Photo by Laura Di Franco at Dreams Tulum Resort

The Shaman and the Full Moon; Embracing Ancient Magic and Medicine

My big 50th birthday trip to Tulum was going to be about Pina Coladas, Zumba on the Beach, and crystal-blue ocean waves at my feet, until I learned there was a shaman coming on the night of the Super-Blue-Blood moon to lead a ceremony for a dozen lucky people. I was first in line to sign up, with my BFF close behind. This trip was about to be about something way more interesting than the swim-up bar.

My girlfriend and I talked about going away together for decades, literally. Other than a night or two, we’d never made that happen until this 50th birthday rolled around. We were finally going to do it; celebrate our lives and the friendship that meant so much to us. And we were going to do it big, in Mexico, at an all-inclusive resort called Dreams Tulum.

I’d been in Mexico a couple times before this and sampled the all-inclusive lifestyle to the point of imagining my retirement job as an aerobics instructor on top of the Sky Bar, overlooking the ocean every morning. Evidently that’s an actual option — so said the fitness professional who led us in our Will Power class one morning. But what drew me to Tulum for this trip was more than that.

After the wonder and magic of experiencing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza recently and hearing about the other ruins in Tulum, I’d already put it on my list. I knew there was ancient magic there. I could feel it. My girl and I sat at the computer punching in our dates to see what was available, and Dreams Tulum was it. It wasn’t our first choice. We’d heard Breathless was a little more wild and crazy and we were ready for that, but it wasn’t to be.

I’m in the habit of trusting the universe lately and she never disappoints, so Dreams, it was, and we made our packing lists; blue bathing suit, black bathing suit, red bathing suit, flip flops.

On day two we noticed a small gathering of souls on the beach with a couple guys in black and red loin cloths and beads around their necks, drawing some weird-looking signs in the sand. We were crossing the pool terrace over to the bar and I commented to my friend, “Hey, I wonder what that is — I think they are smudging those people.” “Smudging?” my friend replied. “Yeah,” I said, “It’s this thing you do when you want to clear your energy,” I explained.

I’d recently dabbled in smudging for the first time when someone suggested doing it to my house after my divorce, and several years ago when one of my healer friends showed me how to do it in my new office to set the healing space for my clients. Did I believe in smudging then? I don’t know but I found myself trying it out of curiosity and it certainly couldn’t hurt, I thought.

My BFF is used to my crazy healing talk. I’ve never met anyone so open to hearing new things, and so non-judgmental when it comes to me in general. “Excuse me,” she said flagging down one of the guys waiting on the beach customers, “Por favor, what is that?” and points to the people on the beach.

“They are doing a sun ceremony,” he explained. “Later they will go into the Temazcal and do the rest.” We’d later learn that a Temazcal is a type of sweat lodge, coming from the word temazcalli, which means “house of heat,” and that there was one built on this property, right next to a cenote. A cenote is a natural pit or sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. There are some gigantic ones in Mexico that they’ve turned into tourist attractions. Here’s one from another trip I took recently.

I wanted in. I’d only heard of these kinds of ceremonies before but never had an opportunity. My healer friends had described this experience as transformational, as medicine, and as magical. It wasn’t lost on me that we’d come to Tulum for a reason. And it seemed that one of those reasons was staring me in the face from the beach in a loin cloth.

We showed up at the same spot on the beach two days later, Thursday January 31st, the night of the Super-blue-blood moon, to do the noon-time sun ceremony first, and then we were directed to show up later at the Temazcal for the 4:00 p.m. session. We signed a waiver that had at least ten questions, all in Spanish, about our health.

Each person entered the circle on the beach in a clockwise direction, and did a full turn at the entrance. Our translator explained what to do and told us this was a chance to release things that did not serve us anymore. We were each smudged by the man with the magical smoking pipe while the main man with the long black pony tail chanted and sang. The man with the smoking pipe was also the man who blew the conch shell, a couple times, in the center of our body, and then at our head. I felt the vibrations of it through the whole of me.

I was being washed out of all bad vibes. I knew it. I could feel it. I found myself closing my eyes more often than some in the circle as I attempted to feel deeper into what was happening.

But this was only a small cleansing compared to what we’d experience later that afternoon in the Temazcal. We exited the sand circle in the same clockwise fashion with a twist at the end, said our “Gracias” to the men, and were off to the buffet for lunch and the Crazy Game poolside before our date with the Shaman at 4:00 p.m.

When 3:45 p.m. rolled around we were looking into the cenote at the fish who all slid in our direction when our faces bent over the railing. “Oh, someone must feed them,” we said in unison, laughing.

I looked up and saw all our comrades from the beach standing in their bikinis near the Temazcal and said, “Oh, look, we have to go!” I wasn’t going to miss my chance with the shaman, and I took off toward the hut. We placed our things in a wheelbarrow next to the small structure and waited for the men to usher us in. They put their hand over each of our heads as we entered.

Inside we sat on the bench that lined the wall. They had us thigh to thigh in our swimsuits; mostly women and two or three men. “This used to be where women would come if they wanted to get pregnant,” our young female translator began. “And for a lot more things too,” she continued. “What was that?” someone asked, not hearing her well. “Where they came for morphine,” my BFF said. A few of us laughed and I said, “More things, not morphine,” which made both of us giggle.

The shaman didn’t seem amused as we all chuckled and asked the translator what we were laughing at. She just shook her head at him and then took on a more serious tone as he began the ceremony.

The smoking pipe/conch blowing man was now bringing us hot rocks, which he laid in through the entrance, numbering them out loud. The shaman took each one using huge antlers as scoopers, and placed them in the center fire pit, at which time we were all instructed to say a word that sounded like O-mateo. I’ve tried to look this up with out success. They told us it meant light-dark, yin-yang, etc…

After the rocks were placed in the pit several things happened. He used a liquid from a small bottle to drop onto the rocks. Little glowing orange embers appeared on top of the rocks and looked like stars. I smiled watching him sprinkle them on. It was like we were looking at the night sky on the rocks.

Then he smeared a stick of resin on one rock, which created a steamy smoke. He did this several times in the hour we were there. He also laid orange peels over the rocks at one point and the aroma was amazing! I smelled mint a couple times as well. “There’s actually more pure oxygen in here than the air outside. It’s just hot. Relax and breathe,” our translator said. So, basically to me that was kind of like, “Hey, don’t freak out, I know it’s way fucking hot in here, but just breathe, you’ll be okay.”

“Respirer,” the shaman repeated. “Respirer.”

Breathe. Mmm…yes, I pulled the steam deeply into my lungs.

When they covered the entrance door with a blanket the room was pitch dark. “Try to keep your eyes closed,” I heard her say a few times. I’d tried to open only to feel the sting so I closed my eyes and relaxed. The shaman sang, and chanted. We were invited to call a loved one who’d passed on into our circle at one point. He asked us to bring someone we loved very much who had passed into the circle with us to hug and kiss and tell them we loved them. We went around the circle and were invited to verbalize this.

I heard my BFF as her familiar voice pierced the silence. I knew before she spoke that she’d bring her dad into our circle with us. I heard the sound of her tears through the smoky mist and thought, “Ah, we’re here for you today.”

“O-Mateo, to my grandparents, aunts, uncles and step-dad. O-Mateo,” I said quietly, worried about who I was leaving out. So many have died over my lifetime. Each person spoke and then the shaman sang. The words inside the hut were loud, vibratory, and magical — even though I did not know what they meant. It felt like we were honoring something deeply. Life. Death. Love. I closed my eyes and let his song fill me.

“Now we honor the lessons we were meant to learn in this life,” our translator continued. There was more smoke, more steam, more stars, more orangey aroma. Lessons, I thought, yes, there’ve been a few. And I once again closed my eyes to let the vibration of sound from the shaman’s voice enter me.

Sweat dripped down my back, off my chin, off the points of my elbows and I’m sure onto my neighbors, a woman from New York on my left and a man with his girlfriend on my right. I tried to contract my inner thighs most the time, so as to not let my legs rest on theirs, which was a feat. At one point we were invited to stand in the hut, all of us, to feel the difference in the heat at the different heights in the hut. The difference was real. I was happy to sit again and press my back and hands into the cool limestone.

“Now we will scream,” said our translator. The shaman began a loud, unapologetic scream that invited each of us to add to it. The combination of our primal noises shook the hut and each of my cells. “Again!” she said, and we screamed again. They must be wondering what we’re doing in here, I thought about all the pool-goers outside.

I’d experienced primal screaming as a healing technique a couple times before. My John F. Barnes Myofascial Release colleagues will all be smiling after they read that last paragraph. We know the therapeutic effects of screaming. Yeah, it was good guys. Really good.

I was the third person to exit the Temazcal just after the New Yorker and her daughter. We exited clockwise, as we entered, as we did in the beach circle hours before. I looked up after bending fully forward to get myself out of the opening without banging my head, body completely dripping with sweat, to the faces and cameras of at least a dozen on-lookers. “We’re still alive,” I shouted to them, as they smiled and laughed in response. I wondered what Facebooks I’d be on soon.

Next we were doused with water from the cenote to close our pores. Yes, it was very, very cold.

But…I felt like I’d survived something.

“Thank you for being here, for receiving this medicine, for doing this for yourself,” were his last words to us before we exited. He was sincere. “Gracias,” I whispered to him, taking a big, cool breath when I felt the air outside.

“Muchas gracias,” I said again, approaching him as he sat in the shade on the grass next to the hut. There didn’t seem to be enough words to express my thanks; for him, for the experience, for the magic, for the medicine. Things would be different after this. I knew it. I could feel it.

Your words will change the world when you’re brave enough to share them!