Himalayan salt lamps have become so trendy, they’re now sold at Walmart. Yes, Walmart. Add them to the list beside essential oils and gluten-free diets as health fads even your conservative aunt has heard about.
But do they work? When a friend recommended a Himalayan salt cave visit after finding out I was seeking stress relief, I scheduled an appointment at Peace, Love & Zen in East Liberty. Who needs to buy a salt lamp when you can sit inside one?
Himalayan salt therapy has no scientifically proven benefits and even Peace, Love & Zen notes on its website that they make no claims for medical benefits. But many swear by the calming effects of the cave. The pink salt is said to release negative ions, which some believe can help strengthen immune systems, relieve allergies, and reduce stress and fatigue.
I have suffered from depression and anxiety since childhood. Earlier this year, I started taking anti-anxiety medicine, which has helped greatly, but it isn’t always enough. I also have seasonal allergies, and my doctor suspects I have an unknown autoimmune disease, after first being diagnosed with chronic hives six years ago.
I am a glass-half-empty optimist — largely a skeptic when it comes to alternative health therapies, but willing to give anything a shot.
When I head to the salt cave, it’s 4:45 p.m. on a Tuesday, and I’m standing on a crowded P1 bus from Downtown, desperately trying not to fall on top of someone. A man sitting nearby keeps yelling out, “This is nuts! Is it always like this?” Everyone keeps ignoring him, until finally a woman grunts out, “Yes.” As soon as I get off the bus, it starts snowing. My anxiety is through the roof.
When I open the door at Peace, Love & Zen, the smell of a woodsy lavender incense is so strong it almost knocks me over. Normally, I'm extra-sensitive to scents and perfumes, but there's something about lavender that makes me feel calm. I sit down in a chair in the waiting room, inhaling.
“You’re lucky, you have the room to yourself today,” the woman at the front desk says as she takes me back to the cave. I’m told to remove my shoes and coat and to turn off my cell phone. Wait, what? My appointment is 45 minutes. I assumed I’d spend the time checking Twitter. I do as she says, though, and leave my belongings outside.
The room is pink. Really pink. The walls are covered in bricks of pink salt, and the floor is covered in loose salt. I count 12 lights spread around the room, twinkly blue star lights on the ceiling, and ten zero-gravity chairs. I choose one and sit down.
There’s a blanket on each chair, and the woman tells me my body temperature might drop during the session. “There’s no way,” I think. I have on normal clothes: jeans, a hoodie. I’m comfortable.
Soon after she leaves and closes the door, a recording of a man’s voice lets me know the session has begun. He gives a little background on salt therapy, and then his voice is replaced by a soundtrack of instrumental music mixed with beach waves and birds chirping.
Without my phone, I’m not sure what to do. I admit it, I’m addicted to my phone. I typically don’t go 10 minutes without looking at it, let alone 45. I stare at the twinkly lights on the ceiling for a while. Count the lights. Lean over and dig my fingers into the sand on the floor — three inches.
I pick up a handful of the salt and smell it. Odorless. I’m tempted to put a piece in my mouth and taste it, but I’m worried there’s a hidden camera. I let it fall through my fingers onto the floor. I close my eyes.
My nose starts to drip a bit, then stops. I realize I’m breathing better than normal. Is it my imagination, or is the salt cave working?
The soundtrack reminds me of the end credits in an independent film when the main characters discover they’ve been in love this whole time and walk on the beach together as the credits roll.
How long have I been in here? I realize it’s hard to keep time when you can’t look at your phone. I close my eyes again and try not to think about work and all that needs done. Try not to think about how I haven’t had time to clean my house in months. Wait, am I cold? I put on the blanket.
With my eyes closed, I listen to the soundtrack. I listen to the birds chirping. I think, this actually might be the absolute perfect respite for someone suffering from seasonal affective disorder — a 45-minute escape for only $30 where you’re forced to disconnect from the outside world.
The man’s voice returns and tells me my session is over. I’m bummed. So soon? I exit the room, put on my coat and shoes and walk to the storefront, where the smell of lavender once again surrounds me.
I don’t remember if it was snowing when I left. I do remember taking a deep breath and walking to the bus stop feeling more relaxed than I’ve felt in a really long time.
When I was leaving, I saw a heart-shaped salt nightlight for sale on a shelf in the waiting room and almost bought it. Then thought, “Next time.”