, we reach an understanding of our origin, which is very important – to know where we come from, what our bodies are made of, and that we are spiritual beings clothed in physical bodies.
Can you explain a little bit about the ritual, the stones – essentially what happens during a temazcal?
We normally work with volcanic stone. Here in Colombia, the volcanic stones that are most accessible to us are from Los Nevados National Park. This volcanic stone also carries a lot of our ancestral and genetic information. These stones are heated until they are red-hot, essentially returning them to their original fiery state. They also bring with them this memory when they enter the temazcal.
The temazcal has four stages or “doors,” which is the tradition. Four songs and four invocations are performed at each door, and each door has its own guiding principle. Generally, in the Mexika tradition, we work with the cardinal directions, forming a cross. So, the first door would be the east, the second the west, the third the north, and the fourth the south. Each direction brings its own set of elements and also corresponds to the different life stages of a human being. It is important to work on these at a subconscious level, as that is where all our ancestral information is stored.
These invocations to the forces of the universe during these four stages also help awaken one's memory and establish a vital connection. It truly helps one feel centered among the east, west, north, and south. We are at the center, connected to both the sky and the earth, serving as the bridge between the two. These four directions are crucial in rediscovering our relationship with ourselves, something we have deeply forgotten, and with the universe, which has been even more profoundly overlooked. So, this is all about reclaiming our memory.
The technique, as I mentioned, is quite simple: it’s about navigating through these four forces of the cardinal directions to feel centered and understand that we are significant in the middle as well. In this central position, we play a role in maintaining the harmony of the universe. We are not off to one side; we are in the middle, part of the entirety of the universe and everything that happens. We are connected to it all, which is why it is crucial to remember that all of our actions, thoughts, and words resonate not just throughout the universe in this moment, but also through past and future generations. We are situated between the generations that came before us and those that will follow, making it our responsibility to be mindful of our actions.
This is one of the beautiful teachings that one receives in the temazcal, through the songs, prayers, and the feeling of being in that dark environment. The only light visible inside the temazcal comes from the glowing stones, as we don’t need to see anything else. We go into introspection, looking inward, seeking the light within us that we often search for externally. We enter this dark, warm, and humid place, reminiscent of our mother’s womb, and all of this contributes to a deep understanding of our own life and the life around us.
What is the importance of songs and prayers in the temazcal?
The prayers are the guide to what we are working on at each door. In the temazcal, everything comes out in a very intuitive way, according to what is needed. But we are always guiding ourselves by these forces. So, the prayers align with that. They help people delve deep into understanding air's role in their lives and our need to take care of it because air sustains us – it is life itself, it’s in our breath.
It's about understanding that we are water, and as water, we need to take care not only of the external water but of our own internal waters too. So, it’s also about returning to that understanding that we are water.
In the third door, where we work with the force of the earth, it's also about understanding the deep connection we have with Mother Earth and how we depend on her for nourishment. In this third stage, we connect with the fire inside the hot stones, which represent the fire of the heart of the earth.
Finally, we reach the fourth door to understand the fire, the fire that drives us, gives us strength, the spark that gets us out of bed in the morning to live life. That’s also what the fourth stage is about. It’s a journey.
We try to make sure that the prayers and songs align with that. The prayers and songs are shared with everyone in a way that allows people to express themselves comfortably. Those who want to sing can do so and also express their hearts through song.
The sound of the drum is also very important. The resonance of the drum takes us back to very deep, fundamental memories. The rattles that accompany the drum sounds and singing also have significance. The rattle brings the movement of the seeds of life, and its sound also brings back memories of the soul, fertility, and the calling forth of life.
When one comes to understand all of this, they enter into a comprehension of how important it is to live the temazcal experience and to have this opportunity on a daily basis. Many people ask, “How often, Abuela?” And I say, “Whenever you feel the need.” Because if you feel the desire, there lies your answer. In my case, the desire was constant. That's why I stayed inside the temazcal from the moment I discovered it. I understood that there I had the key to my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.
What is the importance of the plants and medicines used in the temazcal?
In the temazcal, there are many plants that can be used. One needs to know the plants, to understand what each plant will contribute to people. We use a lot of copal because it is very traditional in Mexico, and the aroma of copal brings back memories. It helps to ground us in the here and now. That’s why it is used so much in all Native American rituals, especially in Mesoamerican ones. Copal is used extensively because its aroma brings us to a state of consciousness, providing tranquility and understanding.
We use white sage, which comes from the north, but it also greatly aids in balance and harmony. We use sweetgrass, bear root, palo santo, and lavender. I always prefer using them because I really like sweet plants; what we all need the most is sweetness. And in some cases, it’s strength. It's this combination of strength and sweetness that we need to be able to move forward in life.
Tobacco will always be present, always, always. More than thinking of it as tobacco for smoking, it’s tobacco for offering. So, before always starting a fire, we offer a lot of tobacco, asking for help from the universe. Because in some way, that plant was left for that purpose: to be a communicator, carrying our message, helping us understand what we need. It’s understanding this plant as a mediator, as a communicator.
The tobacco plant is medicine. But the system hasn’t yet understood that there is medicine in tobacco. They’ve only focused on the fact that people are smoking cigarettes, which isn’t really tobacco, and harming their health. And that's not the purpose of tobacco. This mistake in the use of plants occurs quite often.
Why is the role of the person leading the temazcal so important?
Well, more than important, it is essential that the person leading it has had time to prepare. They need time and training, and fundamentally an understanding of who they are, what they are doing, and what they have lived through. They require sensitivity to accept themselves and to have patience, compassion, tolerance, and love for the people who gather for the temazcal because those people are seeking support.
There are also “warrior temazcals”, for men and women, where strength is needed. But really, the understanding that I have gained on my life’s path is that there are many more people in need of a hug than a scolding.
This sensitivity that I’m talking about is essentially gained in the mountains, in the vision quest, because in the mountains, during the vision quest, you are in total fasting, without help from anyone. You are alone, facing the universe, placing yourself in the presence of the divinity that you believe in your heart, and only receiving help from the universe and your own being. So that is the traditional way: to follow a path beforehand in order to be able to sit and pour water on the stones with the sensitivity and love that you have to have for the people.
What role has the temazcal played in your life personally?
As I was saying at the beginning, it is of total importance, so much so that I understood from the first time I entered the temazcal that I wanted to stay there. And staying there meant that I had to prepare myself to be a temazcal guide. And through being a temazcal guide, all these gifts of life have come to me, which are essentially in the people that I see leaving the temazcal so happy. This fills my heart, knowing that I am doing something that people need. I am contributing something to the well-being of this pained humanity.
And as for my personal life, it is my health, really, it is my health. My health, my strength, my vitality is inside the temazcal, and my tranquility as well, because I also handle my personal battles, like everyone else. All this also helps me a lot to try to maintain the connection and the center that I need to have.
What precautions should people take before entering the temazcal? How should they prepare?
To prepare for the Temazcal, you really don't have to fast or do anything special. I suggest to people that preferably they should not be sleep-deprived because then they would be low on strength, and low on energy. Preferably, they should not be hungover, meaning they should not have drunk alcohol the night before because then they would be dehydrated. It's not so easy for a person in this state. Something important would be that they haven't had surgery, let's say, two or three days before. Ideally, any scars should be healed, as they can get irritated, but it's not a contraindication.
Informing oneself about whom you are going with is very important. It's crucial that people learn to ask, "With whom am I going to go? Who is this person? To whom am I going to entrust my safety and my life?" Because in the current world, there are too many things going on.
So, it's good for people to care, to ask, "Who are you?" [to the guide]. It doesn’t bother me; I am so public now that everyone knows who I am. But it doesn’t bother me if they ask me, "And you, where did you come from and what did you do to be here?" I used to like it because they gave me the opportunity to tell my stories, which are quite entertaining. The battles of my life are very special, and I don’t mind talking about myself.
We need more regulation around all these rituals that are spreading so quickly. After seeing the interview you did [with Taita Henrri Muchavisoy], I also conclude that we need to formalize this. It cannot continue like this, in the hands of so many people who are taking on responsibilities without being properly prepared. When you go to university to become a doctor, you need several years of study and practice. To be an engineer, it’s the same; to be a psychologist, it's the same. You need preparation and practice to be a good professional in any aspect of your life.
To wrap up, Abuela, can you tell me a bit about the project that you are starting right now with the territory in San Rafael?
Yes, we have posted a little video on YouTube because, for me, it is a great joy to be able to reach this moment. It has been many years of work, and right now I have found some colleagues who also wanted to bet on this dream. So far we have acquired the land.
Our goal is to be able to plant the vision quest and the moon dance in a place where they belong. So that we are not wandering from one place to another, but that we can have a place so that not only we, but our children, our grandchildren, and all the generations after us, have a place to go to pray, where their ancestors prayed, which is consecrated for that purpose.
So right now, we need to open a road because we need access to the place. The road has a rather high cost, but it will also positively impact the surrounding community. There are some families there who still do all their commuting on horses and mules. I've seen people much older than me commuting that way, which I imagine they've done all their lives. And the first time I went to that land, I rode a horse to get down there. But that is no longer something we can do.
These works are going to start, but we need a lot of help. This is a call to those who have the possibility, in some way, to make a donation, a contribution. We will be holding some ceremonies and events to raise these funds, as we’re going to hold the vision quest there this coming January.
We have to enter the territory to pray and do spiritual work there. There was a lot of violence there in the past, and it still carries an energetic footprint of all of that pain. Our purpose there is not only for ourselves but to do something for this territory that suffered so much and shed a lot of blood.
We know we are doing something really important for the future, for all of humanity. Everything we think, do, and say, remains in the vibration of the Mother. We need to energetically repair our humanity.
If you’d like to make a donation to the construction of the road and the center that will be built in San Rafael, you can do so via PayPal. Tlazocamati!
Help Us Grow 🌱
Tripsitter was built by a community of psychedelic advocates — but it’s people like you that allow us to thrive.