Since I was a little girl, I’ve had some trouble processing my feelings. I remember calmly choking back tears as my Dad shared the news of my grandfather’s death with my sister and me as we sat on the sun drenched sofa on an otherwise ordinary afternoon.
I was five. Not long after, our family was at a breakfast buffet and I suddenly couldn’t walk anymore. The “pattern illness,” as my parents came to call the problem that would come and go at random, wasn’t diagnosable from a medical perspective. All a doctor could seem to figure out was that it seemed to be something stemming from my emotions, or unwillingness to give into them. I still don’t know where it came from, this strange need to be “strong.” While I’ve become much better at recognizing and processing my feelings with mindfulness practice in the decades that have since passed, it’s not always easy for me to process things that make me feel sad or stressed. I’ve come to see that part of the problem is that I’m often so busy throwing myself into something new that I barely realize I’m off kilter until it’s glaringly obvious.
2017 was an exhausting year for me. While my professional life felt ultra-rewarding as I grew my business, expanded my freelance writing, and began traveling often for work, I stumbled through some exceptionally challenging personal experiences: I lost touch with a person who was near and dear to my heart, I left my position as a fitness instructor at a studio I loved, and finally accepted the end of a committed, four-year romantic relationship. The mix of emotions left me feeling totally wiped out as I tried to stay healthy and positive.
By the time I organized my luggage and packed a lightweight carry-on for a work trip to Los Cabos, Mexico in January, 2018, I was having a hard time finding energy while depleted. When I heard about Temazcal, an ancient sweat lodge ritual offered at the resort spa, I knew I wanted to experience it. The ritual, as it’s known in Mexico and certain wellness circles, has been used for thousands of years to purify the body, heal the sick, and improve health for the mind and spirit—women even tap into the healing powers after giving birth.
As I waited with a small throng of people for the experience to start, we observed the super small round structure we’d be spending time in and watched our local shaman prepare for the ritual by gathering up water and stones. Once it was time to head inside, our small group of 12 merged into a single file line. We entered one by one, spinning around in front of the shaman first and filing inside on the left hand side of the door. We walked around a pit of hot stones in the center to sit on built-in benches side by side. Our shaman chanted and sang for us before pouring water over the hot stones in the center, adding steam to the (increasingly hotter) experience. Next, he asked us to participate with him, so we went around our seated circle, each sharing a little bit about ourselves. Then we chanted together in unison, repeating after him. We did this several times, with him adding heat and steam to the room each time over the course of two hours. Though I’m not claustrophobic and have practiced Bikram yoga in hot rooms, I started to feel slightly uncomfortable.
Practicing awareness, I realized that I also felt exhilarated, present, and alive. As we hummed and spoke together while the steam continued to rise up, I could feel a powerful and encouraging energy from the group. We were total strangers, up to the task of being transparent while sharing details about ourselves and our lives in an ultra-intimate setting. As we were commanded to surface positive and happy thoughts, I was reminded about how much I had to be excited about, like a new relationship and work challenges that would force me to climb out of the sleepy comfort zone I had slipped into. As the sweat continued to drip off my body in the dark, I willed myself to stay focused and ride the emotional rollercoaster of the experience. I let myself think about the things I had shoved deep down inside myself; I re-visited some of the most blissful moments I had experienced in recent weeks. When we finally got up, one by one, to dust ourselves with the ritual water and verbalize the things we wanted to leave behind in the sweat lodge in front of our group, I felt ready to really let them all go—for real, this time.
As I walked outside into the bright Mexican sunshine after we had finished the full experience, I felt validated in my decision to sweat it out. I felt happier and lighter, as I do with most of the workouts and practices in my daily wellness routine, and I was thrilled to have experienced a local tradition. While there wasn’t a magical instant effect or lightbulb moment as some people told me there might be, I’ve noticed the long-term effect of the ancient treatment six months later. The difference has appeared as a series of small reminders I incorporate into my days in San Francisco: to stay open, to let others in. To try things that are new, different, and foreign. To focus on being more aware, to share my struggles instead of internalizing them. To remember that there’s a big victory in being vulnerable and opening up. To stay the course when things feel a little bit uncomfortable—or even unbearable—and to remember that the journey is just as important as the destination. I am grateful for my spirit, body, and mind; what a time to be alive.
Have you tried an ancient ritual to improve your everyday life? Let us know your best tip in the comments below!
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