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Sweat Lodge Therapy for Alcoholics and Addicts - Why it Works

Updated on July 5, 2008

Heating the rocks

Photo: Lancefisher
Photo: Lancefisher

Stop Drinking By Sweating?

Can a Native American spiritual ceremony help in your recovery from addiction?

The Native American sweat lodge is an intense experience of rebirth, and for those of us who struggle with addiction or alcoholism, the rebirthing can be a means of escaping from a past that drags you back. There is a healing power in the sweat, and as such, more addiction treatment organizations, even prisons, are incorporating sweat lodge ceremonies into programs of recovery.

What Is a Sweat Lodge?

The exact form and construction will vary depending on the Native American group that's using it, and the area of the country in which it lies. All though symbolize the womb and Mother Earth, and all are small, dark and very hot.

The frame is often constructed from flexible sapling branches, bent down to form a low dome-like framework. Atop the branches, heavy blankets or animal skins will seal in the heat and keep out all external light. The single entrance way will be small and low to the ground, and participants will have to crawl in and out of the lodge, further symbolizing the womb-like nature of the structure.

Participants will sit clockwise on the exterior of the lodge, and a central fire pit will hold the superheated rocks. The rocks are heated in a fire outside, and tended by a firekeeper. The firekeeper will pass the rocks into the lodge as needed, usually to a tribal elder who tends the steam and runs the ceremony.

What Happens During the Sweat?

The exact sequence of events will vary depending on the native tradition being followed, but the principles behind the actions remain fairly cross culturally consistent. We sweat as purification and as a spiritual event. We sweat to reconnect with mother earth, our loved ones, our ancestors and ourselves – and we sweat to feel forgiveness for ourselves as much as for others.

Before a sweat, the participants will often help out in chopping wood and kindling and building the fire to heat the rocks. As the sweat begins, each participant will thank the tribal elder leading the ceremony, and crawl through the low East facing door to a position on the interior. Most single sex sweats are done in the nude, although this can vary.

The firekeeper will pass in the heated rocks to the elder leading the sweat, and the elder will seal the door – leaving complete blackness save for the light of the glowing stones. The elder will then pour water on the rocks, enveloping the lodge in waves of intense steamy heat.

Sweat lodges tend to get hotter than a conventional sauna, and can last for hours. Participants are advised to remove any metal jewelry or contact lenses prior to entry, to avoid injury.

Sweats tend to encompass multiple waves of prayer. The elder will lead the ceremony, and guide the prayer rounds. Each person in the lodge will have an opportunity to pray aloud (or silently) for people they have known and loved, for ancestors, for the people they have harmed and for their recovery from haunting memories. After each round of prayers, the door is opened giving a brief pause from the heat before more stones are added, more steam is created, and another round begins.

Four rounds of prayer are typical, although a sweat can last from less than an hour, to many hours, in duration.

It is Intense

The dizzying heat and the darkness and the streaming sweat and chanting prayers all add up to a pretty intense and powerful experience. It can be tough to explain, but something special happens, far removed from the everyday, and we are given a short time while in the sweat to become reborn.

The sweat reconnects us to the physical world, to our loved ones here and gone, and through prayers for forgiveness and the intensity of the experience we can leave what troubles us behind - and move forward a little lighter because of it.

Although a spiritual ceremony in Native American cultures, elders of those communities will lead sweats for respectful participants of any background. The act of prayer is important, but to who or what you pray is entirely up to you. The sweat lodge ceremony does not contradict any religious teachings or beliefs.

In Addiction Recovery

The feeling of rebirth, reawakening and of second chances is palpable after a sweat –and so many of us in addiction recovery need desperately to leave our pasts behind us.

Sweat lodges are increasingly seen incorporated into drug treatment programs because they have therapeutic value, and because they work.

Sweat Lodges in California Prisons

Photo: Mathewvenn (flickr)
Photo: Mathewvenn (flickr)

LA Gang Member Talks About Sweat Lodges and How They've Changed Him


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      suiteorchids 8 years ago

      great hub, very informative

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      jay rau 8 years ago

      I like sweating about once a month. Sweating keeps me not only sober but in serenity as well.

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      Lisa 8 years ago

      I enjoyed your article. I am in recovery myself and utilize the sweatlodge in my life. It brings a componet that I have yet to find anywhere else. It is a magical experience. My boyfriend and myself have been trying to share this special ceremony with some of our co-workers (we work at a treatment center). Most people that have tried it throughly enjoyed it.