The Native American Sweat Lodge and the Modern Spa

Let’s talk about dumplings. (Yes, we realize that this blog is about the history of the Native American sweat lodge. Just hang tight.)

Dumplings are the great international equalizer: in one form or another, every culture has them, each with a different name and unique qualities. So whether you prefer shu mai, pierogies, kreplach, or gnocchi, at the end of the day…they’re all dumplings.

Now, replace “dumplings” with “spa culture,” and we’ve got ourselves a metaphor!

Routines of health and cleansing around the world are, like dumplings, based in similar roots and techniques, with slight variations that distinguish each one. Perhaps paramount among them are spa systems rooted in the restorative powers of heat and perspiration.

The Native American sweat lodge, an institution that’s existed since before recorded history, is to the “hot spa treatment” family what the potsticker is to the dumpling family – that is to say, the benchmark, the standard, the classic.

The simplicity of this indigenous construct is the basis for many of today’s rejuvenating heat-centric health treatments. But what makes the Native American sweat lodge so different from its sauna-esque counterparts has much less to do with its physical structure, and more to do with its spiritual component.

But before we get there, let’s sneak a peek at what the first Native American sweat lodges actually looked like. Specific hut designs varied based on different geographies, but for the most part, they were domes constructed out of wood or tree saplings held together with local grasses, and insulated with animal skins.

The huts were typically small but were often occupied by multiple participants at the same time. Set to the east a few feet from the lodge entrance was the fire pit – a sacred totem that warmed the heated rocks until they were taken into the lodge itself, and served as a spiritual representation for the structure.

Physical cleanliness and the general benefits of steam were certainly a welcome side effect of tribal sweat sessions, but the true purpose of these immersions was spiritual rebirth. While different Native American nations attributed different meanings to the sacred rituals of sweating (the Sioux, for example, saw Mother Earth at the core of the sweat hut, with the heat representing the emergence of life, and the fire outside signifying the sun – a light source rising from the east), all tribes are united by the application of symbolism to the various stages of the sweat lodge experience.

Pre-sweat cleanses, such as fasts, were frequently implemented; sweat ceremonies were most often held at night (the darkness itself holding meaning), and men and women, adorned in lightly draped clothing, were welcome to share the lodge simultaneously – a practice not seen in many other spa cultures, where genders are typically separated.

After immersion in the sweat lodge (usually consisting of 3-4 sessions lasting 30-45 minutes), tribal participants were known to counterbalance the intensity of the heat by submerging themselves in sand, snow, or water (namely, an adjacent lake) to act as a cooling mechanism. Prayers, fables, and chanting rituals have always accompanied the Native American sweat lodge tradition, which continues in tribal nations around our country to this day.

Because of the sacred nature of the Native American sweat lodge to its communities, outside visitors are rarely invited to participate in these rituals. Some groups, like Earthtribe, a nature-based spiritual organization unaffiliated with any specific Native American society, offer the chance for non-indigenous peoples to participate in a modified sweat lodge experience.

What’s so striking about the customs of the Native American sweat lodge is that even without the opportunity to take part in a specific ceremony, it’s very easy to incorporate the core tenets of these beautiful practices into our own spa habits.

By looking at a steam shower session as a chance to find some much-needed personal peace, a moment to step away from the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives and find mental introspection as well as physical cleanliness, our own spa rituals can become even more meaningful.

Taking cues from tribal rituals, use your own spa experience as a wonderful chance to meditate, breathe, and find stillness. By outfitting your home spa with a digital shower, you can create your own steam chamber complete with chromatherapy, aromatherapy, or anything else you need to clear your mind and body.

Another inspiration can come in the form of a post-spa cooling ritual, as embraced by Native American tribes. Maybe burying yourself in sand or snow after your steam session isn’t totally feasible (although it kinda sounds utterly fantastic), what is doable is stepping under the burst of a cold shower, or, if you’re at a spa, dunking into a cool plunge pool.

The sacred beauty of the Native American sweat lodge holds great influence on today’s spa culture in so many ways, and reminds us to look at our spa experiences from beyond the lens of their physical manifestations.

The history of these practices inform the spiritual side of spa rituals, and also how we allocate resources (in using local grasses and woods to build their huts, and insulating them with animal hides they hunted, tribes were always cautious about having as little impact on the land as possible, a practice not so different than embracing today’s low-usage environmentally-friendly steam showers).

Hot spa rituals abound worldwide, but the traditions of our indigenous cultures are truly ones to sweat by.

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