Inside the Inipi: Sweat Lodge of the Lakota People

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 spiritual 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 medicine man appropriately 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. 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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Comments 25 comments

NYmichael profile image

NYmichael 5 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.

kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 5 years ago from California Author

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

kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 4 years ago from California Author

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

Jessie 4 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

kalinin1158 3 years ago from California Author

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!

billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 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

kalinin1158 3 years ago from California Author

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

Wolf 2 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

kalinin1158 2 years ago from California Author

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.

billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

I participated in a ceremony in North Dakota about twenty years 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

kalinin1158 2 years ago from California Author

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.

RoderickWTeal 2 years ago

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

Marla 23 months ago

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

kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 23 months ago from California Author

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...

James 20 months ago

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

kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 20 months ago from California Author

Hi James,

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

chef-de-jour profile image

chef-de-jour 15 months ago from Wakefield, 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

kalinin1158 15 months ago from California Author

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 :)

Lena 8 months ago

Hi, is there any upcoming event?

kalinin1158 profile image

kalinin1158 8 months ago from California Author

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: Good luck!

Kendra 6 weeks 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

kalinin1158 6 weeks ago from California Author

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


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

Gena 6 weeks 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

kalinin1158 5 weeks ago from California Author

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!

barney 6 days ago

yall wannabes

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