The Native American Sweat Lodge is a ceremony of purification for many native people here on the North American continent. It is one of the oldest ceremonies in the world and some form of the sweat lodge can be found on every continent. The rituals will vary according to the tribe but the purpose is always the same: to purify physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. There was a resurgence of this ceremony back in the 60's when some of the native people left the reservation and started to perform this ceremony for non-native people. Some non-native people were so drawn to this form of prayer that they asked to be trained in the ways of the sweat lodge. Now you can find a sweat lodge in almost any state.
The physical structure of the lodge is built in a circle, looking like an upside down basket. It is made from willow saplings as they bend easily and yet are strong enough to hold the weight of the blankets, tarps, or buffalo robes that cover the lodge. The average lodge holds about 12 people but they can be smaller or larger. There is an opening called the door from which participants come and go. It is generally placed in the East or West side of the lodge and about 12 feet from the door is the fire pit. We put rocks in the pit and cover them with wood. These rocks get red hot and are brought into the lodge and placed in the center of the lodge in another fire pit. There is an altar between the fire pit and the lodge where sacred ceremonial items are place. When the lodge is ready, the people enter the lodge on their hands and knees and crawl around the lodge to their position. The ceiling of the lodge is low and almost touches your head when you sit down. The door is closed leaving the lodge pitch black inside with only the rocks glowing. The lodge leader will instruct new participants as to protocol.
The ceremony has four "rounds" or periods of prayer. Each round is dedicated to a specific purpose. In between rounds, the door is opened and fresh air is allowed inside. If a participant needs to go out, this is the time to leave. Let the lodge leader know if you want to come back in. Sweat lodge songs are sung, drums and rattles are used, and herbs are placed on the hot rocks. Water is brought in and poured on the rocks at intervals to create hot steam. It can get very hot in the lodge, hotter than a steam room. The healing comes from the prayers that are sung and all the elements used in the lodge. The support that comes from the participants helps the individual who needs healing. When the lodge is done with right relationship to the elements, and all the kingdoms many healings can occur for all the participants. I have seen addicts come out with their will so strong that they can quit because they got the support needed. I have seen deep emotional wounds healed due to the support given to the participant. A good lodge will leave everyone feeling a deep oneness with everyone else in the lodge and a reverence for all of nature. Every lodge is different so do not assume that if you have done one the rest will be like that one. Each leader has a different style and the intention of the lodge and the people present create a unique experience.
As in all religions there is a great deal of esoteric meaning to everything used said, and done in a ceremony. This is all part of the training that a lodge leader should go through. Just as a ceremonial leader in any religion has years of training, so too is it true with the Native peoples. However, there is no time or reason to discuss these hidden meanings during the lodge. There are reasons why things are done in a certain way. Some leaders will do some basic teaching about the lodge if there are first timers, but not everyone. I have been to lodges and ceremonies that have been conducted in a haphazard way because people are not trained properly. Only two outcomes can be expected: There are no results and the people just went through the motions. Or, the other is that people come out hurt. In a good lodge, you will know and feel that healings are taking place. As in any modality, a healing crisis can occur where the individual gets worse before they get better. This should be discussed between you and the lodge leader. This is very different from getting hurt due to irresponsibility. A good lodge leader will never push you into harms way. He/she should be very aware of each person in the lodge and how they are doing. No lodge leader should force you to stay in the lodge or force you to do something that you cannot handle. Do not be afraid to speak up and ask to leave the lodge. You as an individual are responsible for your body at all times. Choose wisely as to whom you allow to work on your body physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. If you needed an operation on your physical body, would you go to a trained doctor or to someone who has only used alcohol and bandages?
It is no different in spiritual healing. There are universal laws and sacred order to everything in the created and uncreated world. It is our responsibility to learn this…. there are no victims. There is a reason why we go to get training in any occupation… so that we can truly help and especially so that we do no harm to anyone. If you put your trust into someone without doing your homework, only you are responsible for any outcome. Take care of yourself as the precious and sacred being that you are.
Another important factor that Westerners tend to overlook is that when we cross over into other cultural practices we can not carry our cultural beliefs in to that ceremony. By attending you are asking to experience their beliefs and rituals. They have taboos and beliefs that can be drastically different than your culture. If you choose to attend then respect the fact that you may find some things that you cannot handle or don't want to handle at that time. Do not question, argue, or accuse someone of doing something wrong during the ceremony. This shows no respect for those cultures beliefs. If you are really uncomfortable, respectfully leave the ceremony. Honesty is always the best policy.
I would encourage anyone who feels that a sweat lodge could help them heal in anyway should try to find a qualified leader. Ask questions before you go so that you feel right about your decisions. Leave judgement behind but not common sense or your intuition. In my 20 years of participating/leading lodges, the mass majority have been beautiful heartfelt experiences for all attending.
Wendy Whiteman is an author, herbalist, and ceremonial facilitator living in Taos, NM. She has participated in many spiritual ceremonies of different cultures and has been a student of esoteric studies for many years.