I recently took a vitalizing vacation to Greece. It’s never easy returning to “real life” after eye-opening travels, so I decided that when I got home I would take more small trips to cool places here in Wisconsin than usual.
In the month since I’ve been back, I’ve been going to as many parks, lakes, and springs as possible. Soon I’ll write about my hang gliding experience. Later I’ll undulate in a flotation tank. This week I went to a salt cave.
The benefits of salt therapy
I’d never heard of salt caves for therapeutic purposes, but when I ran into information about them, the concept made sense. For years I’ve taken Epsom salt baths to soak my muscles in magnesium sulfate for pain relief. For years I’ve taken sea salt, Dead Sea, or Himalayan salt baths to soak my muscles in a range of minerals. Combined with the essential oils and other detox ingredients I add, my baths also help with skin care, colds, allergies, energy healing, and much more. And since I don’t live near the ocean, salt baths help me feel almost as nourished as an afternoon swim in the Adriatic.
Salt lamps are known to diffuse negative ions that clean the air, so naturally an entire room of salt would have benefits too. What salt caves help with especially, I learned when I stumbled upon a post about them, is respiratory issues. When I Googled “salt cave,” the first thing that popped up was The Salt Room Madison, whose site states that halotherapy helps with “colds, flus, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, sinus infections, sinusitis, rhinitis, hay fever, and emphysema” (as well as skin, snoring, and sleep).
Later I found that there are salt rooms all over the US, and that people seek them for relief because salt helps release mucus and improve lung function. It’s also anti-inflammatory, reducing tissue irritation and swelling.
The latter is why I got into salts in the first place. When my mom broke her arm a long time ago, a doctor recommended that she put Epsom salt compresses on it to reduce the swelling and bruising. She did that, it worked, and then I was inspired to fill a tub with the stuff and see what else it could do. Not only did it help me with pain, it also eliminated some crow’s-feet I’d developed from baking in the hot sun and dry climate of Arizona. I was only 24 at the time, so the crow’s-feet probably would have disappeared no matter what I hydrated with, but it was still impressive.
Of course, Epsom salts are not sea salts or rock salts, and bathing or swimming in any kind of salt is supposed to be different from breathing in salts. But a lot of things you can do with all kinds of salt are very helpful.
The world’s first underground health resort
In countries like Poland, salt mines go back to the Middle Ages and beyond. The Wieliczka salt mine outside of Krakow, for instance, dates to the thirteenth century. It’s a vast network of tunnels said to span over 178 miles.
Deep inside the old mine, a nineteenth-century sanitorium is considered the world’s first underground health resort. It’s not clear if it was used as a health resort earlier than the 1830s, but I have no doubt that local people have known the value of the mine’s air and its waters as long as there has been a mine—or as long as they’ve used the area’s water that’s likely fed by the salts.
The resort’s treatment therapies were developed in the nineteenth century, and refined from the 1950s through today. It offers what’s termed speleotherapy (cave therapy) or subterranotherapy, interchangeable words for “a method of balneological treatment of inflammatory disorders of the upper and lower respiratory tract and the symptoms of allergic diseases,” according to the website.
What makes this possible is the cave’s microclimate of “exceptional bacteriological purity,” its constant air temperature, and its humidity level of 60–75%. Nearly a mile below the surface of the earth, the air is high in sodium chloride of course, plus magnesium, manganese, and calcium. Patients can stay onsite for modern medical services including diagnostics, consultations with lung, throat, eye, and musculoskeletal specialists, and a wide array of treatments. People in Poland and from all over the world travel to the resort for help with pulmonary diseases, skin problems, and all kinds of stuff.
Even if you’re not sick, you can tour the caves, and see all the statues and chapels that miners carved out of the salt over the centuries.
You can even sleep in the caves, where “the peace and quiet dominating the undergrounds for centuries guarantees both physical and mental rest” (♥) and you can relish a “fairy-tale slumber.”
I would revel in such an experience. I love caves, I love salt, I love chapels, so this mine would be a very holy place for me. It’s high on my list of places to visit. (Epsom is also on my list, BTW.)
But a salt room in my own area, where we have wonderful caves, but no natural underground salt caves—would it have the benefits of a magnificent healing place like Wieliczka?
In Madison, The Salt Room is not vast, ancient, or naturally occurring, but it is magical.
I drove in from Milwaukee because I wanted a short trip out of town. When I arrived, the owner gave me a quick form to fill out, then took me to a locker where I could secure my purse and anything I didn’t want to take into the salt room. Everything gets salty in the salt room, she said, so she put my phone in a Baggie and I took my shoes off and stepped inside. It’s a wonderful feeling, walking over salt in your bare feet. It’s like walking on sand.
The room is equipped with eight zero-gravity chairs. I like the communal rather than private aspect of that because it’s reminiscent (in concept) of the ancient Roman public baths.
One chair was taken, so I chose a reclining spot two seats down and settled in. The owner turned on soft music, and the overhead lights were already off because I was late. 😃
Here’s me with my hair tucked up behind my head in a weird way, kicking back in zero gravity and blue light.
As soon as I lay down, I became aware that my mouth was curving into a half-smile because my body had already sensed the peace.
The owner explained that the natural rock salt that covers every surface of the room creates a sterilized, negative-ion environment. She also said that the room was equipped with a halogenerator that crushes pharmaceutical-grade salt into small particles for inhalation. She spoke gently and was clearly empathic toward people who come to her to ease their suffering.
For my part, my allergies haven’t been bad this year, but I had been feeling some pressure that day in the sinuses above my eyes and around my nose. Though mainly I was there to discover what it’s like inside a salt room.
Within ten minutes my nasal passages were moist and my sinuses started to drain. For 15 years I’ve had this chronic annoying condition where my ears are almost always plugged, and I could feel them opening—a sensation I adore. Anytime I yawned, I could taste the salt, feel it tickle the back of my throat, and sense the movement of blocked fluid releasing.
Just as I’d become aware of my instinctive smile, I became aware that I was breathing deeply into my abdomen automatically. This was the deep breathing that I practice regularly, but the autonomousness of it added to the peace. The sensation of air flowing with such ease filled me with feelings of immense well-being.
You know how sometimes when you rub your eyes, while they’re closed you can see the outlines of things that surround you, or patterns you hadn’t known were there? I rubbed my eyes, and I could see the salt crystals. They fell gently like snowflakes, as bright as stars.
After 45 minutes, the owner came in and asked us how it was. “It was beautiful,” I said. “I can’t wait to come back.”
At the desk she gave me a bottle of water and a recommended therapy plan. From my form she knew that I’d come from Milwaukee, so she recommended I go to her sister’s Salt Room in Pewaukee, which is closer to me than Madison. And I certainly will.
Wieliczka chapel photo by Jennifer Boyer.