Plants - Drugs Mind - Spirit Freedom - Law Arts - Culture Library  
Follow @Erowid on Instagram!
Inipi, the Sweat Lodge
Nine Months of Lakota Ceremony
by Tony
Sep 2003
Body weight: 188 lbs (+/- 10 lbs)
Dosage: substantial amounts of steamed, heated oxygen (inhaled)
Duration: 4-5 hour intervals, three weeks out of four, for nine months in a row.

Background and intention
I came to the sweatlodge at a time when I had constructed my own nature-based spirituality. Having grown up without any religious upbringing, and having discovered my affinity for some sort of connection with the universe at the fairly late age of 20, I had read a lot, and studied on my own. Having digested much Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, and a lot of writings by various living and dead Sioux (Black Elk, John Fire Lame Deer, Ed McGaa), I started doing walking meditation and trying to use nature and the seasons as my existential "teachers", so to speak.

My goals were to establish a direct link to the world around me -- to feel like I was an interwoven part of it, rather than just a foreign piece of jetsam, randomly plonked down at some spot in time. My next goal was to make peace with my irrational side, which had grown strong and unpredictable -- and was giving me some unpleasant wake-up calls. My inability to control aspects of myself manifested as sporadic year-round insomnia and strong seasonal depression. In order to get over the insomnia, I had to acknowledge and make friends with my lunar, shifting nature, to learn its rhythms and know that there are things within me that move without me.

I've always thought of the moon as my first guide -- my first teacher. I sought to learn more from observing nature, and the turns of the seasons. On my walks, I began to realize that where I thought I was alone, I was constantly surrounded by life. The trees, mosses, ferns around me were all as alive as me, breathing the same air, drinking the same water. I wandered one path in the woods over and over, watching the seasons -- realizing that my conception of "a long time" was only a blink to this world, and yet learning that every moment could be savored and marveled at.

There was still one thing I couldn't overcome: my seasonal depression, every fall. Something about me just couldn't make peace with the yearly dying of things, couldn't let go. Years passed and I came to a point where my self-learning reached a plateau. I was stuck in the same routines and I couldn't progress. Since the mythology I had read the most about and felt the greatest connection with was Lakota Sioux, I tried to seek out some group practices in that direction so I might learn further.

I was living in Portland, OR at the time, and I was fortunate enough to chance upon a fellow in his 50s named Good Horse Nation, (Oyate Shunka Wakan) who had been raised on a reservation in Dakota, and still did traditional sweat lodges. By traditional, I mean that not only were the rituals and myths from Lakota Sioux mythology, but all the songs sung inside were in the Lakota tongue. There were some prayers and statements of intent made within the lodge in English, but basically, I had to learn a whole new language to participate.

At the time, I had never done *any* kind of sweat lodge -- aside from Russian style steam baths. When I told this to Good Horse Nation, he kind of laughed and looked at me sideways for a second and said, "You know, it gets pretty *hot* in there." There was a more user-friendly, less traditional lodge that he was running on weekends, for people who just wanted to try it, or people who just wanted a nice cleansing every once in a while. Unfortunately, these were on Saturdays, and I worked a 12-hour shift on the weekends, so there was no way I could do it. My other option was the more traditional sweat lodge, set up for people who are there to do meditative practice or learning -- with a 3 month commitment. He looked like he was taking a chance on some flaky new age kid, but he let me join the 3-month sweat with no prior experience.

The first sweat
The sweats were held outdoors, on his land. That first fall (late September through early December) I remember there were about 35 people total in that lodge. It was a co-ed lodge, and the ratio of men to women was about equal. It started with people arriving and gathering around the fire, which had been going for hours, heating the stones. By the time we arrived, the 50-60 volcanic stones had been sitting in softwood for 2 hours, and then hardwood for another hour. You could see them inside the fire pit, glowing red. People changed into loose wraps, or swim trunks, grabbed a towel, and gathered around the fire. The ritual began around 6 o'clock. On that first September night, it was still warm, but it was strange being out barefoot on the grass in the evening, with only swim trunks and towel. Right before I came out, someone reminded me to take off my ring and earring. Not only were metals a bad idea, but one was to shed all decoration -- to enter the lodge as naked as practicality would allow. I remembered thinking -- "Am I really going to do this?"

All Lakota rituals are accompanied by songs. Once people gathered, they began to sing the invocation song that comes with the loading of the pipe. While the people were singing, the leader of the lodge would hold aloft a pinch of tobacco (red willow bark actually) and call forth one of the universal forces (the Four Directions, the Universe above, the Earth below) to enter and manifest within that tobacco. It was then placed into the pipe and the next force was called. Having been given only a cursory introduction to the songs, I tried to "fake-it-till-ya-make-it" like a bad choir student. I knew what the songs meant, but it was difficult to follow along. After the pipe was loaded, the people lined up single file, and -- with another song -- made a winding path into the lodge. At the mouth of the lodge, I found myself down on my bare knees, crawling into what felt like a warm, wet cave with cedar shavings on the floor. It was actually a squarish-round tent made of thick, bent willow branches, tied together with lots of sturdy cotton string, and covered with many thick blankets and tarps. The whole structure was probably 5 feet high at its tallest point and about 10 feet in diameter. Inside it smelled of steam, and cedar and the humans around me.

With 35 people on the inside, everyone was packed in in two concentric circles, cross-legged with our knees pulled up. Someone kindly suggested that, it being my first sweat, I should sit towards the back and let someone else sit in the inner ring, since this was closer to the stones. Then the stones were brought in from the fire pit on a pitchfork, and brought inside the lodge using antlers. They ranged in size from honey-dew melons to large footballs, and each glowed red hot. The first round started with a traditional 14 rocks, which were arranged in a particular pattern, so as to form the base of an eventually larger pile. When the door flap was closed, I could still see the rocks glowing in front of me, but I couldn't see the roof of the lodge. We were in complete darkness, packed in like sardines. Even at 5 feet away, I could feel the stones radiate heat on my face. Good Horse Nation opened the season with a prayer, and threw aromatic cedar over the rocks. Each tiny bit of cedar winked red as it hit, like a hundred stars flaring and going out. And then the drums sounded and we began the sweat.

As soon as water was poured on the rocks, it exploded violently into steam. I could hear the sound of it even over 35 people singing at the tops of their lungs. The water also took any remaining light from the rocks, leaving me in total darkness. Afraid, lost in the dark, and not knowing the words, I tried to focus on just breathing rather than making an attempt to fake singing. The air around me got hotter and hotter, and my throat began to tighten up in pain every time it inhaled another gulp of superheated steam. It reminded me of trying to drink tea too quickly. My body began to rebel. When my throat sent out the pain signal, my lungs would stop inhaling, and I couldn't get in a full breath. I tried slowing my breathing down, drawing out the inhale as long as possible. I tried taking rapid shallow breaths. Nothing was working: I still wasn't getting enough oxygen. My trusted autonomic processes began to fail.

My extremities started going numb first- my feet and hands. I knew that there was a safe-word I could cry out, and they would stop, to lift the flap and roll me out. But this was my first time in the lodge, and my very first round, and I told myself I'd rather ride this out than interrupt their ritual with my fear and discomfort. I had agreed to the risk and I would take it.

"I'm going to fall over"
The numbness crept up my arms and legs. No matter how I tried, I couldn't get enough air. At some point, I realized that I was about to lose muscular control of my legs and torso, and I remember saying, "I'm going to fall over" out loud. I had come to the lodge to make peace with the process of fall; with the leaves dying on the trees, with everything around me turning towards decay. And here I was -- my own body slipping away from me, rapidly feeling my consciousness fading towards a faint, falling over into the ground, losing control, facing my own fear of death. The people around me made room for me, and let me fall over. They were smart and knew that the air was much cooler those 3 feet down at ground level. They touched my head and quietly encouraged me to hang in there. As long as they could hear me breathing, they let me lie there and didn't disturb me. The ritual went on around me.

Having my body and my mind taken away from me like that by lack of oxygen was an amazing experience. At no other time in my life was I so keenly aware that I was intimately interwoven with this world. And then -- as I lay there, numb and half-conscious -- I began to breathe again and felt life returning to me. I felt my rubbery limbs fill with blood, and felt my senses awaken. I felt myself dragged back to life by the life force within me -- my heaving lungs, my beating heart, my autonomic nervous system. I lay there, alive, in the dark, listening to the others singing around me and feeling my being pulsate with life. Finally, just as the round was ending, I gathered enough strength to sit back up and poke my head into the steamy air above. I felt as though I had survived my own fears, and passed some internal rite of passage.

The flap was opened, about 17 more stones were brought in, and then the flap was closed again. On the second round, I focused on singing as much as I could. Fortunately for me, many Lakota songs have long extended notes where one vowel is held and repeated to a certain rhythm. So, even if I didn't know all the words, I could at least sing along without throwing off the other singers. This, I found, was the secret to staying oxygenated in the sweat lodge. When you are singing, you take in a quick breath that fills your lungs and then let it out over the course of about 5-6 seconds. This extended exhale allows the throat to cool down enough so that the next breath won't cause a choke reflex. Also, singing from the diaphragm will help one to extend the exhale even further, and to give the notes more resonance.

Once I figured out the singing/breathing trick, I was able to sit upright through all the singing of the second round. This was the prayer round, the longest of the four. After singing several songs, we went around the circle one by one and everyone put something forth -- a prayer for the new season, a statement of personal intent, or perhaps just their current pains and troubles, which they had brought here to overcome. As you can imagine, with 35 people in the lodge this took quite a long time. Every time someone finished their prayer, Good Horse Nation would throw another bit of water on the rocks to raise those prayers upwards, and the lodge got hotter and hotter.

When my turn came, my reasons for coming to the lodge just came out of me without any thought or hesitation. The sheer mental and physical effort of enduring the heat and keeping my body oxygenated had stripped me of all self-consciousness, all pretense, all thoughts of "Gosh, am I going to sound silly?" I said that I had come here to make peace with the process of fall, with the seasonal dying of things, to let go of my sadness and learn to experience this aspect of life in a different way. I remember Good Horse Nation acknowledged my prayer with a simple "O-ho!" which was a customary call-and-response in the lodge. But the way he said it in the dark -- respectfully and with reverence for the major task I had set myself -- made me feel very welcomed. I had expected to be treated as some sort of green-horn, and here I felt genuine respect.

By the end of the prayer round, we were all wilted and drained. Many had dropped down to a one-elbow reclining position in order to try to get to the cooler air near the ground. When the flap was lifted, one could almost taste the new oxygen as it rushed in. We regained some of our strength as new red rocks were brought in- about 21 of them this time. The third round was the shortest, but also the hottest and most intense round. Once the flap was closed, we began singing at the top of our lungs and Good Horse Nation kept throwing water on the stones again and again. I strained to focus all my thought and energy on the singing, but I could still feel the hot air burning my forehead and eyelids. It felt like a bathtub of boiling water had somehow been levitated upside-down over my head and was slowly being lowered over my face. With the heat and all the energy of the singing coursing through me, I could no longer tell if my nerves were processing hot or cold, pleasure or pain. I was riding that very edge of consciousness where all I knew was the sound of our voices, the beat of the drum, the feeling of elation, and the need to draw the hot air inside me so that I might do it all again. It was our yell of celebration -- our cry of joyous survival.

After the third round, the pipe was brought into the lodge. After it was lit, it was passed from person to person and everyone took a single deep draw. Just so you know, the red willow bark (kinick kinick in Lakota) had no psychoactive properties. Its power lay completely in its symbolic attributes. Here inside this pipe were all the forces of the universe -- Death (West/Fall), Silence (North/Winter), Birth (East/Spring), Life (South/Summer), the Universe above, the Earth Mother below -- all of these had entered the tobacco, and now I was drawing their essence into me and through me. After the pipe was passed around, a single gourd ewer was brought in and everyone took a little sip of water. The water was ceremonial and one was only supposed to take a little sip -- not several giant gulps. There was a little prayer one was supposed to focus on while taking one's sip,
"Water is medicine
Water is sacred
Water is life."
Having just inhaled and exhaled the smoke which symbolized the whole Universe, I now tasted the tiny sip of water, and felt it pouring down my throat and into me. I could feel my body's water all over me as sweat. I could feel it slowly coursing out of every pore. My hair and my swimsuit were drenched in it. I though of how much of a permeable membrane my whole body was -- a funnel through which water, food, and energy are poured and sifted, and transformed into life. I thanked the Universe for the water, and for the pleasure of being so intimately tied and woven to it.

The flap was closed for the fourth and final time and we began singing the songs to send all the universal forces home. To thank them for coming with us into the lodge, and releasing them back into the universe. We sang of our hardships and our joys. And then, when it was all over, we all yelled together the Lakota version of "Amen"- the universal saying which ends almost any sacred speech "Ho Mitakuye Oyasin"- meaning "We Are All Related." With this, the flap was thrown open and people crawled back out of the lodge and made their way into the dark and stars of that September evening. Though I had completely lost track of time, I later found out that more than 4 hours had passed. Outside the lodge, many people simply sprawled out on the moist grass, savoring the cool air. Others gathered and stood around the fire. One or two people actually got out the hose, and were dousing themselves with cold water. I just sat on the grass and tried to collect myself.

Afterwards, even though it was about 10pm in the evening, we would always go into Good Horse Nation's house to have a pot-luck and debrief the experience. The lodge members had brought many tasty home-made dishes, and -- of course -- all food and drink tasted better after what we'd just survived. It felt like a joy simply to be alive. When we'd filled our plates and cups, we sat in a circle in a large room, and passed a talking stick around. At times, Good Horse Nation would put a question forward for everyone to answer, and other times, it was just a chance for everyone to talk about what they'd experienced in the lodge. As I heard people talking, my last fears and suspicions that I'd joined some sort of tooty-fruity New Age cult began to wane. Here were real people talking about their experiences in a very open way. They had no need to indoctrinate me into anything, nor to convince me that I should follow any kind of teacher or guru. Though Good Horse Nation was always respected as the leader of the lodge, he was still also a man, and showed himself to be as fallible, humorous, and irreverent as any of us.

In the circle, people talked about their lives, their fears, their hopes and struggles. Though we certainly showed compassion and concern for each other, it was generally acknowledged that a person's work was their own. We were not here to solve each other's problems, but to provide the caring environment where everyone could explore the sacred in the ways they needed to, so they could find their own solutions and create their own change. When the talking stick had come full circle back to Good Horse Nation, he had everyone join hands and close their eyes, and said one prayer. With one last Ho Mitakuye Oyasin we broke the circle and ended the evening. Everyone was tired and giddy, and we made our way to our cars, and drove home.

Lessons learned
I continued going to these sweats three weeks out of every month for the rest of the season. As fall turned colder, we would huddle closer to the fire as we stood around and waited to enter the lodge. Standing there, laughing and shivering, in our swimtrunks and towels, we heated our chests to steaming, while cold icy rain licked our backs and calves. I never got ill from exposing myself to the elements like this, not even in the Winter, when we walked barefoot over a thin cover of snow. It was a real wake-up call to remember that, below these clothes, I had a living, breathing body that had grown used to a very narrow comfort zone of temperatures -- to remember that that body existed in a universe of fluctuating conditions that had nothing to do with my creature comforts. It was also surprising to know that, with a little effort, I could train myself to withstand these fluctuations and live with them -- even dance with them. I remember standing barefoot on cold frosted grass, looking up at a full moon behind some high altitude frozen clouds and feeling this complete stillness. I didn't need to be protected from this harsh, natural world, I could just stand there and feel embraced by it.

As fall went by and the leaves turned brown and fell from the trees, I began to reconceptualize the usual ways I thought about very basic things -- like rain, or gray skies, or the color of a brown carpet of wet leaves on grass. In the past, these things had always meant doom and gloom -- my sadness of a green world dying. But now I found that I was taking the lessons of the lodge and applying them as metaphors to larger aspects of my life. Within the world of Lakota symbolism, the Four Directions of the medicine wheel symbolized the continuing process of creation, by which everything came into being, lived, died, returned to silence, and return to birth again as something new. These large universal processes were not some far-away abstraction -- in the Lakota worldview, these mythological forces were constantly playing out on all levels. The dance of birth-life-death-silence-birth could be seen in the slow births and deaths of stars, or in the yearly seasons around us -- or even in something as mundane as our breath. There is a Lakota saying that "Every breath in is a birth -- every breath out a death."

As I learned to see myself and the world around me as aspects of this constant universal dance, I started to think of fall as the Earth's natural process of exhaling. I began to think of the constant, pouring rains as the Earth drinking -- loading up its mountain streams with water so that they could pour down to the oceans again in Spring and Summer -- feeding life wherever they went. I began to see the brown carpet of leaves as a rich feast of food, which needed to lie silent through the cold of Winter, so that it could be used as building blocks for new life in the Spring.

Winter season
That first season in the sweat lodge ended in early December, and a new one began two weeks later. I felt like I had come a long way, and wanted to keep going. The next season's group was even bigger -- around 42 people -- so it was getting more and more crowded in the lodge. As we stood around the fire in the dark, with the cold wind and rain blowing on us, I wondered how we would all fit inside our little pole-and-tarp structure. And yet when we crawled in, we found that our own collective body heat would warm the lodge, and we huddled closer together, aware of our bodies' energy. Afterwards in the talking circles after the sweat, I found that these new people were going through many of the same things I'd been through my first season -- the discomfort, the discovery, the self-doubt -- and saw myself and the group help them along.

Now that I had passed through Fall and found myself more at peace with the dying of things, my goals for this new season were to explore the symbolism of Winter -- silence, emptiness, the Void. I learned that the absence of life is also a sacred part of the dance and realized that I could locate those forces within me and draw on them. Because breathwork is really at the center of sweatlodge practice, I began to learn that my body had many different comfort levels for how much oxygen I needed at any one time. When I was singing at the top of my lungs, I would take large quick inhaling breaths and let them out over long periods of time using my diaphragm to add energy and volume. At these times, my body may have been relaxed but I was working hard, and my heart was beating fairly strongly to pump the oxygenated blood through me. But there were many parts of the lodge when one is not singing -- when one is simply sitting in the dark and the heat, concentrating or meditating, and these required a very different kind of breath.

Over the Winter, I learned how to consciously slow my body down, drawing oxygen into me as slowly as possible. This required a certain level of stillness -- I needed to forget that I was sitting in hot, close-packed darkness -- to leave that all behind and focus on something else. When I let the fear and discomfort and self-doubt go, my body would no longer clench my muscles to protect me and I could relax and use much less oxygen to stay alive. My thoughts no longer raced with constant messages of discomfort and I could find a stillness, a clear void within. At these times, I would let my breath guide me downward to deeper and deeper relaxation. Though I knew I was slowing my breathing down, I would never feel that it was forced or that I was starved for oxygen. It just felt very natural to inhale more and more slowly, to feel myself fill up with life. Then, when I was full, I would feel that life slowly drain out of me in an exhale, further and further, until my lungs were complete free of air. There -- at the very bottom of the exhale -- I would sit in silence. I found that there was a comfort point somewhere down there in the stillness where my body could sit airless and not need to inhale. Now naturally, the life forces within me would demand oxygen, and the next inhale would come -- naturally, gradually -- to fill me with life again. But the important lesson for me was that between the death of the exhale and the birth of a new inhale, I also had a stillness within me -- a point of no-thought, no-mind, no-movement -- that could be touched if I simply turned off the chatter and listened for it.

The weeks went on. I began showing up earlier to the sweatlodges, so that I could help build the fire. I sat in the cold and dark of winter, and with my own hands converted stored wooden energy of the sun into heat and flame and transfered it to the rocks which would give it back to us. I found that I was becoming one of the respected singers in the lodge. I had a strong, clear voice and a good understanding of the meaning of the words that I sang, and so I sang with emotion and feeling. Though I was one of the youngest people in the group, I found that I was slowly earning the respect of my peers. I also found that I no longer thought of the lodge as "an ordeal". Though the lodge certainly pushed one to the edge of one's strength and comfort level, I had found that there were places within me that danced with this process and could exist out there at the limit of how much oxygen I needed to sit upright, or how much strength I needed to continue singing at the top of my voice in blistering heat. It's not that I grew insensitive or "tough" to the pain and discomfort of the ordeal - it's just that I found that I could reach a place where these things no longer mattered. I could accept them as incoming signals and move past that to something else.

The cold of Winter began to fade and the first green tips of growing things began to poke out of the ground. That Spring was a marvel for me, because by then I had grown so aware of the life force within me, drawing in air to keep me alive. And now I saw that same force everywhere around me, filling the earth with life, exploding before my eyes everywhere I went. That season in the Lodge ended in March, and I decided to continue and join another time. This time the group was even larger -- I think we had somewhere over 50. We all laughed about it and made jokes about sardines. With the weather getting warmer, we no longer had to huddle around the fire to keep warm before we entered the lodge, and we would line up with a bounce in our step, and sit inside the lodge packed knee-cap to knee-cap, smiling at our group's closeness.

By now -- with six months of semi-weekly sweats under my belt -- I had started to feel like an old hand. The ritual of the lodge became very familiar to me, and one song would blend very naturally into another. As Spring turned warmer and warmer, I reveled in joy at all the life around me, and marveled at my new found connection to the universal forces outside me and within me. In many ways, those were some of the best months of my life. I felt like I was at the peak of my creativity, I was learning and discovering new things all the time. I felt like I had found connection and intimacy on many levels which I had wanted for so long but had been lacking -- with the universe, the seasons, the world around me. I even found myself a respected member of a group of peers -- something that had been very rare at that time in my life.

Emerging dissatisfaction
But this created a dynamic I was totally unprepared for. As I delved deeper into this new worldview -- I found I was increasingly dissatisfied with the rest of my day to day life. Driving on highways, working my job, living in a large city -- these now became foreign to me, and chaffed against me. It took me a long time to realize that a desire had awoken in me to escape this day to day life of mine -- to somehow move over and live in the Lakota Sioux universe, not just in a symbolic way, but on a day to day level. I had discovered a new world for myself, but at this point it was so far away from the regular consensus reality world I still had to live in that I had no way to integrate the two. My only choice seemed to be to drop out of this work-a-day life altogether. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) this option was completely unrealistic. Aside from the fact that I completely lacked the skills of living off the land in a Lakota Sioux fashion, I also had no way of joining any group of Lakota Sioux because they would most likely never accept me. To a large degree, it could be said that the culture and world I wanted to live in simply no longer existed within my time.

I struggled with this dilemma for months. Do I escape consensus reality and live in my own bubble of dream? Do I try for some sort of living out in the woods on my own situation, with my weekly sweat lodge contact as my only peer group? Do I give up on this world I've discovered and re-join the consensus reality around me? None of these seemed realistic.

In the end, I chose a different option. I chose to leave the lodge, and maintain the lessons and worldview which the lodge had taught me on my own. Because I could not integrate the Lakota world with my the rest of my world, I would seek to find and create another worldview where my need for connection to the universe and my work-a-day life were more integrated. It took me a long time to realize that the process of me creating this world could only begin if I left the sweat lodge and stopped relying on that particular symbolic world as a place I could go to escape my work-a-day existence.

I explained all this to Good Horse Nation and I believe he understood my reasons and my motivation. On the day of the last sweat of that Spring season, after we had left the lodge and finished the last talking circle, I came up to him and offered him a present of thanks. I had made him a square piece of bead-work, a white horse on a red background. I had wrapped these beads around a rock, and placed these in a small basket made of twined pine needles. It had taken me many hours to make all of these things by hand. Through this very traditional gift I was saying to him: thank you for allowing me into this world -- I have learned so much, but now it is time for me to leave this world, and to do the difficult work of creating my own. To the best of my knowledge, my gift still sits on his shelf.

Ho Mitakuye Oyasin