While crawling on my hands and knees through the threshold of a traditional Navajo sweat lodge, a rush of extreme heat accompanied by utter excitement consumed me. I have spent countless hours in saunas and steam rooms at gyms and at home, but this was different, this felt authentic and raw. Once inside this smoldering chasm, the blanket doors closed allowing darkness to swallow my comrades and I whole in enlightenment.
Our gracious host Richard instructed me to make sure that any gaps in the blankets were closed completely, shutting us off from the outside world. “We do that,” Richard explained, “because it keeps the human, worldly problems, such as fear and hunger, from getting to us.” With all the small gaps filled, prohibiting the troublesome light from encroaching upon our well being, complete darkness surrounded us. All that could be seen was a slight glow from the basalt rocks while they radiated an intense heat.
Beads of sweat were accumulating on my brow when Richard informed us that the Navajo used their sweat lodges as a means of socializing as well as a cleansing of the body and mind. Although Navajo men and women don’t sweat together, there is no sense of inequality when partaking in a sweat. Your job, your standing in the community, your economic status… none of this mattered in the sweat. At that moment I didn’t feel as though I was a student among other students or that Richard was our Navajo host, but that we were just a group of men withstanding a great amount of heat in the attempt to get to know each other a little better and cleanse ourselves in the process, simple as that. No need to assign any further unnecessary labels to each other or ourselves.
This was a new feeling for me. Up until this experience I hadn’t seen sweats, whether in a sauna or a steam room, as a social experience. I thought of it more as an individual experience where one would want to shut themselves off from everything and everyone else around them. But for the Navajo it was more of a time to open up to the people around you. Not only to socialize and enjoy yourself, but also to build a sense of community with your peers and in turn learn more about yourself as an individual.
By this point I was drenched with sweat. Richard told us that it was good to rub the sweat into your skin, its good for the skin and opens the pores. While my friends and I were busy rubbing our sweaty selves, Richard began to sing. He was singing a beautiful Navajo song in their native tongue that we later learned was about the six sacred peaks that define their land boundaries.
With Richard’s entrancing singing I decided to close my eyes, even though it wasn’t necessary because I couldn’t see anything anyway, and think about nothing in particular and everything in general. I thought about the places our group had been, the concepts we had learned, and the experiences that were to come during the remainder of our trip and thereafter.
Then I realized that the only thing that should be on my mind was what was happening at that very moment. I was participating in a traditional Navajo sweat, something I had always wanted to do, with incredible people, and was lucky enough to have someone with an immense surplus of knowledge on Navajo culture leading me through the process. After that epiphany I remained fully in the moment. Allowing any contradictory thoughts to float past the scope of my attention unnoticed like the clouds in the sky.
I concentrated on my breathing, in through my nose and out through my mouth. The hot dry air stung my sinuses with every inhalation and I felt any stress departing from my body and mind with every exhalation. I could feel the constant streams of sweat cascading down my body when the beads of sweat became too large to stay stationary and fell victim to gravity.
Richard finished his song and we thanked him for sharing such an amazing song with us. We lingered silently in the scorching stale darkness for a bit before Richard hinted that we should probably get ready to exit. Although I didn’t want to get out, I was sufficiently sweaty and needed to replenish my body’s water supplies before our next round. Richard called out for someone to open the door and an instant later our sanctuary of unwavering heat and seemingly unending darkness was inundated with light.
We emerged from what seemed like the core of the earth to see that the world we had temporarily left remained the same. Although the outside world had not changed, it felt as though I had. Not a complete transformation by any means. I was still myself in every way except for the way I viewed our small group of academic nomads, my place among them, and the land that we were traversing day in and day out. I felt as though an unspoken, unbreakable bond was formed between us and the sense of community had been solidified. These people don’t judge me and I don’t judge them, everyone is accepted and is a valued member of the community.
As the second group of unsuspecting individuals crawled into the shadows of the sweat lodge I hoped they would take away as much as I had from this experience and felt a twinge of pride pulse through me. If only for the mere fact that they were willing enough to crawl into what looked like just a small hole in the side of a hill to brave severe heat, I was proud. I was proud of every one of those individuals who had experienced their first traditional sweat along with me. I was proud to be a part of this group of extraordinarily open and curious people, and I was excited to take what I had learned from that experience back home with me and implement it into my own community.