History of Sweat Lodges
The lodge is often seen as a womb, that gives birth and life, and it provides important teachings to the people. Entering the lodge is a sacred happening that involves important rituals and memories. The lodge provides a cleansing of the body, spirit, heart, and mind. Utmost respect is given to the Creator, the lodge, the fire, the medicines, the animals, the four polarities, the elders, the participants, and the ceremonies. Thanks is given for the fire's warmth, the importance of the grandfather rocks, the animals for their skins, and the plants for their medicines. Thanks is given for all the necessary elements of nature that provide us with life and survival.
The lodge is a natural way to bring fire, earth, rocks, water, air, human life together into one, or close association and contact.
SWEATLODGE • AMERICAS
In one form or another, the sweat bath pervaded cultures from the Alaskan Eskimo south into the land of the Mayans. The purpose, in most cases, went beyond getting the body clean. The sweat bath provided a remedy for illness, revitalization for aching muscles, and a sense of racial identity. A Navajo who fought in World War II once said he came back for a sweat bath "to rid himself of evil accumulated during war." Use of the sweat lodge was chronicled by the earliest settlers in America. In 1665, David DeVries of New York observed Indians "entirely clean and more attractive than before" while sweat bathing. Roger Williams of Rhode Island wrote in 1643:
"They use sweating for two ends: first to cleanse their skin; secondly to purge their bodies".
SAUNA • FINNISH
Most researchers agree that Finns always had some form of sweat bath, as did most peoples around the world. It was the simplest and most efficient way to satisfy people's innate need to keep clean. When the Finns were nomadic, they probably used a portable sweat lodge similar to those carried by the American Indian and still seen among nomadic tribes in central Asia.
After centuries of temporal use, the Finnish sauna acquired spiritual significance. The sanctity of the sauna was supported by ritual and strict propriety. "These stubborn people," wrote an astonished Swedish economist in 1776, "even connect the sauna with their theology and think the sauna building is some kind of shrine." An old saying, still heard in Finland today, says, Jokaisen on kayttaydyttava saunaaa samalla tavalla kuin kirkossa."
("In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would with God.")
HAMMAM • ISLAMIC
Muhammad believed that the heat of the hammam (which in Arabic means "spreader of warmth") enhanced fertility, and the followers of the faith should multiply. Until the hammam caught Muhammad's fancy, the Arabs used only cold water and never bathed in tubs, which was considered as bathing in one's own filth. But when the conquering Arabs encountered Roman and Greek baths in Syria, holy men immediately adopted the pleasure of hot air bathing (perhaps to compensate for the joys of alcohol forbidden by their faith).
Like the Roman baths, the hammam became a place to socialize. "Your town is only a perfect town when there is a bath in it," said Abu Sir, an early Arab historian.
HAN ZAO • CHINESE
A Tai Chi master tells of a gathering of the oldest men in his province. The youngest were in their seventies and some were well into their nineties. They sought to determine the secret of their longevity. One by one, they described their various diets, exercise programs, herbal remedies, ways of living; but they came to no general agreement about any one of these things. Finally, they realized that the one practice they all had in common and that was that each of them, in one way or another, managed to make himself sweat every day. This was their secret.
Bathing in fresh or salt water, steam baths (zheng qi zao) or sweat baths (han zao), whether for spiritual or physical cleansing, are and have been common practices among Chinese peoples. Ritual baths were originated by ancient Buddhists and the practice spread from India to Tibet to Turkestan to Japan and to China. The tradition of these ritual baths mingled with the native customs of each region to produce bathing practices that are specific to each locale.
DUNGAI FU • AFRICAN
Heat and sweating is one of the basic remedies for all kinds of ailments in tribal Africa south of the Sahara. Writing of the Tanzanian Bantu in 1927, Henri Junod reported, “A kind of Turkish vapor bath is administered for certain complaints and ailments. A circular enclosure is made with a screen of matting in the middle of which the patient is placed. Close by him, on live embers, a pot containing leaves supposed to possess medicinal properties. A second mat is then spread over the top of the enclosure, thus shutting the patient in a small hut (dungai fu).”
In east Africa, a tribal doctor will instruct his assistants to dig a hole about the size of a grave. A fire is built in the hole and after it has almost burnt down, it is smothered with large green leaves. The patient is then laid on poles over until he is thoroughly smoked.
FIRE LODGE • HINDU
A bather absorbing the heat of a sweat bath was seen as re-enacting Creation, merging body and fire. Hindu mythology has several stories regarding the human absorption of heat. Pajapati created the world by heating himself to an extreme temperature through asceticism. Consequently, Hindu ascetics meditate near fire to achieve inner heat. Those who reach a communion with the Spirit are said to "burn." Those who perform miracles are called sahib-jocks, which means to "boil" from inner heat.
Because of its indirect association with fire, sweat was connected with the creation of humankind. A Bengali tale indicates a Hindu culture believed that sweat carries the seeds of life: "Siva (a Hindu god) sweat and he washed the sweat away with a piece of cloth. He threw the cloth away. Out of this a girl was born."
Looked on in a spiritual light, sweat's importance to many primitive societies becomes clear.
HILLSIDE SAUNA USA
Medicinal and spiritual values of the sweat bath are furthered by its communal character. The sweat bath is a social event like the coffee shop, neighborhood bar or picnic and is probably the healthiest ever offered a group of people.
Early in its history, sweat bath ceremonies and rituals were strong expressions of the community. Elders of' the Cherokee tribe used the sweat bath as a hallowed schoolhouse where teachings of' their forefathers were passed on to their young. Groups of Finns, dodging elves, would gather inside the sauna to talk, to escape the Nordic cold and to soothe aching muscles. Turkish women would congregate for hours in their hammam, the only place their men allowed them to socialize. The gregarious Romans would throng by the thousands to their lavish thermaes.
The idea is not to have the best sauna on the block, but to get the entire block in the sauna.
-Professor Harold Tier, President, The Sauna Society.