In the competitive world of spiritual seekers – I kid, but only a little – “sweat lodge” has fast replaced “ayahuasca” at the top of this summer’s most-frequently-overheard-in-the-yoga-studio-changing-room list. (Other notable highlights include: “Does this crystal make me look fat?”)
But what is a sweat lodge anyway?
Let’s start with what it’s not: a sauna. This is a common misconception, born of the fact that in both you enter a sealed space in which rocks are used to generate heat, with added water creating steam. That is, however, where the similarities end.
Now, "sweat lodge" simply describes a structure – typically a dome-shaped hut made from natural materials. What people are referring to when they talk about a sweat lodge is what goes on inside: the ceremony, or sweat.
The ceremony is a religious and spiritual purification of the body, mind and soul. It is performed under the supervision of a leader, and intended for prayer and healing. It is ancient, sacred, and deeply revered among the cultures in which it is traditionally practised. Every aspect of a ceremony – from the construction of the lodge to the prayers offered – is imbued with deeply spiritual symbolism. It is not simply a "shvitz".
Sweat lodges are most commonly associated with Native America – and indeed a large proportion of the ones found in the USA and Europe follow this lineage – however, ritual sweats have been part of our lives for thousands of years, with examples found across continents and cultures, from Icelandic saunas to Turkish hammams and Japanese onsens.
In the North American Indian tradition, the lodge is built using willow bark that is placed in the ground in a circular shape and then covered with blankets. The heat inside is generated by hot basalt stones that are placed in the centre and doused with water and medicinal herbs. “The spirits of all of our ancestors are believed to dwell in the stones,” explains Roland Torikian, a Maya healer who runs sweat lodge ceremonies in Kent. “Roused by the heat of the fire, they proceed out of the stone when water is sprinkled on them. Emerging and mingling with the steam they enter the body… driving out everything that inflicts pain. Before the ancestor spirits return to the stone, they impart some of their nature to the body. That is why one feels so well after having been in a temescal.”
Indeed, devotees of sweat lodge ceremonies evangelise about the mental clarity, physical energy and spiritual revitalisation they bring. Serena, a 35-year-old Oscar-winning film producer, has twice attended The Sweat Lodge in Oxfordshire. “I found the whole process very interesting,” she says. “It is cathartic sweating and you're in beautiful countryside with kind, nice people, and the heat definitely sends your mind to a higher place.” Aaron, a 33-year-old music producer and sound healer, attends a ceremony with Healing The Land once a month, on average. “Afterwards I feel energetic, cleansed and detoxed,” he explains. “It creates more space in my mind – like things have been removed. I feel meditative, connected and calm.”
Each ceremony generally involves a maximum of 25 people in the lodge. Participants – who despite rumours suggesting otherwise, tend to be clothed, albeit lightly – enter the structure in a clockwise direction and sit in a circle on the ground. The stones are then brought in and the ‘door’ closed by the leader.
“An atmosphere is created which is often referred to as ‘being in the womb of Mother Earth’,’’ explains The Sweat Lodge Community. “It is a place of safety, giving, sharing, receiving, releasing, cleansing, healing, caring, nurturing and creativity. Done with ceremony and ritual, it becomes a place where we connect with ourselves, each other and Mother Earth. Through this contact we come to a better understanding of our place in the Universe, our relationship to all things.”
A sweat lasts around five hours, with the ceremony divided into four sessions – called rounds – each of which lasts between 20 and 45 minutes. Participants are free to leave at any time, however they are encouraged to remain through discomfort (as opposed to feeling seriously unwell). What helps you remain through the discomfort and intense heat? “Letting go,” says Aaron. “Letting thoughts go, letting concepts go. It’s not really the heat that gets you in the heat; it’s your own heavy thoughts about yourself, your lack of self-belief. But also, if it gets really hot you can just lie down on the floor.” In between rounds everyone may exit the lodge if they want, and ideally there is a freezing cold body (or bucket) of water somewhere nearby.
The ceremonies are used to cleanse, heal, give thanks, celebrate, mourn, seek wisdom and counsel, or elicit visions.‘’I go to reconnect with myself, and with the Earth and nature itself,” Aaron explains. “Because it’s so dark in there and the heat activates your brain a little, you definitely see things. I’ve connected with other places and had visions – the heat brings a lot of focus in, and you can visualise your thoughts.”
For Serena, the sweat lodge completely changed her view of ‘spirituality’. “The people running it were not what I imagined spiritual people to be like – they were sort-of cockney geezers but with names like 'Eagle Flies With Wings' – so it challenged my perceptions,” she explains. “You have to fully engage with it, though,” she says, “at times it felt a bit farcical, as if it were rife for a BBC3 comedy.”
Indeed, it’s pretty easy to make fun of the growing interest in sweat lodges, much as it is ayahuasca, the tech billionaire’s drug of choice. However, if the events of the past year or so have shown us anything, it’s that the world we live in is seriously screwed up. And as far as I can tell, doing anything that helps individuals connect with both themselves and others is a good thing.
If – and it’s a big if – it’s done right.
In 2009, three people died and 18 were hospitalised after attending a ceremony in Arizona held by the self-help author and self-styled guru James Arthur Ray. The reports from the survivors are harrowing. Ray, a ‘plastic shaman’ with no official training, allegedly refused to let anyone leave the lodge (which was itself both built incorrectly and severely overcrowded) even when they begged, and began to vomit and pass out.
This event, however, was a relative anomaly, and a ceremony conducted under safe conditions should pose no serious risks for most people. Any state in which the body is tested to extreme limits has its dangers, so an experienced leader (with an apprenticeship of four to eight years) is paramount. They must fully understand not only the spiritual significance of the tradition, but also the physical and mental safety protocols.
Thinking of trying it? Simply heed with caution. If you’re pregnant or have a pre-existing health condition (such as high blood pressure or epilepsy), then give it a miss altogether. Otherwise be sure to do your research, and find a trusted ceremony with an experienced leader with whom you feel comfortable. Remember that we all respond differently to heat at different times in our lives, so listen carefully to your body. And finally, be prepared to hate it, like 25-year-old chef Tom. “You couldn’t pay me to go back,” he says. “Ever again.”