There are hundreds of sweat lodges run all over the world. Their impact on one’s life is evident by the fact that people continue to seek them out for deep healing. It’s important to point out if you have never been to a sweat lodge, not all lodges are the same. Having attended lodge ceremonies for more than eight years (and continue to do so monthly, I’ve had the privilege to sit and experience many different ways in which they are run from traditional Lakota to non-denominational styles.
The variety of lodges and discussing lodge with first timers has brought me to realize the value in sharing my experience to help those first timers navigate their way through ceremony. This article is my view of the beautiful and powerful sweat lodge ceremony. I’ll share some of my understandings of this ceremony and things to be aware of to present oneself with respect and presence.
What is a Sweat Lodge?
Who are the Firekeepers?
Where are you at?
What is a Sweat Lodge?
First off, for those of you who have never experienced what a sweat lodge is, or don’t even know what it is, here’s more about it.
An amazing, multidimensional question….what is a sweat lodge like?
The first part of the answer to this question is … it depends. It’s always different. As anything non-linear is. It’s like asking, what is a kiss like? Or, can you tell me exactly what painting is like? Or watching a sunset …. you get the idea.
I’ve found that there are a few main factors that influence what a sweat lodge is like ~ ~ ~
Let’s break it down….as best we can.
“Who’s Pouring” means – who is leading the sweat lodge ceremony. You’ll often hear people say – who’s pouring water today? It will make more sense once you enter the lodge and see the process. I’ve heard one pourer refer to a sweat lodge as a multidimensional spaceship, another as a living medicine wheel.
I’ve found that it makes a huge difference on what the lodge is like by who is leading it. I encourage you to be cautious in attending a lodge by someone you have never met before. Find out about who will be leading it and what traditions they follow. Many good pourers are willing to – often even request – that you engage in a conversation with them before attending. In this age of many teachings being shared, it’s important to be careful with your energy. This ancient ceremony is very powerful – treat it as such.
I’ve been to lodges where the pourer has quite a bit of ego, and the ceremony will reflect this – it will be very very hot, and they will do their best to try to get you to stay inside, as if it’s a competition, even if your body is telling you it’s time to leave. I’ve been to lodges where the pourer has not cared who the firekeepers are, and again the experience inside will reflect this.
I’ve also had the fortunate experience to go to lodges where the pourer is extremely caring, integrous and honoring of the power of the ceremony. They know how to track each individual person and how they are doing energetically – yes, even in the dark womb of the lodge. They check in on people, and they do not treat it as a competition. They lead the ceremony from the standpoint of the “weakest link”, i.e., whomever is having the hardest time, they adjust the lodge to this person.
My advice is: check out the person who will be leading you in this ancient purification ceremony. Talk to them beforehand, see how they respond to your questions. If you have the opportunity, ask others who have sat with them before to tell you of their experience. It matters.
I’ve been to very traditional Lakota lodges, non-traditional Lakota lodges, Rainbow lodges, Mexica, and non-denominational lodges. Each lodge is very different in how they are led, who is accepted in, the etiquette, what songs are sung, who is allowed to sing, what instruments are allowed in, what herbs are used, if mooning (i.e., bleeding women) are allowed in, etc. etc.!
Generally, a sweat lodge ceremony will have four rounds of prayer. These rounds are based around an intention, and usually songs are sung in each round for specific purposes. You can imagine how different each lodge can be!
KiAtswn and I highly recommend to have an idea of what tradition you are following if you are invited to a sweat lodge ceremony. There are protocols to follow in native traditions that many Westerners are not aware of, and can be extraordinarly offensive to the people leading the ceremony if they are not respected.
One safe rule is to always bring tobacco with you when attending a sweat lodge. Tobacco is a very sacred plant to native peoples. It shows respect and honor to the pourer when you give them tobacco before the ceremony. It’s also a way of giving the spirits who show up for the ceremony”food” and of asking permission to be part of the ceremony.
You may have heard a sweat lodge ceremony called “Inipi”, which is a Lakota term meaning purification. The word can be broken down to give a deeper meaning. “Ni” refers to the life force we are given at birth. “Pi” means abiding or perhaps continuing. So we could say (from this Lakota term) it’s the ceremony to help continue our life force.
Even if the lodge you attending is not Lakota, this way of explaining it is a lovely way of describing it, and something to anchor to.
Who are the Firekeepers?
I’ve been to lodges where, when I arrived a couple hours ahead of time, the pourer was looking for people to help keep the fire and carry rocks. This is a huge signal to me if I see this – to me, it means that the pourer is not in relationship with the fire and the people who will be with the fire, and that the ceremony will reflect this.
“Keeping fire” is another ceremony in itself, and I know many firekeepers who take this role extremely seriously. “Carrying rocks” loosely means gathering the rocks from the fire and transporting them to inside the lodge. Again, this is a very sacred duty, and I have observed often not truly honored.
At a lodge we regularly attend, the water pourer is very connected with all of her firekeepers, and keeps a close watch on how they treat the fire, how they carry the rocks (Grandfather Stones), how they deliver the rocks, etc. The firekeepers are honored especially in each ceremony, where she invites them in at a certain point and honors them with gratitude & prayers for their lives. She knows that by taking care of them, they take care of the ceremony. It’s a beautiful example of a living & reciprocal exchange of energy. She knows that being a firekeeper is a very hard duty and service – and a calling.
Where are you at?
Like pretty much anything, your state of being will determine how you will experience something. This is true of this ceremony also. KiAtswn and I have found over the years that how “hot” a lodge was and how “hard” the experience was was based on our level of resistance. I remember one lodge that I barely experienced as being warm KiAtswn found to be suffocatingly hot. And vice versa!
How is that possible? We have found the explanation to be about what our state of being is inside the lodge. What are we praying for in our lives? Who are we praying for? Are we resistant to something we are praying for? Are we resistant to something or someone in the lodge? Our experience will reflect this.
One pourer I have learned from speaks about letting the steam from the rocks go through you, instead of shrinking away from the steam. What a metaphor for our lives – how can we go through something, standing tall and looking it straight in the eye, instead of shrinking away from it?
In Conclusion (for now)
A sweat lodge ceremony is an individual experience that is challenging to pin down or describe. As part of my role on the planet is being a bridge, it feels necessary to share what I’ve learned for those who don’t know where to start on a more earth-based ceremony path. I’ve attempted to give a brief description to help my fellow Westerners who are new to this sacred and beautiful ceremony an introduction. Feel free to reach out if you have more questions.