Sweat Therapy

Sweat Therapy

An excerpt from the book “Sweat Therapy: A Guide to Greater Well-Being.”

By Stephen Colmant

People have used sweat rituals around the world for thousands of years to gain greater physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Like Carl Jung’s Concept of the Archetype, sweat practices continue to re-emerge in different forms. The activity gives the participant an intense physical and psychological experience, the power of which can and will continue to be harnessed for a multitude of purposes.  Some have used the practice of sweating to heal illness, socialization, for exercise, to promote spirituality, or as an aid in meditation.  Others have used sweat practices as a sexual aphrodisiac, to promote prostitution or as a manipulative tool to promote cult-like agendas.  The work of my research team out of Oklahoma State University in developing Sweat Therapy in counseling psychology has focused on using this powerful technique to promote health, psychological healing, and human growth.

Sweat Rituals Around the World, Past and Present

  • Finnish Sauna
  • American Indian Sweat Lodge
  • Russian Banya
  • Jewish Shvitz
  • Islamic Hamam
  • Irish Sweat House
  • Korean Jim Jil Bang
  • Japanese Mushi Buro
  • Greek Sweat Bath
  • Roman Thermae
  • Mayan Sweat House
  • Mexican Temescal
  • African Sweat Hut/Sifutu

How Sweat Rituals Work

Our theoretical model explains how sweat rituals work through five factors that reciprocally interact to promote positive effects to mind, body, and spirit.

Cultural Priming

Since sweat rituals have existed for thousands of years around the world, people will be attracted to it and are primed to receive benefits consistent with their cultural background. The more prominent the ritual exists in one’s background, the stronger the priming.


The heat is a dynamic force. It is the power plant within sweat rituals. The heat intensifies the effects and interactions of the other therapeutic factors in the model through moderate-intensity exercise.


Self-Regulation is the activity of setting, working toward and achieving goals related to one’s personal desires. Sweat rituals promote self-regulation by helping one gain insight through introspection, marking a commitment to personal goals, improving frustration tolerance and maintaining balance & harmony.

Metaphorical Contextual Elements

In the sweat lodge, sauna, or hamam, one is surrounded by eternal metaphorical symbols of earth, fire, water, darkness and light, hot and cold, life and death. During the experience we gain perspective and think about what is important and what is not. There is a complex interaction of physiological effects, symbols and metaphors involved in sweat rituals that make it an ideal vehicle for rites of initiation and transformation.

Interpersonal Factors

Close interpersonal interaction is a main reason why people participate in sweat rituals. The experience promotes openness, self disclosure and group cohesion.

Risks & Benefits

Intense heat exposure can be therapeutic and it can be deadly.  Like a powerful drug, it is the way in which it is used that makes the difference. Sweat rituals were developed over centuries through human intelligence, creativity, and wisdom to use intense heat exposure to promote physical and mental health, spirituality, and socialization.

For most people, sweat bathing is well tolerated and safe. Sweat bathing is contraindicated during high-risk pregnancies and for people with unstable angina pectoris, recent myocardial infarction, severe aortic stenosis, decompensated heart failure, cardiac arrhythmia, and severe spinal cord injuries. Alcohol intake while sweat bathing can create serious health risks and should be avoided.

Despite sensationalized news reports in the media in the last few years of deaths such as with the James Ray/sweat lodge tragedy in Sedona Arizona and the Sauna World Championship endurance contest in Heinola, Finland, death related to a sauna or sweat lodge is a rare event. In most cases, the main causal factors found were pre-existing heart problems and/or alcohol abuse. In my seventeen years of avid use of sweat lodges and saunas including lengthy research projects, I have never experienced a participant suffer a heat disorder. Overall, researchers have concluded that sweat bathing has many health benefits and few risks.

The heart gets a good workout during a sauna and results in improved endothelial functioning. Cardiac output is increased by 60% to 70%. This is a function of an increase in heart rate which increases to about twice the resting rate, a 40% decrease in peripheral resistance of the vessels, and a decrease in diastolic and mean arterial pressures, with practically no change in systolic pressure.

Sweat rituals are known to be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of lung, heart, and skin problems. Additionally, research has shown that sweating promotes deeper sleep, pain relief, muscle relaxation, stress relief and has been helpful in treating insomnia and arthritis. Some interesting findings recently coming out of Japan are that sweat rituals help to reduce depression, anxiety and even body fat.

My research with sweat therapy has focused on combining sauna with group counseling. Some of the main features of sweat rituals that make them an ideal medium for counseling and psychotherapy are that the effects of relaxation and stress relief also promote psychological openness. The challenging aspect of coping with the heat promotes introspection and insight. These features are complemented by an array of metaphorical contextual elements that promote ideas of change and personal growth. The behavioral health problems most likely to be responsive to sweat therapy include depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, chronic pain, and conduct problems with youth.

Creating Your Own Sweat Ritual

Where to Sweat

On the grandest scale, the Cemberlita Hamam in Istanbul built in 1584 and still in operation today might be the closest thing to the magnificence of the ancient Roman baths. Here in the U.S. health spas that make sweating the main event are available in many major cities. Examples include Banya 5 in Seattle, the Royal Palace in Brooklyn and the Chicago Sweat Lodge. One of the most sophisticated sweat rituals is with the American Indian sweat lodge. If invited to a sweat lodge ceremony, make sure you know the reputation of the leader well and how the leader facilitates the ceremony before participating.

For most people, their ability to participate in a sweat ritual is through their local fitness center or YMCA, however, the purchase of home saunas has been steadily increasing. Even the Wall Street Journal says that home sauna installation is the hottest trend in home improvements. A Dec. 29, 2010, story reports that, “More Americans are making space for sauna rooms, clearing out basements, converting closets, and even partitioning off backyard sheds.”

A sauna can be built almost anywhere and sauna manufacturers offer many options for home saunas such as portable, pre-built or pre-cut saunas. An excellent home sauna can be built for about $5000 to $10,000. I emphasize building your own because 1) Its really not that hard, 2) Your money will go a lot farther, and 3) The added sense of pride and satisfaction. The best book that I have ever come across for specific details on building a sauna is The Art of Sauna Building by Pertti Olavi Jalasjaa, ISBN 0-9685707-0-4.

How to Sweat

The context, preparation, helpful aids, temperature, rest periods, and recuperation time are all important in the therapeutic use of intense heat exposure. That does not mean that there is just one way or even “a best way” to do it.  Although there are many different ways to enjoy a sweat ritual, consider these five basic guidelines:

1.       Do not eat heavily before you sweat. Moderate your pre-sweat meal to how you would before engaging in any intense exercise. I fast at least an hour before sweating.

2.       Clothing choice is a personal one except for jewelry. Jewelry should be removed before entering a sweat structure as it can feel burning to the skin.

3.       The things you will need are two towels and a quart of water. One towel is for bringing in with you into the sweat structure. This towel can be used for sitting on or other personal hygiene. The second towel is for drying off afterwards. Drink plenty of water between intervals of heat exposure.

4.       The recommended temperature is 160 to 194º F (71-90º C).

5.       The recommended time inside a sauna is anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. Take a five-minute break and then repeat. At the end of your session, give yourself a minimum of 15 minutes to recuperate and stop sweating before getting dressed and moving on.

I encourage people to be creative and intensify their sweat practice by adding another dimension to it. Example activities that fit well with sweat rituals include meditation, music, aromatherapy, yoga, exfoliation, and bonding with friends and family.

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Colmant, Ph.D.

Excerpted from the book Sweat Therapy: A Guide to Greater Well-Being. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Colmant, Ph.D. (Published by Amazon; February 2011; $9.99US; ASIN: B004NIFPA0)

Stephen Colmant, Ph.D. received his doctorate through the counseling psychology program at Oklahoma State University in 2005 and is a licensed psychologist. He first learned about the therapeutic use of sweat procedures while working as a psychotherapist on the Navajo Nation in the 1990s and made “Sweat Therapy” the topic of his doctoral dissertation. He has led several research projects, published multiple articles in scientific journals and facilitated numerous national presentations on sweat therapy.  He recently published the ebook, Sweat Therapy: A Guide to Greater Well-Being.

For more information, please visit www.SaunaTimes.com.

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