It is an undeniable fact that the vaguely defined category of “wellness practices” is well-mined of late, as more and more people are looking to improve their health and general wellbeing. These days, you may have noticed that some of these practices are adapted from cultural traditions, such as smudging or taking ayahuasca. Another recent example of this is the Native American sweat lodge. But before you step into your first sweat, you ought to know that this age-old ritual isn’t some trendy spa treatment. Its intention isn’t glowing skin or a more toned body — it’s deeply sacred and meant to connect you to nature as well as to your own mind, body, and spirit. Because of this, cultural experts say that if you’re interested in trying out this traditional practice, you should be mindful to avoid appropriation, which begins by educating yourself on the importance of sweat lodges to the Native American community as well as the ways to approach them respectfully.
The concept of sweating shows up in various ways within wellness practices. There are infrared blankets, heat-trapping suits, hot yoga classes, and of course, your classic steam rooms and saunas — all intended as a way for you to detoxify the body. If this is your primary goal, sweat lodges are probably not for you. Why? Focusing on the physical element downplays the rich history and intention behind such ceremonies. “Every element of sweat lodge is ceremonial,” explains Ruth H. Robertson, Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer, Tribal Judge, and practitioner of Lakota spirituality. “When and why it is held, how we dress, how we enter, how often we open the door, what prayer songs we sing, how we exit, what rocks are used, how the water is poured, herbs and medicines used throughout, and who is allowed to attend. It is an ancient ritual that has been practiced virtually the same for thousands of years.”
So who is a good candidate to partake in this practice? According to Robertson, someone who isn’t afraid to delve deeply into themselves — physically and spiritually. “Inipi (sweat lodge) is a purification ceremony,” she tells TZR. “It purifies the body, mind, and spirit. It also serves to reconnect us to Mother Earth, as the sweat lodge symbolizes a womb.” Another non-negotiable for someone who enters an authentic sweat lodge? Someone with reverence for the Indigenous history behind it. “As an Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota Sioux) woman, the sweat lodge ceremony is part of my identity — it is who I am,” she continues. “Sweat lodge ceremonies are healing. I may enter the sweat lodge feeling heavily burdened by daily stressors, struggles in my life, or even physical ailments, but I exit having left that weight within the lodge and feeling cleansed and renewed.”
Given that the practice is so significant to Indigenous communities specifically, it begs the question of whether or not it’s even appropriate for non-Natives to participate at all. The answer to this question may differ depending on who you ask (and whoever you ask ought to be someone of Indigenous identity, for starters), though there are many sweat lodges that welcome individuals of all backgrounds.
But as Robertson explains, typically the invitation is intended for those with some existing connection to the Indigenous community. “Usually, when non-Indigenous people participate in a sweat lodge ceremony, it is because they are close associates, married to, or otherwise related to Native individuals or families who practice their traditional beliefs,” she says. “Other non-Indigenous people may be allowed to participate in sweats if they are approved to do so by a medicine person or inipi man (a person who has completed a sundance commitment and has been deemed qualified to run a sweat lodge).” So if you’re not an existing member of the community and you’re concerned with attending respectfully, look for a sweat lodge ceremony that is performed by Native practitioners and be sure to ask in advance if all are welcome.
Now that the intention aspect is clear, you should be aware of the logistics of attending a sweat lodge — starting with what it looks like. While sweat lodge structures can vary in shape and constructions, most commonly these are squat, domed structures made of branches covered in blankets or tarps (or animal hides, depending on how far back you go), as described by Harvard University’s The Pluralism Project. “The construction of a sweat lodge is no casual matter, but an elaborate process,” the resource shares. “Often built in response to a vision, sweat lodges are constructed with careful preparation, with prayer, and with attention to symbolic detail.”
It should be stated that depending on where this ceremony is performed, and who performs it, there will be variations. For example, in some rituals, attendees enter the sweat lodge nude. In many modern instances — including the Lakota Way Healing Center and American Indian Health and Family Services — you may be directed to wear something more specific, such as shorts and a towel for men and a long dress for women. You may also encounter that some sweat lodges do not charge a fee for entry, but in these cases attendees are expected to bring a donation or healthy food offering for the community.
Despite the variations, there are consistencies throughout the practices. While the entire ceremony may go on for days, the “sweating portion” will last a few hours, during which stones are heated until red hot, then brought inside the structure where they are doused with water and/or medicinal herbs. This process repeats for several rounds, and in this time attendees are expected to participate in prayer and/or spiritual discussions that demand introspection. According to The Pluralism Project, these stones represent Indigenous ancestors. “It is said that those who undergo the sweat lodge ceremony together become relatives,” it explains. “Indeed, in the Sioux traditions, participants emerge from the sweat lodge proclaiming, ‘All my relations!’” After this process is complete, attendees may be encouraged to bathe in a cool body of water.
Robertson also emphasizes the fact that the inherent spirituality is what separates the ritual from a standard sauna. “It’s a religious ceremony,” she explains. “To call it anything less is an insult.” Another reason this practice isn’t to be taken lightly is that it can be dangerous when performed improperly, and the Indigenous practitioner points to an instance in Sedona, Arizona, in which a non-Native “self-help guru” led participants through an inauthentic ritual that resulted in two deaths and dozens of hospitalizations. “Inipi is meant to be run by a qualified medicine person who is essentially a traditional doctor,” she adds. “They’ve been trained in the proper way to run a sweat lodge, how to screen participants, and what to do if anything goes awry.”
As for what to expect post-sweat, Robertson says that you may experience instant physical benefits, but beyond that is the connection you could find to yourself and to the world around you. “While sweat can be used to treat physical illness, its primary concern is spiritual,” she tells TZR. “Healing the spirit can and does affect all aspects of oneself.”