Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Sweat Lodge Is For Everyone: We Are All Related

Book Review: The Sweat Lodge Is For Everyone: We Are All Related   by Irene McGarvie  (Ancient Wisdom Publishing 2009)

This is a nice little book that shows how to make a sweat lodge, some history of sweating, some health benefits of sweating, and lore. Most particular is Native American lore. The author seems to be of a New Age-style and is a Spiritualist Minister. She is not Native American but she learned the Native-style sweat lodge among those in northern Canada.

Sweat Bathing facilities were built by many cultures of the past and present – typically with available materials with heat and moisture preferences related to the climate in which they lived. The Finns prefer a dry heat. The Islam Hammam baths made a cooler and steamier heat.   

Sweat Lodge is an experience of the power of fire and water. The rocks hold the energy of the fire at heat. When water is poured over them they give off the energy of water as steam. So the energy of fire is stored and them given off as the energy of water. The steam is the spirit breath. “The Finns call this vapor “loyly,” or “spirit of life”. Some American Indians call this spirit “Manitou”. In Native cultures the warm, dark, and moist environment of the Sweat Lodge represents the womb of Mother Earth.

Sweat has mythological properties as a magickal substance. “In some warrior societies young men would drink the sweat of renowned warriors so that they too might become strong and fearless.” “ Before a marriage, Russian peasants would sometimes concoct an aphrodisiac for the groom made with vodka and sweat from the bride-to-be.” There are several stories from mythology of beings created from sweat, sometimes the first beings.

There is some interesting info on the Russian form of sweat bath called the Bania. In the Russian form it is not uncommon to sip vodka, pour it on the rocks for an intoxicating steam, and poyr it on the body as an astringent. An unruly spirit called the Bannik is said to live in the Russian bath house. The bannik is appeased by keeping the bania clean and supplied with firewood, water, and birch twigs (for flogging massage). The custom is to greet the bannik when entering and leaving. The Russian Bania was utilized in rites of birth, marriage, and death. Babies were birthed in the Bania – thought to ward of disease and problems. In the Marriage Bania the groom and bride first bathed separately with friends, the grooms bania being more festive with alcohol and the brides being more solemn. A traditional engagement gift to the bride from the groom was soap and a birch whisk. Traditionally the groom would carry the bride over the threshold of the bania. Since children were born there and still-born children were buried there, this was thought to be preventative to that happening to the couple. The bania was also used to care for the dead: “To prepare a Russian soul for its next life, the body would be washed in the bania and placed in a coffin, a pillow would be stuffed with birch leaves and the coffin abundantly supplied with birch twigs.” Communal bathing after the burial was also practiced to help deal with grief. Another communal bath was convened after 40 days – the length of time for the soul to travel through the Otherworld and was celebrated with socializing and toasting. The Finns are known for their saunas. Since they lived off the land and had a short growing season the warm bath was useful to sooth and revitalize sore muscles. Children were born their and old people brought there to die. People would be a sauna and live in it while building their house.  Men, women, and children use the sauna together. As nudity is not taboo in these places people would socialize nude in the sauna. The Finns believe in the healing power of the sauna. An old saying was that the sauna is the poor man’s apothecary. High standards of social conduct were expected in the sauna – possibly influenced by Christian principles.

Sweat baths of the Mayans, Pacific Coast tribes, Swedes, Germans, Celts, Greeks, Romans, and Islamic peoples are also mentioned. The Greek baths were apparently mostly for men. Carvings of the Gorgon Medusa were found atop Greek baths. The Romans had steam rooms, dry heat, and hot baths. Roman bathing was a long process beginning with exercise to stimulate the circulation. Then one would proceed from cooler to hotter rooms and waters. Then one would scrape away dead skin with a metal tool called a strigil. Finally there was a dip in cold water and some relaxing with refreshments in an outer area.

The Islamic sweat bath, or Hammam, was first endorsed by Mohammed. “The Islamic form of sweat bathing is a five-step process. The first step of the process involves the preparation of the body with heat; the second step involves vigorous massage; the third step involves shaving and removing dead skin; the fourth step is a vigorous soaping; and the process ends with the fifth step, where the bather relaxes and cools off with refreshments while lounging on couches in a rest hall.” The Turkish Bath is one form of this and was likely influenced by the Roman Bath. At first women were not allowed to bath but then separate men’s and women’s baths were introduced. Socializing is a big function in the baths and in some places if a husband prevents his wife from visiting the hammam it is grounds for divorce.

The rest of the book is devoted to Native American sweat practices and spirituality. The Sweat Lodge was one of the ceremonies the Europeans suppressed and banned. A quick primer is given on common Native American symbology: the notion of balance and harmony with nature, inter-relatedness, the 7 sacred directions including the center of the Medicine Wheel, the idea that we are spiritual beings on a human journey, and the role of male and female. The correspondences for the directions given are: east = new beginnings; west = rest; south = warmth, growth, harmony, interrelatedness; north = courage, strength, patience, endurance; above = Father Sky; below = Mother Earth; the center is the heart of each being. Regarding gender it was thought that men are more adept in the physical world while women are more adept in the hidden or spiritual world. Women were said to have less need for the sweat lodge since they were purified by the monthly menstrual cycle. People with bi-gender qualities were often thought to be blessed. “Homosexuals and transsexuals were considered to be especially gifted. They were thought to be people who had two souls in one body and could therefore represent both sexes.”  Other well-known Native American rites are covered in the book such as the pipe ceremony, the sundance, the vision quest, the spirit calling ceremony, and the potlach (ritual gift exchange). The trees who give branches for the frame of the sweat lodge are the “standing people.” The stones are called, “the stone people.” It is said that the stones record all the thoughts, energy, and actions of a place throughout time.

Next are instructions and ideas for building the sweat lodge. Typically a hole is dug for the stones and the earth from the hole is placed as an altar between the door of the lodge and the fire where the stones are heated. The lodge is typically made of willow and sometimes aspen. I have made them out of maple. For my current one I found a sugar maple tree that had been cut down but re-sprouted about 3 dozen new quarter-sized trunks. I could cut what I needed without destroying the tree. For covering I use tarps and blankets. It is sometimes hard to keep the light out during the day and sometimes hard to seal all the air leaks in cold weather. Small stones hold the covers to the ground. The door is placed so that one needs to crawl in. Hot rocks from the fire can be brought in with a pitchfork, antlers, or a grill top – as I use. Typically the ceremony involves some smudging with white sage, sweet grass, and cedar, Cedar is also used in the fire as a sacred wood. Often, as I have experienced, rocks will crack in the fire. It is recommended to use igneous rocks like granite, volcanic lava rocks, but also limestone is OK. Typically these are large rounded boulders – usually brought by glaciers from the Canadian Shield basement rocks. Typically, after the rocks are brought in, some of the aforementioned herbs are sprinkled onto the hot rocks as incense. If the rocks are well-heated one should see them glowing red in the darkness. When water is poured on them the steam begins along with its characteristic sound. If the lodge is well-sealed, the rocks are hot, and there is plenty of water poured, the lodge can get quite hot. A hot lodge is sometimes called a warrior’s sweat. I typically do the lodge alone and naked. One may lay branches an/or leaves on the floor of the lodge, or perhaps small pads of bamboo or some natural substance to keep from getting dirty. I usually bring my flute, rattles, and a big Remo drum that is not affected by the heat and moisture – so it keeps tone very well. Basically with 5 or 7 rocks to a session – in my small 2-3 person lodge it takes about 15-20 min per session. I usually end up doing 2 or 3 sessions – as that is all I have enough rocks for and time is often a factor as well – since it usually takes about two hours of a nice big fire with hot coals to heat up the rocks. Traditionally there are 4 sessions. What I do is to drum, flute, play shakers, chant, and meditate. If the lodge is hot you will sweat quite a bit. The first time I did a sweat lodge it was hot and I got a little light-headed. I have heard also of people getting sick and having to go out and vomit – maybe due to the smoke. Tobacco is also traditionally used – but I have not used it in my lodge. It is good to drink water and be hydrated before and between sessions. Fasting before the lodge is also traditional. Between sessions one may cool off by bathing in a stream or pouring water over oneself, or even rolling in the snow – I am looking forward to trying that one this year! The author recommends laying down for a minute or two after one comes out of the lodge to acclimate.

Next the author goes into the traditional meanings of totem animals including mammals, reptiles/amphibians, birds, and insects. Some people have visions during the lodge. I have not had any significant ones myself. It is thought that forming a strong intention to have a vision helps one to have one. I have experienced some success with this in dreams.

Next we come to sweating and health. Although the author states that they have been very few case s of someone harmed by a sweat lodge – soon after this book was published there was a the tragedy of people dying in a New Age sweat that was far too extended. Sweating at this level can mimic the actions of a fever which is the body’s way of reacting to remove biological invaders. Sweating is said to assist in removing toxins and is traditionally an activity of purification and healing. Sweating is thought to be good for the skin. It is estimated that a quart of sweat can be produced during a sweat lodge – although that seems a bit high to me. Sweating is known to help remove toxic heavy metals and excess salts. For these reasons it is often prescribed in Europe (as sauna) to assist those on kidney machines and those with hypertension (to help remove the salts). The artificial fever effect is also thought to help heal disease. There is also an increased metabolic rate in fever conditions. Sweating is also thought to regulate body temperature so that in cold weather it is warming and in hot weather it can be cooling. Sweat bathing is also considered to be good for stings and bites. I have read though in an older text about Native traditions written by European observers that sweating during certain diseases (such as the rampant smallpox among the Native populations several centuries ago) may have actually worsened the disease. The text was derogatory – suggesting that sweating was based on ignorance and had no healing qualities. Perhaps it did worsen smallpox – I do not know – but the positive health benefits of sweating are now very well established in the medical world.

Willow can be used in the sweat lodge. Sometimes it is put in the water and also drunk with water. Willow contains salicylic acid – very similar to aspirin and so has analgesic effects, blood-thinning effects, and topical anesthetic affects as well. Although women were not required to do sweat lodge,  there were and are traditional “moon lodges” when women sweat together during their menstruating time. Sweat bathing may also help to relieve discomforts associated with pregnancy and menopause. In Finland it was thought that the sauna helps the ability to make breast milk.

Another benefit of the sweat lodge is that it produces great quantities of negative ions. This is ensued by pouring the water on the hot rocks. Negative ion therapy has quite a bit of confirming research. Some other sources of negative ions are fire, waterfalls and fountains, salt – particularly heated salt lamps, and electronic machines that generate negative ions.

Finally, the author recounts some personal experiences and observations. For her, overcoming fear was one aspect of the lodge – as the heat can be intimidating. She notes three lessons that she learned from the Sweat Lodge:

1)      What you focus on grows
2)      Live in the moment
3)      You are stronger than you think

Overall – this is a nice, useful, practical, and easy-to-read little book.

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