Life Is Hectic and Stressful. Some People Sweat It Out.

Sally Perry leads Native American-based rituals at Healing Heart Lodges in Rockville, Va., where the author sought relief for her busy life.
Sally Perry leads Native American-based rituals at Healing Heart Lodges in Rockville, Va., where the author sought relief for her busy life. (By Bob Keeton)
By Martha Randolph Carr
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 15, 2007

Iswore I would never do it. Never set foot inside a sweat lodge, never chant, never drum and never, ever spend hours streaming perspiration in a small, dark space with a group of friends and strangers. But I'm a middle-aged single mother who apparently is still susceptible to peer pressure.

All of my friends were going, and I didn't want to be left out of the gabfest later. It wasn't the sweat-lodge experience I wanted so much as being able to marvel and laugh with my friends afterward about a shared adventure.

This ridiculous thread of thought ended up pushing me into finding out more about myself, and letting go, in a very unlikely place.

We took off in a caravan of eight people for the small Virginia town of Rockville -- just off the Oilville exit of Interstate 64, halfway between Richmond and Charlottesville -- and the home of Sally Perry, who calls herself a spiritual healer. Sally, whose grandmother was Cherokee, holds regular Healing Heart Lodges. (The next one is Jan. 27.) She doesn't call them sweat lodges, reserving that term for the ritual as performed by Native Americans who have been officially recognized by their individual tribes. However, the Healing Heart Lodges are a close cousin.

Sweat lodges are gaining in popularity as overworked people look for ways to heal or unwind. The goal of a good sweat experience is to calm the inner mind, express gratitude for what we already have and state as clearly as we can what we want to accomplish or change about ourselves, from the inside out. Sounds simple, but a lot of us are more focused on what we don't have yet and the things we need to do immediately. We come up blank when confronted with the possibility of what we might truly desire.

I was ripe for this adventure. At some point in the past few years all the layers of responsibilities, PINs and passwords and to-do lists became too much and I felt smothered by my own life. I'm not sure exactly when it happened because I was too busy striving toward some goal in the distance to take time to and contemplate where I was headed.

We arrived on Sally's doorstep in the early afternoon and were greeted by an assistant, Greg, who attempted to clear our jangled energy with the ritual called smudging, passing smoke from burning sage over us, front and back, with a feather. Burning sage is believed by Native Americans to dispel any negative feelings, past or present, and is used before any rite.

I was already nervous because I was so far out of my element. Each of the women was dressed, as requested, in a skirt or dress, which represents a circle as a symbol of the feminine spirit and Mother Earth. I had run by Target and picked up a black, flouncy skirt with a layer of gauze that was completely out of character for my normal, reserved, WASPish self. The three men wore swim trunks.

The night started with rhythmic drumming inside Sally's house. The 13 men and women beat on drums from Sally's collection, repeating a loud chant. Next, we tied small bits of tobacco into colored cloth -- five each of red, yellow, black and white -- each color signifying a different compass direction and a different aspect of ourselves, forming prayer tithes to be burned in a bundle after the sweat. The East represents the mental body, the South the emotional, the West the physical and the North the spiritual body that completes the prayers.

So far, I was keeping up fairly well, even though I forgot from time to time which direction we were praying toward and tried to take sidelong glances at my neighbor. Arms were moving all around me as people raised their small tithes to the East or the West, mumbling pleas for healing or gratitude for a blessing.

It was time for the main event. We marched single-file in relative quiet down to the small lodge, shaped in a circle to resemble a turtle shell. To enter we had to crawl on our hands and knees into near-darkness. When we had formed a circle around the perimeter, fire-tenders, specially trained by Sally on the correct timing and words of the rite, carried in roasted lava stones, one at a time. Sally, the water pourer or leader, chanted, burned sage and other herbs and poured water over the hot stones in the central fire pit. Once all of the stones were placed, the lodge entrance was covered, putting us in complete darkness and allowing the heat from the steam to build.

Directly behind Sally, smack in the middle in the deepest part of the lodge, I huddled, inhaling steam and smoke, working too hard to breathe, trying not to panic. I have trouble occasionally in crowded elevators -- and they have light and music to distract me. Determined to make it through this experience, I told myself it would all be okay and drew deeper breaths.

As I did, I felt lighter and happier than I had in a long time. I had stopped wondering about how well I was doing or what was expected or what might come next. I was just being in that moment, not something I easily achieve. Such moments usually creep up on me unexpectedly.

The temperature rose till sweat was pouring freely off every inch of me and my breathing actually eased from the steam. As we went around the darkened lodge, offering up small prayers to the East to heal some mental aspect, or to the South to work on an emotional block, I felt a change come over me. It was as if I had let go, just a little, a need to control everything around me, all the time. Sally would say the spiritual guides who come to help during a lodge had worked their magic.

A couple of hours later, we emerged sweaty and sooty, with loopy grins. Some of us took a quick shower back at the house, and then we ate a potluck supper, talking easily even with those who had been strangers. Back in the thick, black air of the lodge, as each voice took a turn making requests of the unseen guides and Sally poured water over the glowing stones, we had stopped clinging to who we thought we had to be and got a little closer to being who we really are.

Days later, friends were calling to talk about the changes that had begun in their lives. Old situations came up, and they found themselves giving new answers, making different choices -- the definition of change, something I had found so difficult to do. I was always more worried about risking loss and too willing to hold on to stale ways.

Now, when I'm overwhelmed by life, I remember the lodge and breathe in, choosing to be happy in that moment. Not sweating the details.

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