I have had the good fortune to participate in a sweat lodge in my lifetime during my high school years. I knew very little about sweat lodges prior to my visit and had I know, I might have tapped out from attending. I made the false assumption it was a relaxing, mediative “sauna”, but the reality is that sweat lodges are a form of purification and detox of the spirit and body. It can be very intense and unpleasant–not anything like a trip to a spa. My mentor at the time invited me to go as she had been several times. I can’t recall many specifics like where it was (other than somewhere between Redwood City and Mountain View), which tribe hosted the lodge, or who was involved, but I can share the most important details, which is that of the sweat itself.
Again having little knowledge of what to expect I remember wearing some makeup, which ultimately sweated off entirely. I did bring a change of clothes luckily because you get drenched in sweat. When we entered the location it was akin to a community center with an outdoor recreational area. Outside there were teepees, firepits, and of course the wooden skeleton of the sweat lodge we would create. The lodge was not very large and had large wooden posts converging to make a circular hut. In the center was a large pit, which would hold the “grandfathers,” or heated stones. In the near distance to the hut was a large fire pit roaring high with large river stones at the bottom. A stack of animal hides and blankets were on a picnic table which some members were already throwing on top of the hut skeleton. I would be participating in a woman’s only sweat lodge, which certainly made an insecure 17 year old feel a little more at ease.
Once the lodge was assembled, we each crawled inside to this cozy womb. There were probably 7-9 of us in this small hut. The grass around the center hole would act as our blankets for each of us to lie down if we wished. The lodge leader brought many heated grandfathers in our hut and placed them in the center. She had a large bucket by her side and closed the tent flap. It was pitch dark in there and a little frightening. She poured the cold water in the center and a gust of steam engulfed our tiny abode. The heat was intense and the steam was suffocating. My mind panicked and I felt completely unprepared for this experience and wanted to give up. I don’t care for saunas or steam rooms much at the gym, but this was 10 times worse. We were trapped in this tiny space with little oxygen. Quite honestly, I felt like I was the only one have a mini meltdown in my head and everyone else carried with no worry or anxiety. The leader opened the ceremony with a prayer and chanting and walked us through a guided mediation. At this point, I was lying in child’s pose and slipping my arm underneath the tent to feel the cool, outside air. After a short while, the sweat lodge became more tolerable and my mind stopping panicking. I began to relax, pray, and meditate like others were doing. The circle was meant to heal any past wounds and move forward on our journeys.
During the course of the sweat, the leader poured more water over the stones to keep the steam flowing. I don’t think these subsequent pourings were nearly as intense as the first pour. I remember near the end of the lodge, the leader had us go around the circle to openly pray for something to the Spirit. I wish I could recall what I prayed for, but here was so much comfort in our small circle that it felt safe and familiar. Once the experience was over, it was night time and going back into the community center, I saw my mascara was smeared all over my face–kind of symbolic gesture that no masks need to be worn in the lodge. I think sweat lodges are something that should come to you when you are ready and not necessarily sought out. It’s a greater gift to receive that invitation than impose yourself when you might not be ready.