Sweat Lodge - Great Mystery: Touching the Soul

Kindling the Native Spirit: Sacred Practices for Everyday Life - Denise Linn 2015

Sweat Lodge
Great Mystery: Touching the Soul

Sometimes, after (or before) a vision quest, seekers would go through a sweat-lodge ceremony to gain even greater clarity about their visions. A sweat lodge (or sweat house) is a small enclosure in which hot rocks are brought into the center and participants sit around the rocks as water is poured on them to create steam. The ceremony, along with the heat and darkness, often ignites visions.

The sweat lodge is thought of as a womb, and the hot stones—called “Stone People”—are the coming of life. Heating them in the fire is thought to awaken them and rouse the deep wisdom within them. It takes them to their source, and it’s a reminder of being born in fire. I’ve been in many sweat lodges, and each time the power of the Stone People touches my heart. All stones have innate power, but for me, it’s in the sweat lodge that the power of the stones comes alive.


There are traditions of varying kinds of sweat lodges in many native cultures, including Native American, Norse, African, and Mongolian. Some believe that the true origin was essentially for hygienic purposes, especially in the cold of winter when it would be difficult to bathe because lakes and rivers were frozen. A sweat lodge was a way of staying clean and also staying warm. Perhaps, however, there’s a deep association with physical cleanliness and spiritual cleanliness because in varying cultures, there’s often a spiritual component to these ceremonial bathing experiences. The sweat lodge is said to be Mother Earth’s holy womb. It’s a place to be reborn.

When I was in Finland, I met a man who was a traditional Lapland healer. He talked to me about the sacred power of their sauna (which in many ways is equivalent to our Native American sweat lodge). He said the sauna was a place to connect with God. While I was there I was gifted a traditional saunatonttu (sauna god/sauna spirit) stone statue to place in my sauna and call upon the sacred energies. The Finnish word for the steam created in the sauna is höyry; the original meaning of this word was “spirit, breath, soul.” The ancient tradition of the sauna continues in Finland and Scandinavia, though for the most part, it’s about cleanliness and communal family time. There are, however, still some who honor the old ways in which the sauna was an opportunity to connect with Spirit. To this day, there’s a Finnish expression about sitting as devoutly in the sauna as in church.

Native Americans traditionally constructed their sweat lodges out of bent willow, aspen saplings, or supple branches and constructed the hut in a circular manner—tying together the branches with rawhide or long grasses in such a way that when it’s complete it looks like an upside-down bowl. In ancient times the structure was covered in skins and hides, birch or cedar bark, woven reed mats, or other natural materials, depending on the tribe and the area. My tribe, the Cherokees, made their sweat houses from logs, which were covered with mud, clay, and plant material to create a kind of a mound-like structure. However, today, often blankets, rugs, and tarps are used in most sweat lodges.

Even though it’s not a traditional Maori tradition, some of the elders with whom I spent time in New Zealand had adopted the Native American sweat lodge and found that there was great spiritual value in it. At least one Maori-based community social-service program (specializing in addiction and mental-health treatment interventions for youth) uses a sweat lodge as part of their rehabilitation program. Another type of sweat lodge was created by the pre-Hispanic indigenous people in Mesoamerica and was called a temazcal. It was used for warriors to cleanse the trauma of the battlefield. It was also used for healing and spiritual purposes. Their sweat lodges were permanent rather than the mobile ones created by their North American neighbors. The temazcal was made out of volcanic rock and natural cement and was usually formed into a dome.

Traditionally, once a lodge is created, a large fire is built in the open, into which stones are placed to heat. Most sweat lodges face the entrance to the east, the place of the rising sun and the rising moon. The door also faces the fire pit. A “firekeeper” keeps watch on the fire. Usually after smudging, people enter ceremonially into the small dome-like structure and sit in a circle. Once everyone is seated, prayers are said and the lodge leader calls for the firekeeper to bring the Stone People into the lodge. A “doorkeeper” opens the flap of the lodge door to allow the firekeeper to bring in hot stones. Water is then ceremoniously poured over the hot stones by the lodge leader, which creates a volume of steam. Prayers are said, and songs are sung. Then three more rounds of stones are brought in, each in dedication to the four directions.

You can tell when Spirit is present. It’s palpable. During sweat-lodge experiences, I’ve seen people enter into the “womb” of the lodge and exit transformed. Many miracles occur. A “sweat” (as they’re often called) can be one of the most profound experiences of a person’s life. I know of very few things that can garner the same kind of results as a sweat lodge. If you decide to embark on this tradition, you must be very conscious about who is leading the sweat. This is of great importance. Although the rewards can be great, there are many inherent dangers, such as exploding rocks, falling onto hot rocks, severe dehydration, damage from smoke inhalation, and even death. Choose very wisely. Also if you do go into a sweat lodge, know your own limits and be willing to leave if it’s too hot or uncomfortable. There’s just as much power and value (if not more) in taking a stand for yourself, rather than trying to tough it out to please others.



Not everyone has access to a qualified sweat-lodge leader or, for health reasons, is not able to go through such an experience, so one way to garner a few of the benefits of the sweat lodge is to create what is called a “ceremonial sauna.” This can occur in a sauna or even a steam room. If you have access to a sauna, cleanse yourself beforehand (shower or bathe). You may also want to ceremonially smudge yourself. As you step into the steam room or sauna, sit in the darkness. Be still. Call Spirit. Call your ancestors. Give thanks to the four winds. Say prayers for the people. Open yourself for blessings from the Creator. You can do this by yourself or with friends and family.