One of the reasons I moved to Central Oregon from New York City was to incorporate nature into my life. I had come to terms with the fact that Central Park, Prospect Park and Washington Square Park (especially Washington Square Park) were not considered actual nature. So in that vein, I've decided to take on any opportunity to get outside and experience all of the unique outdoor activities available here.Last week, I was invited to a traditional Native American sweat lodge that a friend built on his property east of Bend. Let me say that this is not something I would have ever done back East. I tried Bikram Yoga a few times and figured that was about as hot as I could handle (110 degrees, or hot as balls). However, two days prior had been The Source Weekly's holiday Christmas party and, needless to say, I needed to cleanse my body of some toxins.
The sweat lodge was located off Alfalfa Market Road in an old-growth Juniper forest. Robert Burr, the owner of the property, built the lodge himself using the traditional Native American technique of gathering saplings and lashing them together into a dome, which is then covered with blankets. Burr also covered his lodge with more weather-resistant material.
The lodge faced a small fire, where a pile of lava rocks had been heated to the point where it was nearly molten. Robert then welcomed the hodge-podge of characters he had invited to the sweat - the group changes every time - to strip down to their bathing suits and enter the lodge. The sapling tent was cramped and dark, save a lighted candle hanging from the ceiling.
So there I was, in my bathing suit, shoulder-to-shoulder with ten strangers while beer from the weekend seeped out of my skin. According to barefootsworld.net, "If you are invited to a sweat, the 24 hours previous to the sweat should be spent in cleansing, fasting, prayer and meditation on the intended purpose of the sweat, and you should be free from drugs and alcohol." Whoops.
Robert began to drop hot lava rocks into the center of the lodge. After dropping seven fiery rocks very close to our feet, he stepped in and shut the door. It was pretty damn hot, but not all that unbearable. I can do this, I thought to myself with a bit of smugness. This hippie nature stuff isn't that bad.
Then Robert poured water over the rocks and I was hit with a thick, menacing wall of heat that reached temperatures upwards of 130 degrees. All of a sudden, the oxygen seemed to dissipate from the lodge and I was left gasping for breath. I couldn't open my eyes because it felt like acid was being sprayed into them. I looked over at Robert and the other more experienced sweaters, who were blissfully meditating while glowing beads of sweat formed on their skin. Meanwhile, I was sitting in a puddle of reconstituted Jubelale.
Sweat lodges are a vital part of many Native American cultures, used to cleanse the body as well as an outlet to connect with the spirit world, chant and meditate on tribal issues. Traditionally, sweats are done in three rounds of approximately twenty minutes. Participants are subject to the rule of the lodge leader, who decides when the sweat begins and when it is over. Robert takes a more lax approach to his sweats, letting participants enter and leave as they wish. "This is a nice way to sweat because it doesn't scare people off," he says.
Robert has been participating in sweats since he first experienced a traditional Native American sweat in Arizona. Now that he's built a lodge on his property, Robert has group sweats once a month.
"It's a great way to meet people," Robert says. "It's a little more personal than just a party. It's a great time for people to get together and it doesn't have anything to do with the transfer of money."
After a few minutes in the sweat lodge, I began to calm down and was able to breathe again. I opened my eyes and looked around at the participants, who all seemed to have gone through the intense experience I had. We were dripping with sweat, a little shaken but more aware. I felt like I had achieved a heightened mental state. Robert then placed sagebrush and eucalyptus oil on the rocks, enveloping us in aromatics.
While I may not have connected with the spirit world, I did connect with the group in that little tent as well as with myself. It was a very honest experience that we had just shared, having just challenged the limits of our bodies.
"I find that it has brought a lot to me," says Robert. "I've had people come up to me and say, 'Hey, I really appreciate involving me in the sweat, it was two years ago that I came to a sweat up at your house and I was just telling a friend about it.' That experience sticks with you."
While most sweats are invitation only, Brietenbush Hot Springs offers monthly sweat ceremonies, which are open to the community. The next sweat is January 21 and while it is free, offerings are encouraged to offset the cost and reservations are required. Call (503) 854-3320 and visit www.brietenbush.com for more information.