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Inside the Inipi: Sweat Lodge of the Lakota People

Updated on March 15, 2017
The Native American lodge before it's covered with blankets for the ceremony
The Native American lodge before it's covered with blankets for the ceremony | Source

Lakota Healing Song HQ

The Sacred Fire

The women go in first, then the men, then the fire keepers. (Traditionally sweat lodge ceremonies of the Lakota people (Inipi) are only for men, but today half of the participants are female, including me, which I consider progress.)

The first 7 stones are placed in the center of the lodge, the door closes tightly, and the First Round of the Inipi begins. Everyone sits in a circle around the hot stones. The number of stones increases as the ceremony goes on. By the time it's Round Three, it feels like I'm inhaling fire.

It has gotten so hot that the only way I can breathe is through a towel. The medicine man sings prayers in Lakota language and splashes water over the pile of hot stones. The water evaporates instantly and new waves of heat overwhelm all senses. Some people around me are screaming, crying or chanting but I can't see them - the darkness blots out everything. The smoke from the burning sage and the steam from the stones make the air thick, heavy with vapors. Something is crawling up my leg. I don't know how much longer I can last.

Tip #1: make sure to drink plenty of water before and after the ceremony to avoid severe dehydration and aid the detoxification process.

Native Americans believe that sacred fire burns away the darkness.
Native Americans believe that sacred fire burns away the darkness. | Source

My torrid brain keeps reminding me of the medical conditions associated with prolonged heat exposure - nausea, headache, increased respiration, delirium… My God, I think I have all of them.

Then it gets existential: my mortality is suddenly both real and terrifying. For a second there I'm thinking: this may be it… my last moments… I'm going to have a heart attack (or worse - pass out) right here in this pitch-black hut with 15 strangers, and no one will even notice.

My paranoia isn't entirely unfounded: three people died in an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony conducted by another new age guru with "the secret": spirituality as a financial strategy. Participants paid 10 thousand dollars to go on a retreat, at the end of which they were packed into a waist-high hut until they started gasping for air and showed other signs of serious physical distress. At least I know I'm getting the real deal - an authentic Lakota spiritual guide named Hawk Moon.

Moon is a jovial silver-haired man with a loud rumbling laughter. He is a force. He leads the ceremony with a steady experienced hand, and I feel I can trust him. Before we begin he says:

"There will be times when you'll feel you can't go on. If that is the case, you can leave the lodge at any time, but I encourage you to stay and breathe through the heat. The more heat you feel, the more impurities you are burning away."

Tip #2: choose your sweat lodge guide wisely.

On the verge of being defeated by the heat I remember Moon's words and concentrate on the breathing, and nothing else. I let the heat in, I'm not fighting it anymore. Soon my discomfort and fears somehow become hazy, abstract, insignificant... I observe myself and everyone inside the lodge as if from a distance. I breathe in the hot air, and it burns away all the impurities in my body. I exhale slowly, and I let go. The darkness, frightening at first, becomes a soothing warm blanket covering my naked soul. People screaming and crying don't bother me anymore: they are letting their pain out, and it is beautiful.

Tip #3: don't be afraid of looking silly. Feel your repressed emotions, really go for it. Scream or cry if you need to, allow the Spirit to take over.

Suddenly I'm crying too. The sorrow that lived inside me burst like a water-filled balloon, and I'm allowing myself to be sad about whatever it is I am sad about.

Native American Hawk Spirit Dreamcatcher
Native American Hawk Spirit Dreamcatcher | Source
The Lakota Medicine Wheel. Art of Melanie Myhre
The Lakota Medicine Wheel. Art of Melanie Myhre | Source

The Rounds

Although there is no uniform sweat lodge ritual, the whole process is modeled after the Native American Medicine Wheel, which represents the archetypal journey each of us takes in life. This journey has four stages or rounds, each associated with a cardinal direction and a color.

  • Round One (East, Yellow) is of mild intensity, and is for getting used to the heat, the darkness, the enclosed space and anything else that might take some getting used to. Associated with the Visionary archetype: the path of the highest good.
  • Round Two (South, Red) is moderately hot, and is about "the others": people, relationships and unresolved conflicts. The idea is that you are willing to care for someone else before you care for yourself. Associated with the Teacher archetype: helping others to reach their full potential.

  • Round Three (West, Black) is for forgiving, embracing and nurturing your inner Self, and is the hottest round of all four. In many ways it is the toughest round: not only temperature-wise, but for the way we tend to avoid our own demons. Associated with the Healer archetype: ability to manifest healing for oneself and/or others.
  • Round Four (North, White) is dedicated entirely to that evasive "I'm glad to be alive" feeling and giving thanks: to the Earth Mother, the Universe, and the spirits of ancestors. Associated with the Warrior archetype: strength of spirit, taking control of one's life.

The fire pit for the Native American sweat lodge ceremony is prepared mindfully and respectfully.
The fire pit for the Native American sweat lodge ceremony is prepared mindfully and respectfully. | Source

The Symbolism

As the brightest of you have deduced, I've made it out alive. Yet some sort of death did occur because I felt different, and what is death if not a symbol for a personal transformation. As Cornel West said,

"It’s precisely by learning how to die, examining yourself and transforming your old self into a better self, that you actually live more intensely and critically and abundantly."

The idea of rebirth is essential to the sweat lodge tradition. To go through an intense spiritual purification is to transform the self: to let an old self die so it can be reborn. The word "Inipi" literally means "to live again".

Tip #4: take a moment to look around before entering the lodge. After the ceremony you won't see the world the same way.

The sweat lodge also symbolizes a mother's womb, or the Universe. We humbly enter the lodge on our knees, and by entering it we are allowing ourselves to become vulnerable and open like a child. Because only by becoming open again can we let go of emotional traumas, fears and self-inflicted limitations. Upon exiting the lodge we kneel again, thanking the Earth Mother and the medicine man for the healing.

Tip #5: bring a bag of organic tobacco as a gift to the Medicine Man/guide. It's typically given before or during the ceremony to be smoked after.

As I crawled out of the lodge, I felt an incredible sense of freedom and lightness, like I’ve lost a couple hundred pounds. After the darkness, the harsh heat and the purging my eyes opened to the sight of smoky-blue mountains of Southern California, the sun setting below and the sound of ravens croaking in the distance. Early evening air felt exhilarating.

“You look so much clearer," someone says to me almost immediately. I say "thank you" and wonder what the hell I looked like before. But I feel clearer.

After the ceremony everyone is hugging each other as is - in sweat-drenched clothes, with towels hung around the necks and smudged dirt on smiling faces. Lots of smiling and hugging, which is a sharp contrast to a group of random strangers I've met with in the morning.

Hawk Moon instructs us to greet one another as if meeting for the first time, since we are different people now. It sounds odd but it made complete sense, and it strengthened the impression that we emerged from the lodge much like a newborn emerges from a mother’s womb. We were transformed and reborn. Out of the darkness came the new beginning, and without a doubt, we all felt a little closer to the Spirit that dwells within each of us.

The Inipi ceremony takes place every month in Dulzura, 25 miles from San Diego, CA
The Inipi ceremony takes place every month in Dulzura, 25 miles from San Diego, CA | Source

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    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 6 months ago from California

      Dear Dennis,

      I appreciate your comment very much. I understand where you're coming from. I am also naturally suspicious of any spirituality-related events or practices that require money, Scientology being the prime example. I'll be honest, I was a little put off by the $60 fee to participate in the Inipi (or perhaps simply sweat lodge, as you're suggesting).

      However, where I live almost anything of that nature requires money. I've paid for every retreat, spiritual conference, ceremony, reading I ever had. Come to think of it, the sweat lodge was the least expensive. There was only one exception - I've asked for a reading from this woman in England. She was working with Lemurian crystals and I was just drawn to have a reading with her. For some reason my payment didn't go through, and I couldn't figure out how to send her money. But she said: don't worry about it, I'm gonna do a reading for you anyway, they told me you needed it.

      So in my experience everyone charges something...You're right, it's not the amount, it's the principle. But what can you do?

      I also hope that I get the opportunity to experience Inipi with someone who Pours for the goodness of Pouring, I really do! But true altruism is hard to come by. Spirituality is a philosophy, a way of life, and sometimes an occupation. If this is how a person chooses to make a living, does it mean it diminishes them spiritually? I don't know. I do agree though that money shouldn't be involved in spiritual endeavors of the highest nature.

      Peace,

      Lana

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 6 months ago from California

      Thank you Tonita!

      IVhunter, you're absolutely right. Thanks for stopping by!

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 6 months ago from California

      Hi Aewess,

      the next sweat lodge ceremony will take place on March 18, Saturday at 10 AM - 5 PM. It's not part of the retreat as far as I know, location is at Madre Grande Monastery

      2260 Lucky Six Truck Trail, Dulzura, California 91917. You don't need to sign up in advance. I'll put the link to the FB page here, if HP lets me: https://www.facebook.com/events/1589564207728149/

    • profile image

      Tonita 6 months ago

      I love this story thank you

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      IVhunter 6 months ago

      Great article. Women didn't traditionally participate in the sweat simply because they didn't need to. Women purify themselves naturally every month...

    • profile image

      aewess 6 months ago

      Can you tell me when the next sweat lodge ceremony will be happening and how to sign up? I tried to look on the website you suggested but they list only retreats. Was your experience a part of a retreat?

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      Wasichu Wacanta 6 months ago

      Hau Lana

      I do appreciate the humility and respect that you display in your post, and without trying to be condescending in any way, I would like to point out a few things that I find to be objectionable and, quite frankly, Cultural and Spiritual misappropriation.

      As someone who has been Lakota Red Road for over 24 years, I have NEVER paid an "admission" fee to Pray in Inipi. I have been Pouring for almost 10 years, and I NEVER charge anything (other than a pouch of Tobacco if people can afford it), and we have Ceremony at least once a month. People who come to pray here at Chanku Luta Inipi have offered me money, but I will not accept it, and instead ask them to bring Sage, Sweetgrass, Cedar, Inyans (Stones), some wood, or anything else that they can that we use in Inipi. Inipi does not belong to anyone, so how can you charge for something that already belongs to the Oyate (People)? When the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman brought the Seven Sacred Rites, of which Inipi is one, to the Lakota Oyate, she did not attach a bill to them. I see no difference between paying james ray $10,000 for a "spiritual warrior" sweat lodge and paying Hawk Moon $60.00 ($900.00 if there were 15 people, which is about what I spend on wood in 2 years). This is something that is non-negotiable with all the Lakota Oyate and others I have Prayed with, at Wounded Knee, Denver, and Boulder. The amount is not what is in question; the paying of any sum for someone to Pour for you is, and it is a great honor and responsibility to be asked to do this for the Oyate, and money should never be involved.

      Having said that, I am NOT saying that this is not a Spiritual endeavor for you and all the others that Pray with Hawk Moon. I am simply saying that it is not Inipi, in the Traditional sense, but a sweat lodge. All Inipi's are Sweat Lodges; not all sweat lodges are Inipi. The distinction might be a matter of semantics to some, or nuance or subtlety to others, but to all the Wichasa and Winyan Wakhan (Medicine Men and Women) that Pour, it is one of great importance. There are too many people who make up an Indian sounding name, learn a few things about whatever Nation they intend to steal from, and proceed to make a living selling spirituality, but for me and my tiyospaye (extended family) who walk the Lakota Red Road, true Spiritually can not be purchased; it must be attained through sincere practice and acquiring the knowledge of whatever Spiritual Path you choose, or that has been chosen for you.

      I say all this with no animosity towards Hawk Moon, as I have never met him and don't know his motivation for doing what he does, and certainly with none towards you, as you do seem sincere in your quest. I have often said to my tiyospaye that people who pay to pray can still get whatever it is that they are seeking, and it is the person who is charging for their enlightenment who is the one that is suffering. I hope that you'll get the opportunity to experience Inipi with someone who Pours for the goodness of Pouring and the altruism that entails, but I also Pray that you'll find what you are looking for with Hawk Moon. It's all Prayer, after all, and Spirit looks into the hearts of those Praying and knows what is true. Wicozani.

      Mitakuye Oyasin

      Dennis

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 7 months ago from California

      Tammy,

      thank you for correcting me, I was not aware that Hawk Moon is not a Medicine Man. I will make a proper correction. That being said, I don't claim to be an expert on Inipi, I was simply sharing my experience which is evident from the article. Cheers!

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      Tammy 7 months ago

      Please be careful of the words you choose in the future. Just because one POURS a lodge does NOT make them a Medicine Man. In the Lakota Nation there are currently only 5 recognized Medicine Men at present. All of which are in the ND/SD areas. While Hawk Moon may indeed be a Spiritual Leader, he is NOT one of the 5. It is very important to know these things, especially when you are sharing it to the world. Additionally, there are things that are not "true to the teachings" in your article I am sad to say. Yes Inipi's are powerful, but it is important they are true to the teachings - so it is much more than just Knowing who is pouring. Mitakuye Oyasin.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 9 months ago from California

      Hi Mik! The next sweat lodge will take place on Saturday, Dec 17 from 10am to 500pm - location is at Madre Grande Monastery, 2260 Lucky Six Truck Trail,

      Dulzura, California 91917. Hope you can make it!

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 9 months ago from California

      Thank you for you comment and sharing your experience also sissy69! I'm glad you were excited rather than frightened - this is a positive experience that's best approached with an open mind, not fear. Cheers!

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      MikRunyan 9 months ago

      I would like information on the next sweat lodge please. email mikrunyan@gmail.com thank you!

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      sissy69 9 months ago

      I appreciate you sharing your experience and the facts as well. I thought you might like to know that I was not frightened but excited to get to go in for the first time.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 12 months ago from California

      Thank you Gena! It's good to know that these ceremonies do have a common recognizable core no matter where you participate. I also found it to be profound and transformational, so glad to share this experience with fellow spiritual seekers!

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      Gena 12 months ago

      Just participated in Inipi Sweat Lodge in Blue Mountains, Australia with Native American Initiate Blue Lynx this past weekend. Loved your writing and the familiarity to my experience. Was a profound and transformational experience. Aho!

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 12 months ago from California

      Hi Kendra! Certainly. I follow Hawk Moon on Facebook, this is how I get the info on the upcoming events. You can also look up his page "Thunder Development" where he lists all his initiatives, including sweat lodges. The next sweat lodge will take place on September 17 at 10 AM - 5 PM at the Madre Grande Monastery (2260 Lucky Six Truck Trail, Dulzura, California 91917). It's a Men’s and Women's Sweat Lodge. The Women's Sweat Lodge will take place on October 1 at the same location and time. Here's what you'll need:

      2 towels/ one for inside the lodge and one for drying off after lodge

      Folding chair

      Wear a long Skirt and T-Shirt or Shorts and a T-Shirt

      Extra clothes and jacket

      Flashlight

      Bottles of water for hydration

      Favorite dish to share

      Donation: $60 cash or check made out to Roberta Moon

      Good luck on your journey! -- Lana

    • profile image

      Kendra 12 months ago

      Hi! I'm looking for a new sweat lodge community. Is there one this month in San Diego? Can you please help me to find information about it? Aho!

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 19 months ago from California

      Hi Lena,

      yes, there is an upcoming sweat lodge ceremony on Feb. 20 at Madre Grande Monastery in Dulzura. Fire and teachings start at 10AM, cost is $60 followed by a pot-luck. Here's the link: https://www.facebook.com/events/1097964230254699/ Good luck!

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      Lena 19 months ago

      Hi, is there any upcoming event?

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 2 years ago from California

      Good question! I know some Native American tribes believe that they received their spiritual teachings from their ancestors, the "star people". I don't know if that's the case with the Lakota, but it very well may be.

      Thank you for the kind words - you've said it so beautifully. As evident from my account, it wasn't exactly a walk in the park :) If that's what newborn babies go through as they emerge into this world - it must be a terrifying experience. We all went through it. But it's worth it. I hope :)

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      I wonder what made the ancient people develop such rituals, you know, going about their brutal business day to day, hunting, crafting, surviving season to season - then the visionary idea - life is built from within, from the spirit/soul - that we are all wonders - not merely flesh and bone, though that helps - but in need of spiritual cleansing now and again?

      I enjoyed your graphic writing. You went through and crossed the threshold and came out drenched, reborn almost into the light. And your dreams? Caught within the rays between the words.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 2 years ago from California

      Hi James,

      The next sweat lodge ceremony will be on March 21. I will send you the details via email. Cheers!

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      James 2 years ago

      Please I need information about the next sweat lodge this is my email adress jaimexcis1115@gmail.com thank you.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 2 years ago from California

      Good question! Hawk's event page only has some courses and seminars listed, I know he's been in Australia teaching for a while. If you go to the link in the hub that takes you to his FB page, he usually posts any sweat lodge plans there...

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      Marla 2 years ago

      Will there be an event on 11/15/14? I'm interested in participating.

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      RoderickWTeal 2 years ago

      Refreshing to hear ....those talk of the path of the REDEAST...

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 3 years ago from California

      Thank you Bill :-) It was very transformational in a sense that you do experience some sort of rebirth, and it's uncanny how different you feel when you finally emerge from the lodge.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I participated in a ceremony in North Dakota about twenty years ago...it was everything you said here and much more. I highly recommend this to anyone who feels the need to "cleanse." Nicely written.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 3 years ago from California

      Thank you Wolf! I should include this information in the article. I didn't mention it, but yes, they do ask for a donation (it was $60 a person when I went), and there is a potluck dinner afterwards so bringing food is definitely a good idea.

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      Wolf 3 years ago

      this event still goes down every 3rd Saturday of the month unless rain at top of madre grande monastery in dulzura and there is a small donation asked for so bring money and please bring food for pot luck. Starts at 10 a.m. indian time.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 4 years ago from California

      I agree...and I want to do it again!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 4 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I will keep this short. Been there, done that, and it is truly a mystical experience that could benefit everyone. :) Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 4 years ago from California

      Hi Jessie! I'm sorry it took me a while to get back to you, I've just read your comment. I realize you're not in San Diego anymore but if you plan to come back, this particular Inipi ceremony takes place every month; there's been one today (November 17), there'll be one next month I assume. The people gather near Madre Grande Monastery in Dulzura, CA. Hope this helps. Thanks for reading!

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      Jessie 5 years ago

      i just got done with my first sundance- I'm looking for a sweatlodge- i am here in san diego this week. Is there one happening any time soon?

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 5 years ago from California

      Ozohmatli, I'm sorry I couldn't understand your comment so...thank you?

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      Ozohmatli 5 years ago

      Queman tikonitas tonatiuh

      Ica mollolo shiompaki

      Macehual ompa, ompa niyetos ihuan totahtzin, cualtzin tlawilli nimitmacas pejuta wichasha.

    • kalinin1158 profile image
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      Lana ZK 6 years ago from California

      Michael, you're too kind, my friend. Thank you for mentioning Dostoevsky in reference to my writing, for even knowing I could not be of the same substance, I appreciate your encouragement and generosity. I guess I was due for a new article :-) The sweat lodge, as torturous as it sounds (or as I made it sound), was amazing, it was my first group spiritual experience

    • NYmichael profile image

      NYmichael 6 years ago from near NYC

      Three cheers for the Lakota sweat lodge!!

      It sounds deeply cleansing.

      Also, I gotta say, your writing has a powerful, simple luminous quality. Reminds me of Dostoevsky.