Sweat Lodge at Willka T’ika
Willka T’ika’s First Sweat Lodge
After finishing our Plunge Pool we recently turned our attention towards completing Willka T’ika’s first Sweat Lodge. Many of our special interest groups have asked us about having a sweat lodge as part of their program. Indeed, the inclusion of a natural, purifying ceremony fits well with our yoga groups, wellness retreats, and shamanic programs. And the idea of being able to enjoy a deep sweat before enjoying a cold plunge pool holds extra appeal.
Our experience with Sweat Lodges is, admittedly, limited to our prior personal use. Although we often incorporate the Native American Medicine Wheel and 4 Directions into our Magical Journey programs, especially our wilderness treks, a Sweat Lodge, or Temazcal, is a new concept to Willka T’ika. In fact, Sweat Lodges are relatively new to Peru and the Sacred Valley, and like the ubiquitous Cacao Ceremony, they have emerged over the last decade primarily due to expats living in Peru. These days, many centers and tour operators offer some version of a Sweat Lodge or Cacao Ceremony.
Sweat Lodges, like plant medicine ceremonies, should not be taken lightly. Besides being potentially dangerous if not managed responsibly, these traditions reflect centuries of indigenous wisdom and should be respected. Cultural appropriation of such traditions is not just insensitive, it is irresponsible. With that in mind, we asked a few locals to help us build our version of a Sweat Lodge, adding a Peruvian emphasis to this ancient ritual.
Firstly, we collected sauce (willow) branches from the nearby Vilcamayu (Urubamba) River. The suppleness of willow makes it an ideal wood to shape the frame. We collected about 20 poles and used a machete to peel off the bark. The poles were long enough to overlap almost completely, providing the structure with extra strength. We measured both the diameter of the structure and the distance from the fire carefully. Hoping it would be big enough for 6-8 adults, we tried to keep it as compact as possible. A smaller lodge means more heat with less materials. It would also minimize the impact on the nearby Kantu and Molle trees.
After we prepared the poles and dug the holes, we were able to build the structure in only a couple hours. The soil was soft enough to penetrate and we used river stones (left over from the bath) to keep the poles pointing at the right angles. Then we lashed the connections together keeping the shape as round as possible. The last pole to go on was the 13th door pole, which connects the arch above the door to the Western side of the lodge. The doorway of lodge should always face East towards the “4th Direction” as should the fire.
We were planning to use 28 stones to heat the lodge, 7 for each “puerta” or direction. So I dug a deep hole in the middle of the lodge that would be able to hold all of the stones and avoid them spilling out and burning an unsuspecting participant. Tristen and I also took time to carefully bless the structure using a variety of different medicinal plants and essential oils, just as we had done with the staff when we blessed the Hampi Yaku (Medicinal Bath). Livio was kind enough to bring by some Eucalyptus branches so we wouldn’t end up sitting in on a muddy floor once the sweat began to pour!
Then it was time to build the fire and we created an altar where the 28 rocks could be heated. Lighting the fire in each of the 4 Directions we waited patiently for the fire to grow and it took a good 2 hours until the stones turned white. Many of the stones cracked, which is not uncommon considering almost all rocks in the Sacred Valley were originally from the river. While the fire was raging, we covered the structure with a dozen wool frazadas (blankets). This temporary covering would serve as insulation to both heat and light. We made sure to look for any areas where light shined through to be sure that our lodge was as tightly sealed as possible. The final touch was to fold and hang the last blanket over a special door beam which was tied to the Molle tree behind the lodge. That would allow the fire bearer to easily exit the lodge to bring in more hot stones.
At 6PM we were ready to start. After smudging each other, drumming, and humming a few indigenous tunes, we entered the lodge clockwise, filling up 6 places. The fire bearer came last and began the process of bringing in the first 7 stones. Each stone was carefully lifted from the fire with a pitchfork and dusted off lovingly with a branch to remove any ash. As the fire bearer brought each we chanted “Welcome!” and “Bienvenido” and called out the spirits of the stones and our ancestors to come and purify the lodge. Although we had cleared the hole of any debris, a small eucalyptus had fallen in and was burning, causing unwelcome smoke! Gasping for air, we made a note to keep anything burnable out of the hole and used only a small piece of Palo Santo to lightly tap and bless each stone as it slid into the hole, creating a gentle, smokeless scent.
And so began our first sweat lodge ceremony. Each direction took about 40 minutes, which was longer than any of us expected or planned. That gave us enough time to share our intention for each direction. I took a few minutes to briefly share the different North American (and Peruvian equivalent) animals, symbols, colors, seasons, and archetypes (see below), and left it completely open to each of the 5 others to discuss whatever they felt called to share. Led by our Israeli-Peruvian elder, we concluded each round with a chant, meditation or drumming session. By the third round or “puerta” the heat was becoming unbearable. Some of us leaned our heads closer to the ground to find relieve, others asked the elder to refrain from putting any more water on the stones! Between each round, most of us went outside briefly to drink water and stare at the now night sky. I checked my raging pulse rate. This was literally not for the light of heart!
By 9PM we had all exited the lodge to lie on the cool ground, trying to bring our heart rates down. Now it was time to try out the medicinal bath! The locals are very cautious of catching a chill in the cold Andean evening, especially in Winter. So we only stayed in the cool water for 5 minutes, just enough to bring our core temperature down. It happened so fast and we raced back to the fire to warm up again! Changing into our clothes, we sat around the fire and enjoyed some fresh fruit and a bit of warm soup. By 9:30 everyone had to leave. We had forgotten that we are still living in the times of Corona Virus, that there is a 10PM curfew!
4 Directions: (a Peruvian syncretic version)
SUR: curandero, niño, verano, 1r chakra (rojo/tierra), ratón/cuy!, “inocencia” = relacionarte
OESTE: profesor, adolescente, otoño, 2do chakra (naranja/agua), oso, “introspección” = entenderlo
NORTE: guerrero, adulto, invierno, 3a chakra (amarillo/fuego), buffalo/puma, “sabiduría” = hacerlo
ESTE: visionario, anciano, primavera, 4a chakra (rosado/aire), águila/condor, “iluminación” = verlo