'The sweat lodge experience is a little like preparing for death,' Josie, our yoga teacher says brightly. She brings a nurturing approach with a deep, holistic knowledge of yoga, meditation and Celtic shamanic healing. During the weekend with Josie we experience deep releasing yin yoga, letting go of long held emotions in our body and chant powerful ancient rune mantras, invoking our ancestors.
Maya healer Roland Torikian has a steadying approach and profound wisdom that holds space for us subtly and powerfully. Sharing his own country house in rural Kent, we have the luxury of experiencing a retreat in a truly held space, invested with the years of healing that has gone on there. Roland spent a long time in Mexico learning first-hand the traditions from the indigenous people there, returning to this part of Kent where he grew up.
'How can something so physical be so spiritual?' I ask Roland of the experience of the Sweat Lodge. 'For me the question is the other way round', Roland says, as we sit in front of the fire in his home and retreat centre in Kent, less than an hour away from London, Victoria. Outside he has been building a metre-high fire at a nearby farm where the ceremony, which he holds most fortnights, will take place.
As soon as I decide to take part, a week before, I begin to feel huge shifts and when Roland does a cleansing on each of us on arrival, it creates movement in energy that we are hardly aware of. The first morning, in Josie's fluid, beautifully guided yoga session, tears fall, apparently inexplicably, as the beginnings of letting go in preparation of the ceremony itself. She gently but strongly encourages us to work with our intention. 'Imagine your intention as a candle in the landscape of your mind. Follow it over hills, through valleys, wherever it may go until it comes to a resting place.'
My intention is to let go of negativity and the past, and the candle in my meditation stops in a little dark cave, its light inviting me to stay with it. It seems emblematic of the lodge itself, dark, primeval, womb-like, a place of death and burial and also of re-birth.
Linda, a gentle stylist magically transforms the yoga space into a breakfast room decorated with delicate arrangements of flowers from the garden and hedgerows. After emptying the table laden with loving creations from Shiva, founder of the much- loved vegan and raw cafe at Tri Yoga in Chelsea, we put on our boots and get ready for what seems like battle but as Josie gentle tells us, is a kind of death.
The sweat lodge made with willow and covered in thick blankets is completely black inside, apart from the red coals in the centre. I spend the first round, apparently always the hardest, with my hand and my head on the cold wet earth, trying to steady my breath and slow my thinking. Josie calms me and us all with an Indian incantation as Roland manages the blaze outside. In five separate rounds, each lasting around 20 minutes, Roland invokes the goddesses of the five sacred elements - Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Space, for their wisdom and protection.
After the first round I throw myself in the pretty river nearby that reminds me of the one in which Ophelia met her death, although she was apparently incapable of her own distress. The freezing waters act as another baptism, after the massive cleansing created by the heat of the sweat lodge. After the dunking, I warm myself by the huge outside fire, in the rain, hands in prayer, in gratitude for the massive release I have already felt.
Often we do not even know what we need to let go, it is so deep set and so much part of us, and I am surprised to feel a sense of shame leaving me, and a huge lightness appearing in its place. Smothering myself in the coconut oil that helps save our faces from the sensation of burning, the tears streaking down my muddy face, I re-enter the lodge, reluctantly, with the help of a little loving wink from Josie.
The following four rounds are much easier. I manage to remain sitting upright and to - mostly - breathe and to follow the committed and knowing guidance of Roland as he goes on to invoke the Goddesses of Water, Wind, Fire and Space. Despite the red-hot fire at the end I can feel the white light of the Goddess of space in my heart. The heat is intense, the space frightening for me, but that is the point; to face our fear and in some way to go through it.
'Imagine a blue river of breath running through your body from your third eye down through your feet,' Josie had invited us in the yoga session that morning. I try to invoke the river, the sensation of the cool water, but most of all I try to breathe, to breathe through the fear and the desire to run. And with the breathing comes a sense of space, of letting go and even of forgiveness. On my return to London, a greater ability to breathe with the moment and the sense of space continues and along with it a clarity and energy I hadn't expected.
Each time Roland brought in the huge volcanic stones iridescent with heat that represent our ancestors, I felt in some way that my fear was their fear, but that their love was there too. We smeared honey on our hearts to open them in unconditional love and I made a dedication to someone I dearly love. For each person and each time each sweat lodge is different, Roland told us. The lodge, like the great mother, will give us exactly what we need, and as it says in the Quran, we are all returning.