As spoken of in Native American spiritually “sweat lodge” is used in the same way that we use the word “church”. It is not merely the name of a structure but of a spiritual practice as well. Sweat lodges are, like a church, a portal for communication with a Higher Power and you enter into a sweat lodge as you enter into a church and you go to sweat lodge as you go to church.
There are many different forms of sweat ceremonies and each tribal group has their own traditions which make up their own unique sweat lodge ceremony. Common to all traditions is the idea of the ceremony being the purification of one's mind, body, spirit and heart needed for healing of the body and for spiritual contemplation. The sweat lodge prepares the participants for the rituals that mark the rites of passage by sweating away the impurities that have been accumulated within the body in symbolically much the same way that baptism washes away the sins accumulated within the soul. The newly reborn individual is thus purified and ready for the next phase of spiritual life that awaits them.
The sweat lodge as a structure differs from a church in that while churches are usually built to be more or less lasting monuments, as the cathedrals of Europe, the sweat lodge is often a temporary edifice. Symbolic of the rebirthing aspect of the seat lodge ceremony the sweat lodge is often built (or renewed) for each chosen "Sweat Day." The building of the sweat lodge is part of the sweat lodge ceremony and the people will fast and pray while working on the lodge in order to remain focused one their intent. Prayers are offered at each stage of construction; as saplings are cut and placed and as the pit for the hot rocks is dug. Tobacco and other herbs are burned as a visible prayer rising to heaven.
The lodge is usually a round or oval shaped dome, symbolic of the womb of the Great Earth Mother from whom all life sprang.The frame of a traditional Sweat Lodge is made up of slender withes of aspen or willow, or other supple saplings, lashed together with raw hide, or plant fiber cordage. The sweat lodge is then covered with the animal skins of the varied tribal totem animals. The hides of buffalo, bear, deer or moose may be used as a symbol of the spiritual connection the tribe has with these animal guides. Today, with many of the sham new age sweat lodges the animal skins have been replaced with canvas sheets or plastic tarps. This is extremely dangerous as they may retain too much heat and the plastic when heated will emit toxic fumes causing serious injury and even death.
The door is set low so that one must bow down to enter the lodge as a reminder to show humility and reverence during the ceremony. One or more attendants will remain outside the sweat lodge to tend the fire, prepare the hot stones, fill the sacred pipe and protect the ceremony from intrusions. Tobacco and other plants are prepared as offerings. They are smoked in the sacred pipe, sprinkled on the fire.
The sweat lodge ceremony begins in silent darkness inside the lodge, for darkness and silence is a symbolic reminder of the time before Creation. People are sometimes, but not always naked in the sweat lodge; to symbolize being in the dark and nurturing womb. Those who join in the sweat lodge are like the fetus in a womb and because of these rebirthing qualities rites of passage are invariably part of the sweat lodge.
The arrival of glowing rocks is a symbol of the arrival of the Sun and its life giving radiance. A flute may be played, representing the blessing of a bird song and a drum is beat to symbolize the heart beat of Creation. The sweat leader then takes a dipper of water and pours it onto the hot stones in the pit, producing large amounts of steam. He then begins his prayers, songs and chants. People are sometimes, but not always naked in the sweat lodge; to symbolize being in the dark and nurturing womb. Those who join in the sweat lodge are like the fetus in a womb and because of these rebirthing qualities rites of passage are invariably connected with the sweat lodge.
The sweat lodge ceremony is at its core an ecstatic shamanic experience where participants join in a communal “Vision Quest”. Messages and vision from the Spirit World are received through the group consciousness of the participants. To one person at a time, a "talking stick" is handed and as each person receives the stick they have an opportunity to speak, to pray and to share their vision from the spirit world while all others in the sweat must remain silent and allow them to say what they wish without reproach.
Traditionally it was only the men who would sweat. Today women sweat also, provided they are not on their moon time or cleansing time already. Men can sweat separately and women can sweat separately, or there can be mixed sweats where men and women both participate. Within the mixed sweats it is important that very strict protocols be observed. Men and women must both practice modesty in their dress when they come to ceremony. This is a sacred place to pray, to heal and a reverent attitude must be maintained.
One cannot stress the idea of reverence too strongly when it comes to the sweat lodge ceremony or any other Native American ritual. There are a lot of people interested in learning about traditional Native American religion and spirituality. In and off itself there is nothing wrong with that. Unfortunately there are many pseudo-shamans ready to sell you a fake Native American spiritual experience and the sham sweat lodge ceremony is as common a scam as selling authentic Zuni Indian jewelry made in Japan.
The practice of Native American spirituality is part of a cultural spiritual experience and not an evangelical religious revival. If you are seeking to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony because you are a person in need of religious and spiritual guidance, it would be best to seek elsewhere. Participating in sham rituals under the influence of a performing shaman will only hurt you spiritually and lead you farther away form the place you are seeking to be.