The Sweat Lodge

This Christmas Day, I offer you the gift of a story told by a new client:

I see that going into the sweat lodge in remote northern Ontario when I was 17 is something that I can use to propel me through birth. The experience was a powerful one then and now, as I face a long pregnancy and its culminating labour, the event is taking on new significance and its power is spinning in the expanding darkness of my womb.


I went into the sweat lodge to heal. I didn’t even know what parts of me needed healing. All I knew was that I was being offered a chance to experience something profound that might just change the course of my life. The sweat lodge itself was like a womb - dark inside but for the orange glow of rocks heated by fire until they took on their own light. The air was wet from water sprayed periodically on the burning rocks that would immediately vapourize and turn the tight dome into a small ocean that housed us all. There were perhaps ten girls and two men - our first nations guides on this journey into the Sweat.

Once we had all gathered inside and been given instructions the animal skin flap of the sweat lodge was closed and we were cradled in primal darkness. I could feel the other girls breathing around me. I could feel the warmth of their bodies and their anxious energy. We didn’t know where we were journeying to or what sort of people we might be once we emerged from our process of rebirth. It was a moment very similar to what I have been experiencing in my state of early pregnancy, where very little has changed on the surface of things but I can feel strange ripples of energy coursing through my body and smell the electric smell of great change rolling in like a summer storm.

My memories of the Sweat are hazy. But images flash back to me like prophecies. I think there was a drum. The steady heartbeat of the world reminding us of our embodied state. The sweat has four stages each marked by one of the sacred herbs--sage, sweetgrass, cedar, and tobacco. At the end of each stage the lodge would be opened and we would have the choice to leave or to stay on for the next stage. We could decide that we had learned what we came to learn or that we needed to go deeper to reach whatever lesson was meant for us. Inside the sweat lodge I descended into the core of the earth to access the essence of myself. I imagine labour will be much like that--a spiralling downward into the most secret spaces of the soul where reserves of power you never imagined you had can be accessed and put to use.

I floated in the humid air of the sweat lodge as the ceremony commenced. It wasn’t long before I was soaked with the wet air and my own sweat that poured out of me like rain. My body slowly emptied itself of fluids and I’m sure that I became severely dehydrated. Stories poured out of us with the sweat. We told of our young lives’ greatest hurts, the things that were holding us back and torturing us. Tears began to mingle with the sweat. Girls cried out in pain or because they saw visions emerging from the blackness. Each time the flap was opened at the end of a stage some would leave, desperate for water, content that they had gleaned all they could, or simply exhausted physically and mentally.

I was becoming worn down myself. My body needed water and I was deeply aware of that. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I was sure that there was something at the end of all this that would be worth the suffering and somehow, amidst the agony of the Sweat I was able to embrace the experience as transformative. By the end of the Sweat I was deep within my own body and had become animalistic in my thoughts and movements. I was lying on the dirt floor of the lodge with my head in the lap of another girl. I was screaming a low animal scream that originated deep in my throat and resonated at my core. I clawed the ground like a dying creature letting the earth bury itself under my nails. I thought that I might die yet refused to leave until the flap was opened for the final time.

I find that my memories of the Sweat sound much like the experiences of labouring women who find intense beauty amidst pain, fear, and confusion. Labouring women connect to their animal selves just as I did in the suffocating final moments of the Sweat. And while I wasn’t comfortable or even fully conscious of the world around me I believed that I was safe. I believed that the guides wouldn’t let me come to harm, that the girls would hold me. This feeling of safety in the midst of chaos will be crucial to birth as well. I will need to feel that I am held in competent arms and that I will be told if there is real danger at hand. I think that if I can maintain a feeling of safety that I will be able to bear whatever pain or discomfort comes my way and hold on to the belief that bodily trial can be a gateway to spiritual truths.

When the sweat was finally over I lifted myself up off the earth and ate canned fruit that was being passed around. As liquid and sugar entered my body I felt deep relief and also a great sense of well being for having made it to the end. I drank water and water has never again tasted so pure and delicious. When I stepped out of the lodge I was given a moment that will forever be a part of my personal mythology. I emerged from the heat of that womb and into the cold fresh air of the northern summer night. The sky was spattered with stars and I walked carefully on unsteady legs to the edge of the lake where the water was black and silent. I let the air cool me and many of the girls swam in the midnight waves, coming fully alive after touching the edges of death. Time had lost all meaning. I have no sense of how long I stayed in the sweat lodge. It could have been minutes or hours. All I know is that I went in when the sun was still up and when I came out it was long past sunset.

I will hold on to the sweat lodge when I enter labour. I will let time lose meaning and surrender to the animal impulses of my body - letting it cry out when it needs to and growl deep in the throat and belly. I will let myself be cradled by my husband, the midwives and doula who will attend me. I will remember that I am safe so that I can ride out the waves of birth without getting lost entirely. I see suddenly the the sweat lodge was a gift that I didn’t see the full value of at the time. It was a perfect preparation for birth given to me in days when I never expected to have a child. How strange that I can travel backwards now and see new aspects of the experience and new ways to apply it. I have already been both the mother and the child: The labouring woman clawing the earth in wild torment and the new baby crawling from the womb into the wide wide world under the slowly gyrating sky. May this experience give me strength and courage in the months to come and at the moment of birth.

(Months later, she gave birth in the room that was her husband's when he was a boy, buoyed by her experience in the sweat lodge.)