The women walked in first and I was between the other two women. We walked clockwise around the fire, past the altar, kneeled and said aho mitakuye oyasin, then crawled into the lodge going clockwise around a pit that would later be filled with hot stones. The Aztec woman was to my right, and another woman to my left. Seven stones were brought in for each of the directions and they burned sweetgrass, one of my favorite smells. It’s sweet yet earthy and it’s one of those smells that feels familiar, like sage or palo santo.
The first round felt lighthearted and warm, but not intensely hot. Four songs were sang, I didn’t know the words so I couldn’t join in but I remember thinking how much I loved it and how I wanted to keep coming and eventually learn the songs so I could sing too. Three people had drums in the lodge. The sound of the drum is so grounding for me. I felt at home.
After the first round they opened the door and cool air came in. Then they added many more stones, I can’t remember if it was 14 or 18 but it was a lot more.
The second round we prayed out loud. I had never done this before. All of the prayers and intentions I had journaled earlier in the day completely left my mind. I said a short prayer when it was my turn. The other prayers were much longer. I tried hard to listen but I was so hot my heart and head were pounding. I started to lay down, earlier I was told that laying down made it less hot. It kind of helped. I must have been hyperventilating though because my arms went tingly and numb and my hands started to involuntarily ball up into fists. That freaked me out. In retrospect I was totally fine. But I didn’t feel fine, so I asked for water halfway through the round. Normally after the prayers we would get water anyway, but since this was my first one I didn’t know that. I drank water and poured some on myself too to cool down.
The third round was the healing round. This was by far the hottest and most intense. Fourteen more stones were placed in the lodge. A chanupa (a ceremonial pipe) went around with red willow in it. I layed down the entire time, which felt like a long time. It got intensely hot and the same numb, tingly feeling happened in my arms. I tried repeating mantras in my mind to stay grounded. It kind of worked. This was the most humbling round for me. I waited for a message from spirit; a sign, a feeling, a vision, something. But what I was expecting never came. What did come instead really surprised me.
After the third round, food that represented each of the four directions came around. Someone explained that we enjoy each bowl passed around so that the spirits can enjoy it too since they do not normally get to experience food. The bowls started with the woman to my left and went clockwise so I was last to receive each bowl. We began with water. Then corn, which is food of the first people and eaten by most tribes. Then, buffalo meat. I’m vegan. Because it started to my left, I knew far in advance what was coming my way. At first I didn’t really know what to do. It felt like it was a part of the ceremony, but at the same time I didn’t think that I would offend anyone if I didn’t eat any of the buffalo meat. I was kind of torn. When the bowl finally got to me I said a little gratitude prayer for the sacrifice of the buffalo. And then I instantly knew that I had to eat some. I thanked it in my mind as I ate it. As I ate this buffalo meat, I felt the spirit of the buffalo. I almost cried. I felt its’ warmth, its’ strength, it’s willingness to sacrifice itself for others. I felt it’s beauty. I can’t express in words the gratitude that I felt. It wasn’t the type of gratitude you feel in your body, it was a deep, spiritual gratitude. It gave me strength.
This was my message from spirit. This was my lesson. Not to start eating meat and change my lifestyle, but to embody the buffalo. To live in service for others. To use my strength, my warmth, my compassion in service to others. Without the sacrifice of the buffalo, the Lakota people would not have survived the harsh winters. So the buffalo is respected, honored, and loved. The next bowl that was passed was a bowl of blueberries. Eating sweet blueberries felt like a celebration. I received my message from spirit in a way that would never happen outside of the sweat lodge.
The fourth round began with 8 stones, fewer than the rounds before and so much less intense. This round felt more celebratory. There were drums and singing again. A few people shared songs from their traditions. The Aztec woman next to me shared hers. Her voice was beautiful and reminded me somehow of childhood. Her song felt like a Christmas song in Spanish that I had forgotten, even though the song wasn’t in Spanish. I felt tears stream down my cheeks and mix with the sweat that had been running down my face all night. I cried the entire time she sang.
When we finally left the lodge, the air felt cool. I then understood what my friend had said about feeling as though you’d been reborn. The lodge itself is warm, dark, and humid - as if we were in the womb of mother earth. I received so many lessons in the lodge, that leaving it felt like being reborn.
There are many benefits to doing a sweat lodge ceremony. The benefits clearly are not just physical, but also mental and spiritual.
Physical Benefits: the body is detoxified, provided with antibacterial benefits, and wound healing benefits.
Mental Benefits: the mind is cleared of any distractions. You have to learn to be in the moment, or your mind may create stories about the heat and keep you focused on the discomfort. It is a very meditative experience.
Spiritual Benefits: the ceremony allows for introspection, connection to the earth, and connection to spirit.