The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age
Not long ago I had the chance to participate in my first sweat lodge. I thought it might be useful to set down my impressions of the experience, for others who have never undergone it but who are curious as to what is involved, or may be thinking about undertaking the ordeal for themselves.
The sweat lodge is an ancient part of shamanism that is widespread around the world in various forms. It was the ritualized spiritual custom for many of the native peoples of North America. A modern secular derivative of the practice is the Scandinavian sauna. In the sweat lodge the body is subjected to prolonged exposure to high-temperature steam. This causes abundant perspiration, hence the name.
The lodge in which I participated was overseen by a group of shamans in my part of Eastern Canada, among them some of the Mi’kmaq tribe, which is the Indian tribe native to the province of Nova Scotia, and to other areas of the north-eastern part of North America, such as New Brunswick and northern Maine.
Prior to undergoing the sweat lodge, I had no first-hand knowledge of what it would involve, and did not know what to bring with me. I wondered if I would have to be naked in the lodge during the ceremony. Not to worry, everyone wore clothing of some sort. I was told that an old pair of jeans would be fine, but that I should bring along a change of clothing, since whatever I wore during the ceremony would get wringing wet. I wondered if I should wear shorts instead of long pants but was told by one of the people who planned to participate that, no, jeans would be fine. Mistake — but not a fatal one. Shorts are the clothing of choice for the sweat lodge.
The men generally wear loose shorts, and undergo the experience naked from the waist up. The women wear loose dresses or light tops, and skirts or shorts. In the sweat lodge ceremony I attended, the women were not naked from the waist up, which hardly seemed fair to me. Why should the men get to strip off their tops, but not the women? None the less, that’s the way it was. There is a general custom of modesty in the sweat lodges that are held across North America. However, everyone goes barefoot inside the lodge. No exceptions to this rule.
We were asked to arrive at the sweat lodge an hour before the beginning of the ceremony, which took place in a small clearing in a wooded valley at the end of a long private road, far from any human habitation. The result was complete privacy for the ceremony. Two lodges were being run simultaneously — one for men only in the smaller of the two sweat lodges, and another larger mixed group of men and woman in the bigger lodge. The men’s group consisted of about half a dozen men and the shaman who led the ceremony. I attended the mixed group, which had around eighteen or so participants, plus the person leading the ritual activities.
When I got to the clearing, a huge bonfire was blazing over a pile of stones. It was a nice, mild pre-spring day in Nova Scotia. Most of the snow was gone from the open patches of ground but the winter-browned grass and the sod were still frozen solid. The breeze was fitful and tossed the rising smoke of the fire in all directions, so that it was impossible to avoid it no matter where I stood or sat. Benches had been arranged around the fire, but the smoke was so capricious, no one could use them. We stood around talking while the stones got hot.
One of the organizers of the sweat lodge took me aside and gave me the low-down on what was expected. She told me that I would have to take off my boots and socks to enter the lodge, that it was necessary to crawl through the door and that I should not stand up while inside the lodge. All movement in the circular lodge was sunwise around the central fire pit. She warned that I should take off any jewellery as people had sometimes found that wearing jewellery during a lodge could result in burns on the skin when the metal of the jewellery became hot. She also told me to remove my contact lenses.
The larger lodge was a round, hut-shaped structure about twelve feet across and six feet or so tall. It was made of a frame of slender poles bent together, and was covered in fabric similar to blanket material. It had no windows of any kind, and a single door in the north side facing the fire, so low that it could only be entered by getting on hands and knees. This doorway was closed by a flap of fabric. Inside, the floor was bare turf. I noticed a small vent at the very top of the hemispherical lodge, which I presumed was there for ventilation, to prevent us all from suffocating.
I have to admit, after the recent disaster in the autumn of 2009 concerning a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, in which three participants were killed and 21 others sickened, being able to get enough fresh air was a concern in my mind. I was glad to see this vent, small though it seemed to be. It was baffled to prevent the entry of any light.
In the center of the floor there was a circular pit around three feet in diameter and about a foot deep. I knew in a vague sort of way what the pit was for, but did not have a clear idea of how it would work during the ceremony itself.
All these features of the inside of the sweat lodge I learned only when I crawled inside for the first time. Before that happened, we performed a brief ceremony while standing in a circle around the bonfire. Each of the six directions of space, and the center, was acknowledged successively in prayer. This was done in an interesting way. Volunteers were asked to speak for the directions. Those who volunteered did not recite a prepared script, but spoke spontaneously from their hearts as the impulse arose within them at that moment. This resulted in uneven prayers, some better than others, but it had a spontaneity that I liked.
When we addressed the east, we all turned to face the east; when we addressed the west, we turned to the west. When we gave thanks and acknowledgment to the earth, the downward direction, many of those present knelt and touched the ground, although this must have been voluntary since many remained standing. I chose to crouch as a mark of respect.
A little mix-up occurred in the sequence of prayers. It was supposed to be the gods of the center that were acknowledged last, but the person speaking for the center jumped in too early, and we ended up praying to the sky last. The leader of the ceremony joked that she was sure the gods would understand, and would not be angry.
Inside the Lodge
We all took off our shoes, lined up on the frozen grass, and crawled into the sweat lodge. The men took up positions on the right side, and the women on the left side, from the viewpoint of the door facing inward. There was enough space to crawl around the lodge sunwise between the seated participants, who had their backs to the wall of the lodge, and the central fire pit.
It was pretty cramped in there, and uncomfortable. The ground was cold and hard, and more than a little damp. The wall of the lodge was uneven. I found that I could not lean back against it without having a ridge of wood dig into my spine. There was very little room to put our legs. I tried sitting cross-legged for a while, but in the end extended my feet toward the fire pit. That seemed the most comfortable position. Nobody wanted to press against those beside them, so everyone was trying to avoid contact by scrunching up, but there was so little room in the lodge, contact was unavoidable. This may have been deliberate on the part of the leaders of the lodge. We were told that the sweat lodge is an ordeal, and that it is supposed to be uncomfortable.
It was time for more warnings. If anyone could not stand the heat a moment longer, they were to call out in a loud voice “open the door! open the door!” which was the signal for the door to be opened. It would have to be called out loudly because there was going to be a lot of noise during the ceremony. Anyone who could not take the heat would be allowed to leave the lodge, but we were all asked not to give in to the heat unless we absolutely thought we were about to die, because it was very disruptive to have to open the door in the middle of the ceremony. We were also cautioned not to crawl into the fire pit in the darkness of the lodge by mistake, because the stones in the pit would be very hot. Well, duh.
I sat there a little nervously, trying to adjust my legs to a comfortable position, but found that there was no comfortable position. I tried to keep the sharp edge of wood on the side of the lodge from digging into my back, but every time my shoulders slumped, there it was again. Even so, I was glad I was sitting on the outside rim of the lodge — some people were sitting in a second circular row in front of me close to the fire pit. I was glad for the coolness of the side of the lodge at my back, and for the coolness of the earth under me. I wondered if I would be the first one to crack from the heat and call out “open the door!” That would be embarrassing.
I wore a T-shirt and jeans. Most other men were naked to the waist and wore shorts. I wondered if my extra clothing would make the ordeal more difficult for me. The person beside me told me that I could strip down to my underwear – nobody would mind – but I kept my clothes on. I wondered if the wedding ring on my finger would burn my skin, or if my metal belt buckle would burn through my jeans. We had been told to drink plenty of water, but I had only swallowed a single mouthful.
Part of the spiritual energy stimulated during a sweat lodge comes from this uncertainty as to what is going to take place. It is strongest the first time, when the person undergoing the lodge ceremony has no idea of what is about to happen. I was primed for a peak spiritual experience. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to come out of the lodge alive.
How the Sweat Lodge Works
The way a sweat lodge works is this — stones from the fire that are called “stone people” are carried into the lodge and placed one by one into the fire pit in the center of the floor. About eight stones are used, and each is around ten to twenty pounds in weight. They are so hot from the bonfire, that when they enter the dimness of the lodge, they glow red in their centers, and you can feel the heat radiating from them even from a long distance.
Since I’d never undergone a sweat lodge before, I had assumed that the heat came from the rocks directly, by radiation. Not so. The heat is in the form of steam, which is generated by pouring water from a bucket over the hot rocks using a ladle. The rocks are so hot, that when the water touches them it is instantly converted to steam. I was afraid the boiling water might splash over my feet, which were close to the pit, so I covered them with a towel, but I did not need to worry. The rocks are so hot, the water does not boil or splash, it is all turned to steam instantly. The water comes from a large bucket that holds around four gallons, which is set beside the fire pit next to the person in charge of the ritual. That person controls the steam.
There are three levels of heat in a sweat lodge, as I soon learned. There is the first level, when a stone is being lifted through the open door on the tines of a pitchfork to the warning call of “rock!” and then blessed with a scattering of herbs, which burst into little sparks of fire and smoke the instant they touch its glowing surface. All the rocks together radiate a large amount of heat that can be felt on the face and skin like the heat from a blazing fireplace.
The second level of heat is when the first ladle of water is poured over the rocks in the pit, and a cloud of white steam rushes upward with a great hiss like that of a giant serpent. It is many times hotter than the heat from the rocks alone. The steam rises upward to the roof of the lodge, and then rolls around and down the sides in a moving curtain, so that it first touches the participants on the head and the back of the neck. It is easy to feel on the exposed tips of the ears.
The final and most intense level of heat is when the door flap is sealed tightly so that no trace of light or air can enter, and the inside of the lodge is plunged into absolute darkness. The ventilation from the open door prevents the full effects of the steam from being felt, but when the door flap is shut, there is nothing to cool the inside of the lodge. The level of heat is magnified several times over. It is most intense a few seconds after the water is applied to the rocks, when the curtain of steam has had time to fly up to the roof and roll its way down the walls.
Each ordeal lasts as long as the water in the bucket. The faster the water is applied to the rocks, the hotter it gets. I half-expected the rocks to explode and scatter hot fragments over all of those sitting around the pit when they were hit with splashes of icy water, but was told that the rocks were basalt and very old, excellent for holding the heat without breaking down. And indeed, none of the rocks cracked.
We did not just sit there in the dark and suffer the heat. All the while the door was shut and the water was being applied to the rocks, the air was filled with the sound of a rattle being shaken and often with the rhythmic pounding of a flat shamanic drum. The leaders of the lodge chanted and sang songs, some with words that were recognizable, and others native songs that seemed to have no words, or only a few words repeated over and over. Everyone was encouraged to join in. Many people began their own chants and songs when the initial song was dying down, so that a continuous noise of singing and chanting was achieved. In part, I think this chanting was designed to distract the mind away from the ordeal of the heat, but in part it was an invocation to the spirits of nature that were being honoured by the ceremony.
We did four sessions in the lodge that afternoon — by that I mean four times when the door was sealed shut and the bucket of water ladled over the hot rocks. New rocks were placed into the pit for each session, so that they would be hot enough to turn the water to instant steam. The first session was devoted to honouring the Mother Earth and women’s mysteries. The last was free-form, during which we were invited to pray and speak as the impulse arose within us. Each session lasted around half an hour, and we opened the flap of the lodge and exited to cool off between sessions, and to drink water.
In the middle of the second session, the leader threw ladles full of icy water over the people inside the lodge. I think it was designed to shock us into a more intense self-awareness of the time and place. We didn’t know it was coming because of the pitch darkness. The first ladle-full caught me square in the face. It was quite a surprise. I suspect the leader of the session aimed it at me, because the experience was completely new to me, and I would have no idea it was coming, but how he managed to hit my face so accurately with the first shot in total darkness, I don’t know.
During the hottest part of the sweat lodge experience, it is difficult to breath easily. The steam is so hot and dense that it burns the insides of your nose, and if you try to breathe through your mouth, it burns your lips and tongue. We were told to breath through out bared teeth at those times. I found that this did not help much. It made my teeth too hot. The best approach, for me, was to breath very, very shallowly through the nose, and very slowly so that the steam was drawn in gradually, not fast enough to burn. The steam in the air can become quite dense. When the door-flap is first opened after a session, admitting light, the steam is so thick in the air inside the lodge that you can barely see across to the other side.
Needless to say, I got soaked to the skin at each session. Standing outside in front of the smoking bonfire served to half dry me off, but I was never completely dry before we crawled in for the next session. My bare feet on the frozen ground had the hardest time. They became numb but I was able to warm them by holding them up close to the bonfire, and that prevented them from being frozen too badly.
I learned that many of my fears had been groundless. My wedding ring did not burn my skin. Maybe this was because I took care to shield my ring from the direct contact of the new steam as it rolled around the lodge. I could probably have worn my contact lenses, because I kept my eyes closed most of the time inside the lodge. Since the darkness was total, there was not much point in keeping them open.
The herbs that were mixed with the water poured over the stones left a curious taste at the back of my throat for a time, but no ill effects. Apparently, it is possible to modify the effects of the steam by putting various herbs in the water. Each shaman has his or her own recipes of herbs to use with the water.
The Peace Pipe
After the four sessions in the lodge, participants were invited to sit around the fire pit inside the lodge with the door-flap left open, and share a peace pipe. Many chose not to do so, including myself, because they did not smoke and did not wish to expose their lungs to tobacco smoke, and this was fine with the leaders of the lodge. No aspersions were cast on those who stayed outside during the pipe ceremony.
The general mood inside the sweat lodge throughout all four sessions was one of joyful exuberance. Everyone was encouraged to sing, chant, and release their emotions, and everyone seemed to do just that. There was nothing heavy or forbidding in the ceremonies — it was all child-like happiness that comes from living in the moment. Prayers were given, spirits were seen by many of those who participated, and prayers were answered. A good time truly was had by all.
©2010 by Donald Tyson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.
Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.