Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ceremonial Sauna: My First Sweat Lodge Experience

When weakness is cleared from your Heart
your prayer will reach the glorious Beloved.

Friday afternoon.
I was second to last to escape the office at 5:01.  After a quick stop at Sunflower Market for bread and cheese, I shoehorned my way into the next lane and the next, and headed home.  Friday early evening traffic was abhorrent.  Cars oozed out of left turn lanes at every intersection. It was as if time was racing while the cars ahead of me stood still.  In my mind, I was rehearsing the checklist of things to bring to the sweat lodge.  Swimsuit, sarong, towels, food, change of clothes for later, and an offering.

My religious beliefs, in a nutshell.
As I drove, I told my friend Connie that I was going to a sweat lodge.  Immediately, she was concerned I was leaving Catholicism.  Truthfully, while Catholicism is always in my heart, it hasn’t been in my schedule for a while, like maybe since Easter.  I wonder if I subconsciously worry about lightning striking after spending Easter mass in the very back of the sanctuary on the floor chatting and laughing with my favorite mistake til we finally left after communion.  And I am very quick to acknowledge that I embrace my truth in all religions and spiritual practices.  I was Mormon when I was married and would be lying if I didn’t admit I agree with a few facets of Mormonism to this day.  My new love is Rumi, a 13th century Persian Muslim poet who was dubbed the most popular poet in America in 2007.  Rumi isn't a religion, per se, but I read him religiously and rejoice at his words.  All of that said, I am a spiritual seeker and find myself in thankful awe at the organization of Earth and its inhabitants in such poetic and even sometimes painfully chaotic fashion.  It's a creation I cannot explain.  I feel the influence of God and angels in my life, even on the bad days, but I'm hardly evangelical.  I light candles and meditate on the couch at home.  And so the sweat lodge was an extension of my spirituality, not my religious preference. 

A former boyfriend had gone to a sweat lodge in Park City a couple years ago.  I was intrigued by his description of native chanting in a heated structure.   I was hoping to go with him sometime, but I more or less lost touch with said boyfriend and his friend who promised to invite me to their sweat lodge "soon."  So it caught my attention when I met Phillip and learned about his sweat lodge work.

My grand entrance.
True to form, I arrived at my destination in a whirl.  The address was on a familiar thoroughfare, and I only got a tiny bit lost.  I was on the phone so not as fully engaged in getting there as I should have been.  Still, I wanted to be early to connect with a friend I'd not yet met in person and get oriented for the evening's journey.

When I saw a few people encircling the crackling fire, I knew I was in the right place.  Phillip motioned me and others toward the entrance to the unassuming backyard off 7800 South in Sandy.  Who would've ever thought all this goes on right behind Harmons???  I was directed to walk behind the sweat lodge, which was a round, shorter than me structure no more than 16 feet in diameter.

I was the only sweat lodge attendee dressed in a hot pink bathing suit, purple and ivory tie dye cover up dress, navy clogs and a double breasted navy wool pea coat.  Imagine.  With my hot pink paisley bag toting all the requisite items on my aforementioned list, I looked like a bag lady extraordinaire.  I made a comment to Phillip that my outfit reflected his instructions on the email he sent about the sweat lodge.  Everyone else had brought clothes to change in a nearby teepee.

I met Kim, my facebook pre-friend, and also Gypsy, Brad, Alan, and Brent and others.  Elizabeth greeted me and invited me to wave smoking sage onto myself to clear any negative energy.  I thought about and tried to release the negative energy of the day and the week as she walked around me with the receptacle of sage waving the thin puffs of smoke towards me.

Settling in.
The light and motion of the fire mesmerized me.  Although I was surrounded by others, I was in my own world of thoughts, feelings, and concerns.  It felt so good just to sit there and try to make sense of the events of the week.  I always think I know where my life is heading, but in reality, life can be a blind journey, in my case, oft taken at 90 miles per hour.  The unexpected surprises us and creates new risks and opportunities. 

As we sat by the fire, a few more people walked into the circle.  I asked for water and a kind gentleman named Hanley offered his watery green juice.  "It has celery, cilantro, and other green vegetables in it," he said as he handed the jar to me.  It was sooooooooooo good!   "So you have to send me the recipe," I said, hinting we should become Facebook friends.  He advised that he mixes green veggies – whatever ones he has on hand -- in a juicer.  That easy.  The cilantro really enhances the flavor and it quenched my thirst, to be sure.

Orientation to the sweat lodge.
Phillip gave an introduction to the sweat lodge or “ceremonial sauna.”   Sweat lodges are held on every continent of the world and date back to the 5th century BC.  The ceremonies include drumming, singing, and chanting, and vary depending on who is leading the ceremonies.  The hot rocks are called “Grandfathers” and we were told to refer to Phillip as "Uncle."  He told us there would be four rounds.  I assumed these were not like a round of golf or we'd be there all night.  Someone did ask how long the sweat lodge ceremony would last and he said an hour and a half or two hours. 

"Is the sweat lodge as hot as Bikram yoga?" I asked.   Bikram was my staple activity during my seven month tenure of FUNemployment.  "Yes, but not the same and not consistently," he said as he explained that the heat came in waves then subsided.  Phillip asked if any of those attending were family or in a dating relationship.   The protocol is to keep those in familial or dating relationships apart and not even across from each other to prevent their energies from crossing or connecting.  I also asked if we could exit the sweat lodge if the heat was unbearable.  Yes, but once out, the only time to re-enter is after that "round" has ended.

We changed into our "sweat" attire of minimalist, light clothing.  For me, this meant merely removing my clogs and coat.  We huddled around the campfire with towels wrapped around our shoulders.  It was nearly dark.  Several men were adding wood to the fire.  Phillip instructed us on how to enter the sweat lodge.  Very carefully, unless you are a midget, as the ceiling doesn't reach four and a half feet.  Phillip went in first, followed by the ladies.  The gentlemen were last to enter.  We each grabbed a maraca-like shaker and once again waved sage onto ourselves before entering the dark sweat lodge.

Round 1: Ask.
All the attendees moved through the sweat lodge bent over or crawling in a counterclockwise line.  We laid out towels and blankets.  I could see the shadows of prayer ties on the ceiling.  Phillip explained there were 104 prayer ties.  Once we were all seated on the earth, we sat in silence as six glowing rocks were brought to the door of the lodge, one by one.  Phillip used antlers to place the hot stones on the earth in the center of the room.  Each rock was sprinkled with cedar, then the cedar was brushed with sweet grass against the hot stone.  When the seventh rock was brought to the door, Phillip said "Welcome, Grandfather!" and we all chimed in. 

Then the door to the sweat lodge was closed.  The glow of the rocks was the only light we could see.  The darkness of the sweat lodge was convenient.  Water was poured on the stones to create steam.  As Phillip explained, the darkness gave us a sort of invisibility to each other that allowed us to "do what we needed to do, release what we needed to release" without self-consciousness.   And because of the darkness, I was not nearly so concerned about whether my swimsuit cover up was really covering me.

Before the ceremony was underway, we heard the gentle tap of rain on the roof of the structure.  It made me feel that much more warm and cozy inside the heated room.

Round one was about asking.  How do we receive if we don't ask?  This basic principle is found in the Bible, "ask and you shall receive," and is quite prevalent in other religious teachings.  Several years ago, I learned Vedic mantras, an oral tradition taught in Hindu temples.  Mantras, too, are a means of asking.  Even new age spirituality such as manifesting or law of attraction is replete with examples of intentions, or asking the Universe to supply a desire.

Phillip opened with a song.  I cannot come close to remembering the words of the many songs sung during the course of the evening.  Gentle and powerful in tone, the songs were akin to chanting, except the chords spanned a wider range at times.  For those who were conserving energy, using the shaker was an alternative to singing.  The language, for the most part, was Lakota, one of three major dialects of the Sioux Indians.  Lakota is also a city in North Dakota.

At the end of each song and other part of the ceremony, we said "Aho" which roughly translated means "I understand" or "cool beans."  The yoga class equivalent would be “Namaste,” except we said “Aho” several times in each round.   I did a little research and learned that "Aho" is sometimes is used to say goodbye or shortened to "Ho."  It's one of those words where you want to be sure you know what you're saying lest it be taken out of context.

When round one concluded, Phillip opened the door and a gush of cool air entered the sweat lodge.  Relief.  With the door opened, seven more hot stones were brought to the doorway, and Phillip moved them to the center of the room with antlers.  We said "Welcome, Grandfather," or "Welcome, Grandmother" to each one.  Again, the glowing stones were sprinkled with cedar and brushed with sweet grass.

Round 2: Relationships with others.
When the seventh stone was in place, the door was closed and round two began.  Phillip poured water on the stones to create steam.  We were told to consider our relationships.  Family.  Children.  Friends.  Spouses.  Lovers.  Past.  Present.  Future.  It was a time to reflect on my relationships with others and to be amazed that my journey has put the right people into my life at just the right time.  And it was also a time to ponder that maybe I was in the lives of others for a reason.  After we sang a song, we were told to verbalize our intentions with respect to our relationships.   All at once.  Aloud.  The room was abuzz with voices.  I heard a couple of people softly crying.  I really couldn't hear what the women next to me were saying so I chimed in and voiced a few intentions for people close to me.  It felt good.  We concluded with more singing.

If you do your homework on Google (the font of all knowledge presently), you'll see that sweat lodges have a slightly checkered history.  People have died from exposure to excessive heat and smoke.  By the end of the second round, I was sweating more profusely but at no time was the heat intolerable for me.  I could feel that my entire dress was drenched as was my swimsuit underneath, but I felt fine, not dizzy or lightheaded.  Because of the water poured on the hot rocks, the room was full of steam which was scented by the cedar and sweet grass.  In addition to any spiritual benefits, I am sure that my sweat lodge experience was at least on par with a facial at one of my 85% off Groupon day spas.  My endorsement herein is not for all sweat lodges, only for the one I attended last night.  I would suggest you know how to exit the sweat lodge before you set foot in it and also that you ask the sweat lodge leader what precautions have been taken.

Round 3: Relationship with self.
Another seven stones were brought into the sweat lodge.  We were told that round three was to highlight us as individuals and to allow us to release those things that no longer served us.  It was about forgiveness, letting go, moving to a better place.  After a song, we verbalized simultaneously.  Then there was a shrill scream.  And another.  And another.  It was good that I didn't jump from the alarm of it or I'd have gone through the roof.  All the screams were from the same woman whose name escapes me and she probably wouldn’t want it known anyway.  Actually, there was one tiny little thing that I needed to release.  Sometimes the little demons are the most powerful and potent ... and toxic.  Die negativity, die.  Let it go.

I thought of August 2011.  I found myself questioning everything in my life, most of all, my recent attitudes and behavior.  I lapsed into a bit of a bluesy depression, which I learned later in the month may have been triggered in part by anemia.  Ladies, take your iron pills.  And see a doctor if you need to.  Please.  Anyway, during my sad and sorry ponderance, I bemoaned that I was too self absorbed and not nearly so caring and generous as my ideal me and that life was becoming one pleasure seeking event followed by the next, and maybe a few Facebook posts about all of it.  My passion for children and for helping single moms had been abandoned to the next big thing, or so it seemed.  Once I built up my iron and got over pneumonia, I knew that the people who needed my help were right in front of me and that sometimes even a kind word makes a whole lot of difference in someone’s day.  And I asked at work when we were going to start teaching Junior Achievement in the local schools again.

When the door was opened at the end of round three, we saw that it was snowing.  The person who remained outside with the fire had long since taken our shoes into the tent nearby to keep them warm and dry.  White flakes floated to the earth outside as seven more hot stones were brought to the doorway. 

I asked why the stones were also referred to as "Grandmother."  The stones represent the Creator universally speaking, so depending on each person's beliefs, that could be a man or a woman or other.  I was so reminded of my friend Michele's words "God is a woman!" in reference to my account of one of my previous romantic relationships.  Phillip further explained that the ceremony was not confined to one religious tradition and in his previous sweat lodges, he had sung songs even from Mormonism, with active Mormons in attendance.  He’d used Islamic and Buddhist chants and songs from other religions in his ceremonies.

Round 4: Gratitude.
Round four centered on gratitude.  Until we are thankful for what we have, we are unprepared to receive more.  This is a tough message for someone going through a tough time, where another day means another disappointment.  Phillip reminded us that the energy of each circle of attendees was unique, even if we attend another sweat lodge.  What a great remembrance that no matter where we are, we should savor every second of our journey.  We sang still more songs, including a chant to the song "Amazing Grace" near the conclusion of the ceremony.  We took a few deep breaths and the sweat lodge ceremony was ended.  So many beautiful words of wisdom were spoken and resonated with me, only to be lost to my memory as I prepared to exit.  Inside I was rejoicing because I made it through the ceremony, and because I could not wait to eat the multigrain bread and jalepeno cheddar cheese I brought to share with the group.

Back to reality.
Phillip instructed us to leave the sweat lodge carefully because we were somewhat "removed" from our bodies.  He admonished that standing up too quickly may result in falling down.  The women scurried to the tent for a bit of warmth.  We changed to dry clothes.  Soon everyone was in the tent, pulling fruit, bread, cheese, and even KFC fried chicken out of bags and into the center of our circle.  Food hadn't tasted quite this good for years.  It was simple but surreal.  We talked quietly and one by one, people began to leave.  The night was ended.

My new friend Kim and I walked to our cars as big flakes of snow fell on our heads.  I felt better, lighter, and relaxed, almost blissful.  After meditation, burdens and frustrations were lifted and taken from me.  I doubt I’ll be a regular monthly sweat lodge attendee, but I will definitely go again and encourage my Salt Lake friends to go.  To transcend beyond the material world for two hours was a sublime way to spend a Friday evening.  Aho.


  1. I'm reliving the experience again through your words. Thanks so much for writing this.

  2. That experience was one of a kind and surreal. Aside from being relaxing, this ceremonial sauna soothes your personality as well. It also helps you be in touch with yourself, and let go of your burdens. Who wouldn’t want to experience that? Thanks for sharing this, Felicia!