What is a Sweat Lodge?
Sweat lodges, for thousands of years, have been sacred spaces of spirituality, community, and healing for many Native American tribes. Today, they also play a vital role in Mountainside’s holistic addiction treatment. These small structures are crafted from natural materials and consist of a wooden skeleton covered with animal hides, tarps, or blankets, and a pit in the center to hold hot rocks called “grandfather stones.” The entrance to the lodge often faces east, the direction of the sunrise, to symbolize spiritual rebirth and new beginnings. Although the lodge may be very dark when you enter, the sweat ceremonies that take place inside foster a deep sense of community, a strong connection to your Higher Power, and a chance to relax and recharge.
What is a Sweat Ceremony?
The main purpose of the sweat lodge is to house sweat ceremonies, which are traditional rituals conducted by important members of indigenous communities to cleanse and heal the mind, body, and spirit. For many cultures, a sweat lodge ceremony, or sweat, symbolizes a return to the womb of Mother Earth. A typical sweat loosely follows these steps:
- Heating the stones – the first step of every sweat is to prepare the “grandfather stones,” a task traditionally assigned to the firekeeper, who selects thermal rocks and then heats them until red-hot over an open flame. These stones are said to embody the power of the Earth.
- Preparing the lodge – while waiting for the stones to heat, you can expect to partake in prayer, song, or ritual to set an intention for the ceremony. Setting an intention is important, as it allows you to direct the healing and introspective power of the sweat to a specific goal. Once ready, the firekeeper places the hot stones into the pit at the center of the lodge.
- Entering the lodge – once the lodge is prepared, you’ll crawl into the dark space and form a circle around the central pit. The firekeeper will pour water infused with aromatics, like sage or tree bark, onto the stones, forming copious amounts of steam that fills the enclosed space, creating a sauna-like environment.
- The ceremony – while immersed in the steam-bath, the sweat leader will guide your group through many series of prayers, songs, conversations, or other rituals. Typically, sweat ceremonies consist of four rounds, between which the hot stones are replaced and refreshed with more infused water. Each round is a time for you to reflect, meditate, and connect with yourself and your Higher Power.
- Exiting the lodge – once the sweat ceremony is complete, you’ll step back into the cool, outdoor air. Sometimes the session may close with additional rituals; other times, it ends when you exit the lodge. Make sure to rehydrate, as intense sweating can drain your body of water.
How can a sweat lodge benefit your health?
Sweat lodges have remained integral parts of Native American healing for thousands of years because of the physical health benefits they can bring in as little as one session:
- Detoxification – by inducing prolonged periods of sweating, the lodge can help expel toxins from the bloodstream through your skin’s pores.
- Cardiovascular health – spending a long time in a heated and steamy environment increases your heart rate, promoting improved blood circulation and tissue nourishment, helping to reduce the risk of future cardiovascular incidents.
- Respiratory health – inhaling steam in the lodge can help clear the respiratory passages of mucus or other accumulated substances. This process can be especially beneficial to smokers and individuals plagued by congestion and respiratory issues.
- Pain relief – much like a heat pack, spending time in a hot space can soothe muscles and joints, providing relief from aches, pains, or chronic disorders like arthritis.
In addition to improving your physical health, engaging in a sweat lodge session can also benefit your mental health:
- Spiritual well-being – if you’re feeling troubled or struggling to stay motivated, participating in a sweat can be a great way to connect with yourself and your Higher Power. Sweat lodges promote a strengthened sense of community, connection to nature, and emotional and spiritual well-being.
- Relaxation and stress relief – the calming heat and steam within the lodge provides a safe space for relaxation, stress reduction, mental clarity, and introspection. Like exercise, the act of sweating can release feel-good endorphins which are natural mood enhancers.
It’s important to remember that sweat lodges are enclosed hot spaces and induce intense sweating. To prevent dehydration, drink lots of water before, during, and after a session. If you have underlying health conditions or take prescription medication, speak with a healthcare professional before participating in a sweat.
How can a sweat lodge help you recover from substance abuse?
Native Americans and addiction treatment centers use the sweat lodge to detoxify the body and spirit and to promote mental and physical healing.
Sweating Out Toxins
One of the most significant benefits of sweating is the natural removal of toxins from the body. For recovering addicts, this can help eliminate traces of harmful substances from the body and ease the withdrawal process. Sweating allows you to expel poisonous heavy metals, which are abundantly present in illicit drugs, as well as other harmful drug byproducts themselves from the body through the pores on the skin’s surface. Spending time in a sweat lodge helped significantly reduce levels of toxins and symptoms of exposure in people exposed to methamphetamine.
Participating in a sweat ceremony can also reduce the risk of relapse. Many in recovery cite sweat lodges as helpful coping mechanisms, because being able to withstand the heat of the ceremony strengthened their mental fortitude and self-control, which helped them resist urges to use again. In fact, in combination with addiction treatment, sweat lodges can reduce the urge to drink or use again by over 20%. “[Sweats] allow me to cleanse myself, especially of those negative thoughts that come back to me from time to time,” described one individual who participated in many sweat ceremonies during his addiction treatment.
Finding Your Community
Sweats are also intimate communal experiences that oftentimes involve sharing details of your recovery with others. Being vulnerable and stepping beyond your comfort zone is important to building a community in recovery and creating a reliable sober support network. Finding community is an important factor in recovery success, as it helps ward off feelings of loneliness, which is a common relapse trigger in those seeking addiction treatment. Sweat ceremonies present a terrific opportunity to find community in recovery, as according to a study from the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, they can increase feelings of community and support by more than 25%.
The sweat lodge has remained a client favorite at Mountainside for years, as they are sacred spaces that enrich spirituality, relaxation, and community. Their benefit to those in recovery and help preventing relapse are why Mountainside is proud to include evidence-backed treatments in its holistic offerings.