Are Sweat Lodges Safe?

sweat lodge and temezcal
••• The Mexican temezcal is another form of a sweat lodge. Kim Steele/Getty Images

Sweat lodges are a part of traditional Native American culture and medicine, a sacred ceremony aimed at both spiritual and physical cleansing. Sweat lodges have been around for a long time, in both European and Native American cultures. The majority of people run them safely and participate in them safely.

But the deaths of three people in a sweat lodge conducted by "self-help" author James Arthur Ray near Sedona, Arizona, in 2009 raised questions about how safe sweat lodges are.

The problem was not the sweat lodge. The problem was James Arthur Ray, who was indulging in cultural appropriation of a sacred Native tradition. He held the sweat lodge for the wrong reasons–as part of an expensive retreat. It wasn't built correctly (plastic tarps were on the top). The people running the sweat lodge didn't know how to do it properly, and they pressured participants to go beyond their limits.

Even though that kind of situation is highly unlikely, there are still a few things you should be aware of before you participate in a sweat lodge. 

  • Know The Person Who “Pours The Waters”.  In the Native American tradition, the person who “pours the waters” is the spiritual leader of the ceremony and responsible for monitoring the mental and physical condition of each participant. You need to trust they know what they're doing. Find out their background, experience, and who they learned from, just like you would check out anyone else you're trusting with your health.
  • Know How Many People Will Be In The Sweat Lodge. The typical number of people in a sweat lodge is eight to 12, but it can go up to two dozen in a traditional sweat lodge. The unusually large number of people in the Sedona sweat lodge run by James Arthur Ray–somewhere around 65 -- made it impossible to monitor the participants and know what kind of experience they were having. 
  • Know Your Sweat Lodge Etiquette. Sweat lodges will vary in how they're run. Spas with sweat lodges called temezcals in Mexico expect your to wear some kind of light clothing. At more traditional sweat lodges, you might be wrapped in towels or go naked (especially if it's not co-ed). At private sweat lodges, the person who invites you is responsible for instruction on clothing, behavior, and expectations.
  • Have An Exit Strategy. People respond differently to heat. Listen to your body and step outside the sweat lodge to cool off and drink water if you need to. Make sure that is the philosophy of the person who “pours the waters.” Some sweat lodge leaders (including the one conducted by Ray) discourage people from leaving. Feeling free to leave is especially important if you’re new to sweat lodges.
  • If It Doesn’t Feel Right…Leave. A sweat lodge involves a high level of trust. In some sweat lodges you might be naked or wrapped in towels; in others you might wear light cotton clothing. But when it's done authentically you're entering a sacred space of healing. If someone is charging money for it, think twice. Traditional Native American healers don’t allow that (though it is customary to make "offerings.") Sexual overtures are another sign that something is wrong.
  • Know Who Shouldn’t Be In a Sweat Lodge. People who should not participate in a sweat lodge including pregnant women and people with high blood pressure, epilepsy or medical conditions like heart disease.
  • Take Precautions Before Entering the Sweat Lodge. Don’t wear jewelry (it can cause burns). Don’t eat a heavy meal right before a sweat lodge experience (it puts a strain on the circulatory system.) Eat lightly, and wait a few hours.
  • Be Aware of The Cultural Sensitivities. This is a sacred ceremony with spiritual significance, and many Native Americans believe it shouldn’t be adapted for casual or commercial use by spas or people like James Arthur Ray. If you start looking for sweat lodge ceremonies, you may come across people with strong feelings about them.