The last time I was in a sweat ceremony was in 1972 on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, USA. Twenty years old, I had gone with a few friends to meet a famous yet humble medicine man named Patagah, who graciously welcomed us. One evening our Native host and our little band of gypsies gathered together to pray and sweat, making offerings to Spirit. A hut, called an inipi had been constructed out of willow branches and covered with tarps."Inipi" means 'to live again’. A hole was in the middle of the ground inside. Nearby a fire blazed, making big rocks hot. We went inside and sat in underwear. The fire tender brought the rocks, placing them in the pit. Patagah made offerings to the Creator and mother Earth in the Indian way, splashing water on the rocks which then burst forth steam⏤mixing with fragrant smoke of sacred herbs such as sage. It got good and hot in there. When at last we were done and left the lodge drenched in sweat, the prairie night felt cool and fresh to the skin.
Yesterday, after forty years I entered a sacred sweat lodge again. This time in southern Mexico where we live in a village on the outskirts of Oaxaca. We were invited by our “vecinos,” neighbors to come for a birthday in honor of their daughter, Kaoni, 39, a healer and health practitioner. They are making a healing center at their home and built a “temescal.” It is a short dome made of adobe mud bricks with single entrance and fire pit in the middle to hold hot rocks. It holds about 12 people during ceremonies.
When we were first invited, Amy was not sure she wanted to do the sweat because she has been taking medicine for high blood pressure. In her past she has done many sweat ceremonies with Native Americans, mostly Lakota and Dakota Sioux. But now she has more health concerns. Kaoni encouraged her to at least participate for fifteen minutes. It is not just a physical practice but spiritual as well.
We walked down at 3:30 in the afternoon. A small group was gathering, all younger than us. Cordial introductions were made. After changing into light attire for the sweat, (I wore swim trunks,) Kaoni asked each person to enter the temescal, kneeling in prayer at the threshold. I could not stand up in the space, but the girl next to me could. Soon we were all seated and given bottles of water, along with sprigs of rosemary and basil. Hot rocks were brought in, the opening shut with cloth, and in the dark, prayers began. Water splashed against the rocks creating steam. Immediately there was some coughing. Amy was among those who coughed. I don’t understand much Spanish but got the gist of the prayers to Mother Earth and the Creator. At one point each person spoke something from the heart and the whole group accepted it. In Spanish I said, “Thank You God for earth and sky. Thank you for heart.”
Within 20 minutes several people left, including Amy. As the heat and steam increased, I sweated. Overcoming some discomforts from sitting on the hard earth in a cramped space, I gave in to the process. I thought of the journey I had been on a week earlier going into the mountains to fast and commune with Spirit. The exact same feeling came; to let go and surrender. I felt the hard places inside melting away. In the womb of darkness, amid other soul travelers facing hardships determined to sacrifice for renewal, I felt calm. In fact I participated in my own rebirth, acknowledging that even if I was seven decades into this life, my paths forward were open.
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