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Sweat lodge rituals

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What is a sweat lodge ritual?

Conducting sweat lodge rituals is a South American tradition. These rituals take place in small lodges, often made out of willow branches and blankets. The lodge is heated by hot rocks. After sitting in a campfire for a while, the rocks are carried into the lodge by volunteers.

The hot rocks increase the temperature inside the lodge to somewhere between 75 and 90ºC. During the ritual, water is thrown over the rocks, increasing the humidity to 20 to 35 percent. These circumstances are similar to what happens in a sauna. However, there are some major differences between a sauna and a sweat lodge. You can read all about that in this article. We'll also discuss the history of sweat lodges, how the rituals are conducted and what the participants experience.

The history of sweat lodge rituals

The Native Americans have been conducting sweat lodge ceremonies for centuries. Different tribes all have their own traditions and use slightly different sweat lodges. Some lodges are made of willow branches and blankets, similar to traditional wigwams. Some tribes use more permanent sweat lodges, made of wood or stone. Today, sweat lodges are still widely used by the indigenous people of South America. 

The Native Americans often use sweat lodge ceremonies as rites of passage. For example, a sixteen-year-old girl would be considered a woman after undergoing a sweat lodge ritual. The ceremonies are said to allow one to make contact with the Great Spirit. 

Sweat lodge rituals can also have some medicinal purposes. For hundreds of years, it has been used to treat a wide array of physical diseases. When Columbus discovered America in 1492, the Europeans first came into contact with sweat lodge ceremonies. At the same time, many seafarers caught syphilis, causing a syphilis epidemic in Europe when they came back. 

The course of this illness can be horrible. In the first stadium, the patient only has a little sore at the infected spot. During the second stadium, which typically occurs a few months after the infection, one can get a non-itchy skin condition and flu-like symptoms. In some cases, stadium three will occur a couple years after, where the central nervous system gradually gets damaged, eventually resulting in neurologic problems and severe mental illness. Not everyone who gets infected with syphilis will reach the third stadium. But at the time, the patient would face a slow, painful death if the third stadium was reached. Today, syphilis, especially in an early stage, is well treatable.

However, at the time, there was only one known treatment for syphilis in Europe. In many cases, this ‘treatment’ was far from ideal. This treatment would consist of rubbing mercury ointment all over the body. Doing so would kill the virus. However, it would also damage the body to such extent that it could hardly be considered a cure.

Still, some European patients were cured of their syphilis, without the nasty side effects. These people would travel to South America by boat, where the indigenous people would have an effective remedy for their illness. Using antibiotic herbs, a strict diet and several sweat lodge ceremonies offered the patients a very real chance to completely cure their syphilis.  

Today, we understand how this is possible. Syphilis is caused by spirochetes, bacteria in the shape of little strings. These bacteria die at a temperature of 42ºC. [1] By going into a sweat lodge several times in a row, one’s body temperature will frequently increase to 42ºC, which kills the spirochete. If the ceremony is combined with antibiotic herbs, the bactericidal effect is amplified, as antibiotics are more effective against spirochetes at a high temperature. It’s clear that this treatment was not based on superstition. Next to killing bacteria, a sweat lodge ceremony can have many other health benefits. You can read more about this in the paragraph about medical use.

Despite their health benefits, sweat lodge rituals were prohibited in Europe for a long period of time. The reason for this was that these rituals did not just consist of heating up a small space; there were many shamanic aspects to it as well. The church considered these practices as pagan, and would not allow for them to take place.

Much later, around the 1950’s, when the church had lost most of its power, the Europeans were free to spiritually develop themselves. Soon, Eastern wisdom and shamanic traditions would be researched on a large scale. In the 1970’s, this created a culture where many different non-native rituals, traditions and religions became very popular. At the time, shamanic rituals, including sweat lodge ceremonies, ayahuasca ceremonies, kambo rituals and meditation techniques were implemented in Western culture.

Sweat lodge versus sauna

The native South American peoples are not the only ones who use high temperatures to cleanse the body. The Romans and Greek added very hot rooms to their bathhouses, called caldarium. A caldarium is comparable to a sauna. In Turkey, they used Turkish steam rooms. In Finland, they swear by Finnish saunas. Today, many Dutch spas have adopted saunas from many different cultures, and added modern elements to them, like infrared or ozone saunas.  

Still, there is a major difference between visiting a sauna and undergoing a sweat lodge ritual. Unlike a round in the sauna, which generally lasts around fifteen minutes, a sweat lodge ceremony, goes on for an hour and is often repeated several times. It is possible to stay in a sweat lodge for such a long time because you're doing it together with a group. During a ritual, singing songs and mantras will put the participants into a trance, allowing them to withstand the heat for much longer.  Next to cleansing the body, a sweat lodge ritual offers the experience of surrendering oneself to the sweltering heat. 

When the body temperature rises, fever occurs. The fever can result in hallucinations. Sweat lodges can, therefore, induce a psychedelic effect, comparable to other shamanic ceremonies with psychoactive plants, cacti or mushrooms

Conducting a sweat lodge ceremony

As we mentioned before, there are many different types of sweat lodge rituals. However, in the Netherlands, most sweat lodge ceremonies are conducted as follows. In the morning, the participants arrive at the sweat lodge, made of willow branches and blankets. First, everyone just relaxes and gets comfortable. Then, the participants get naked, enter the lodge and sit down around a pit in the middle. The lodge has no floor, the participants have to sit directly on the soil. This is important, as a major aspect of the ceremony is being in contact with the earth. Everyone focuses on their personal intentions for the ritual. Sometimes, the intentions are shared among the participants.  

In the meantime, the rocks are heated in a campfire next to the lodge. Once they're red hot, the 'keepers of the fire' carry them to the lodge, using specially made carriers. The hot stones are put in the pit, and will be the only light present during the ritual. Then, the door is closed, and the temperature starts increasing rapidly. The shaman pours water and herbs over the rocks, which makes the humidity increase. 

In the meantime, there will be prayer, songs and playing instruments. This ritual takes one hour. All participants are active during the ritual. The intense heat is almost unbearable, but through staying connected with the group, and focussing on the rituals, most people find out the's capable of withstanding more than they would have thought. After one hour, the door finally opens, allowing fresh air into the lodge. The participants now have the opportunity to go outside, cool down and drink some water. 

Then, new rocks are carried into the lodge, starting the second round, which is comparable to the first one. In total, there are four rounds, in which it gets increasingly difficult to withstand the heat inside the lodge. Eventually, everyone will be laying on the floor, surrendering to the heat. When one feels the need to express themselves, they get the space to do so, often resulting in most participants screaming out loud. At that moment, thinking is impossible; the only thing you can do is laying on the floor and being one with the environment. The ego dissolves, allowing the participants to reach a higher level of consciousness. After the last round, there will be an opportunity to share the experiences, and the participants have dinner together.

In the Netherlands, attending a sweat lodge ceremony costs between 50 and 100 euro. These ceremonies are often guided by Dutch people who have learned from South American shamans. Sometimes, traditional shamans visit the Netherlands, making it possible to join a sweat lodge ceremony, guided by a traditional South American shaman. 

Sweat lodge rituals for mental and spiritual healing

During a sweat lodge ceremony, people push their own boundaries to the point where thinking becomes impossible. All physical and mental energy is put into staying present in the extreme heat. This induces a meditative state of mind. The discomfort is often so severe that it releases blocked emotions. Many report spiritual growth as a result of a ceremony. In 2006, a research was done on the healing effects of sweat lodge ceremonies. This research showed that after the ritual, participants experienced an improvement in their physical, mental, psychologic and spiritual state. [2]

It showed that sweat lodge rituals can help reduce stress, and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. [3] The Native Americans were not acquainted with alcohol until they came into contact with the Europeans. When the Europeans invaded their land, which had a massive negative impact on the culture, many Native Americans became addicted to alcohol. It showed that sweat lodge ceremonies are not effective against alcohol addiction. [4]

Sweat lodge rituals for physical healing

Just like a sauna visit, a sweat lodge ritual heats up your body to a high temperature. The physical effects of sweat lodge ceremonies has not yet been thoroughly researched. However, sauna therapy is proven to have the following health benefits:

  1. Through sweating, the body can process heavy metals more easily. [5][6]
  2. It lowers blood pressure. [6]
  3. It improves blood circulation.[6]
  4. It stimulates the immune system. [7][8][9]
  5. Sauna therapy has an antibacterial effect. A slight increase in temperature kills certain pathogens. This is comparable to the function of fever; killing unwanted micro-organisms. A sauna technically induces an artificial fever. 
  6. It brings more oxygen into the blood. [6]
  7. It relaxes the muscles, and increases flexibility of the muscles. [10]
  8. It improves the functioning of the heart, making it an effective therapy for some cases of chronic heart diseases. [6][11]

We can assume that a sweat lodge ritual has similar health benefits.  

Combinations with psychoactive substances

Anyone who is going to attend a sweat lodge ritual is advised not to use drugs and/or alcohol in the days before the ritual, as this can diminish the healing effects of the ritual. However, it's not unusual for shamans to offer a combination of a sweat lodge ceremony and an ayahuasca, iboga, San Pedro or mushroom ceremony. In that case, a ritual takes multiple days, with often a sweat lodge ritual on the first day and a ceremony with psychedelic substances the next day. In the same way, kambo ceremonies are often combined with sweat lodge rituals. However, in this case, both rituals are often done in one day, as a kambo session does not take very long.

Warning

If you search the internet for sweat lodge ceremonies, you might notice that they're often praised for their positive effects on mind and body. Sweat lodges are said to induce a sense of well-being. This, however, is a slightly too unilateral assumption. Spending four hours in one day in a room with temperatures up to 90 degrees is not advisable for everyone. People with health problems should be really careful. They should always notify the attendants about their conditions so that they can keep an extra eye on them during the ceremony. 

Keep in mind that several people died during a sweat lodge ceremony. This is a list with the names of people who died from attending a sweat lodge ceremony. 

  • Gordon Reynolds died in 1996
  • Kirsten Babcock died in 2002
  • David Thomas Hawker died in 2002
  • Rowen Cooke died in 2004
  • Kirby Brown died in 2009
  • Lizbeth Neuman died in 2009
  • James Shore died in 2009

In 2009, a sweat lodge collapsed during a ritual. Three people died in the accident. It's extremely important to listen to your own body, and use your common sense. During the ceremony, you might experience peer pressure to stay inside the lodge. But if you're really not feeling well, it's advisable to leave the lodge. This way, you decrease your chances of being included in the list above. 

Contraindications

Sweat lodges are often claimed to be beneficial for everyone. But also on a psychological level, it's not fit for everyone. A shamanic ritual in which one is being put into a trance is often counterproductive for people with severe mental illness. 

On top of that, MS patients who visit a sauna find that their temperature increases faster than the temperature of healthy people. Their symptoms often get worse after getting into a sauna. [11][12] How this is possible has yet to be discovered, but it's probably safe to conclude that MS patients should not attend sweat lodge ceremonies. Also people with autoimmune diseases might find their symptoms increase when doing a sweat lodge ritual. Unfortunately, not a lot of information on these contraindications is available. 

Conclusion

Sweat lodge rituals are closely related to other shamanic rituals. Just like the use of psychedelic substances, it can induce a deep trip, possibly leading to profound insights. However, these ceremonies are not without risk. Therefore, it's important to educate yourself beforehand, and to only work with people with a lot of experience, who have received proper training.

References

  1. Reisinger E, Wendelin I, Gasser R, Halwachs G, Wilders-Truschnig, Krejs G, Antibiotics and increased temperature against Borrelia burgdorferi in vitro. Scand J infect Dis. 1996;28(2):155-7.
  2. Schiff, Jeannette Wagemakers; Moore, Kerrie, The Impact of the Sweat Lodge Ceremony on Dimensions of Well-Being, American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research: The Journal of the National Center, v13 n3 p48-69 2006
  3. Steven M. Silver, John P. Wilson  Native American Healing and Purification Rituals for War Stress, The Springer Series on Stress and Coping 1988, pp 337-355
  4. ROBERTA L. HALL, Alcohol Treatment in American Indian Populations: An Indigenous Treatment Modality Compared with Traditional Approaches, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 472, Alcohol and Culture: Comparative Perspectives from Europe and America pages 168–178, July 1986
  5. ME. Sears, KJ. Kerr, RI. Bray, Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: a systematic review, J. Environ Public Health, 22 feb. 2012
  6. W. Crinnon, Components of practical clinical detox programs--sauna as a therapeutic tool, Altern Ther health Med., 2007 Mar-Apr;13(2):S154-6   
  7. W. Pilch, I. Pokora, Z. Szygula, T. Palka, P. Pilch, T. Cison, L. Malik, S. Wiecha, Effect of a single finnish sauna session on white blood cell profile and cortisol levels in athletes and non-athletes, J Hum Kinet. 2013 Dec 31;39:127-35
  8. Zellner M, Hergovics N, Roth E, Jilma B, Spittler A, Oehler R., Human monocyte stimulation by experimental whole body hyperthermia, Wien Klin Wochenschr. 2002 Feb 15;114(3):102-7.
  9. Ohira Y, Girandola RN, Simpson DR, Ikawa S., Responses of leukocytes and other hematologic parameters to thermal dehydration, J Appl Physiol Respir Environ Exerc Physiol. 1981 Jan;50(1):38-40.
  10. K. Matsushita, A Masuda, C Tei. Efficacy of Waon therapy for fibromyalgia, Intern Med, (16):1473-6,  Aug 15, 2008
  11. Tei C, Horikiri Y, Park JC, Jeong JW, Chang KS, Toyama Y, Tanaka N., Acute hemodynamic improvement by thermal vasodilation in congestive heart failure, Circulation. 1995 May 15;91(10):2582-90.
  12. Hämäläinen P, Ikonen A, Romberg A, Helenius H, Ruutiainen J., The effects of heat stress on cognition in persons with multiple sclerosis, Mult Scler. 2012 Apr;18(4):489-97
  13. Romberg A, Ikonen A, Ruutiainen J, Virtanen A, Hämäläinen P., The effects of heat stress on physical functioning in persons with multiple sclerosis, J Neurol Sci. 2012 Aug 15;319(1-2):42-6.


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