My First Sweat Lodge: A Memoir
I'm a huge fan of ritual and tradition. Not so much in my own life (though you'll find some), but in the observation of other cultures. This is why I was eager to try out going to a native sweat lodge at the urging of my good friend. Well, after going through it, we'll decide just how 'good' of a friend she really is. (jk, love you Casey) First off, I'll paint you a picture of just how this day went. I think it adds to the effect. I woke up at 10:00am (because that's just what I do sometimes) and the lodge started at 11:00am. Yep, I'm already running late. The lodge is at least 30 minutes from my apartment and that's if you don't count the 80 inches of snow we've received in the last few days. I got up quickly, made a quick PB&J for breakfast, and ran out the door. Fast forward to about 40 minutes later, I arrived in the middle of nowhere at a charming log house with at least 20 other individuals who will be sweating to near-death alongside me. But we don't go into the charming house, but go around back into the trees where a lovely fire has been burning since about 8am. Oh, and what's that beneath the logs? A bunch of rocks getting nice and toasty. (Remember the rocks, they will be referenced later). I was surprised on arriving to see several people who I know through yoga there, other than my friend Casey. The familiar faces helped to make me a little less nervous. Oh yes, I was nervous. I'm not naive. I had an inkling of what I was in for, though, as you will soon find out, I did not know the severity. A little disclaimer here. I know I'm leading up to the actual sweating part with trepidation and suspense, but I must say that it wasn't all that bad. At the end, I'll go into some jubilation. I promise. The facilitators of the lodge began to rake the rocks out of the fire with pitch forks and placed them in a circular hut, where the sweating was soon to take place. The hut was about 12-ish feet in diameter and about four feet high. Soon the time came where we all stripped down to our shorts and headed inside. My first thought as I settled into the hut was, 'oh, this isn't so bad.' I know, famous last words. All 20 of us arranged ourselves in a circle around the hot stones, women on one side, men on the other. And then the door closed. The space immediately began to heat more and the first few beads of sweat were born from my skin. I took a deep breath. Jorge, the Native America leading the ceremony began to call out in song to the spirits of the East to join us. He banged his leather drum and those who were more seasoned in the ceremony joined in his ritual. Now, mind you, it was plenty hot already. I could have sat in there all day and sweat just fine, but then our friend Jorge began to pour water onto the stones. The heat hit me in the face like a woman scorned (c'mon, you love the analogy) and panic struck. Many thoughts went through my mind, seemingly simultaneously. The most prominent was 'get me the fuck out of here'. I must say, my ego helped me through those first few moments, because had I listened to my instincts I'd have run out of there and been the fool. Maybe. But alas I remained. Fear hit in that moment. It was a dark, humid, hot, and confined space and I was trapped. But no! Thoughts like that would not serve me in that moment. My next thought was that I couldn't breath and that had to be remedied quickly, or I would falter. The air burned like fire in my throat and nostrils, not helping my initial panic. Yes, we're still in that first moment. Gathering my mind and intentions, I cupped my hands over my eyes, nose and mouth and began to regulate my breathing. Sweat began to bead at random all over my body, soaking me in that moment. Jorge continued his chanting until he abruptly stopped and asked us to be present. Now, as a yoga practitioner of 6 years, I've had many many lessons in being present, but his initial statement made me want to scream inside. To not be present in that moment was all that was keeping me from freaking out to the next power, but I knew in my heart he was right. So I forced my mind to stop. I forced it with all of the awareness and training I've had to call it to be still and present. I wish I could say that this solved everything and the rest of the lodge continued without incident, but...yeah. The air grew more stifling as the humidity thickened. Cupping my hands around my face helped, as my exhalation was cooler than the air around me, offering my some refuge in my state of being. That quickly grew to be not enough, so I went to the only source of coolness: the ground. A paradox, it was, that my body was heated beyond thought, but my seat and legs were freezing from the frozen ground. As if in prayer, as I very well might have been, I took my head to ground; folding over crossed legs. Yes, relief. Regulate my breathing. Calm the mind. Calm the body. Allow the coolness to spread throughout the body. These are a few choice chants of my own. Somewhere distant from my own presence, Jorge (or was it some else?) began another chant. I reached out of myself and forced a listen. The ritual was also a refuge. Indeed I might be suffering the wrath of my own mind, but I was not suffering alone or needlessly. There was community and like-minded energy that was there supporting me. The chant ended and the door opened. Light not only entered the hut, but also my heart. The knowledge that such dualities (hot and cold, dark and light) could exist side-by-side gave me a sense of comfort. I tried to trace back how long that first 'sweat' as I'll call it, as I'm not sure what to call each interval, lasted and I came up with somewhere between 10 and 20 minutes. Of course, it felt an eternity. I thought of leaving then, too, but I knew I shouldn't. This time not because of ego, or a sense of me needing to prove myself, but because of a yogic teaching that was very influential in my trip to Costa Rica in 2011. A tangent, if you will. In yogic philosophy, there is the concept of 'Tapas.' No, I don't mean appetizers at a restaurant. Tapas refers to that which heats you spiritually. Another translation is 'the fire of transformation.' As my teacher describes it, it is that which rubs you the wrong way; polishing you to a fine finish: Your best and most true self. Well, that's the Cliff's Notes version of it anyway. But the important thing to remember about Tapas is that it leads to 'Tejas', or radiant light. It's the product of the work that goes into a goal or trial. A quick example: if you go to the gym with dedication and discipline (Tapas), in time you will be fit and healthy (Tejas). Now, back to my story. The concept of Tapas, or the fire of transformation kept me in place. My body is stronger than my mind thinks it is. This is a teaching I share with my own students regularly, and here I was testing that science. Fresh hot rocks were brought into the hut, our reprieve exhausted and we were again submerged in the dark humidity. Jorge called to the spirits of the South and my tribulation continued. Not to discount the difficulty of this second 'sweat', but it was much easier than the first. I knew what to do and as the fire-air touched my eyes, nose, and throat I again took myself to ground. When Jorge finished his chant, my fellow sweaters began to make prayers to the creator of all things. A concept that I was able to connect with well. Regardless of religion or lack thereof, don't we all pay homage in someway to the forces and energies that give us life. Even removing the esoteric, gratitude is to be given to that which sustains us. I listened and recited "Ah-ho" in agreeance to their prayers and the minutes crept by until the door again was opened. Relief filled my being at this second break from the sweat. I no longer wanted to flee with every fiber of my being, but had come to terms with my current and present situation. Again, new rocks were brought in and again, we were cast into darkness. Jorge called to the West and prayers were continued to be given to the creator. This third sweat broke me down even more than those previous (maybe it was a tie with the first). Aside from the heat and sweat, I was dealing with the overall discomfort staying seated for so long. My left leg kept falling asleep, and, not to gross you out, the rug I was sitting on was soaked with runoff from my pores. My shorts, too, were completely soaked without a fiber to absorb another drop. I will say, though, I was able to keep my head raised in the heat for much longer than before and even returned to the heat when I had cooled to an acceptable temperature. The final reprieve was much like the ones before it, except that I was starting to feel a little weak. The final plunge into darkness and Jorge called to the spirits of the final corner: North. Prayers continued with the same reverence as before, with another song thrown in for good measure. Seeing my last chance to offer prayer in the ceremony, I added my two cents, offer thanks for my community, family, and friends and asking for the removal of obstacles, adversity, and attachments. The fourth and final sweat ended, and despite wanting to flee from the first second, I was ready to be done. My back was tweaking and I needed oxygen (and lots of it). A funny thought crossed my mind as I emerged from the hut. I've used water as a metaphor for birth in my writing (I know, not the most original idea), but I truly felt as if I were being reborn in the moment. Someone helped me to my feet and shock hit me as my feet hit the bare snow. I shuddered and the ample air caused my head to spin for a moment. I stumbled to my clothes, stripped off my wet shorts, dried off with a towel, and put back on my clothes. I was instantly freezing. Such an extreme from only moments earlier. Once clothed, we all gathered around the fire that had heated the stones and offered out last prayers to the spirits as tobacco pipes were passed around. A potluck ensued thereafter and finally I was back at home, where the air temperature is moderated and hot showers can be found. Now, I must digress that even though I went into detail around the severity of my discomfort, one should not assume that I did not enjoy myself. Quite the opposite really. Sure, it was hard to be stuck in a hot hut surrounded by strangers who were sweating just as profusely as me, if not more. And yes, going from extreme cold to extreme heat and back to extreme cold was taxing to my body and nervous system. But I did learn a lot about myself and how much I really am able to handle. To say the least, when the fires of transformation appear again, I will be ready for them. I reached a level of mind control that would have been out of my grasp a few short years ago and for that, at least, I am grateful. To answer your question, yes, I probably will do this again in the future, just not too soon. Besides, I sense the next fire in my life will present itself when I return to Costa Rica next month. The experience, aside from myself, offers good writing fodder. I'm very inspired by what I went through and the ceremony in general. Don't be surprised if you see it show up in one of my writings in future years. Like I said before, nothing really inspires me more than traditions and rituals. Gratitude to those who made this experience possible and thank you to the forces that were with me in those most vulnerable moments. Ah-ho!
Copyright Jerry Givens 2015 | All rights reserved