I don't like to sweat. I avoid strenuous physical activity. I don't even like to be in sunlight for more than an hour. So when a friend told me about the weekly Native American sweat lodge at Meeman-Shelby Forest, I told her, "Not in a million years."
That must have been about a million years ago, because last week I found myself in a remote spot in the woods waiting for a sweat session.
My friend and I are the first to arrive, and a long-haired, friendly man introduces himself as Bill Frost. He's sitting in front of a teepee near a fire pit. Across from him, a semicircle of rocks rings a larger fire where stones are being heated up.
The sweat lodge is the size of a very large tent, domed -- to resemble the womb of Mother Earth -- and covered in blankets and tarps. Also called an Inipi, the lodge functions as a place for spiritual cleansing. Exiting the lodge is symbolic of exiting the mother's womb or being reborn.
Soon, lodge leader Bill Helzer arrives. We're instructed to walk through burning sage smoke as a way to cleanse ourselves before entering the tent.
I duck under the small door and position my towel on the cool, packed dirt floor next to my friend. Nine people squeeze inside, and we sit in a circle around the empty pit.
Outside, a man begins pulling heated rocks out of the fire with a pitchfork. He places the rocks inside the door, and Frost scoops them up with deer antlers and places them in the empty pit.
We begin with 14 rocks, and Frost closes the tarp door, sealing us inside with the heat. It's completely dark except for the rocks' red glow. The men begin singing traditional songs in the Lakota language and praying to the Great Spirit.
Every few minutes, someone pours water on the rocks, and I feel steam hit my face.
After about 15 minutes, the door is opened for a breather. Then comes seven more rocks. The process is repeated two more times until we've reached 28 rocks.
By the third round, I am feeling refreshed. The heat is reminiscent of a soothing sauna. The tribal rhythm of the Lakota songs relaxes me.
But the final round nearly kills me. I find that the dirt on the floor stays cool, however so when the steam is too intense, I place my face on the dirt. It's something I never imagined I'd do. I don't like dirt, either.
When the door is finally opened, we slowly climb out. As I stand, I immediately feel nauseous and like I'm going to faint. But after sitting for a few minutes, the feeling goes away.
My clothes are soaked, so I change, and then we gather in a circle around a nearby altar. We pass a peace pipe filled with herbs (nothing illegal). The smoke is said to deliver our prayers to the Great Spirit.
Before we leave, Frost asks if I smell bad. I lift my arm, sniff my pit, and to my surprise, I'm body-odor-free. He explains that in the lodge we sweat so much that we sweat out the stink.
Although my body is soaked, it feels clean, like I just stepped out of the shower. Maybe sweating isn't so bad after all.