The sweat lodge is an European term that applies to a Native American purification ceremony. Among the Lakota, the ceremony is called “Inipi” or “the place where spirit breath is made.” This is an allusion to the steam inside the lodge as a source of connection to Spirit and healing. The steam is created by heating rocks in the fire until they are red hot. The rocks are then brought inside the lodge and water is poured in a ritual manner to create the steam.
Just about every culture has some type of purification ceremony involving the use of steam. Even among First Nations people there are variations in how the lodges are built and facilitated. Some tribes dig underground holes similar in concept to storm or food cellars. Some peoples use vapor caves and other naturally occurring distributors of steam, some use long houses or other structures made from natural materials. The type of lodge used is a function of the natural environment in which the people live.
Lodges among Plains People are made from 12 to 16 willow poles and are covered with blankets, sheets, canvas tarps or other breathable material. Stones are heated in a fire pit outside the lodge then carried into the lodge. After blessing the rocks with various herbs or “medicines”, the facilitator then pours clean water onto the rocks and the ceremony begins.
It generally takes three people to facilitate the lodge. These are: The facilitator, whose job it is to pour water and talk to and interpret for the spirits (ancestors, guides) who enter the lodge, the singer who leads the people through the songs in the lodge, and the fire keeper whose job it is to keep the fire alive during the ceremony, carry in the rocks and manage the other materials necessary to complete the ceremony.
Once the rocks are in the lodge, the door, or flap of the lodge is closed and the lodge begins by the facilitator invoking the spirits and powers to come into and bless the lodge. Water is poured on the rocks, the singer begins the songs and the people begin singing spirit calling songs. This time ends when the facilitator calls for the door to be opened.
The period between the opening and closing of the door to the lodge is called a round. There are four rounds in a purification ceremony. Each round is dedicated to a specific energy; for example a specific age group or a specific group of Powers and to a specific cardinal direction or purpose. The first round is always for invoking Spirit. The Inipi ceremony ends after all four rounds are completed and the spirits are released from the ceremony. It is normal to share food after a ceremony in a spirit of communion and also to ground one in the body after the ceremony.
It is important to note, that in this New Age, people are doing lodges for many reasons; not all of them positive. The traditional purpose of the Inipi is to create healing in the mind, body, spirit and emotions through the proper use of heat on the body. There is method and purpose to the application of wet and dry heat that produces predictable results: Toxins are rapidly released from the body and the brain produces endorphins.
There is a deep spiritual component to the lodge through the use of drumming and song, as well as communication with evolved guides, and ancestors in the lodge. This is a very powerful combination of rituals and tools which can benefit one open to experiencing these levels of healing. It can also produce negative results. It is important that you truly examine the character of the ones facilitating your lodge. It is even more important to honor your body and your limits, physically, emotionally and spiritually to have the most positive and healing experience in this ceremony.