Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Sweating It Out in a Sweat Lodge

Written by Denise DeSpirito
When the colder months creep on my brain seems to freeze and turn gray like the winter sky, and I fruitlessly seek mental clarity. My body feels crunchy and stuffed up. I yoga. I gym. I do a juice cleanse. I walk through cold parks and marvel at the little bits of green that remain. But I find myself seeking some sort of renewal in a way that combines the mental, physical, and natural world at once. The combination seems hard to come by in my New York City home, and so I end up in rural North Carolina ushering in the New Year in a dark, hot dome with my hands in the dirt, sweat pouring out of me, and the sound of strangers praying.
The dome, a sweat lodge, is ten feet in diameter built from bent bamboo sticks and covered with blankets and tarps. In the center, a shallow pit that holds hot stones that water and herbs are splashed on to create billows of steam. About a week prior to the lodge ceremony I found myself in a steam room at Spa Castle, a giant spa oasis in NYC, trying to cleanse myself of my holiday partying, and there I realized: I hate steam. Yes, I enjoy saunas, the dry kind where I can feel myself sweating, but steam is the worst. Where does the steam end and my sweat begin?

With my eyes closed I picture the steam curling around my neck and into my throat slowly choking me and woops, it’s too bad I already bought that plane ticket to North Carolina, because this does not seem like a fun way to start the New Year . . .

So, back to the dome. Trying to put the thought of steam choking me out of my head, and trying to breathe even and deeply, I surrender to whatever I have signed myself up for as I enter the sweat lodge crawling on my hands and knees. The twenty-eight participants form two circular rows in the dome, and I only know one of them previously. Regardless, they feel like childhood friends having just spent the evening sharing a potluck, drumming in a circle, and tying medicine bundles together—little squares of felt with the traditional Native American offering of tobacco inside blessed with silent prayers for the New Year that we will burn at the conclusion of the ceremony. I have mine on my neck and nervously finger it while I cross my legs and find a “comfortable seat,” a phrase my yoga teacher always uses, in the lodge. I settle in, directly on the ground feeling the cool dirt beneath my long skirt.

The lodge is led by a woman in the Cherokee tradition. As a firekeeper brings stones in one by one, our leader speaks to us about thanking them for imparting their ancient wisdom in the lodge, as they are our oldest ancestors on this planet. Then, the door to the lodge is closed and we are enveloped in a darkness so dark I think I must have my eyes closed with a sleep mask covering them. As water is generously sprinkled on the rocks to begin the ceremony the steam rises and I hear a voice say, “I need to leave.” I immediately think, “Did I say that out loud?” Panic has set in, and the steam already feels like it’s hindering my breathing. But no, it’s someone else.

Earlier in the evening our lodge leader told us if someone needs to leave the lodge we thank them because they are carrying out with them the negative and the past experiences that people are releasing. But once you leave you can’t come back. The woman is hesitant when our leader asks if she is sure, and the firekeeper opens the flap to the lodge. A gust of cool air flows in. My panic dissipates and so it seems does this woman’s own panic because she says she’ll stay and I silently thank her for voicing my own fears. The flap of the lodge closes again and we begin the first of four rounds.

In each round our leader speaks about the direction of the medicine wheel and what it symbolizes, its spirit animal and color. We go around in a circle setting intentions out loud and praying to this direction. East, the first one, seems easiest to me since it symbolizes new beginnings and it is about to be a new year. People talk about shedding old habits and starting anew. Every once in a while someone says something that rings a bell in my head. I think, “Yes! I want that too,” or “I feel that way too!” It is hot but not too hot and I’m sweating but no longer feel the panic of earlier.

As we move into each round, new stones are brought in and some people choose to leave. We thank them for departing and welcome our old stone ancestors. There are some moments that feel like time doesn’t exist. I can’t see my neighbors but hear their voices, zoning in and out of my own world. Sometimes their voices are annoying and I think, “Seriously?! You have been talking for ten minutes now and it’s hot and there are still twenty more people who need to go . . .” And then I catch myself and tell myself a story about patience, and learning it, now!

I hold my hands about five inches from the earth feeling the cool air right above the dirt. At points I rub a bit of the cold soil on my face, then wiping it off with the corner of my tie-dye T-shirt think, “How in the world did I get here?” A women shamelessly asks for a rich husband and a new car and my friend and I laugh and mutter “Yesss.” Who says you can’t ask for material things in the lodge! I cry when we get to the West, themes that ring a little too true for me and issues I have been trying to let go of for years come up. I pass on the final fourth round saying silent thanks to the grandfather and grandmother spirits, then crouch down and rest my head on the dirt floor.

Then our time is up. My clothes are soaked with sweat and we crawl out of the dome. We stand quietly in the cold night by the bonfire and toss in our medicine bundles, the final release of the evening. Having no sense of time I look up and see that the stars and moon in the sky have shifted, later to learn we were inside the lodge for over three hours. I feel energized even though it’s almost 4:00 a.m., and cleansed even though I’m covered in sweat and dirt. The mother’s womb the sweat lodge represents makes complete sense to me now and I feel totally rebirthed, ready for a new year, ready for tomorrow, or just ready for the deepest, most rejuvenating sleep of my life.

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