“DON’T LICK my walls,” says Leah, the chirpy receptionist. (It’s “Leah” like Leah from the Bible, but everyone calls her Princess, she later tells me). She’s cheerfully handing out advice, her sing-songy voice rising and falling like a cardiogram, her hands are telling a story all their own—you know the type. “Oh no,” I sputter. “We won’t.” I think she’s kidding, but I can’t tell.
We’re standing in a roughly 15-by-12-foot space, dimly lit by a giant salt lamp that’s about 3 feet tall and four times the size of the one I proudly owned in college. There’s a statue of Buddha’s curly-haired head, five reclining chairs, a table offering a smorgasbord of magazines and coloring books, and lots and lots of salt everywhere—on the floor and on the walls. It’s called a salt room for a reason.
Salt rooms have become something of a spa trend over the past few years, but in reality, they’ve been around, in various guises, for centuries, dating as far back as Hippocrates, who made good use of salt-based remedies. What’s more, back in 1843, a physician by the name of Dr. Felix Boczkowski, took note that miners in the southern Polish town of Wieliczka were surprisingly unencumbered by lung diseases and respiratory ailments. He chalked it up to the salt-cave air, an environment free of airborne pollutants, which led to the opening of Poland’s first spa-slash-clinic in a salt mine.
Halotherapy—a refined version of the aforementioned salt-cave therapies and the thing I’m here to reap the benefits of—involves sitting in the microclimate of a salty room and breathing in a mist of salty air pumped through a machine called a halogenerator, which crushes and grinds salt crystals into specifically sized micro-particles. The inhaled specks, between 1 to 5 microns in diameter, are supposed to wipe out allergens and toxins when they travel to the respiratory system, a process that breaks up mucus, relieves congestion and reduces inflammation. (Folks sometimes even install saline therapy devices at home to replicate the effect). You’ll often see halotherapy spas boast that the treatment helps with issues like asthma, arthritis and allergies. Dry salt is also said to absorb bacteria and impurities on your skin, and improve skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema.
Despite this, the research on halotherapy is a bit muddy and lacking, especially in the United States, as most of the medical literature springs from countries like Poland and Russia. But my fiancé, Anton, and I have been having a lot of trouble with our noses lately, and, having grown up with Soviet-influenced traditions, I’ve always turned to saline for relief. Which is why I decided to take the trend with a grain of, um, salt, and try it out anyway. Best-case scenario? We’ll sleep better tonight. Worst-case scenario? We’ll just inhale a few lungfuls of salty air, which sounds pretty innocuous to me.
The last time I was in a room full of salt was a few months ago, when I ventured off to a float spa to write a column on sensory deprivation therapy, aka floating in a sound-and-light-proof tank filled with water and salt. It was a very intense session, and I still find myself—whenever the topic crops up in a conversation—comparing it to some sort of an otherworldly experience, one from which you come out feeling brave, like you’ve conquered a fear or thrown yourself into something other people would call “crazy.” In all fairness, I do remember walking out of the treatment feeling de-stressed, my skin perpetually glowing for a good week after the fact.
Halotherapy is a lot less dramatic than flotation therapy, and most importantly, it’s not even the least bit scary. Businesses often offer separate “family” and “kid” rates and packages, and sometimes they’ll even host yoga or meditation classes in the space. But today, we’re just here for the regular kind of halotherapy, which involves an elevated version of an everyday ritual we’re already both experts at—sitting and breathing.
When Leah gives us the lowdown on what to expect, the whole spiel takes no more than 10 minutes. She shows us the halogenerator, which is nestled in a hole in the wall. “[The salt] will settle on your skin, just like during a day at the beach,” she chants. When she leaves, I scan the room once again. This place is device-free, which isn’t for everyone. It’s still and hushed, with the settled sense of a cloistered atmosphere, which, again, isn’t for everyone. But hey—there are large grains of salt on the floor you can dip your sock-clad feet into like sand. It really is like a day at the beach.
I settle into my chair and Anton into his. I turn my reading lamp on, and flip through the Thanksgiving issue of Bon Appétit. Anton has Sunset already opened on his lap. “I’m just going to try to relax,” he whispers just a few minutes in, ditching his magazine, stretching his legs out and pushing the chair to its max reclining potential. “OK,” I whisper back, and bury my face in an apple tart recipe, all the while thinking about work and something my mom said to me about a coyote attacking a chihuahua in her neighborhood. In other words, my brain is performing some form of mental crossfit. That poor chihuahua. I hope he’s OK. Wait—Should I be reading? What should I be really doing in here? Just chili-in’? Also, did I just make a pepper joke in a salt room? Ay, yai, yai.
I glance over my shoulder at Anton, who seems to be having a swell time doing nothing. I decide to follow suit. It’s probably for the best anyway. I’m making myself too hungry ogling perfectly orchestrated photos of Thanksgiving food. I listen to the soft meditation music punctuated by the whoosh of the halogenerator. Every five minutes or so, the machine turns on, dispersing a cloudy mist of sodium chloride, like a long exhale on a cold day or a burst of steam rising from a singing kettle. Across the room, a laser sensor measures the concentration of negative ions and salt in the air. I watch the particles dance in the rosy glow of the room. The important thing is to breathe, I remind myself. After all, that’s what I paid $40 for. I breathe mindfully, with purpose and the practiced skill of a musician playing a nimble melody on a wind instrument. (I’ve been working on this lately, thanks to some tips I picked up in yoga class).
At this moment, all of my anxieties—about deadlines and family matters and what’s for dinner—evacuate my brain. It doesn’t take me long to descend down the familiar and relaxing staircase of sleep, everything else darkening behind me. It’s like this: Inside this room, the outside dissipates or, at the very least cedes focus to what’s within this space. To me, that’s the crux of halotherapy’s appeal, especially when the pace of life quickens and when moments of repose are hard to come by.
While it doesn’t compare to my flotation tank experience in intensity—and nothing ever will—my time in a salt room is spent worrying less about thoughts of death and dying, and concentrating more on not worrying about anything at all. Before my mind fades into complete blackness, the door to the salt room creaks open, and Leah’s voice weaves itself into my consciousness. We meander out to the lobby, where the air is laced with something vaguely lavender-y and sweet, put our shoes back on and head back home. “I guess we’ll find out if the salt room worked if I sleep well tonight,” Anton says in the car, and amazingly enough, for the following weeks, we experience the best-case scenario.