The sweat lodge is a Native American cleansing/purification ritual. Every tradition had a form of the sweat lodge ritual. Most commonly these structures were built with willow saplings stripped and bent together to form a small domed structure. Skins, now blankets and canvas tarps, were used to cover the dome, and keep heat and steam in.

Heat was provided by burning rocks in a fire for several hours, then bringing them into a small pit in the center of the lodge. Water would be poured over the rocks releasing steam and raising the temperature in the lodge.

The saplings are to represent the bones of our ancestors, and the lodge is often thought of as the inside of a turtle shell. I was told that to go into the lodge was to return to the womb of mother earth to be purified and reborn.

How to make and perform a sweat lodge

The sweat lodge has its origins in native American tradition; many of the tribes who inhabited the continent before the arrival of the Europeans used sweat lodges of one form or another for purification and cleaning. They would sit under skins and splash water onto hot stones, sometimes adding sage or pine needles to the mix. It is not too hard to make a sweat lodge; a group of half a dozen or so people with a clue what they are doing should be able to put one together in a few hours. Sweat lodges in the form that I know them replace the skins with a bender - a construction made of canvas stretched over bent branches of hazel or similar wood.

The Site

The first thing you need to do if you are considering building a sweat lodge is to find a suitable site. Ideally there should be space to put the bender and a fire very close to a body of water suitable for jumping in post-sweat. Usually the entrance of the lodge should face the fire, with a gap of a few metres between the two.

The Rocks

Collect rocks the size of a large potato and bigger. Get a good pile of them together - heat more than you think you will use, just in case. Never use quartz, which is liable to explode in the fire and shatter like glass. Sedimentary and porous rocks, too, are usually best avoided; it's very rarely worth looking in a river for stones.

The Fire

The rocks will need to be heated for a couple of hours to get them glowing hot right to the core. Make a medium-sized fire, preferably well-sheltered so that it doesn't waste too much heat and need too much tending, and once it is going put the rocks in the middle so that the fire is burning on all sides of them. Building up the fire a bit over the top of the rocks will provide an added layer of protection in case any of them do pop.

The Pit

Where the centre of the lodge is going to be, dig a pit a foot or so deep and almost as wide. It should be big enough to accommodate all the rocks you are using with a good few inches to spare. Sweat lodge rocks are very dangerous; it is possible to get badly burned without even touching them, so always leave enough space to make it hard for people to get too close to them. If possible put a grille over the pit once the rocks are in place, as well; if you do have a grille, make sure you don't make the pit too wide to take it.

The Lodge

The sweat lodge itself is a pretty standard bender, usually made from branches of hazel woven together and covered all over with more than one layer of canvas and/or tarpaulin. If you don't know how to make a bender please see wertperch's writeup there; a makeshift sweat lodge bender needn't be quite as sturdy as the kind of bender wertperch describes, and it shouldn't be as large, but the basic process of construction is the same. The bigger the space the harder it is to heat, so the best sweat lodges are verging on cramped - make them just high enough to sit up in. The lodge should be very nearly air-tight, so make sure the covering goes right down to the ground on all sides and don't leave any gaps apart from the entrance. The entrance should be sealable but not too hard to open just a crack.

The Nudity

The best kind of sweat is a naked sweat. Any covering at all will trap sweat, obstruct the flow of steamy air past your body and get in the way of wiping away the little balls of dirt and dead skin which form during a sweat. The most satisfying way of drying off afterwards is also to wipe any loose liquid from your body and then stand around the fire in the buff - this might sound like it would get cold but most people find that they don't feel the chill at all for a long while after they finish sweating.

However, not everybody is comfortable with people they don't really know all that well getting naked in front of them, let alone getting naked themselves. Don't let nudity get in the way of a sweat; if people are uncomfortable with it just cover up, and maybe have a separate naked sweat later or whatever.

The Sweat

Once your rocks are glowing hot, transfer them very carefully to the pit, using something which won't burn and which puts a good distance between you and the stones while you carry them; then put the grille in place. Have a good supply of water to hand - you will need it for drinking as well as for splashing on the fire. Sweating is a thirsty business. A little fresh sage or other herbs thrown on the rocks is worth experimenting with; if you have the time and the inclination you could even brew up a Finnish-style 'löyly tea' mix in advance, with sage, basil, rosemary, bay and other herbs. The rocks themselves will often release a smell when you water them. As long as the odour is not so strong as to be unpleasant, this is nothing to worry about. What you are smelling is gas which has been trapped in the stones for thousands of years, ever since it bubbled through in the stone's lava years.

People should enter the lodge one at a time with great care, all circling the same way around the perimeter until they get to their place. Once everybody is settled, the water is in place and the entrance sealed, the steaming can commence. Whoever is in charge of the water should dash some on to the hot stones, starting with perhaps a cupful to get things started. After that the water should be added a little at a time as people see fit. Many people enjoy a sweat most when it is at its most intense, but not everyone can take the same amount of steam and heat so the sprinkler should proceed with caution and consideration.

If someone wants to leave, everyone should shuffle around to allow them to get out without trying to clamber over people. Often it is nice to take a break, maybe dip in the water, get some fresh air and then return to the sweat.

The Dip

Warm to the core after a good sweat, there is nothing better than to plunge into a stream or lake. Rinse off the sweat; shed your old skin. When you are done, dry off around the fire, get some clothes on and return to the world a new, cleaner person.

For a personal account, see also My First Sweat Lodge.

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