How Sweat Lodges Work


A Native American sweat lodge.
A Native American sweat lodge.
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Let's say you're a wet rag. Not only that -- ­l­et's say you're a dirty wet rag, a rag that was used to clean the grime off the rims of a car. If someone picked you up and twisted you really hard, y­ou'd release a rain shower of water. And, along with that water, would trickle grime. That's kind of what it feels like when your body breaks a good sweat. It's dirty business, but when it's all said and done, you feel cleaner, fresher, newer. You feel as if the grime has been wrung from your body.

The desire to "sweat it off" is no new thing. Throughout history, humans have found ways to sweat out their demons, and sweat lodges are just one example of that fact. In the United States, sweat lodges are largely associated with Native American tradition. But they've been seen in cultures around the world. Ancient stone buildings in Ireland suggest they appreciated the benefits of sweating -- same thing in rural China, Russia and Mongolia, and the Polish make use of sweat lodges in folk medicine. The oldest sweat lodge evidence dates back to 5 B.C. It appears that the Scythians, a nomadic group that populated today's southern Russia, constructed sweat lodges from poles and woven cloth.

Cultures use sweats for a variety of reasons. Within the Native American culture, sweats may be used to give thanks, to cleanse, to heal, to celebrate or to mourn. Some tribes use sweats to seek wisdom and counsel or to elicit visions. Historically, Native Americans believed that the sweat had sacred properties. For this reason, many of the Christians that arrived in America forced the Native Americans to abandon their sweat rituals. Although some tribes totally gave up the practice, others, such as the Crow, held on to their traditions of sweating.

­Sweat lodges are similar in some ways to saunas. Rocks generate heat in the room, and added water creates steam. But while people may limit their sauna time to 20 minutes, it's not unusual to spend several hours in a sweat lodge. Some people think the ceremonial aspects of the sweat lodge experience make it easier to endure the heat for longer. But that's not always the case for everyone.

Will you overheat? Is it good for your health? So many questions.

Sweat Lodge Construction

Native American sweat ­lodges come in several different shapes. A lodge may be shaped like a traditional teepee, or it may be round or oval. Some sweat lodges are built by digging a hole in the earth and then covering the area with wooden planks or tree trunks.

­The heat inside the sweat lodge is generated from large rocks. The rocks are heated outside of the sweat lodge in a large fire. Before the sweat begins, several of the rocks are put inside the lodge. Additional rocks are added throughout the sweat to keep the temperature in the sweat lodge high. Temperatures are usually around 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius).

If the participants want a particularly hot lodge, water is added to the rocks to create more steam and heat. But water-logged rocks cool down more quickly than dry rocks, so they have to be replaced with new ones more often.

Most of time, the door of the sweat lodge faces the fire outside where the rocks are heated. In traditional sweat lodges, the building may be oriented to show appreciation for a nearby lake, mountain or the sky. Traditional sweat lodges may also have strict codes of conduct during their construction. Some sweat lodges are built in silence. In other cases, the builders may fast during the construction, or a person beats drums and chants.

A growing number of commercial sweat lodges are hitting the marketplace. These lodges don't usually resemble the sweat lodges of Native American culture. Instead, they're often added to spas and resorts. They usually are designed to fit in with the landscape and attempt to present a relatively authentic sweat lodge experience to the participants.

While the sweating experience at a commercial lodge may be satisfactory for some, most devotees prefer the traditional Native American sweat.

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.

Sweat Lodge Hazards

Tradition dictates that the sweat lodge experience last for several hours. Propone­nts of sweat lodges believe that the ceremonial aspects of sweat lodges make the heat easier to tolerate than if you were to sit in a standard sauna.

Everyone is different. While some people can tolerate the sweat lodge experience for hours the first time they participate, others find that 45 minutes is the limit. Some people participate in sweats for years only to develop intolerance for the heat as they age. Those participating in a sweat to treat a medical condition should be particularly cautious. Sweats are considered an effective treatment for head colds, sinus problems, arthritis, asthma and some skin conditions, but it's important to listen to your body.

­There are very real health risks that can come with participating in sweats. The intense exposure to heat can result in dehydration or heat exhaustion. If you don't recognize the warning signs of these conditions, you might not step out of the sweat lodge in time. Don't try to tough it out if you experience a headache, muscle weakness, nausea, a dry or sticky mouth, or fatigue. These can be signs of either dehydration or heat exhaustion.

The heat is not the only safety concern in a sweat lodge. If the people running the sweat lodge are inexperienced, they may choose rocks that are wet or contain air pockets. When these rocks are heated, they can develop cracks and, reportedly, even explode. If a hot rock explodes inside the sweat lodge, extremely hot fragments of sharp rock shoot through the air. This can be prevented by using dry river rocks and not reusing rocks for more than one sweat.

A final concern is the cedar, sweet grass and tobacco that may be thrown onto the stones. If these offerings were treated with pesticides when they were grown, that pesticide residue can become airborne and will be inhaled by people participating in the sweat. It makes sense to ask if the offerings were grown organically and, if not, whether you can participate in a sweat where they aren't used.

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Sources

  • Bruchac, Joseph. "The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends." 1993.
  • Bucko, Raymond A. "The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge." 1998.
  • MaGee, Ed. "Mother Earth Spirituality: Native American Paths to Healing Ourselves and Our World." 1990.