This weekend came news that a third person has died following an October 8 sweat lodge ceremony at the Angel Valley Retreat Center near Sedona, Arizona. The tragedy is frightening and incomprehensible: people in search of healing were instead subjected to a terrifying and dangerous ordeal. The investigation into what exactly caused the organ failures that led to the 3 deaths and multiple hospitalizations is ongoing–though authorities are using the term “homicide” in describing it.
Those of us who look to healing practices including sweat lodges are shaken by the news, wondering how this leaves us to think about safety on our next retreat. Here to reassure, educate, and enlighten us is Jonathan Ellerby, PhD, an expert in the cultural and spiritual healing traditions of sweat lodges and steam baths. His Fresh Living interview is below.
What questions should we ask before we visit a sweat lodge at a retreat center or spa?
The first questions to ask are: what cultural tradition is it from, who runs it, how did they learn to do so, how long have you been doing this, and how do you ensure its safety? Any reasonable resort, retreat, or spa will have good answers to these questions, and their lodge leader would be the primary source for those answers. Any lodge leader who is ambiguous about their training or unwilling to state their history of experience should be considered suspect. Naturally, in Native American communities, these same rules and questions do not always apply. Culturally based traditions in communities each have their own protocol.
What do sweat lodges–at their best–do for people’s physical and mental health?
Different cultural traditions use the ceremonial steam bath for different reasons. Naturally, the physical benefits of steam and steam baths are long standing. The original spa and medical traditions of most cultures–including Roman, Greek, African, and Indian–used steam to assist detoxification, improve immune function, and even medicate through the use of teas in the steam. Beyond that, sweat lodges, particularly like those associated with Native American tradition help people to quiet the mind, feel a sense of release, forgiveness, and personal power. In most lodge traditions, there is a focus on reflecting on what is most important in life and relationships.
Lodges are used frequently across USA and Canada in treatment programs of various kinds in hospitals, prisons, and at addiction and mental health treatment centers. Most significantly, we must remember that a lodge is a sacred time and place in which we humbly honor and call the energy of the Spiritual World to bring healing into our lives. In a properly run lodge I have witnessed amazing healings of body, mind, and spirit. I have literally seen unexplainable cures of very serious conditions, and the healing of very deep emotional wounds.
Is there a succinct way to summarize the spirituality behind sweat lodge rituals? Or does it differ among cultures?
This definitely differs among cultures. Native American lodges in North America and non-Native lodges in North America do tend to have some common themes such as the honoring of God, Ancestors, and the Natural World. The inclusion of prayers and meditations, and the belief in the healing power of God, the Spirit World and the Natural Forces within the elements of Nature. Lodges are very often seen as places of renewal and rebirth, a place to strengthen the spirit, open the heart, and calm the mind. But it should be said that there are many many ways to run a lodge, and even within one cultural tradition different leaders have different visions and teachings of what a lodge is for and how to use it to help people.
What are the most common mistakes that sweat lodge facilitators make when setting up their lodges?
The most genuine answer I can give you is that any properly trained lodge leader does not make mistakes in setting up a ceremony. It is like asking a surgeon, “What is the most common mistake made during surgery?” It shouldn’t happen. Regardless of culture, a lodge leader should take what they do very seriously.
If pushed to answer further, I would say there are three common areas of mistake to pay attention to: 1. Cutting corners or not following the spiritual protocols and traditions set out; 2. Not being conscious of the heat tolerance level of attendees; 3. Choosing poor materials for construction.
What are the ideal conditions for a
sweat lodge, in terms of wood and rock materials, temperature, and number of
There are typically about 8 to 12 people in a
common North American lodge. Stones are usually lava or some other type that is
unlikely to break, pop, or fracture when heated or quickly cooled. Stones are
usually about the size of a softball up to the size of a large cantaloupe.
Temperatures are very hard to gauge since measuring temperatures in a lodge
would be against most traditions. Because I work in a spa, I know that steam
rooms average around 120 to 140 degrees F and saunas average around 170F to 180F.
A common lodge could be anywhere from 120F to 200F, but not necessarily
for long periods of time. Each “round” of a lodge can be different temperatures
and continue for lengths of time. It takes great care to understand how to work with that
heat and people’s thresholds over time.
Lodges really do vary in construction around the
world. In Africa, the Venda Lodge I was trained in was made of clay bricks and
was a built like a stout cylinder. In Zimbabwe, the lodge I was in was square
and covered with a tarp that light came through. In Mexico, the Aztec temascal I was in and most others in the region are made of
clay or stones. Most lodges of Native and non-Native people in the USA and
Canada are ideally made of all natural materials: natural wood frame from
supple trees, such as willow, untreated natural wool blankets, and an untreated
100% cotton canvas covering. They tend to be about 12 to 14 feet in diameter.
What do you think went wrong in the
Angel Valley instance?
It is very hard to say without
all the details. I have been sweating and fasting all of my adult life. I have
never heard of anything like this. I have fasted from food and water for 72
hours or more on more than 14 occasions and have been in lodges during
many of those times. I never ever experienced feeling dangerously ill or even
in fear of my health. I was usually with other people, and no one was ever
hospitalized. Even if these people were fasting 36 hours and then in a hot
lodge meant for two people, a physically fit person like those who died and were injured at
the James Ray Spiritual Warrior event shouldn’t have been that badly hurt or
killed. It is an extreme situation, and I cannot imagine what other factors we
are yet to learn of. I do think there are some missing pieces to this story,
whether accidental or intentional, there were likely some very
unusual elements involved in this ceremony.
I can only say that I expect
there are missing factors we have not yet learned of. For example, hazardous
material choices, unusual physical exercises, strenuous breathing techniques,
the use of hallucinogens, or unusually high temperatures for prolonged times
could be fatal additional elements. I cannot say if these were a part of that
event or not.
Is it right for non-Native
Americans to be doing this at all?
The borrowing, selling, or
misrepresenting of Native American traditions is never okay. At the same time,
it is really important to me that people understand the history of sweat
lodges. Ceremonial steam baths have been in cultures around the world and
throughout time. They were in places like Greece, Rome, Japan, Turkey, parts of
Africa, Latin America, and more. I do think there is a place in the world for
ceremonial steam baths for all people. What if only Japanese and Chinese people
were allowed to meditate? What if only East Indian people were allowed to do
yoga? What if only white people could go to AA or church? There is a place for
this ancient tradition, but it must be one of respect, integrity, and an
honoring of cultural boundaries and cultural traditions.
If non-Native people want to
participate in a Native lodge, they should go humbly and respectfully to Native
people. Having been properly mentored over a period of 14 years, I was eventually
“recognized” by a Native American community as both a community member and someone who’s able
to run lodges. Despite that honor, I never run Native lodges for non-Native
people. I send them to Native healers and Elders I know. It’s
If they want a safe interfaith experience, I can provide that. I
am an Interfaith minster and have studied lodges all
over the world. I can share something of my own culture that unites others, but
only with the deepest of caution, reverence, love, and adherence to the highest
standards learned amongst all traditions. There is a Higher Power at work in a lodge, and it’s not the lodge leader. It’s
that One Spirit that those who mess with a lodge will have to be accountable
to. And let’s just say, I’m not interested in bad karma…
Arizona-based, Dr. Jonathan Ellerby is one of
the nation’s leading experts on Ceremonial Steam Baths and cross-cultural
use of spiritual practices. Author of Return to the Sacred: Ancient
Pathways to Spiritual Awakening and a PhD in
Comparative Religion, Jonathan has over 20 years experience in Sweat Lodges in
the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Africa. He has studied with Native American healers and
has been a part of sweat lodges/ceremonial steam baths in hospitals,
prisons and resorts. He runs a weekly interfaith-style sweat lodge at
the world-famous, corporate retreat favorite, Canyon Ranch Spa where he
serves as the Spiritual Director. Visit him at www.returntothesacred.com.
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