The Native American Sweat Lodge is a ceremony of purification for many native people. The rituals will vary according to the tribe but the purpose is always the same: to purify physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. The structure of the lodge is built from willow saplings tied together in a ritualistic manner and covered with blankets, canvas tarps or buffalo robes. The lodge honors all the kingdoms & directions within the ceremony. People pray, sing, & play the drum & rattles. Anyone can enter a sweat from an infant to an adult and a sweat can be done anytime day or night and any season. It is imperative though that you have a very experienced lodge leader who knows how to run a lodge in a respectful as well as safe manner.
Winter came with a vengeance this week claiming its prize, the Sangre de Christo mountains. The clouds slowly descended over the mountaintops covering them with pure white powder and then hugged them for days making them invisible to a stranger's eye. I started a fire and sat with my morning chai and my two feline friends. Out the window of my adobe home in the high mountain mesa town of Taos, New Mexico, I studied the weather. My morning ritual never grew old and I could be quite grouchy without it. The east view gave me the mountains and the sunrise and the south view, the mesa and storm systems. The wild horses that run the mesa were huddled together to the South, attempting to catch a much-needed nap in the sun before another bitter cold night. Weathermen said on the morning news today, that yet another storm warning was in effect for 4:00 in the afternoon. I looked out at the teepee and the sweat lodge glistening with diamonds of ice droplets. They had both fallen victim before to heavy winter storms and the 40 mile an hour winds that could hit the mesa without warning. A client was coming for a sweat lodge that day and even though a winter sweat is not a problem, a sweat lodge in a storm could be. A good part of me really wanted to stay in a warm and cozy home, but I had been taught that when a ceremony had been called, bad weather was not a good enough excuse to cancel it. Besides, there was a mystery to ceremony that only God could understand.
My client arrived about noon and we decided to start gathering the rocks, wood, and sage while the sun was still bright. The wind was starting to pick up and we could see the clouds gathering to the West. Nat was chopping wood and I was arranging the black volcanic rocks in the fire pit. The lodge had already been covered with blankets and tarps a few days before and a thin layer of snow sat on top. The ground was frozen so I had not been able to pound in the rebar. Being on the mesa, where winds were strong, it was necessary to tie the lodge down so we would not lose the tarps to the winds. It had happened before during a summer storm. I shared the story with Nat about a storm that had arrived after a group of us where praying in the lodge for rain. The tarps blew off leaving us sitting in the rain inside a naked lodge. We did finish the lodge but changed our prayers from beseechment to gratitude!
The afternoon went fast with a few short bursts of conversation. I could feel his growing concern about the changes in weather. He would nonchalantly ask a question like, "will the wood burn if it snows hard," and "how will the covers stay on the lodge if the wind gets bad?" After assuring him that nothing bad had ever happened in any of my lodges, we got back into the flow of things and the conversations ceased as the energy of ceremony grew. This was the point at which I always marveled. No matter how many people would be present and participating in creating the space for ceremony we would reach a point of union. All separateness would dissolve and the collective consciousness took over.
The mesa had become unusually quiet and Nat said it was so quiet that he could here the snowflakes hit the ground. I got an ominous feeling from his words... the quiet before the storm! The temperature had dropped considerably, but we had not noticed because we had been working the fire. At that moment, my instincts took over and I looked up to the West. I could not believe my eyes as a looming white curtain was heading our way and all of a sudden an artic blast of cold air hit us. The big winds had arrived. The fire took off with huge jumping flames that would not allow us to get close. The wood cracked and spit out large cinders as the melting snow and fire joined forces. The wood burnt fast and I told Nat to start throwing on green wood. The lodge started to shake as the winds got under the covers and I prayed that it would hold. The snow was big and wet and starting to accumulate quickly on the lodge. The water in the bucket was starting to freeze. The magic of the union of the elements had begun. I told Nat that we had about one half hour yet before the rocks would be hot enough to take into the lodge. We stood in silence watching the fire as the wind blew and the snow fell. Even with gloves, Nat's hands were getting cold. He had doubts as to whether or not the lodge would be warm enough to sit in as the temperature had dropped to well below freezing. It was dark now with only the light of the fire playing games with our vision. The blowing snow created patterns of unknown boogiemen dancing around the lodge. We could hear a whinny from one of the horses in the distance, probably trying to locate the rest of the herd. A curious coyote howled at the fire or maybe he was laughing at the crazy people he saw before him.
The time had finally come to take the hot rocks into the lodge along with the bucket of now frozen water. I told Nat to go into the lodge and I would pitchfork the rocks into the lodge and he would then place them into position in the pit. We had put the fresh sage on the earthen floor of the lodge and as soon as the hot rocks came in the aroma of the sage were enhanced. After all of the hot rocks were in, I took off my coat & boots and crawled into the lodge. We pulled the buffalo robe down over the entrance to the lodge and it became pitch black inside. The glowing red rocks were our only source of heat and gratitude overcame us both. We both let out a sigh of relief and "I can't believe we did this."
I had brought in an extra hot rock, which we put into the bucket. Within minutes we had water to put onto the rocks to make steam and for drinking. The lodge had stopped shaking. The covers had gotten wet from the snow and then froze together when the winds came, making the lodge solid as a rock. So much snow had accumulated on the lodge and around it that it became like an igloo. That snow was a natural insulation keeping the heat of the rocks inside. We were soon sweating from the heat of the red rocks. They began to sing their own song of origin…the volcanoes…when I poured water over them. As I placed cedar, lavender, and bearoot on the rocks, the heat released the healing essential oils of the plants. We prayed, sang, and played the drums and soon the storm outside was but a dream. Everything we needed was at hand. We called the lodge the "eye of the storm". Even with the bitter cold, wind, and snow only a blanket layer away from us, we where sitting in warmth and calmness. God had provided everything we needed at that moment from the ferocity of the storm. All the elements had come together. Earth, air, fire, water... the mystical union... the joining.... the yoga of the sweat lodge.