Fire it Up, Sweat it Out!

Throughout time, the element of fire has always commanded respect for it burns with vitality and power. Additionally, fire represents our true spirit; it is the fire within that fuels our expansive imagination, passion and artistic originality.

With that in mind, many traditions celebrate the awesome power of the flame by taking part in a sweat lodge ceremony. At the core of this ritual is spiritual cleanliness, a blaze can purify and revitalize.

In Native American tradition, the sweat lodge unfolds in a low dome-like structure built with a frame of flexible willow branches and covered with several blankets or animal skins. The idea is to make the walls as thick as possible to elicit darkness and keep the heat inside. A shallow fire pit is dug in the dirt, typically in the center of the lodge.

Rocks also play a significant role in the Inipi (sweat lodge) since they easily absorb the power of fire. The Omaha Indians, for example, referred to the rocks as Grandfather, a symbol of earthly endurance. When water is splashed over them, the vapor becomes yet another medium for the transfer of heat. The Fox, another American Indian tribe, believed that “Manitou,” a friendly spirit, dwelled inside the rocks and was released through the vapor to penetrate the skins of the bathers and drive out sickness. (Science has given a new name to vapor’s healing power — negative ions).

Another explanation for the sweat bath’s spirituality is its association with re-birth. The warm, dark, moist ambiance inside a sweat bath is easily likened to a womb. A tired, sullied bather climbs into the confines of the sweat bath, sweats out physical and spiritual impurities and emerges refreshed and cleansed–reborn.

If you have the opportunity to take part in a sweat, it is advised to fast for a day, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, or other potentially altering substances. Contemplation is also welcomed. You may want to set an intention for your ritual before entering the womb of Mother Earth.

As you enter the Inipi, the medicine man (or woman) will likely purify you with sage, by sweeping the smoke over the entire outline of your body, front and back, head to toe. Participants then encircle the stone pit. Where you sit bears significance:

Southeast is the place of the ancestors, self-concept, your same-sex inner child.

Southwest is associated with dreams, light and dark symbols.

West is the place of the physical body and the Earth.

Northwest governs laws, rules where or social civic laws are designed.

North energy governs the mind, logic, our own circles of influence; our adult self.

Northeast denotes balance, minimum effort and maximum efficiency.

Once everyone is seated, the leader of the ceremony receives the glowing hot stones from the firekeeper and places them in the pit. When enough stones have been placed in the lodge, the medicine man closes the door and pours water on top of the stones to fill the lodge with steam. And the heat begins.

There are generally four or five rounds, each a mini-ritual within itself. For instance, during the first sequence, you may go around and share your dreams and aspirations to the Great Spirit. After each round (they can last up to 45 minutes), the flap is opened, and the fire tender puts more rocks in. The idea is to stay inside for the duration of the sweat. However, many folks who are new to sweating may need to get out for a few minutes to get a short breath of fresh air.

A sweat can honor a particular direction. For instance, East is the place of fire, of illumination and enlightenment. So if you take part in an East sweat you have the opportunity to connect with your spiritual nature, realize your beauty, creativity, and ability to heal yourself and the environment.

Rituals and traditions vary from region to region. Some lodges are done in complete silence, while others involve singing, chanting, wailing, and drumming. Most new age sweats are done naked while traditional ones frown upon nudity. Likewise, many traditional lodges do not allow women to enter if they are on their moon time. The most important part of sweat lodge etiquette is to know what is allowed and expected before entering a lodge. With that in mind be ready for an intense experience.

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