Sweat Lodge
Are sweat lodges safe? creative commons

***UPDATE: A judge imposed two-year sentences for each of the three deaths Friday afternoon, but the sentences are to be served concurrently. Ray must serve at least 85 percent of the term before he will become eligible for release. He was also ordered to pay a total of $57,000 in restitution to the families of the victims.

More than two years ago, a fatal Arizona sweat lodge ceremony resulted in three deaths and ignited the downfall of famous self-help author and guru, James Arthur Ray.

The budding star -- who'd appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and CNN's Larry King Live -- was found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide earlier this year. Authorities originally charged the Sedona, Ariz. Guru with manslaughter, but jurors rejected arguments that he was reckless in his handling of the infamous October 2009 ceremony.

The motivational speaker drew dozens to a retreat in the Arizona scrub forest with the promise of a sweat lodge ceremony, typical of several Native American cultures, which would cleanse the body, mind and spirit. The 56 participants paid up to $10,000 each for Ray's spiritual warrior retreat.

By the time the evening was over, many participants were vomiting, struggling to breathe, and lying lifeless on the ground. Kirby Brown, 38, and James Shore, 40, were pronounced dead at the scene. 49-year-old Liz Neuman never regained consciousness and died over a week later at a Flagstaff hospital.

On Friday, Ray will receive his sentence. He faces up to 11 years in jail.

In the days after the deaths, television news images of the sweat dome showed a low, windowless structure, covered in black roofing - a far cry from the glamour images portrayed by the lucrative industry.

The trial and subsequent downfall of Ray forced the nation to look into the safety of these ritualistic retreats.

Sweat or medicine lodges are typically small domed or oblong structures warmed with heated stones. Much like a sauna, the lodge uses hot rocks and steam inside a tent-like structure to cause the air to heat up, opening the participants' pores and helping to purify their bodies while inducing a mild, trance-like or deeply relaxed state, useful for meditation, group journey and other spiritual applications.

A sweat lodge ceremony is a purification ceremony that is generally used in preparation for some other ritual.

Prosecutors in the Arizona case argued that the lodge was heated to a perilously high temperature, causing the participants to suffer dehydration and heatstroke. They also urged that Ray did not monitor the temperature inside the lodge or the well-being of participants.

In Ray's case, all participants signed a release warning of the sweat lodge's dangers.

Sweat lodges are typically harmless, and it's certainly possible to participate in them safely, but there are a few things to keep in mind before you try one out:

1: Know How Many People Will Be in the Sweat Lodge:

Typically, a sweat lodge houses eight to 12 people - but this can go up to 25 in a traditional lodge. The unusually large number of people in the Sedona sweat lodge (56 people) made it dangerous and difficult to monitor the participants.

Similarly, make sure the lodge is built using only natural materials - not plastics. This allows for a natural absorption of excess moisture.

2. Know the Person Who Pours the Waters

According to Native American tradition, the person who pours the waters is the spiritual leader responsible for monitoring the mental and physical condition of the sweat lodge participants. Research the leader's background, experience, and who they learned from the same way you would with any other health treatment.

3. Make Sure a Sweat Lodge is Okay for You

Sweat lodges are not for everyone. Pregnant women and those with high blood pressure, epilepsy, or medical conditions like heart disease should not participate.

A sweat lodge involves a high level of trust and you may be naked or wrapped in a towel with a group of others. According to Native American custom, someone should not charge money for a sweat lodge. However, offerings are traditionally accepted. Sexual overtures are a sure sign that something is amiss.

4. Use Precaution before Entering

Items like jewelry should not be worn in a sweat lodge as they may burn your skin. Also, eating a heavy meal before a sweat lodge experience will put a strain on your circulatory system. Eat light and drink lots of water before entering a sweat lodge.

5. Have an Exit Strategy

Everyone responds differently to heat. Make sure to listen to your body and step outside the sweat lodge to cool off or drink water if needed. Ray was accused of discouraging people to leave, but it is important that the person who pours the waters allows you feel comfortable enough to know when you need a break.