The Chulla Chaka or traditional Andean sweat lodge is an experience that is so elemental, so primal, so raw that it also seems otherworldly. It is a natural healing ceremony that indigenous tribes have been doing since their inception and a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation. Each sweat is a time for healing, prayer, meditation, community, connection and spirit.
The family we work with here in the Sacred Valley is led by Mama Ruth. She is the anchor for the ceremony and for Planet Earth. A hug from this woman is like a hug from the mother of mothers. I’m not quite sure what would happen if Mama Ruth and Amma from India met, but it would be something awesome. To see this lineage revering its matriarch is endearing, exemplary and sweet. Her two sons, Christian and Roberto, guide the group with song, love and strength.
The Chulla Chaka (the Quechua word for “bridge of dew”) is constructed of clay and mud with a hole in the center for the hot rocks. Fresh medicinal plants and herbs, hand picked by Mama Ruth, are suspended from the ceiling to absorb energy and support the healing process. The sweat is an invocation to the four elements (tawaapukunas), earth, air, water and fire. Each element (apukuna) has it’s own doorway - it’s own energy - which is opened and closed by group prayer and offerings.
Before entering the Chulla Chaka, each person makes a Q’inti which are three coca leaves sealed with animal fat - essentially it is a vessel for prayer. Mama Ruth calls everyone over one-by-one, intentions are caste into the Q’inti and offered to the fire where the hot rocks for the sweat are being enflamed. She then makes a ritual cleanse with smoke and invites the participant to enter the sweat. Kneeling at the entrance of the lodge, with forehead on the ground, a blessing is repeated and then the earthen dome is entered.
There are four rounds to the experience, each representing one of the elements. For every round, 13 hot stones are brought into the lodge and placed in the pit with deer antlers. Each stone is welcomed into the sweat by celebratory chanting and excitement. Apuchai is what they call the stones or the little grandfathers in the native Quechua tongue. Once they enter, Mama Ruth marks and blesses them with incenses, invocation and reverence.
The door to the lodge is then shut and offerings are made in the form of medicinal water which is infused with various plant essences and herbs. A cup is passed around and each person gets to make an offering to the rocks. The steam created is soaked into the plants that hang from the ceiling infusing them with "dew" energy. After each person has made their water offering and the steam does its healing thang, the physical door is then opened and 13 more Apuchais are brought in. By the fourth and final door, Mama Ruth makes the offerings for everyone, then works one-by-one giving each person a massage and healing treatment with the medicinal plants she has concocted. The plants from the ceiling are taken down, warmed on top of the Apuchais and placed on the backs and bellies of the lodgers as part of the treatment.
Every experience I have with a sweat or Chulla Chaka is simple, profound, and physically beneficial. The obvious health benefit comes from the sweating. This helps eliminate toxins from the body, boosts the immune system, lowers risk of kidney stones and releases endorphins. The shamans will remind us to lie on the ground and receive healing from the Mother Earth. This ancient insight has now received scientific credibility in the movement called Earthing or Grounding. Some of the benefits of Earthing (direct contact with the Earth) are: reduced inflammation, improved blood flow, increased energy, and relief of muscle tension.
The sweetness and power of the Chulla Chaka is something that can heal on many levels. The basic earth, fire, water and air ceremony is a multi-layered, multi-dimensional experience that transcends the physical world. Song, community and celebration add another level of medicine for the soul, no doubt. Everyone enters the sweat one way and leaves a completely changed person.