Sweat Lodge Construction
A sweat lodge originally was a sacred place. It was built by a Native American medicine man for healing purposes. It was used to cure all types of illnesses from physical illnesses to mental illnesses. Original sweat lodges were wrapped in significant ceremony and only practiced by tribal medicine men. Sweat lodges are universal amongst all North American Indians. In fact, the concept of the sauna is universal. The purpose was always the same.
Building a sweat lodge is a simple affair. A sweat lodge, for those that have never seen one, looks like a tent. It is dome-shaped and stands at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) high. It is made out of straight saplings that are at least 7 feet (2.1 meters) high. You need to also get heat bearing, dense (basaltic) rock and lots of wood or even charcoal. The only tool you need is a shovel to transfer the red hot rocks coming from the fire to the pit in the middle of the sweat lodge.
Finally, you need as many old quilts and blankets as you can find. Wool is best. If you can get them at a Goodwill, or other second hand store, all the better. The blankets need to be as large as possible. The real sweat lodge of course was covered with old buffalo robes. I promise you that you won't find many of these and if you do, you won't want to make a sweat lodge with them.
Go to your nearest river/creek bottom and find the straightest, tallest saplings possible, say a forgiveness over each one to the Earth Mother or whatever and then chop it down. You are looking for saplings that are at least 8 ft (2.4 meters). The main point is to silently thank it for letting you pick it out for your sweat lodge. Doing this will give you good karma and harmony with whatever. It sounds goofy but I promise, it works. I for one don't want to take chances.
You will need about sixteen of these saplings, two for each of the cardinal points of the earth. Two you will bend to the West, two you will bend to the East, two you will bend to the North and two you will bend to the South. The remaining saplings you will need to go around the radius of the lodge. These are needed to support the coverings you will place over the lodge in order to keep the heat in.
Find a secluded spot in the woods. With a string and two pieces of wood mark a circle that is about 7 - 8 feet (2.1 - 2.4 meters) in diameter. This means placing one stake in the center and drawing a circle. The string should be 3.5 to 4 feet long (1-1.2 meters).
Next you will need to stick the saplings about 6 inches (15 cm) or so into the ground. The shovel is handy for this activity. Once this is done with all eight saplings, you then need to bend them over and bind them to the opposite sapling on the other side of the sweat lodge. Once all the opposing poles are bound together you should have a structure that is dome-shaped. The dome-shape is significant because it will spread the heat evenly over everyone's naked bodies.
Finally, take the remaining saplings and weave them around the circumference of the sweat lodge. Start at the top by centering a blanket over the very top. On the east side of the lodge leave a spot for an entrance so you can enter and leave the sweat lodge. It is important to make sure that there are no openings at the very bottom. You do not want the cooler air from the outside to come in.
Next you must dig a pit in the center of the lodge. Dig it deep enough to fit all the rocks you have gathered. Test the depth to make sure they fit inside your pit. A word about the stones you get. DO NOT get stones from a river bottom under any circumstances! If you do, when they are glowing hot and you are naked inside the lodge, the moment you pour water on them to release superheated steam they will explode. Then you will get branded and seriously burned in places you don't want to get burned. Any stone that has been smoothed by water even if has not been in water the last 10000 years has water locked up inside it. It WILL explode and cause serious burns. Don't be an idiot.
Otherwise, any stones you choose will be fine. Igneous rocks are the best and extremely dense basaltic rocks are the absolute best. However, after about 3 or 4 heatings of these stones they will crack and fall apart and will need replacing.
Admire it for a few minutes then start covering the sweat lodge with the blankets. I usually have enough old blankets to have two layers. Cover the entrance so that you can open a flap that can allow entrances and exits. If you have done this correctly your construction is complete. You may want to cover the ground inside with old blankets as well. It is not enjoyable to have sticks, thorns or other sharp objects poking you in the butt. This should be obvious.
Next build a fire to heat the stones. You will need lots of dry, seasoned wood for this part, hardwoods are the best. Native Americans used buffalo chips on the Plains. That will give you an idea of how many buffalo there were before buffalo hunters almost hunted them to extinction.
You want to build a medium sized bonfire on top of the stones. Don't put all the wood you have gathered into the fire. Heating the stones to a red hot glow usually takes a few hours. You cannot have too much wood. If you have too little wood and you run out before the rocks are heated red hot, then you have failed it.
Once you see that the rocks are glowing red in the fire, let the fire burn down to coals and you are ready for a wonderful sauna. As the host, make the announcement that everyone should get stripped down and ready for the sauna. Then get the shovel and start moving the rocks one or two at a time into the earth pit inside the lodge. Once the pit is filled everyone can now enter into the lodge to sit cross-legged in a circle. It is very womb-like and at first totally dark except for the glowing rocks in the center. It is already getting quite warm in the lodge.
Sweat Lodge Activities
Once everyone is inside, the host then uses a ladle to pour fresh clean water over the glowing rocks. The burst of superheated steam for me is quite thrilling. The water is instantly converted into steam and there is a loud "explosion". In a couple of seconds, your body is engulfed with a deep warmth and heat begins to flow from your head downward thereby engulfing you.
There is no other experience like it. Once everyone has adjusted to it, repeat the process of pouring water over the stones to heat up the sweat lodge even more. Within a couple of minutes, sweat and all the poisons in your body starts pouring out. It is not a bad idea for everyone to have bottled water to drink. You do not want to get dehydrated.
My favorite thing was to invite couples over for a Bar-B-Q and a sweat. Bathing suits were optional, and as you can imagine, nudity is preferred. Do not eat before the sauna, eat afterwards. So, prepare your activities accordingly. Everyone will burst with conversation and amazement to how good it feels and the excellent mental state it puts you in.
For a truly exciting experience do this in the middle of winter with deep snow everywhere. Then try the following. Get heated up for about 45 minutes as you would do normally. Once you are ready to leave the lodge do so and dive or roll around in the snow for about a minute or until you are cooled down. You are not only completely cleaned but the experience is beyond description. Alternatively, you can fill a medium-size inflatable wading pool with water and ice and dive into that.
The most important thing is to have fun. This is a cheap and fun way to have an excellent sauna. Make a day of it and have your friends help with the construction of the sweat lodge. I have lots of sweat lodge stories, it is time for you to have yours. There is no other experience like this and you will enjoy every minute.
Special Note of Thanks:
localroger made an excellent suggestion here. For those that cannot find saplings or appropriate rocks, his suggestion is excellent. You could almost do this in an urban area with a little creative thought. wink, wink
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