The Sweat Lodge:
A Native American Way of healing

The First Nations of Canada and the USA posses a great wealth of spiritual practices and knowledge. The Sweat Lodge is a fine example of such traditions. 

As Native American communities gradually reintroduce their heritage to a wider public, participating in a ceremony is a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with ourselves and seek healing together.

What Is A
Sweat Lodge Ceremony?

This ancient practice is simply referred to as a Sweat. There are many variations, but the lodge itself is usually a low round building with a wooden frame and covered with thick fabrics. It’s pitch dark inside. Stones, called the grandfathers, are heated in a sacred fire directly aligned with the entrance.  They are brought red hot to the center of the hut. 

The conductor may add some of the four sacred medicines: tobacco, sweet grass, cedar and sage. Water is regularly sprinkled over the rock to generate dense steam. It usually gets hot inside, really hot. Although on some occasions the heat may be less intense, especially with first-timers. The Sweat can be as short as 30 minutes, but several hours is the norm.

What might sound like an elaborate sauna is in fact a deeply spiritual practice. Prayers are offered by the leader, along with the occasional ritual chanting and traditional drums. Participants get a chance to offer their own prayers or express themselves.

Finding the Right Sweat

Sweat lodges were originally an important custom of the Indigenous people of the Great Plains. The ritual is however slowly spreading to other Nations. Often communities are reintroducing it after decades of bans by oppressive government laws.

A conductor relies on years of experience and training. The New Age movement and other Western (mis-)appropriations have led in certain cases to unsafe practices and a great deal of offense to the First Nations. Without condemning all non-Native American versions, let’s just say that authentic Sweats are not advertised in the changing rooms of a fancy Yoga class. Finding one requires some efforts.

sweatlodge algonquin anicinabe quebec canada
Sweat lodge build for the participants of a Sun Dance on Anicinabe (Algonquin) territory in Quebec, Canada

The ceremony is generally performed before other important events such as a Sun Dance, or on their own for healing purposes. The communities don’t advertise them. In fact, they tend to keep Sweats hidden from outsiders. However, they are a welcoming crowd if you show that you are patient, respectful, sincere and humble. 

Take your time to meet people. Explain why you are seeking a Sweat.  And as a bonus, bring an offering of tobacco.

Benefits

First, a word on safety. It can get dangerously hot during a Sweat, even for perfectly healthy individuals. There is a risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion. The ceremony leader is trained to deal with any medical issue arising. If you are feeling unwell, let her or him know immediately.

However, some discomfort is normal and even desired. Like regular saunas, sustained sweating is great for your physical well-being. The resulting improved circulation can help relieve stress and improve cardiovascular health. But the Sweat lodge ceremony goes a lot further.

sundance native american abitibi quebec canada
Members of different Native communities across Canada came to help prepare the first Sun Dance taking place on the Anicinabe (Algonquin) traditional land.

The intense heat is conductive to deep introspection and meditative states. You have to let go of your thoughts. Every experience is unique, but many participants feel relaxed and soothed afterwards. Some even claim to have gone through life-changing experiences. The fact that some prisons in both the USA and Canada are offering Sweat lodge ceremonies to inmates tells a lot about the potential benefits.

Indeed, another valuable aspect is the collective experience with other participants. Going through such an intense event, opening up and being vulnerable can forge deep bonds with otherwise perfect strangers. And listening to the torments of other human beings and communities can lead to truly touching moments. 

This dimension of healing together, regardless of who we are, truly sets it apart from most spiritual traditions. In our time and age, such a practice is more relevant than ever