A Healthy Sweat
Revitalizing an ancient Hawaiian practice in a modern form.
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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.”