Sweat Lodge: A look from inside

Matt learns what it is all about to participate in a Sweat Lodge ceremony

I had first heard of these sweat lodges from a yoga instructor at LA Fitness. Years later, the topic of the sweat lodges arose again and my interest was peaked. I loved a good sweat and I loved new experiences so why not give it a shot?

After several minutes, I finally stumbled across a website for a Sweat Lodge in the greater Los Angeles area. After emailing a woman name Lynn, I waited for days without a response so another email was sent.

When she finally responded, her instructions were simple, if not cryptic. Bring two towels, a change of clothes, two medicine gifts, and a $20 dollar donation as well as a vegan dish for after the ceremony. There was an address and nothing else. Now, committed to this event, nerves gripped me.

The day of the ceremony was spent drinking as much water as humanly possible, pondering the subject of medicine gifts, and wondering if I would make it out of this strange experience alive. I imagined a tent out in the middle of the desert. An ancient, unsmiling, indian standing stoic at the lodge’s entrance.

I imagined coyotes howling on cliff sides underneath a full moon and the sound a drum ritual off in the distance. No one but my sister had any idea where I was going as I didn’t quite no how to explain to my friends that I was to spend my Saturday sweating in 125 degree humid heat with a bunch of strangers.

With only three miles to go to the location was a long way away from any type of desert. I took lake down to a small residential street lined with sycamore trees and a sidewalk. BMWs and SUVs sat in most of the driveways and children played soccer in their front yards.

No sign of an ancient Indian anywhere. An adobe style house sat at the end of the block. It was the only house without any grass in the front lawn. I looked around for other participants but saw no one. I waited for someone else to arrive and as the clock ticked closer to 6:30, I got out of the car and knocked on the door.

A small 18 year-old girl answered and directed me to the kitchen where I set my vegan dish, which was little more than a sack of grapes and a few berries. I made my way into the living room and joined the young girl, her  cousins, a very overweight Latina woman, and Lynn.

Lynn was an older lady with a calm demeanor and a constant but distant, peaceful smile.   She asked me to have a seat, so I joined them, in uncomfortable silence. 

The room was covered in nicknacks. I have never seen so much stuff. It was like a museum of religious deity souvenirs from various foreign countries. Buddhas, Krishas, Native American figurines, feathers, dream-catchers, astrological symbols and on and on.

Every square inch of every shelf had something on it. In the dining room was a massage table surrounded by brass bars inexplicably forming a dodecahedron that appeared to hover over it.

More people began to come in, most as puzzled as I was and slowly nervous chatter began to break out. Some people had that aged, curious God-searching quality to them. Some were veterans to this process and others were desperately searching to relieve some kind of emotional pain or mend a broken heart. I wondered which category I fit into.

After a brief meet and greet and an overview of the process, we were introduced to Doug, the owner of the house. He was not the stoic Indian either, but instead an affable guy of about 60 with a tucked in Hawaiian shirt and a big smile.

He told us that he had just returned from Colorado where he had filled the entire bed with his pick up truck with special volcanic rock with high, ancient energy and brought them back to Los Angeles.

We would be the first to experience the sweat lodge with these rocks. Everyone was very excited about the rocks.

Lyn instructed us to strip down and to prepare to go into the Sweat Lodge. “Strip down, I thought…”  What does that mean?

My question was answered immediately.  Lyn took off her shirt and pants, wrapping herself in a towel. She wasn’t the only one. Suddenly I was surrounded by overweight, stranger, co-ed nudity in every direction. It became clear why I hadn’t chosen to tell my friends about this story. Because what I was about to do was insane.

Wrapped in only a towel and my boxers, we walked out and around the side of the house. The sweat lodge was no more than four feet off the ground and fifteen feet across. It was round and doomed on the top, covered with some type of canvass and blankets to hold in the heat. Seven stones surrounded the lodge, each one representing one of the chakras.

Doug stood on the side of the lodge with a hawk feather and burning sage. If my parents could see me now!!! Suddenly weekend debauchery didn’t seem like such a strange choice. In front of the lodge was a fire and in it were the stones lugged back from Colorado. Lyn, in her towel, also fanned us with sage smoke using a feather in a native American process called “smudging” as she chanted phrases over us in some Native American language.

We ducked through the flap of a doorway to Lodge and the inside was humid and pitch black. Even without a bit of light, it felt incredibly small. It smelled like a gym locker and the air with thick. I made my way around the perimeter and sat down. Next to me was one of the overweight womans and to my right was another big guy who had “never done anything like this before.” 

Both had admitted to being big sweaters earlier in the evening. The tent filled up entirely. I sat Indian style, my leg against the bare knees of my neighbors. I was already hot and the sweat hadn’t begun. Inches in front of me, was one of the more emotional of the participants in the sweat. We were packed in like rats and you could feel and hear the breath of each person in the lodge. 

The loss of sight in such a small, confined area immediately heightened the senses. Even though it was dark I closed my eyes. Lyn entered and called for the stones. We heard four stones plunk as Doug set them into the pit and then he closed the flap. There was no getting out of this thing.

The first “round” lasted fifteen minutes. Within a minute, I was completely covered in sweat. My back was like the surface of a lake and sweat ran down my face at such a rate that I couldn’t mop it up. Lyn channeled spirits ranging from Jesus to Lerpachauns and because it was so hot, the mention of the little shamrock-sporting irish elves didn’t even get my attention. It felt like I was going to die and I was no more than 10 minutes into an hour and a half ceremony.

The human mind does strange things. In protecting the esoteric nature of the sweat, I will not going into the exact details of what all went on, but with each session, I found myself going deeper and deeper inside myself. The hotter it got, the less I thought about how hot it was.

The number of rocks increased with each time the flap opened and the breathing of the people in the tent got heavier and heavier, with the occassional “oh my god,” or “holy s%^&” I found myself going to a place of peace above the increasing discomfort. In total silence, I felt a connection to each of the people in the tent.

We were in the tent for just over 90 minutes. Total blackness, drenched, drained, and filled, Lyn thanked all of the spirits that entered into the lodge and then the flap was opened a last time. We exited and the air was profoundly cool against my sopping wet skin. Though I had gone to several emotional places in the Sweat, I wasn’t sad or happy. I wasn’t relieved or uncomfortable. I wasn’t hot or cold, I simply was.

As I drove, I pondered upon how to ever explain this strange, beautiful, smelly, powerful experience and came to the conclusion that there just aren’t words that can do it justice. 

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Matt Payne

Matt Payne has lived and worked as both a television writer and producer in Los Angeles for nearly ten years.  Matt grew up in Oklahoma City and began his career with a degree in Film and Video Studies from the University of Oklahoma.  Since then, he has worked as part of writing staffs for such hits as 24 andWithout A Trace. Most recently Matt wrote and produced episodes of CBS’s The Defenders starring Jim Belushi and Jerry O’Connell and Memphis Beat, starring Jason Lee, which is set to air on TNT in August of 2011.

In addition to a successful television-writing career, Matt has developed features with major production companies and continues to work as a freelance script analyst for Relativity Media, the production company behind such hits as The Fighter, Zombieland, and Catfish where he has provided script feed back on nearly a thousand features.

When he is not writing and producing television, Matt works as contributor to the Washington Times Communities Travel section, where he has writing skills have taken him from the top of the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpar to the jungles of the Philippine Islands.  New York City’s finest restaurants to the earthquake ravaged Port au Prince Haiti. 

Matt was the winner of the 2004 Comedy writing award for Scriptapolooza, a finalist for the Warner Brothers Television Writer’s workshop, and is an active participant in Los Angeles’s Young Storytellers Program.  

Early in his career, Matt spent two years working as an assistant the Endeavor, which is now part of WME, the second largest talent agency in the world, working closely with such talent as Christian Bale and Michael Douglass.

Matt  is a member of  the Writer’s Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Contact Matt Payne


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