Sunday, May 29, 2005

the sweat lodge

I was requested to blog about this, so here you go, Lightfeather! I'll tell what I know....

The sweat lodge I have mentioned a couple of times here is a homemade job in a friend's back yard. He owns a few houses on the same half-block whose back yards all converge in the middle (sort of--enough that there are pathways leading to 4 different houses--but he's sold a couple of the houses recently, so not all of them are "active" pathways). So in this nicely-treed middle area, there's a doughboy pool with a deck around it plus an odd assortment of massage tables, hanging chairs, benches, carpet remnants, etc.--your average Arizona "living room"--and the little stucco-covered building that is the lodge. It might be 8' x 8', but I'm bad at that kind of eyeballing.

The inside has double-decker benches on two sides, so at maximum capacity it will hold oh about 15 people, but that's extreme. There's a big ass metal sewer-type pipe that runs into it along the back wall, and inside the sweat there are big chunks of flagstone propped up against the pipe, which is vented through the roof, of course. The pipe opening is just flush with one outer wall, so you make a fire in the pipe, go inside, and after awhile pour water on top of it. Et Voy Lee, steam!

There are no "rounds" as in a traditional sweat; we come and go as we please. There's an outdoor shower just around the corner for cooling off, and the pool too of course. Inside, silence or prayer or song or didgeridoo music or chanting are common, but idle chatter is discouraged. And the place is open to the general public, although following a bad accident a couple of years ago, there's a sign-up sheet for new attendees (who must have a "sponsor"), including emergency contact and the usual disclaimer of responsibility in the event of misfortune.

So far it's been run by donation--$2/visit requested--and every time it's open, the door is covered by the volunteer Sweat Host, who checks names against a master list. It's open for coed sweats one night and one day a week, and gender-specific sweats happen one night a week as well.

When I first came to Arizona, I was lucky enough to be invited to some more "traditional" sweats. In those, a fire pit is dug and a fire is made with a bunch of biggish, preferably volcanic, rocks tucked into the fire bed. A ways away from the fire pit is the lodge, which is made of several long slender green tree boughs bent in a "u" from one side to the other. The frame is covered by tarps, blankets, canvas, etc. The idea is to keep it pretty low to the ground to maximize the heat experience, so you usually have to crawl in and out through the door flap.

The lodge has a pit dug in the center. When the sweat begins, people crawl in and circle clockwise around the pit. The Fire Tender rakes the hot rocks out of the fire, knocks the ash off, and carries them one by one to the door of the lodge where they are dropped into the pit. The lodge door flap is closed and the sweat leader conducts a series of prayers during each round, adding water to the rocks to create steam. Between rounds, the flap is opened, but no one leaves until the conclusion of the sweat, which is usually after 4 rounds.

Anywhere from 4-6 rocks are added at the beginning of each round, so as you might imagine the heat builds over the course of the sweat to a pretty significant level. I remember many instances when I'd just try to get my face as close to the ground as possible, seeking even the tiniest bit of cooler air! The praying can get really intense at times, as that's what takes one out of one's body and into the realm of "non-ordinary reality," to coin a phrase....

It's about purification and connection to the greater Whatever-You-Call-It. Nothing beats the feeling of standing outside in 40-degree weather, fresh out of the sweat, with steam rising in clouds from your pink, sweetly glistening flesh. You feel so alive--every pore is open and yelling, your mind is empty but filled at the same time, you feel the spinning of the earth--you lose your connection to your labels (whatever they might be) and simply become one with the energy coursing through everything. To put it mildly.

Every year in late January there's a giant gem and mineral show in Tucson (really, like the biggest one in the world), and twice a year there's an arts-and-crafts Street Fair--all of which attract a certain number of like-minded people, so I've met folks at the sweat from all over the planet, who've just heard about it through the Rainbow Grapevine--and I love that this man believes in the ritual so much that he's footed huge monthly water bills for lo these many years. Like twenty. I know it was happening before I arrived in Tucson and got hip to it, and I've been here for 18 years.

It's certainly one reason that I find myself returning to Tucson again and again--this family that I belong to. The sweat fulfills many functions for's a church, for praying and purifying; it's a social event (as many churches are); it's creative--acoustic music jams abound. There have been rants over the years about clutter and trash and the lack of volunteer labor; but there have also been great work parties, lots of "sweat benefits" which include live amplified music and awesome potluck fare, and that sweet feeling of belonging to a community that holds together through trials of!

OK that's all folks,
ciao for now!


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