‘Native American tribe saved me’
Reaching rock bottom brought Shaura Hall into the world of sweat lodge ceremonies to transform her life
Shaura Hall was at rock bottom but a sweat lodge ceremony changed her life
‘I emerged feeling like I’d left my negativity in the fire’
The venerable Indian elder sounded deadly serious. ‘Tell me why you’re here, Shaura,’ he said. ‘Why are we praying for you?’
A flush of shame rushed through me as I shrugged in the darkness.
‘If you don’t tell us, we can’t pray for you,’ he pressed.
I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. How could I tell this group of strangers that I didn’t want to live any more, that I was terrified of losing my son – but that I also feared he’d be better off without me.
I was frightened, numb and completely out of my comfort zone. I’d long since lost the ability to trust. But then I remembered my sponsor’s words before I’d entered this low-ceilinged willow sweat lodge.
‘You’ll feel like you’re going to die in there,’ she’d said. ‘But you will be OK.’
I made a decision. I took a deep breath and began to speak…
A troubled path
Growing up I struggled to navigate the world. It felt like everyone else knew the rules of life while I didn’t understand them.
I’d left home at 16 and got into a difficult relationship. When I fell pregnant at 18 I was terrified, but excited. Cameron arrived a healthy 9lb. But when he was a day old tests showed a valve in his heart wasn’t working. Doctors felt it would be too traumatic to operate on him. Three days later, he passed away in my arms.
Afterwards, the dreams were the worst. Every night I’d dream I was holding Cameron and that if I let him fall asleep he’d die. I spent my nights desperately trying to save my son only to wake and remember he was already gone.
Before Cameron was born I’d got in with a bad crowd, some of whom used heroin. I’d never understood why you’d do that to yourself, but after losing Cameron the idea of a drug that would take my grief and pain away, even for a few hours, seemed irresistible…
I soon got locked into a cycle of addiction.
I’d come off drugs for months at a time, sign up for a training course, try to build a life away from drugs. Then something would happen and I’d be back where I started.
In time I met someone new, John. We married and, aged 22, I had a daughter, followed a year later by twins. We were so young, with three tiny children to look after, and both struggling with addiction.
The last time
I got involved with petty crime, shop-lifting and cheque fraud. I told myself banks and big chain shops weren’t real victims. But life was turbulent and, perhaps inevitably, the authorities got involved.
The prospect of our children being taken into care was the jolt me and John needed to clean up. We committed to coming off drugs for good but, the month before we were due to go to family court, John said he was heading out for the evening.
I caught something in his expression and knew he was going to buy drugs.
‘It’s the last time,’ he said. ‘I promise.’
‘OK,’ I nodded. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too,’ he said.
The police found me at mum’s the next day to tell me John had overdosed. He was 34.
Just a month later I faced the judge and desperately tried to convince him I was able to look after my children.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I can’t risk it.’
Still grieving over John, I’d now lost three more children.
I had nothing left.
The next few months passed in a blur of grief and confusion. I managed to find work doing the night shift at a print factory and fell into another relationship.
Just a year after John died, I fell pregnant again. I felt like I’d betrayed John by moving on so quickly and I was terrified my baby would get taken away again.
When my son, Jacob, was born I loved him so much, but I swung between fears of him being taken from me and the thought that he’d be better off without me.
Jacob was eight months old when my birth father, who’d lived in America since I was eight, invited me to visit.
Growing up I’d only seen my father once a year at my grandma’s house, though we’d emailed and he often used to send me books by Tony Hillerman – a series of Navajo tribal police mystery novels.
Into the unknown
When I arrived in Oregon with Jacob, Dad told me how he had a native American friend he thought could help me.
‘They’ve agreed to do a sweat lodge for you,’ he explained.
Because of Dad’s detective novels I’d had the tiniest window into Navajo culture and knew that a sweat lodge was a hut used by North American Indians for ritual steam baths, intended to purify you. But the idea of me going through one seemed surreal.
Still numb, I let Dad drive me to the ranch where people who followed the traditions of the Lakota tribe had agreed to see me. You can’t just walk into a ceremony, especially as a European. Someone has to invite you, stay with you and sponsor you. So, Dad’s friend Theresa had sorted everything out for me and explained what would happen.
Crawling into the low-roofed willow structure, however, was still bizarre. Circular and with blankets covering the outside and a bare earth floor, it felt a bit like being in a womb. And now here I was explaining to the elder why they should pray for me.
There was a pit in the centre which was filled with volcanic rocks and, as we entered, the gathered tribe sang old Indian prayer songs. I’d been told these were spirit calling songs which would bring in the spirit of a particular animal.
A baptism of fire
I’d not been in the hut long when all of a sudden something came through to me. I suddenly wanted to sit up straight, and as I stared at the glowing rocks and heard the hiss of the water being poured on to them, I began to see faces in the heat.
The elements of fire, air, earth and water were all represented and as I crawled through the heat and steam I seemed to connect to something greater than myself. After what may have been an hour, I emerged feeling like I’d left my negativity in the fire. I felt reborn.
After there was a discussion about whether they’d hold a native American church meeting for me. But one of the elders wasn’t keen.
‘She doesn’t know our ways,’ he said. ‘Send her away to prepare for a year.’
The elder’s wife spoke up then.
‘If someone had told you to go away and prepare for a year when you were drinking,’ she asked him, ‘what would have happened?’
‘I’d be dead,’ he replied.
‘That’s your answer,’ she said.
So it was agreed. They’d help me further.
Finding myself again
When it rains in Oregon it rains hard and it was pouring the night of the tepee meeting that had been arranged for me. But just before it started, the rain cleared and you could see the stars.
The meeting was very ritualistic. We took cactus peyote, a hallucinogenic which has healing properties for body and psyche. I was blessed and then the elder spoke directly to me.
‘I have to tell you something,’ he said. ‘We love you. Because we are you. Many of us know what you have been through.’
It was just what I needed to hear.
As we prayed the rain came again.
That night I saw things that I can’t explain. I realised there is more to the world than we can see, hear and touch.
After fasting overnight, one of the American Indians came to me.
‘I’ve been dying to say this,’ he grinned. And then, in a fake British accent, he asked: ‘Would you like a spot of tea?’
Overnight I’d found an amazing group of friends. I stayed with the tribe for five weeks in the end and, as I left, my sponsor had some advice. ‘Back at home, find your spiritual path.’
returning to real life
I followed her advice, learning to do reiki energetic healing. I also found a day job, working security for football and rugby matches.
I managed to be a mum to Jacob and stay clean, and when I returned to visit the tribe a year later I was unrecognisable from the woman they’d first met. This time I stayed longer, around three months, and discovered that my sponsor and her family did yoga. It inspired me to give it a try back in the UK.
At first I tried Hatha Yoga, then Kundalini which appealed as I’m particularly interested in energy. It’s very spiritual and gave me so much – a focus, new identity, somewhere to be peaceful and spiritual.
I felt empowered for the first time in years. It felt natural to me and I found it so easy to grasp the concepts that, not long after I began, I took a teacher training course and became a yoga teacher.
I’d found my purpose at last.
a deep gratitude
Since then I’ve completed a yoga therapy course and help train mental health professionals in how to deal with addiction. I’ve been with the same man since Jacob was five, Neil. He’s an old friend from my teenage years and has been an amazing support.
One of the things that pushed me to clean up was that if and when my older kids got back in touch, I didn’t want them to find me a drug addict. I’m now in contact with all of my children. My daughter is 22 and the twins are
21. Of course, our relationship isn’t simple, but they’re doing well.
I’ve been back to Oregon so many times since that first visit. The tribe are my spiritual family. In fact, I’ve just come back from a purging and fasting ceremony where we prayed for the world. The Native American tradition is all about connecting with the earth and it’s brutal what we’re doing to the planet.
Now 14 years on from that first sweat lodge, I’m mentally, physically and spiritually healthy. I have a deep understanding I lacked before, that life is all a process and every human being has potential. It took a long journey for me to get where I am today but I’m eternally grateful. ‘Philámayaye’ is the Lakota word for ‘thank you’. I really can’t say it enough.
✿ More info about courses run by Shaura, visit theyogologist.co.uk
‘Life is all a process and every human being has potential’
Having found peace at last
teaching others to heal themselves