Want to know how to have a spiritual experience? Try pushing your body beyond its limitations.
Think about it, people who scale mountains, sky-dive, run marathons or endure near-death experiences often claim they felt closer to the heavens, were awe-inspired by the beauty of the universe, or felt the presence of God.
The sweat lodge is an ancient Native American healing practice designed to inspire the same kind of spiritual experience by pushing the body to its limits. Amber Wilson puts it to the test.
What’s it all about?
The sweat lodge is basically a ceremonial sauna and a very hot one at that. It’s usually associated with the Native Americans, but many other indigenous cultures have used similar practices in their spiritual heritage, such as the South Americans, Europeans, Scandinavians, Russians, Siberians, Japanese, and even the Australian Aborigines. Sweat lodges are usually built from huts, tents or tipis, or sometimes even dug out in pits from the ground and covered with wood. However, they’re constructed, central to the sweat lodge is the use of hot stones. The sweat lodge leader throws water upon the stones to produce an intense, wet, sweating heat. They’ll often add traditionally purifying and spiritual herbs to the brew as well, such as sage and frankincense.
The Spirit of the Earth Medicine Society (SOTEMS), a shamanistic community organisation that has chapters in most states of Australia, hosts sweat lodge ceremonies across the country. SOTEMS members claim the sweat lodge guides the participant into a journey of the inner-self. Taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony is difficult – it is pitch black, dark, extremely hot and oxygen-starved. The journey is to call upon your inner-self to find the strength to make it through the entire experience.
SOTEMS claim that physically, sweating helps us tune our automatic nervous system, creating a new internal balance. They say mentally; it helps bring about feelings of wellbeing, peace and self-worth.
No matter which way you look at it, there’s something very special about the sweat lodge. It’s as if being in a hot, dark abyss returns us to the womb, where we can find a spiritual rebirth. SOTEMS says sweat helps us bring about inner change.
Some people also claim that sweating is good for removing toxins, purifying the body and blood and helps recharge our physical health. Looking at it from a different angle, undergoing a huge physical challenge is a part of nearly every tribal initiation process – defying our limitations brings us confidence and a sense of adulthood and accomplishment.
Safety and controversy
Safety is utmost during any sweat lodge ceremony. Traditionally, our ancestors conducted the rituals with strict attention to rules and behaviours. However, more recently, we’ve seen media reports of deaths, suffocation, smoke inhalation and overcrowding in United States sweat lodges by dubious organisers who haven’t respected the traditions, etiquette and structure of sweating. Naturally, these incidents angered Native American elders.
Sweat lodges are only recommended for healthy people and should only be done with trained, responsible and sensible leaders. Contact your local SOTEMS to find out how to become involved if you’re drawn to this ancient practice. The organisation has a few rules if you’d like to be involved – never wear jewellery or contact lenses inside the lodge, don’t sweat if you’re pregnant or have a medical condition, and don’t take part in a sweat on a very hot day (over 35 degrees).
I’ve always wanted to take part in a sweat lodge, so I make sure I tick off all the boxes in preparation. I check out the SOTEMS website and start following the checklist of recommendations. Firstly, I need to drink two to three litres of water on the day of the sweat. I need to abstain from coffee, alcohol or other stimulants in the days leading up to the sweat, and I also need to take it easy for the day. I’m advised to wear a sarong, bring a towel, and remove my contact lenses.
SOTEMS hold their Melbourne sweats in a Brunswick environmental park, which is amazingly like a piece of bush in the middle of the city’s most bustling suburbs. I’ve got no idea where to go, but I soon see some others and follow them down.
I’m asked to sign a waiver, which makes me a little nervous, but I’m also aware that taking part in a ceremony like this is done at my own risk and with my own understanding of the state of my health and resilience. The SOTEMS leaders explain to me what will happen, what I need to do, and what to do if I feel I need help or need to be released from the sweat at any time. I feel very welcomed and very safe.
I’ve joined in a mixed sweat, which means both men and women will be taking part. However, SOTEMS also offers male-only and female-only sweats.
I’m asked to enter first, as this is my first sweat and being the ‘newbie’, I have the privilege of sitting by the door. The sweat will go for about 50 minutes over four rounds of about 10-15 minutes each, the door opened for a time between each round.
We’re sitting inside a large tipi, about 15 of us inside, in a dome-shaped structure. The door is closed – it’s so dark in here and I begin to feel frightened. It’s already so hot in here, I can’t imagine it getting any hotter, or if I could possibly cope with any increase in temperature. But it does – whenever our leader adds water to the rocks, the whole lodge fills up with a heat I can only compare to what it must be like sitting inside an oven. The ritual itself inside the sweat lodge is composed of chanting, singing, and offering prayers as our leader further stokes up the furnace and smokes the area out with healing and purifying herbal blends. The air is so hot that it feels like there’s no oxygen in here at all. I’m relieved when the first quarter is complete and the tipi’s door is opened – I hang my head out and draw in the fresh air.
The next three rounds aren’t so scary – I know that respite is around the corner and the sweat leader keeps an eye on me to make sure I’m safe and that I’m keeping up.
Finally, after what feels like a very long 50 minutes, the ceremony is over. We leave the lodge in silence, and most of us collapse on the ground and stare up at the now glowing gibbous moon as our water-drenched bodies begin to cool and dry. I can’t explain the feeling I’ve got as I reconnect with the world around me – I feel so peaceful, so safe and – as cheesy as it sounds – so united with Mother Nature.
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