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Are Sweat Lodges Risky? A Follow Up To Arizona Events

by Jonathan Ellerby, PhD

I’d like to begin by qualifying my comments: I have had the privilege and pleasure of being involved in various forms of traditional Indigenous “sweat lodges” and similar ceremonies for over 20 years now. I have personally experienced hundreds, maybe over a thousand and from cultures as diverse as Ojibway, Cress, Blackfoot, Lakota, Aztec, and even in Africa with two different African tribes. I have studied lodges from an academic perspective and have researched and a been a part of their use in hospital and prison treatment programs. I spent 12 years earning the right to run a Native American type of lodge, mentored by a Native American healer. I do not run Native lodges for non-Native people. I do run an interfaith form of lodge that welcomes men and women of all faiths and cultural backgrounds.

I don’t think anyone in the general public knows enough about what happened at the James Ray retreat in central Arizona that lead to so called “sweat lodge” ceremony that caused the death of 2 and the injury of 19 others. There is no way to know what lead to this horrific event, but one thing is very clear and should be widely known: there was nothing typical about that sweat lodge.

Sweat lodges and similar ceremonies are found all over the world and have been used to promote health and spiritual growth for thousands of years. It persists as a tradition because it is safe, it is healing and it works – when done according to clear tradition and protocol. This means that the leaders and setting for a Lodge are critical factors. Native American expert Joseph Bruchac was quoted as saying, “The sweat lodge needs to be respected… When you imitate someone's tradition and you don't know what you are doing, there's a danger of doing something very wrong." He couldn’t be more right. The big question in my mind is, “what tradition was this Lodge done in?” and “was it even Native American in origin. Likely not.

A well run lodge and lodge leader follow strict well understood conditions, practices and patterns of behavior. When tradition is followed there is nothing dangerous about a Sweat Lodge. It is more dangerous to spend time in a hospital, a car or a rock concert. Furthermore, the gifts of a well run Lodge experience transcend culture and can be suitable for people of a wide range of ages and health stages.

Some of the most beautiful and transformative times of my life have involved Sweat Lodges. I look forward to the Lodge that I attend almost weekly and see it as a loving, nurturing space and not a contest of endurance or oppression. A good Lodge is about rebirth, balance, and connection. It is about humility and acknowledging that life is a gift – each breath, each day.

It is my most sincere hope that people see that accidents happen and anything poorly used or misused can be dangerous, but that such abnormalities should never be used as the rule or the stereotype for all similar situations. We don’t know what James ray intended, what he knew or what went wrong. Time will tell.

Right now, we can support the injured and the bereaved, and we can restrain the reactions of fear that want to use this event to lash out against Native American traditions and spiritual seekers and teachers. This is a time to call for integrity and credibility among spiritual teachers, discernment among seekers, and a deep respect for the spiritual traditions and practices that are not our own. This is not a time to use a tragedy to push a bias against people and things we do not understand.

If you want to learn more about how to pick a spiritual practice and teacher that is healthy and safe for you, my book Return to the Sacred: Ancient Practices to Spiritual Awakening, may be helpful. Learn more at www.jonathanellerby.com

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