As I stood with my eyes gently shut beneath the wide California sky, a dog howled off in the distance. Its echo through the verdant hills reminded me that I was just a tiny speck in the vastness of the Santa Monica Mountains. I was at Topanga Canyon to try the Maltyox Method, a gratitude ceremony created by yoga teacher and author Christine Olivia Hernandez. It’s a practice of thanks designed to clear the mind and open the heart using meditation, a sacred cacao ritual, asana, and ecstatic dance.
In the ancient Mayan language K’iche’, maltyox (pronounced maal-tee-osh) means “thank you.” K’iche’ is the second-most-popular language in Guatemala behind Spanish and a widely-spoken Indigenous language in the Mesoamerica region, which extends from Central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.
I learned about K’iche’ on a hilltop on private property in Topanga, California, on the occupied land of the Chumash, Tongva, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Kizh people. Underneath the wide, pale sky, Hernandez gave a heartfelt land acknowledgement: “We always give thanks to the ancestors of this land and ask for permission—for being here, for gathering—and we honor them in ceremony,” she said.
What is Sacred About Cacao?
Hernandez, whose father was Mayan-Guatemalan and mother is Mexican and European, created the Maltyox Method “to get people out of their heads and into their hearts” with the help of Mayan ceremonial cacao, meditation, and movement, she says. “It’s like a workout for mind, body, and soul.”
Ceremonial cacao is different from the stuff that’s in chocolate. It’s completely organic and produced only from trees growing naturally in the wild. Beans are fermented to activate certain flavors and nutrients and then they’re hand-ground into a paste, all with loving intention.
Hernandez was first introduced to Mayan ceremonial cacao from Guatemala during yoga teacher training in 2016. Immediately, she says, the ritual helped her feel deeply connected to her heart, her father—whom she had recently lost to suicide—and her lineage. “When you lose a parent in a traumatic way like that, you forget so much. I didn’t know how to grieve, so I went into numbing,” she says. “I feel like I had forgotten that I was Guatemalan.”
But cacao, she says, reminded her of her heritage and made her realize she could still have a relationship with her dad by sharing his cultural customs through this ancestral medicine.
The cacao bean was discovered by the earliest known major Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmecs, around 1500 BCE and has been used as sacred and ritualistic plant medicine by Mayan and Aztec cultures for centuries. With more than 1,200 chemical compounds—including magnesium, fiber, and heart-healthy flavonoids—the cacao bean is one of the most pharmacologically complex foods on the planet, giving it a wealth of health benefits.
Cacao is said to help foster connection to your heart chakra and highest Self, perhaps due to the effects of two key ingredients: theobromine (derived from the genus name of the cacao tree, Theobroma, literally meaning “food of the gods” in Greek), which increases dopamine production; and phenethylamine, a natural mood-boosting stimulant that helps minimize stress and is sometimes called “the love molecule.”
What Happens During a Cacao Ceremony?
To open the cacao ritual, Hernandez smudged me with smoldering sage and copal: “Feel yourself grounding into Mother Earth to allow yourself to be cleansed and cleared—from the drive, from being in traffic—and fully arrive here.” She asked me to lift my left foot, then my right, and we exchanged “thank yous” before taking our seats around the altar space she’d set up: A bowl of nubby cacao beans, scattered crystals, smoky incense, and a feather wand for energy clearing she purchased from a shaman in Mount Shasta were neatly arranged on a woven blanket alongside a cup of the warm, creamy cacao elixir—like an intensified medicinal hot chocolate.
As she led the two of us through a meditation to get into our bodies and hearts, her voice was soft and tender: “Calling in our loving ancestors who love us so unconditionally. Calling in all the benevolent forces and loving guides, to be with us now. Calling on the loving cacao spirit to experience us the way we get to experience her.” We bowed our heads to give thanks to Mother Earth and all that she provides—“the nourishments and the bounties and the medicines.”
We gave gratitude to the sky, to ourselves for showing up, to the Mayan Kaqchikel women—the wisdom keepers who make the cacao paste with loving intention—and to the healing properties inside the cacao that make it a spiritual aid and a superfood. “Maltyox,” we said together. Next we silently said a prayer for ourselves and inhaled a personal intention, then we exhaled it into our cups of cacao.
Bringing our mugs above our heads in celebration, reverence, and gratitude, with eyes closed we drank together with another whispered, “Maltyox.” The frothy liquid was thick and spicy, and I sipped it slowly, savoring the moment and the warmth on my tongue, thankful for my senses and for nature’s bounty.
Then Hernandez asked me to visualize the wise, old, gangly cacao tree, branches dancing and welcoming me closer to her. “See yourself wrap your arms around the trunk of this beautiful, huge tree,” she said. “Feel the branches weave around you affectionately, holding you, filling you up with unconditional love and gratitude. Feel the essence of this grandmother spirit, who is here to remind you of your truth and magic.” As I envisioned this ancient healing plant, I saw myself as a little girl, embraced by a warm, embodied tree mother. I felt safe and cared for in a way that was both beautiful and vulnerable. My chest expanded, and a tear rolled down my cheek.
Feeling Grateful After the Ceremony
Hearts full, we rose from our seats on the grassy hilltop to practice some gratitude-imbued asana together before Hernandez invited me to join her in ecstatic dance, using our bodies as a further expression of thanks. Hernandez played tribal-inspired electronic music from Deya Dova and A Tribe Called Red as we shook and moved our bodies freely under the big blue sky as a tribute to all that is. A warm buzzing energy made its way through each of my limbs and out of my mouth. I felt empowered, divinely feminine, and full of appreciation for the present moment. Even amid a year of hardship, I felt so connected and thankful for my body, my health, my loved ones, the earth, and the divine circumstance that had brought me here to this ceremony to gratefully bear witness to it all.
Watch executive editor Lindsay Tucker experience a sacred gratitude and cacao ritual.