Many Pagan spiritual retreats feature sweat lodges. Indeed they seem to have become quite fashionable in the past few years outside of Pagan circles as well. With the recent sweat lodge tragedy at the Spiritual Warrior self help retreat in Arizona, it may be prudent to take a look at sweat lodges and safety issues associated with them. (We can talk about paying $10,000 for a spiritual retreat in some other blog...)
A sweat lodge is a Native American tradition. It is much like a sauna and uses hot rocks and steam inside an tent-like structure to cause the air to heat up which opens up the participants' pores and helps to purify their bodies while inducing a mild trance-like or deeply relaxed state, useful for meditation, group journey and other spiritual applications. It is generally used in preparation for some other ritual. The sweat lodge ceremony is a purification ceremony that helps build a profound connection toward the other participants through shared spiritual experience.
Here are a few simple rules that can be applied to the sweat lodge as well as many other spiritual activities to ensure your safety and enjoyment.
Know Your Body
If you have a heart problem, if you are pregnant, if you have anything weird going on with you- don't do it. Talk to your doctor about your condition and how a sweat will affect it. If your doctor just doesn't get it, use comparisons, like- "what if I spent an extended period of time in a sauna?
Build it Right
Your sweat lodge should be built using natural materials, skins, canvas, blankets, etc. Not plastic. This allows for natural airflow and absorption of excess moisture. Besides, the jury is still out on what sort of toxins drip off warm plastic. Rocks should be heated outside the lodge, not inside.
Never Do it Alone
Use the buddy system. It is difficult to think clearly when one is mentally disengaged. There should always be someone willing to refrain from whatever the activity is to make sure everything goes smoothly. In fact...
Always Have an Experienced Facilitator
The first several times you sweat, you should do so under the guidance not just of someone who has done it before, but of someone who has done it many times and who knows what to expect and watch for and what precautions to take.
Drink Lots of Water
Fasting is often part of the sweat lodge ceremony and indeed can enhance any spiritual experience. However, many people neglect water while fasting. This is very dangerous and pointless. The point of fasting is to purification. You cannot purify yourself without water to flush out the old impurities. And if you go into a sweat without adequate fluids in your system, you run a very real risk of dehydration or heat stroke. Fast or no fast, drink lots of water. Not alcohol. Water.
Don't Overcrowd the Lodge
Sweat lodges generally hold up to a dozen people. You should be able to sit comfortably in the lodge without crowding. Remember the lodge is near air tight. Suffocation is a very real possibility if you overcrowd it. Besides, your facilitator will have a very hard time monitoring more than a dozen people at a time. If you have a large number of of people, have one group watch the fire and heat the rocks while the other group sweats and then switch.
Don't be Afraid to Wuss Out
If your facilitator tells you to leave, do it. Don't fight it. If you start to feel faint, breathless or otherwise uncomfortable, seriously consider leading. You will probably be able to stay longer next time around and your facilitator will likely comfort you with stories of other wusses later. Never EVER give someone a hard time if they need to leave. If you do that, you're an asshole.
If Other People Get Sick - Call it Off
You should not feel sick in a sweat lodge. If other people are feeling ill, besides what can be expected- feeling overheated, claustrophobic, needing to step out for air - call it off. This is a sign that something is wrong. If someone loses consciousness, this is a sign that something is very wrong.
Don't Overdo It
An hour is plenty long for a beginner's sweat lodge ceremony. Test your limits carefully and go for a longer ceremony later if you find an hour is easy for you.
Most of these are very common sense and you may be insulted I bothered to mention them, but the tragedy at the Spiritual Warrior's retreat illustrates that sometimes even the obvious needs to be pointed out. As more details about the event emerge, it seems more and more as if the cause of death here was carelessness and failure to follow the most basic of safety rules. The motive, of course, was greed. What else would have prompted someone to stuff 60 some odd people into a sweat lodge!
I hope that those events don't cast a bad light on sweat lodges (which are really quite safe) and lead to extra scrutiny of other events that feature sweat lodge ceremonies.
I am sure there is more to be said about being safe in the sweat lodge and I welcome comments from others on the subject.