The benefits of sweating for healing and detoxification is a widely known practice in many Native cultures around the world. Not only does sweating clear the body of illness but also removes impurities from the mind and spirit. Toxins are removed from the body with extreme heat and muscles and joints can be rejuvenated.
As temperatures rise and breathing becomes laboured, the path to self awareness begins to open and emotions stir. The connection to mind and spirit are joined and the participants fall into a dream like state where sometimes visions are seen. The sweat lodge is seen as though a giant womb and symbolizes rebirth. For the Cherokee, the sweat lodge is used for honouring the Sacred feminine spirit. Since it is believed that woman already possess this, only the men use the lodge.
The Making of a Sweat Lodge
The location of the lodge is important. Most sweat lodges are built in the wilderness, near running water. Once the site is decided the structure is built. The lodge is built like a small dome constructed from bent willows and covered with blankets and/or animal hides in order to hold in the heat.
It is usually built during spring. A hole is dug in the center of the lodge to be used as a pit for hot stones. A sacred fire is started next to the structure and rocks are chosen. The number of rocks varies depending on the size of the group of participants. These rocks are placed in the fire outside while the elders use tobacco and sage to cleanse the lodge before the ceremony begins.
Next the participants enter the structure on their knees, usually wearing only a loincloth or shorts. They are seated around the stone pit and the heated stones are brought in carried on a pitchfork. Water is poured on the hot stones to create steam and the flap to the lodge is closed.
Throughout the ceremony, hot rocks are brought in four times, each time it is called a door or an endurance or gateway. The lodge is now dark and quiet with only glowing red stones.
Sweat lodge ceremony: Calling in the elements of nature
The first round begins with the direction of the East. This is where the sun rises and symbolizes the birth of a new day or new beginning. The feminine spirit is recognized and her energies are invited.
The Eagle is called upon to help participants look inside themselves and focus on why it is that they have entered the lodge. What healing do they seek? Songs and prayers are made and the elder calls for the door to open.
The second endurance begins once new stones are placed in the pit and the flap is closed again. Now the male spirit is recognized and the spirits of the wolf or rabbit are called upon, representing the direction of South.
During this stage, the heat is intense enough to alter consciousness and many have entered the spirit world via out of body experience. The sweat has also begun and toxins are being released from the physical body.
When the elder calls for the door to open, water may be passed to those who wish for it and there is a short break to signify the half way mark of the ceremony.
Before the start of the third round, more rocks and water are brought in. This doorway is dedicated to the West and the spirit of Bear is called upon to help us in introspection. The elder helps the participants into a deep meditative state and begin the process of seeking our answers deep within. Images may start to appear on the hot stones and prayers are usually done silently.
The last stage or endurance is for the North and focuses on specific personal healing. The spirit of the buffola is called upon to gain wisdom and knowledge. Once the steam has subsided, the elder gives thanks in a summanizing prayer and participants leave the lodge one by one in a clockwise manner.
At the end, there is celebration around the sacred fire with food and drink.
Benefits of a Sweat Lodge
The effects of the sweat lodge ceremony are many. The lodge can get up to 120 degrees and since bacteria and viruses cannot survive temperatures that high, they are flushed out of the body.
The rise in temperature can also stimulate adrenaline and cortisol responses. This brings blood flow and relieves cramping and muscle aches. Exposure to steam can reduce pain from arthritis and alleviate skin disorders such as psoriasis.
The mental and emotional effects of a sweat lodge are also beneficial. The sauna effect activates the sympathetic nervous system releasing hormones including serotonin and endorphin. This elevates mood and creates a feeling of euphoria. There is also a sense of belonging from bonding with others throughout the experience. All of this relieves tension, stress and isolation.
The sweat lodge ceremony is an ancient tool used by many tribes and medicine people throughout the world. It is a celebration of respect for one another and our ancestors and quite the experience to behold.