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A Temazcal sweat lodge at Westin Resort and Spa in Cancun, Mexico.

If I hadn't said yes to a free foot rub beside the pool, I might never have found myself sitting in steamy darkness invoking the spirit of my dead mother.

But these things happen. On the second day at the Westin Resort and Spa in Cancun, a talented masseur named Heraldo had hooked me within 60 seconds of the tootsie freebie. I immediately signed up for an outdoor massage that included admission to the hotel spa. Afterward, in the tranquil spa, feeling as relaxed as a puddle, I noticed a poster for an ancient ritual called Temazcal. A spa attendant explained it as a "spiritual cleansing." In 50-plus years, my spirit has never been cleansed; it was probably filthy, a cleansing long overdue.

The procedure, basically replicating a Mayan sweat lodge experience, required 24 hours notice as the shaman had to be booked in advance. At $230 a person, it seemed beyond the budget, but a two-for-one special was on offer. My friend and I, both sweat-lodge virgins, signed up. At the appointed hour, we arrived in our swimsuits.

The setting for our adventure was an igloo-shaped rock hut, too low to stand up in. Beside the hut, a muscular young man was stoking a blazing kiln. He stopped and blew a haunting note on a conch shell. The shaman's entrance was imminent. I thought he would be a large Mayan, semi-naked and possibly wearing a mask. My friend and I were both nervous, particularly at the prospect of claustrophobia, but it was too late to back out.

The shaman arrived. She was in her late 50s, petite with long dark hair and the figure of a girl. Her name was Margarita, like the intoxicating tequila drink of which we were overly fond.

Margarita was an energetic Venezuelan who had studied shamanism with different tribes all across North America.

After she had given us bottles of water, and blessed us with eagle feathers, she lead us into the hut. Margarita summoned the young man who appeared, chanting words we couldn't understand. He dumped a pitchfork of red-hot lava rocks into a small pit in the middle of the hut and left. The door closed. We were in total darkness except for the glowing rocks that sent off a brief sizzle of sparkles. Margarita said this was a sign from the ancestors, and asked us to divine pictures in the coals that she then interpreted. A bird represented the need for freedom. A dragon meant wisdom. A brain was a sign that the heart needed to be listened to.

She dumped water on the rocks from a small bucket, along with a fragrant herb called rue. She told us to wave our hands in front of our faces, even though it was much too dark and steamy to see them.

Despite the inky blackness, I clearly saw a lovely shade of blue that Margarita said was my aura. We listened carefully to silence that turned into the sound of a roaring river, then distant drumming punctuated by the tweet of birds. A light settled on my left side. Margarita said an ancestor had joined me. Mom? Is that you?

We followed Margarita in a chant. The heated rocks were brought in twice more. After the third time, I figured my spirit was clean enough and it was time to get out. Margarita provided coconut shells of water to douse our bodies. It was a heavenly sensation, as was the cool night air. We'd been in the sweat lodge for more than an hour but time felt compressed. At first, we felt energized but later fatigue set in so heavily that my friend actually nodded off as she brought a forkful of food to her mouth.

That night, I had the deepest sleep of my adult life. My dreams were extremely vivid. My mother was in them. My spirit, I assume, is still reasonably pristine – as I've been feeling wonderful ever since.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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