Illustration by Linda Yan

I’m already perspiring when I take my seat on the woven blanket inside the tight, low-roofed sweat lodge—known as a temazcal—heated by sizzling volcanic rocks. This ancient Maya ritual feels like a showdown with claustrophobia. My brain is occupied trying to calm my jittery body, which wants to flee before the domed rock chamber’s crawl-through entrance is shut, plunging us into complete blackness.

I’m on an evening eco-tour with 15 other travellers in Dos Palmas, a tiny jungle village near Tulum, Mexico, to learn more about Maya culture. The temazcal is part of a pre-Hispanic purification ceremony—once reserved for the elite and priests—that is still practised by Meso-American Indigenous peoples to cleanse body and mind. The experience is now more widely offered to foreigners (companies such as Viator have packages) as tourism provides the community with income to preserve its heritage and gives visitors like me a chance to experience these sacred traditions.

“You can do it,” I repeat to myself while breathing deeply and focusing on our guide, a Maya shaman dressed all in white. Beside him waits a pail of hot herbal tea that he scoops onto the glowing rocks.

Once the door to the hut closes, our group settles into the therapeutic basil- and rosemary-infused steam bath. As the shaman chants, I slowly relax. When he falls silent, I meditate, surprised to discover I like this embryonic nest.

When I crawl out of the hut a half-hour later, I feel incredibly tranquil. Claustrophobia is mind over fear, I have learned, and a session in a temazcal is a mental challenge worth sweating over.

Read more: Does Arizona’s Sonoran Desert Really Have Spiritual Healing Powers?

[This story appears in the February 2019 issue of WestJet Magazine.]