A Healthy Sweat
Revitalizing an ancient Hawaiian practice in a modern form.
Steam rises from the glowing rocks, filling the darkness with heavy heat. Herbs laid on the hot stones give off a rich, ancient scent as they release their healing qualities. We inhale, deeply, the smell of ‘olena (Hawaiian turmeric) and sandalwood. The embers hiss as someone shakes more water from ti leaves onto the stones. The rocks glow brightly, briefly. Furious steam rises, stinging our nostrils, cleansing our sinuses. We exhale, slowly, haaaaa. . . .
Crosslegged on a circle of lau hala mats around the hot stone pit, we come together in a hale pulo‘ulo‘u (house of purification). Long forgotten or disregarded, the Native Hawaiian use of steam is now experiencing a revival as part of modern Hawaiian healing techniques.
“Hawaiians were world voyagers with a deep understanding of navigation, agriculture, and concepts like lomilomi (Hawaiian massage) and ho‘oponopono, (forgiveness, realignment) just to mention a few, that are only now coming to the surface,” says Kauka (Dr.) Maka‘ala Yates, founder of the Hawaiian Healing Institute, which provides training on traditional healing modalities. Yates, who sailed on the original Hokule‘a voyaging canoe in 1976, says that, “Like navigation, a hale pulo‘ulo‘u has never happened for hundreds of years, so we are bringing it back through educational programs and reintroducing it to the Hawaiian people.”
Although there is little documentation on hale pulo‘ulo‘u, this does not mean it didn’t exist, according to Keli‘i Tau‘a, a kumu hula and Hawaiian language instructor at Maui Community College. “Writing wasn’t the Hawaiian way. . . . they passed [the information] down through the chants, from family to family. The tradition of sweating was passed down from father to son, like the tradition of bathing. You usually sweated with your family because it’s a very personal thing.”
The purpose of sweating was to cleanse and heal. “We don’t know who started the tradition, as we don’t know who started celestial navigation or who wrote the Kumulipo [Hawaiian creation chant], but we do know why sweat was an important part of our culture,” Yates says. “The obvious reason is for health.
“Sweat is a fast mode of penetrating deep down to the bones of an individual. This allows all the cells within the body to purge the toxic accumulation we’ve gathered over the years, no matter how well we eat. The sweat pouring off is toxins being released from your body. Through a combination of sweating, chanting, song, and prayer, along with seawater and herbal intake, we can reach higher levels of healing and awareness of the true power within each of us.”
Healing herbs are an integral part of the steam process as triggers of different energy levels. Commonly used herbs and plants include ‘olena, which helps the respiratory system and is good for purification through its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties; ‘awa (kava), which helps to relax the nerves; and ‘iliahi (sandalwood), which calms the system and aids with circulation and digestion.
Native Hawaiians used medicinal herbs along with steam to treat the sick in a hale la‘au, or medicine house. In his writings, Hawaiian scholar David Malo describes “a hut called hale hau, which was done with sticks of hau wood and was arched on top. The sick man was removed to this little hut and given a steam bath, after which he was bathed in sea-water and then nourishment was administered.”
Immersion in water, or hi‘uwai, is another important component. Between rounds of sweating in the hale—which becomes progressively hotter as more rocks are brought in from the outside firepit—participants cool off by plunging into the ocean or nearby fresh water.
Under the shade of lau hala mats, the steaming session begins.
As part of a fasting and cleansing program, participants also drink a seawater mixture “to flush out the alimentary tract and replace minerals and elements the body might be lacking,” Yates explains.
His interest in the use of steam in Hawaiian healing goes back to his childhood in South Kona, when his father used to tell stories about building a hale for steam. While studying lomilomi on the Big Island with the renowned Aunty Margaret Machado—who uses steam every day—Yates began interviewing kupuna on Maui, but no one knew or remembered how to build a sweat lodge. “How to build a hale, how to build a canoe—all that information is in the chants, and we couldn’t find the chants,” he said.
Yates, who now lives in Oregon and makes monthly trips to Maui, began interviewing Native Americans about their sweat-lodge building practices. He participated in frequent sweats with them, incorporating Hawaiian chanting.
Using a model that evolved over years of research, Yates began building hale pulo‘ulo‘u in Hawai‘i. In 2002, he invited kupuna from Hana to participate in a ho‘oponopono session followed by a sweat. Each kupuna came with two makua (elder supporters), so there were almost 50 people. Yates conducted the sweat in shifts of 25 people, with Hawaiian chanting by the kupuna throughout the entire process.
Afterward, they told Yates, “This is something we will never forget.”
“There were tears of joy, memories for them,” Yates says. “They remembered when they were children and used to do the ceremony indoors under blankets, due to the suppressive nature of the then-de facto government. When the infiltrators came to Hawai‘i, they stopped this native practice. . . . A week after the sweat, kupuna called from Hana and told me they were writing a chant about their experiences.”
Today, Yates encourages anyone with an open heart to participate in the process: from gathering guava wood in ‘Iao Valley, to building the structure, to fasting and sweating.
Guava is the perfect modern resource —not only is the green guava strong and flexible, but it is a nonnative, invasive plant; thinning the guava is actually beneficial to the forest. The gatherers incorporate oli and pule (chants and prayers) into their work and leave behind ho‘okupu, offerings for new growth made from herbs wrapped in ti leaf. Gatherers cut various lengths of guava, adding up to about a cord overall, strip them, bundle them, and carry them down the mountain.
Sites over the last few years have ranged from Ma‘alaea to Kihei to Hana to Kapalua. In 2005, Yates constructed a large hale for the Celebration of the Arts at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, to demonstrate the beneficial nature of steam to a wider cross section of people.
“Hawaiians, of course, used ‘sweat’ as a way of cleansing and healing,” says Clifford J. Nae‘ole, Hawaiian cultural advisor for the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. “However, the lodge was not [necessarily] part of the treatment. Dr. Yates has expanded the sweat theory so that the contemporary Hawaiian will have an opportunity to experience it at a different level.”
It took Yates years to come up with the hale’s final design. He now uses a 12' by 12' structure with a domed top. “All the guava sticks cross at the top, creating a star. I call it hokule‘a, star of joy,” Yates says. “The dimensions have to do with the dimensions of frequency in the human body. The 12 posts represent the 12 frequencies in the universe.”
The posts are bound together at cross-sections with twine, and the entire structure is covered with layers of lau hala matting, keeping the inside dark. Porous stones representing Pele, the volcano goddess, are heated in an outside imu (firepit) and brought inside one at a time. Water poured onto the hot rocks creates thick steam in the darkness.
“When you go into a hale pulo‘ulo‘u, it’s dark,” Taua says. “Our elders believed that all knowledge comes from po, which is dark, night. Some people may be afraid of po—they relate po to evil—because they are fearful of not knowing. But from po comes life, not the opposite. You are enlightened. You will be cleansed of the impurity, physical and mental.”
While the steam does its healing work, participants chant in Hawaiian, share stories, or sit in silent meditation. “We follow simple protocols,” Yates says. “The chants are simple empowerment chants, only for unity. It’s about sharing and supporting each other. This is not about religion, only about spirituality. . . .
“This is a very important time period for this kind of healing. Hawaiian healing is experiencing a resurgence. It’s an important part of our culture, and it’s up to us to regain our own self-worth, our center. A house of steam was just a ‘hidden known’ in our culture—until now.”