What did those people who died in the Arizona sweat lodge think they would get out of being so…

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Oct. 13 2009 5:30 PM

Hot and Holy

What's so spiritual about sweat lodges?

A Nez Percé sweat lodge. Click image to expand.
A Nez Percé sweat lodge

Police in Yavapai County, Ariz., are continuing their investigation into the deaths of two people who collapsed during a sweat-lodge ceremony Thursday night. Inquiries are focused on self-help guru James Arthur Ray, who led the high-temperature affair as part of a "Spiritual Warrior" retreat. What's so spiritual about being really hot and uncomfortable?

It's purifying. It's a common practice among American Indian cultures to place hot rocks in a round dome to create a saunalike experience. Although the specifics of the ceremony vary from tribe to tribe, the general concept is that intense heat (between 100 degrees and 120 degrees) can heighten awareness and help the participants focus on prayer. Enduring the heat itself is a sort of trial or test of mental vigor. Copious sweat, meanwhile, is a physical manifestation of spiritually malignant elements exiting the body.

Sweat ceremonies are highly symbolic. The Lakota believe they have ancient origins—that ritual sweating was passed down from the White Buffalo Calf Woman to help humans straighten out their lives. Rocks, considered the oldest substance on earth, are in themselves sacred, and the steam that rises off them is thought to be their breath. The dark, round physical layout of the lodge is compared by ethnographers and others to the womb. And the participants, who often crouch for the duration of the sweat, are like fetuses. When they leave the structure, they should feel reborn (the Lakota word for the ritual is inipi, which means to revivify) or rejuvenated.

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Sweat-lodge enthusiasts also claim that the ritual has health benefits—that sweating can improve your skin and flush out harmful toxins like copper, lead, and mercury. According to an article on the practice published by the Indian Health Service (PDF), the mild elevations in body temperature induced by sweat lodges may promote "the production of antibacterial substances … and the antiviral activity of interferon." Sweat baths, according to the same article, may also lead to healthier skin. Heat increases cardiac output, which in turn increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and immune agents to the skin, which can help heal epidural wounds. Sweat also acts as a natural moisturizer.

But the proposition that sweat lodges are "detoxifying" is questionable at best. Toxins are filtered through the kidneys and liver, while perspiration consists mostly of water and trace minerals. There's no clinical evidence that perspiration is an effective means of combating, say, mercury poisoning or other toxic conditions. On the other hand, the rigorous strain associated with enduring high temperatures can lead to dehydration, heat stroke, and even cardiovascular collapse.

The sweat ceremony dates back at least to before Columbus (early Europeans came across lodges), but it's probably centuries older. The basic concept of getting really sticky in a small room (often by pouring water on hot rocks) is shared by many cultures globally—there's the Finnish sauna, the Russian banya, and the Turkish hamam, to name a few.

 Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Raymond Bucko of Creighton University.

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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