Thursday, August 24, 2006

tim miller's mount shasta yoga retreat sweat lodge -

my husband (terence) and i had the opportunity to experience tim miller's mount shasta yoga retreat for the first time this year. we had no idea what to expect as the retreat is advertised only by word of mouth. the retreat tends to be completely full and never really opens to the general public. we were lucky enough to move from the waiting list to attendees this year! our friend ross had suggested the retreat and then promptly took off for his trip around the world. we went up to shasta fairly blind.

the highlight of the trip was something no one had even mentioned until it was time for the experience - the sweat lodge! the introduction consisted of a lady called "badger woman" coming into our practice space after a ~2 hour intense Ashtanga class and telling us "what we needed to know." the talk did not include what an actual sweat lodge is or how long it was to last, but was about the physical steps we need to take to partake in the event. this was to take a pinch of tobacco in the right hand and offer it to the fire, to get "smudged" by sage before we enter the lodge, to always walk clockwise in the lodge, and to sit in a little ball "cheek to cheek" with your neighbor. call me uneducated, but i didn't really know what a sweat lodge was. all i could do was really break down the words - assume it was a room in which you sweat. and clearly, with the overall solemnity of the audience it was a sacred event and i shouldn't ask too many questions. i could respect that, i know i am often prone to asking too many questions! i was going to be quiet and give myself to the experience.

still sweaty from our yoga practice, we all line up to grab some tobacco and throw it into a roaring fire. there are many native american people around. ah ha! this must be one of their ceremonies that we get to experience. somehow i just assumed it was a yoga related event because we were on a yoga retreat. the line then runs from the offering to the fire to get “smudged” and then into the lodge. to be smudged means to have sage smoke wafted over your body – this is to cleanse ourselves before we enter the lodge.

the lodge is a dome about 10 feet in diameter with a firepit in the center. the ceiling is about 5 feet at its apex, but to make our way around the fire we all must crouch fairly dramatically. it's frame made of sticks tied together and they are covered in several layers of thick fabric. the floor is scraps of carpet over the ground.

between 30 and 40 of us made our way into the lodge. we were continually asked to "move closer, move closer." i happened to end up farthest from the door with my back to the wall of the lodge crammed in with a bunch of strangers. my guess is that everyone else knew better because most of them had done it before or at least had a bit more information than i had. terence was outside staying with our baby. we were two and a half layers deep. the leaders and local tribes people were in the center with their drums and the rest of us lined up hip-to-hip knees-to-chest behind them.

when everyone was finished packing into the space, they started moving the rocks that had been in the fire for a few hours into the pit at the center of the lodge. then they brought in the water. then they shut the "door". immediately, as the thick layer of blankets where dropped over the entrance, the entire space became as dark as i had ever seen it. as crammed as we were in there i felt oddly completely alone (and like i had been wedged into a pvc pipe). there was silence for what seemed like an eternity. this gave me plenty of time to go through what felt like every stage of panic. it began with the deep realization that i had no idea how long we were going to be in there, how hot it was becoming, and how i had just already sweat for nearly two hours. my mind was racing - "was i going to pass out? would they notice? is this good for me? should i even be in here? what if i need to get out really quickly, could i even wedge myself out of here? calm down, they have clearly done this a million times. remember your breath, inhale-2-3-4, exhale-2-3-4. trust. it will work out and it will be an interesting new adventure. inhale-2-3-4, exhale-2-3-4." i kept rollercoastering from sheer panic to breath-focused calm. my body began to shiver as the heat began to penetrate my bones. i don't even know these people, how embarrassing if i bailed immediately. i will give it a few more minutes and see what happens.

just moments before i thought i was going to have to get out one of the leaders begins to talk. his voice made me feel that i wasn't alone. his rough but thick blanket of words comforts me. he lectured on the universe, praying, healing and chanted songs - some with words, some without. i do my best to join the singing and clapping as the air gets thicker with steam and my nose starts to burn. they had woven bits of herbs that they heated on the rocks to create all kinds of wonderful odors in the room. i have to start sipping at the air and tuck my chin under. just about the time i believe that it couldn't get any hotter someone yells "door" and the door flies open and a billow of steam is seen rising through the exit. at least four people get up are headed for the door. the rush of cold air from the outside is refreshing. my claustrophobic brain is relieved. i made it! i was able to endure. oh, i hope this is how it goes from here on out!

indeed it was, we were allowed to simmer in the moist, warm air of the lodge for a while and then the door was flung open to reveal the cool, bright world. they varied the length of time between sessions, but each time allowing people to leave if they needed. this gave me tremendous piece of mind as then i was able to enjoy the rest of the transformative process. no more panic, no more stress, i was going to be ok. we did two ~45 minute sessions. at the half way point we were allowed to leave the lodge and return for the next session.

the best way i can describe the panic i felt is that it was literally as if i had unwittingly followed a group of strangers who jumped from a cliff into a frigid a mountain lake. i only realize upon entry that there were no near banks to which i could easily swim. i would have to be patient and calm, have faith in humanity, and believe that i could make it to the shore and that it would be an experience worth having.

being in the sweat lodge felt like we were inside a hookah. at the beginning it was quite dirty and stale - i felt like i was being buried. but then as the steam began to rise and water began to condense on my flesh i started to feel clean and fresh also felt a bit high - like i was the bit of tobacco becoming atomized in the water pipe. it also felt like the boundary between me and everything else had been dissolved - that i could just melt into the world. it was an incredibly liberating and serendipitous experience that i would recommend to those who have the opportunity!

*they didn't want us to take photographs at the event, so those included here were borrowed from other people's experiences (though they appear to be very similar).


At 12:28 PM, Blogger laura said...

great entry wen -- i love the part about the hookah...


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