Sweat it Out

Contributor: Cristin Smith
Photographer: Sarah Shreves
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I’m literally drenched. Every pore of my body is glimmering with sweat. It’s water-falling off of my joints. I have accidentally walked into a 90-minute, super-hot yoga class after let’s just say . . . a night of moderate celebrating—and I’m dying. I huff and puff, struggling through poses, just trying to breathe. Eventually I lie down in a pool of my own sweat and the class is over. I want to cry—with relief, exhaustion and from the feeling that I’m a bit different from when I began the class.

My hot yoga studio and others like it leverage a centuries-old belief in the power of heat to cleanse the body. On our continent, Native Americans have long used sweat lodges for steam baths and prayers. The structures varied according to the materials available, but usually stones were heated and water was then poured over for steam. Often times, the rituals in a sweat lodge included prayers, songs and chanting. 


Another example is the Temazcal, a sweat lodge from pre-Hispanic peoples in Mesoamerica. Made of volcanic rock and cement because of its ability to withstand high temperatures, Temazcals are permanent structures. Inside, heated volcanic rocks are placed in a pit and water is poured over the rocks.  Hosting ceremonies thought to purify the physical body after strenuous activity such as battle, Temazcals were also used to cure the ill and even to aid in giving birth. These structures and rituals are still in use today and are experiencing a renaissance as a means of cleansing mind, body and spirit. 

The tradition of purification through sweat was not limited only to the Americas. Early Europeans employed steam baths, and sauna traditions in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe are alive and well today. While today’s European saunas are secular, in the past there was song, prayer and possibly reference to a spirit who inhabits the sauna structure. Sweathouses, which began with Celtic tribes, were still found in 19th century Ireland. Shaped like bee-hives and covered in clay, they were used as a cure for rheumatism. 

The tradition of cleansing with heat, steam and sweat lives on in our busy world. As more and more demands are placed on our daily lives, many of us retreat to the occasional spa visit for rejuvenation and relaxation. Most spas offer saunas and steam rooms to complete the relaxation and purification of the experience.

Purification through sweat: A tangible sign of physical and possibly emotional purging. While research seems to point that sweating is not necessarily an effective way to eliminate toxins from the body—the liver, intestines and kidneys are far more adept at this job— it still feels amazing to “just sweat it out.” Whether in a hot yoga class, in a sauna or a sweat lodge, the tradition lives on. 

Dazed, I stumble out of the yoga studio. My sweat soaked clothing still clinging to me, I realize I feel rejuvenated, alive, like a brand new person. Whether I’ve technically detoxed or not, I’m a convert because it feels amazing; a fresh start. 

Ways to “sweat it out”:

  • Take a hot yoga class and open up your chakras and your pores

  • Book a session at a local day spa and take extra time to enjoy the sauna

  • Take part in a traditional sweat lodge purification ceremony in a carefully curated atmosphere