Sweat Lodge

The Sacred Sweat Lodge – The Great Smoky Mirror

Before the Sweat Lodge begins, or Sacred Pipe lifted, it is said we must Give Thanks and invite in the Spirits of our Ancestors; those who passed these sacred ceremonies down to us, that we may carry on these teachings, and share in peace love joy and purpose for generations to come. The first and last words are always Thank You. Niawen’kó: wa (thank you very much) Thank you Creator, Earth Mother and All My Relations.  Mitkoyusin.  Shuna!

 Despite the fact that is was illegal until 1978 for Native American’s to engage in the Sweat Lodge  (also known as sweat bath, medicine lodge or medicine house) is “one of the most widespread traditions in Native North America”.  Evidence indicates this tool of human spirituality and health has been utilized by all of our ancestors, for more than 20,000 years. A ritual of purification and physical cleansing: the sweat lodge and analogous forms; including the Japanese Mushi-Buro, Lakota Inipi,  Mexican Temescal, Turkish Hammam, Russian Bania, and Finnish Sauna, are found on every continent inhabited by humans.

What about the sweat lodge is so good that generations of Native Americans faced social, religious and governmental persecution, and still manage to keep the practice alive?  Why has the sweat lodge made its way into the social and spiritual lives of non-native communities? Why is it that a form of sweat bath exists from the North Pole to Africa, and in every place humans have lived for thousands and thousands of years?

This excerpt from Mikkel Aaland’s book “Sweat” may offer some insight…“Use of the sweat lodge was chronicled by the earliest settler in America. In 1665, David DeVries of New York observed Indians ‘entirely clean and more attractive then before; while sweat bathing. Roger Williams of Rhode Island wrote in 1643: ‘They were sweating for two ends: first to cleanse their skin; secondly to purge their bodies, which doubtless is a great means of preserving them, especially from the French disease (influenza) which by sweating and some potions, they perfectly and speedily cure.’ … American doctors commonly recommend that elderly people and persons with heart problems should avoid sweat bathing.  Finnish and German doctors feel other wise. Perhaps this opinion arises from the fact that Germans and especially Finns are more familiar with sweat bathing. It is recomended that if you are taking any medication, have an acute respiratory, circulatory, or heart condition you should consult your doctor before sweat bathing. “

Always consult a doctor before sweating to know how you qualify for the experience.  It is equally important know who is running the event, and how well trained they are to do so. Tragically, at a retreat organized by James Ray in 2009, three people died and 21 more were sickened in a sweat lodge that was built and run improperly. I believe this could have been prevented and should never have happened if the facilitatiors had been properly trained in what they were doing.  It is a powerful  and critical message about the high degree of knowledge, care, love and respect it takes to run a lodge properly, and in a safe and sacred manner.

In March of 2000, I first sweat  with Daniel Hawk Moon, a Lakota man, in the middle of suburban California. He heated igneous stone in a gas oven to warm the canvas covered sweat lodge in his backyard.  Then later that summer I sweat again with Joe Longshore during the summer of that year.  Little did I know that 6 years later I would be doing as many as 4 or 5 sweats a week.  Sweats with as many as 45 – 83 people were run over the course of 4 days, facilitated by Joe Longshore, my self, and our friends. Every week hundreds of people (and ultimately thousands of people over the course of three summers) went through our sweat lodges. No one was ever hurt.   We always said our number one job is to take care of everyone and to make sure that everyone was safe, nurtured and cared for in the lodge; that everyone help to look after each other, and that no matter what was being said sung or done if any one was having a problem that they speak up, so we may stop the process and assist them.  Some people with pregnancy, heart conditions and respiratory infections stayed out of the lodge, and some left for fear of the dark, the creepy crawlers (crickets) or claustrophobia, but no one was ever injured.  When ask how to run a sweat lodge my friend and teacher Joe Longshore (taught by Tom Brown Jr., taught by Stalking Wolf) always answers “With your Heart.”

To warm the sacred sweat lodge, we heat (paint red) the Stone People in a sacred fire until they glow red and you can see into their bodies.  We bring them into a dome or turtle shaped shelter, and place them in the heart of the lodge, the heart of the turtle, the womb of creation, the center of all things. We pour water on them releasing the songs of their breath. The Stone People, the Lakota say, are the first to exist and will be the last, and the fire bath brings them back to a remembrance of their birth from the cosmic plasma of the Earth Mother, making their memory and wisdom available to us.  When I wonder how much wisdom is contained in a stone that is millions of years old, I  sit in silence, listening to the eldest Grandfathers of the Earth whisper language of the heart. It is said ‘They have no eyes or ears  yet they see and hear everything.’

The stones bring the heat of the fire and stored sunlight from the trees into the heart of the lodge or savusaunna. Studies show that on a purely physical level the sweat lodge produces multiple conditions for both body and mind.  In a good hot sweat (80°-110° C) the skin temperature can raise as much as 10° C, effectively killing bacteria and other surface pathogens. The sweat bath also induces a natural fever raising core temperature as much as 3°C which helps eliminate internal pathogens who do not like temperatures higher than the body’s natural 37°C.  When exposed to heat certain nerve endings produce acetylcholine and alert over a million eccrine sweat glands embeded in the skin, which begin to systematically assist in the excretion of a 99% water and 1% salt/toxin solution.  Approximately every 15 minutes in a sauna produces about a liter of sweat, and with it the same heavy metal elimination the kidneys produce in 24 hours.

Heat forces heart rate to pick up and our capillaries to dilate, increasing blood flow to and from the skin allowing the body to release the soreness of stored lactic acid, and expedite the excretion of urea and other toxins.  “Impurities in the liver, kidneys, stomach, muscles, brain and most other organs are flushed out by the faster flow of juices.”  As metabolism and cell nutrient distribution is increased our organs cells and systems move in concert to replenish, rebuild and heal not only our bodies, but our minds.

After 20 minutes in a steamy sweat lodge or savusaunna the brain waves slow: from beta (7-14 hertz/cycles per second) to alpha (4-7hz) and even possibly deeper into theta (1-4hz),  inducing a natural and deeply meditative state.  All one must do is breathe to experience the transition from (fight or flight) beta brain waves to a relaxed and lucid theta state. In this state of mind we have our most vivid dreams, we replenish our cells and neurotransmitters.  Also the symptoms of cold and sinus infections can be alleviated by freeing nasal passages. Arthritis, lyme’s disease, and rheumatism can be helped in the sweat bath by loosening stiff joints, eliminating toxic wastes and improving circulation. The steam of the sweat lodge influences our metabolism, temperature, and brain waves with not only its heat, but also the creation of negative ions.

The same negative ions generated by photosynthesis, fire, waterfalls, rain and ocean surf are present when steam is created by pouring water onto properly heated stones. The negative ions and water molecules bond to particles in the air removing dust and germs creating a more sterile environment.  Also,  “These negative ions once in our blood stream produce biochemical reactions that increase the the flow of oxygen to the brain, and the level of serotonin, alleviating depression and stress,  while boosting our daytime energy. …   In fact,  Columbia University studies of people with winter and chronic depression show that negative ion generators relieve depression as much as anitdepressants. ‘The best part is that there are relatively no side effects” aside from making us feel elated, or even blissful.

When it comes to the sweat lodge, as in life, all the  positives and negatives, benefits and risks must be considered and ultimately one must decide for themselves what is right. The sweat lodge can be a great blessing for community and personal health providing natural communion and connection to the Earth and all living things. Knowing humans have lived in and around the sweat lodge for thousands of years and continue to do so today, if offered the opportunity to sweat  in a healthy environment, with people you can trust,  what would you choose?

Sweat Lodge Source links:

  • Aaland, Mikkel, “Sweat”, Carpa Press, 1978.
  • Bruchac, Joseph, “The Native American Sweat Lodge – History and Legends, The Crossing Press, 1993.
  • Bucko, Raymond A., “The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge – History and Contemporary Practice”, First Bison Books, 1999.
  • McGaa, Ed, “Nature’s Way – Native Wisdom for Living in Balance with the Earth”, Harper One, 2004.
  • Negative Ions Create Positive Vibes (link)
  • Sweat Lodge – Wikipedia (link)