Tradition dictates that nothing should come into the sweat lodge that doesn't have ceremonial significance, including clothing. For this reason, sweats were traditionally conducted in the nude. Today, nude sweats are male-only. In contemporary sweats, a cotton towel or, for women, a loose fitting cotton dress is common. Synthetic fabrics are not recommended -- they can get warm enough to melt to your skin. For the same reason, contact lenses shouldn't be worn in the sweat lodge. Metal jewelry can get hot enough to burn the skin, so it should be left at home as well. In a traditional sweat, the temperature inside a sweat lodge is hard to regulate, but you can expect it to be at least 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius).
What to Expect in a Sweat Lodge
If you've made arrangements to participate in a sweat, you're probably wondering what to expect. It's important to realize that each sweat lodge experience is different. In general, you can expect it to last several hours. The process may actually begin several hours before you enter the sweat lodge. For example, some devotees recommend fasting or abstaining from alcohol or certain foods before entering the sweat lodge.
Inside the sweat lodge, a person called the firekeeper tends to the fire and is in charge of adding stones to the lodge. This person will begin by placing seven rocks in a hole in the center of the lodge. As the rocks are placed in the lodge, the participants may add sweet grass, cedar or tobacco to the stones. These are considered offerings.
In addition to the firekeeper, there may be one or two other leaders who remain outside the sweat lodge to prevent people from entering during the sweat and to assist any participants who need help. Another person stands inside the door of the sweat lodge, and this person is in charge of maintaining etiquette while the sweat is in progress.
Once the sweat begins, you may experience total silence, chanting, prayers, drumming or any combination of these things. Each sweat lodge has its own traditions. If any of these things sound like they would make you uncomfortable, ask ahead about what will go on so you'll know what to expect.
After about 45 minutes, you can expect the firekeeper to add more hot stones to the fire. He may also pull out the older stones or brush the ash off of them. This is to keep the smoke inside the sweat lodge at a comfortable level.
When the firekeeper opens the door of the sweat lodge to add more rocks, it's acceptable to step outside and get some fresh air and cool down. While the strict devotee of sweats may frown on this, it often takes several experiences in the sweat lodge before one is comfortable with sitting inside for several hours. Of course, if you become uncomfortable inside the sweat lodge and need to leave at any time, you may do so. If you do need to leave, it's best to leave as quietly as possible and not return until there's a break in the ceremony.