How This Ancient Steam Bath Healed the Worst Broken Heart of My Life

Photo: Stocksy/Paff
Full disclosure: I'm not much of a resort person. To me, a beach chair is a beach chair is a beach chair. Yawn. 

So, when I arrive at the One & Only Palmilla in Los Cabos—which is so highly esteemed in Los Angeles (it's Jen Aniston's favorite!)—for a Wanderwell retreat, I'm skeptical, especially when I find out we're going to do something called a temazcal with a shaman, on site. I assume this is, at best, misappropriation, if not downright exploitation (both of the indigenous culture and of the one-percent travelers who naively believe they're getting a "traditional" healing experience). Eye roll.

Let's pause here to talk about what a temazcal even is. The word translates to mean "steam house" (think: sweat lodge), and this healing practice is believed to have originated with the ancient tribes of Mexico (such as the Aztecs, the Olmecs, and the Mayans). To participate, you basically agree to be trapped inside an Igloo-esque oven, wherein a healer throws hot water (and herbs) onto heated volcanic rocks for a period of several hours. This steam is meant to detoxify, purify, and cure the body while the healer performs rituals meant to do similar work on the spirit. Fun fact: In Chiapas, Mexico, women take their newborn babies into temazcals for 10 days post-birth.

Three years ago, my best friend of 10-plus years turned on me. I don't think I'd realized that she'd actually broken my heart.

When the day comes for me to enter one myself, I'm in a state. Three days of unexpectedly intensive emotional work with the amazing Wanderwell gurus Vitina Blumenthal and Cait Fraser—who are currently building out a wellness program for the One&Only, by the way—has somehow dredged up a heartbreak I had repressed. Three years ago, my best friend of 10-plus years turned on me. Though I'd wanted to rid myself of the toxic feelings I subsequently felt toward her ever since, I don't think I'd realized that she'd actually broken my heart, and that it hurt worse than any heartbreak I'd ever experienced. It's a revelation: I'm not angry, I'm sad. Very, very sad.

One and Only Palmilla
Photo: One & Only Palmilla

In any case, I'm well into dealing with this when it comes time to deep steam. I'm also nervous, as I'm claustrophobic and have been known to faint from heat stroke. However, moments after meeting our shaman Raul Retana (a word that, he tells me, is a gringo approximation for what he does), I begin to relax. He possesses my favorite quality in a wellness guru or healer: humor. He tells jokes, which crack his face into one of the best grins I've ever seen, and clearly doesn't take himself too seriously. (For example, when I ask him if he can help me "get a baby," he says, "Yes. Get a boyfriend.")

Retana is a member of the indigenous tribe of Mayo located in the south of Sonora, and he was trained as a healer by tribe elders. When he tells me the story of the time when he was told to go to the top of the mountain and learn to control the wind, the story is so funny that I'm rolling.

As I understand it, he was working as a massage therapist at the One&Only when he asked his bosses if they would consider building a temazcal so that he could lead ceremonies for the guests. I'm happy to hear that concept of introducing the treatment to people (most of whom, like myself, are white tourists who are wealthy and/or privileged enough to stay at a luxury resort) originated with him. It's making the ancient practice accessible to those who are seeking healers in more remote areas of the world where you can't find woo-woo teachers on every corner. But it's also creating an economy for these traditions that might otherwise have been lost as healers like Retana look for more lucrative work—traditional tribal healing, unlike say, doing reiki in Los Angeles, doesn't exactly pay the bills, y'all.

After a bit of purifying smoke, he invites us to enter the structure. He then explains what will happen over the course of the next few hours. The temazcal, he says, is akin to a womb, with the idea being that after, you're reborn in a metaphorical sense.

He will, he says, take us through the "four doors." The first "door" is in the direction of the east, and is represented by fire. The second "door" is southern, and is represented by earth. The third "door" is in the west, and it's represented by water—this door, notably for my purposes, is about the feminine. The fourth "door" is north, and it's represented by wind. It has to do with our ancestors. Because we're what he calls "strong, healthy women," he tells us he's prepared an extra-special experience for us today.

Wanderwell Retreat
Photo: Cait Fraser

We begin. At the start of each door, the entrance to the temazcal is closed. Raul begins to chant, or sing, in both English and Spanish, and throws herbs and water onto the hot volcanic stones he hand-picked from an uninhabited region of the Baja Peninsula. We're encouraged to shake traditional instruments along with his "performance."

When the door is complete, he opens the entrance and we're allowed a bit of air. Usually this lasts for just a few minutes, but as Retana has made today's temazcal extra-potent, he extends them so that we don't, you know, die. (Figuratively, not literally.)

My favorite part of the whole experience—which is incredibly powerful, so much so that I have to lay down through the final door—is when he has us dance in circles with him and his assistants. It's so hot, but it's so fun. An amazing release.

What I just experienced was like an intense Zumba class in an herbal-infused sauna.

When it ends two hours later, I feel physically renewed, if exhausted. (Hydration both before and after, but not during, is absolutely critical.) This isn't all that surprising, considering that what I just experienced was like an intense Zumba class in an herbal-infused sauna. What does catch me off guard, however, is how at peace I feel for the first time all weekend—and, maybe, in years.

Somehow, the experience makes me feel reborn in terms of the trauma of losing my best friend in such an ugly way. My mid-temazcal epiphany is that it's not about me, it's about her. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. I suddenly don't feel sorry for myself or victimized anymore; instead, my heart goes out to her. I never thought I'd get there, and certainly not in this way.

Disclaimer: You may simply experience a temazcal as a super-sweaty steam bath with zero emotional component attached. I'm in no way saying it will change your life; however, I would contend that meeting Retana is worth it regardless. Also, your skin will glow like it's never glowed before.

Have you heard that we're leading our first ever Well+Good Retreat in Palm Springs this March? Email to book your spot, ASAP.

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