I Tried a Heart-Opening Ancient Cacao Ceremony and Learned an Unexpected Lesson About Love

Photo: Getty Images/RenPhoto
I first learned about the ancient tradition of the cacao ceremony—wherein you drink hot, ceremonial-grade cacao in a ritual setting—from new friends I met at a yoga retreat. And when I got the opportunity to experience the practice for myself at The Cape, A Thompson Hotel in Los Cabos, Mexico, that works with local facilitators to offer cacao ceremonies for guests, it felt positively fated.

On a mystical level, raw cacao is said to open the heart (and not just because it's a main ingredient in chocolate), and my heart was definitely in need of some healing. I had just passed the two-year anniversary of a breakup from a serious relationship, having left the situation feeling confident I would meet someone better suited for me. Yet, in the past 24 months, I've experienced nothing but disappointment in the romantic department. None of my go-to self-improvement tools have helped me shake the jadedness clouding my usually optimistic spirit, and my emotional walls have started impacting every area of my life. If meditation, journaling, and long talks with smart friends couldn't turn my attitude around, I reasoned that maybe a thousands-of-years-old Central American rite that Olmec, Aztec, and Mayan elites leaned on to connect with the gods and promote good health could do the trick.

So that's how I found myself in a suite at The Cape, watching the sun set over the sea and sitting in a circle with three other women and our guide, psychologist and yoga instructor Ofelia Bojórquez of Baja Wellness. Bojórquez explained that the cacao we were drinking was ceremonial-grade (which basically means it's strong and pure—between 70 and 100 percent cacao), organic, and sourced locally, from a farm in Tabasco, Mexico. At some ceremonies, the drink—a mixture of water and ground cacao beans—is infused with cayenne pepper or honey, but Bojórquez wanted to keep it simple for our session. Cacao's heart-opening properties are often attributed to its high levels of theobromine, a mild stimulant that's believed to temporarily boost mood. Most ceremonies also include at least one other modality that helps bring participants into an altered state—meditation, sound baths, dance, or, in my case, breathwork.

After pouring us each a small cup of cacao, Bojórquez instructed us to close our eyes and hold it in front of our bellies. "Simply allow the spirit of the cacao, the energy of the cacao, to be here," she said. "What thoughts do you have? What energy comes or goes?" My thoughts were tied up in all of the work I hadn't finished that day, but as I focused on the cacao, I began to relax—its rich, hot-cocoa smell transporting me to a vignette of a winter day spent wrapped in blankets, and lounging in front of a Hallmark movie. Next, Bojórquez asked us to bring the cacao cup to our hearts and set an intention for the ceremony. Mine was simple: To clear any energetic blocks keeping me from feeling fully open and able to connect with others, romantically or otherwise.

We then drank our (extremely bitter) cacao while Bojórquez explained the breathwork portion of the ceremony. She chose a simple, circular breathing pattern for us, inhaling into our bellies and then into our chests, and exhaling out of our mouths in an exaggerated sigh. "With the breath, we move all of the [stuck] energy and bring it to the surface," Bojórquez said. "The more you breathe, the more clear the mind and the body become." Then, I laid down and began the breathing circuit, my teeth and gums already buzzing from the cacao I'd just consumed.

About 10 minutes in, my hands and forearms started tingling, and about halfway through the ceremony, I began to feel a highly uncomfortable, swirling, pins-and-needles feeling around my solar plexus. This is where the third chakra is located—the energy center in the body associated with personal power and self-esteem. This was confusing to me, since I figured I would feel some kind of love explosion coming from my heart center. Why wasn't I experiencing the sensation that I so desperately wanted?

My physical discomfort only got worse from there, despite the fact that Bojórquez kept coming over and holding her hands above my midsection in an attempt to help move the energy. I began to feel electric pains shooting out from beneath my ribcage, and at a few points, the swirling sensation became so intense, I felt as though I may pass out. Eventually, I did fall asleep before waking up to soft music and all of my peers in savasana. Afterward, the other women shared the emotional releases they experienced and beautiful visions they saw. The experience I had, though, was purely physical—and not a whole lot of fun.

However, once I had space to process what happened in the ceremony, I understood exactly why my cacao encounter played out the way it did. As I reflected on the concepts associated with that third chakra, I realized that I'd been giving away my personal power a lot in the run-up to the ceremony—doing things I didn't want to do and, in some cases, even compromising my own well-being in order to keep the people around me happy. This is a major theme not just in my romantic relationships, but also my friendships, my career, and pretty much every other facet of life. So I wondered: How can I expect to find a partner who puts me first if I never put myself first? How can I open my heart and put my trust in another person when I can't even trust myself to do what's best for me?

Maybe it sounds cheesy, but the cacao ceremony reinforced for me that I won't be able to find real love and respect until I love and respect myself. I was hoping to return home from The Cape with my heart healed, and rainbows and glitter shooting out of my chest, but I now know that I have some work to do first. The good news is that I'm already putting new standards for myself into practice. I've turned down several requests that would ultimately inconvenience me and cause me stress—even though the old me would have likely said yes and suffered through the consequences. I've also gone on a few promising dates since the ceremony, and I don't think that's a coincidence. Chocolate has always seemed a bit healing for me—and my cacao-ceremony experience has only proven, for me at least, that's a fact.

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