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Mountain Sweat Lodge

Your friend tells you that, at the annual Suspension Camping Trip, there will be a Sweat Lodge. You think to yourself, "how much different could it be than a sauna?" The answer is: Very.

I had done some time in saunas for long periods. I've ignored the sign around them as well as hot tubs and drank while sweating. I love the feeling of jumping from a boiling hot tub into a freezing swimming pool. So when the idea of the sweat lodge was breeched by my friend Brett, I was immediately down.

I began by cruising through the internet for information. Brett had claimed that he would be setting up an authentic lodge, so I did some reading as to what that would entail. I learned that the construction of the lodge was kept simple. Wigwams or igloo-like structures are typically employed, though I saw structures that were constructed to resemble large cabins as well. The outer coverings are typically thick fabric layered heavily across the framework of the structure, to hold the heat and steam. Sweat lodges are sometimes constructed in prisons by inmates, in which they use trash bags, tarps, blankets, or whatever other materials could be procured.

The floor is typically dirt; though sometimes blankets may be laid down to sit on. The fire pit is dug in the center of the floor. Large river stones (called 'The Grandfathers') are heated in a fire outside of the lodge. Five stones are placed in the pit, with 4 orbiting around a central stone and the door is closed completely allowing little heat to escape and no light to enter. The sweat can be as short as 45 minutes or as long as several hours.

I was ready to rock when we headed up to the camp site. This trip represented my first suspension experience as well as my first serious sweat and I was buzzing with energy thinking of what was ahead of me.

We arrived on a Friday. Brett had requested that no one drink or take any drugs before the lodge, so I set about erecting the tent and moving the food out of the car for dinner later that night while others set about erecting the teepee that would serve as our lodge.

The lodge consisted of large wooden poles, probably 3-4 inches in diameter and around 10-12 feet long. They were arranged in a circle that was probably 10 feet wide and bound together at the top. The pit was dug in the center of the floor and was near 2 foot in diameter. The exterior was then covered with layers of broad cloth and plastic sheets.

Brett asked for a meeting of those that were prepared to enter the lodge before the sun went down. He explained that he would be basing the songs, prayers and stories that he would tell in the lodge on his own faith and heritage of the Cherokee people and that he did not wish to insult anyone else's beliefs by doing so. Brett also asked that anyone who was entering the lodge bring a vegetable or herb of some type to add to a communal stew we all would enjoy after the sweat. Finally, he explained that attire for the lodge would be minimal. The men would be wearing simple loin cloths or they had the option of going in nude. Women, who traditionally did not sweat with the men, would be wearing the same loin cloth, but would be allowed to wear halter tops or sports bras if they wished. Everyone agreed to meet back at the teepee after dinner.

Later that night, the fire pit outside the teepee was ignited. The river rocks were added to the hot coals by the fire tender, a friend that had chosen to remain outside the lodge. As the sacred fire burned, Brett and Eric cut loin cloths out of the same broad cloth used to wrap the lodge. It seemed like the number of people who had decided to enter the lodge had nearly doubled from the group of us that had spoken before sundown, to about 20. Everyone was given a loin cloth and retreated to their tents to change.

On the walk back to the tent, in the dark, a lot of things were going through my mind. The suspension tomorrow; my own doubts as to weather or not I would be able to remain inside the lodge as long as I would like; what I would get out of the experience. I changed quickly and removed my jewelry, donned my flip-flops and hiked back up to the sacred fire. I found all of my friends waiting around the fire wearing their loin cloths and it was a very welcoming experience. Everyone was smiling and jovial and just enjoying the loin cloths. Some of the ladies had decided to go topless and some of the guys had decided to just go au natural. Everything settled down when Brett began to smudge us with sage to purify us before our entry into the lodge.

Brett, our Medicine Man for the evening, entered first. The girls were to enter next, moving clockwise from the door. We were all lined up chaotically outside the lodge, the idea being that we were going to pack as many of us as we could into the lodge and still be able to close the door. Traditionally, participants were squeezed into the lodge, leg to leg, to increase the intensity of the sweat. The men followed in behind the women; My friend Tyler and I reached the door together and packed in, but there was only enough room for one of us. I volunteered to exit so the door could be closed. There were around 6 or 8 of us who had missed the boat, but we had a plan in place to make sure everyone had a sweat, so I wasn't worried.

With the door closed and my ass planted firmly on a tree stump, I listed to Brett guide the others through a group meditation as well as stories and songs of the Cherokee people. The whole time, I was sitting outside bathed in the moonlight of a early September evening staring at the sky. With very little trouble, I could look around the fire at my companions who were also wearing loincloths, covered in tattoos and piercings, and imagine ourselves a tribe of our own, living in the mountains. Brett would occasionally shake a rattle that indicated that the fire tender should open the flap and add another Grandfather to the pile of rocks inside.

The first half of the sweat went around an hour, give or take. During that time, I watched 3 of the participants exit the sweat, who we provided with water. My friend Wes had said that it was one of the most intense things he's ever been part of, which scared me quite a bit. A short time later, the first shift of the sweat ended and the lodge emptied.

After a few minutes for Brett to gather his thoughts and get a drink, we began to load the lodge with the individuals that had missed the first round. As I began shuffling into the lodge, I started thinking that I was happy not to be on board with the first crew, simply because as people started to fill in behind me, I found myself crushed beyond belief. Seated in a puddle of mud consisting of the earth and one of my friends sweat, I made myself as comfortable as I could, which was hard with my bad knees and hips. The door closed and we began.

Over the course of the next 20 minutes or so, we engaged in a group meditation, and continued to the meditation as Brett told stories of the earth from long ago. Water was splashed onto the stones in the center, making the room fill with heat and steam. Only slight features of peoples faces and bodies could be seen through the dark and mist. The heat was intense, though not as bad as I thought it was going to be. I could feel my mind start to wander, but I was still quite aware of my body and environment. About the time I was hoping things would get more intense, Brett called for more stones.

More stones, more water, more heat. People, began exiting the lodge after around 30 minutes or so. At some point, Brett exited the lodge and passed the rattle to our friend Collin. Collin asked if we wanted to continue the current temperature or if we would like to raise it. We all agreed to raise it.

More stones were added and for the first time, I was able to allow my mind to leave my body and wander the night sky outside. People had left the lodge, allowing me to sit in a full lotus position instead of a crunched ball, the addition of witch as well as the heat allowed me to completely immerse myself. I was only vaguely aware of the massive amounts of sweat rolling down my face and back. My mind was in other places, envisioning the suspension that would follow the next day, moving through places among the pine trees in the darkness of the mountain we sat on.

At around an hour or so, my back and hips had had enough. One of the members of the lodge began to stand to exit and I took the opportunity to exit and not release any more heat than necessary. Exiting the lodge was, amazing. One of the most invigorating feelings of my life, it was like being reborn. The first deep cold breath of mountain air, far from the smog filled haze of Los Angeles, grabbed my self like a religious experience. My mind was only just then beginning to rejoin my body. I walked through the darkness to the water pump to wash myself off. The cold well water hit me and instead of being painful, washed over me in waves of intense sensation. I joined all the others for a drink of water and to talk about the experience of the lodge, as well as to enjoy some of the stew that others had been cooking for us while we had our sweat.

The next day, I had my first suspension experience (which you can read about here). Since the lodge, I think of it often and look forward to having another, though I don't think anything will compare to he first, though few things ever do..

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submitted by: Anonymous
on: 02 Feb. 2007
in Ritual

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Artist: Brett+Perkins
Studio: Angeles+national+Forest
Location: La+Canada%2C+California

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