Several years ago – as I usually say, before the Russian tanks rolled in – I traveled to Ukraine as part of a journalist exchange program, and one of the places we visited was a salt mine museum in the city of Soledar.
My thought at first was, “OK, let’s get this over with quickly.” But what an interesting place it turned out to be.
Artists, for example, have carved a variety of sculptures using salt, including some that “Happiest Place on Earth” lawyers might not be too happy about. And one chamber of the former mine is massive enough to host concerts, art exhibits and even soccer matches.
The main attraction, though, may have more to do with health. The museum is a prime location for speleotherapy, a type of respiratory therapy involving breathing inside a cave, and halotherapy, specifically relating to salt.
According to folks in the know, inhaling exceptionally minuscule particles of nearly pure sodium chloride is good for your lungs, your skin and your general well-being.
Which brings us to the Crystalline Cave, a new addition to Sterling Yoga and Wellness in Scott Township.
This particular “cave” is a spacious, pleasantly lit room with salt crystals a few inches deep covering the floor. On the other side of one wall is a halogenator, a machine that pumps pharmaceutical-grade salt into the room, allowing people inside to relax and enjoy the benefits.
Co-owners Sterling Painton and Frank Williams visited a similar setup about six years ago and became hooked.
“Every time we traveled, we would try to find the salt cave in the area,” Painton says. “And it just became, ‘Oh, we really need to have one of these.’”
Plus, she has a history of lung disease in her family, and according to the American Lung Association, the air quality around Pittsburgh is down near the bottom of the barrel. She believes that the effects of salt on the respiratory system can help compensate.
When she mentioned salt as a remedy for skin problems, I recalled swimming in the ocean as a teenager and noticing that it helped mitigate my acne, even though who knows what else I was subjected to off the coast of New Jersey.
Forty-some years later, I found myself lying on the floor of the Crystalline Cave, the salt below me providing a comforting resting spot, my feet propped up on a table, gazing up at star-like lights on the ceiling, listening to Williams guide us through a meditation session.
As soothing music played, Frank’s mellifluous voice sounded like part of the recording, encouraging us to relax various parts of our bodies.
And relaxing, it certainly was. I came close to dozing off a few times, and in retrospect, I’m really surprised that I didn’t. I stopped going to movies because I tend to conk out in those comfortable seats when the lights go low, and I can do that at home.
Honestly, I’m not sure what the salt did for me, but I know I slept well that night. And my skin seems to feel a bit smoother as I’m typing this.
I do know that the theory behind halotherapy is nothing new: Back in the mid-19th century, physicians in Europe began to notice that workers in salt mines had far healthier lungs that other miners. That’s something they taught us in Soledar.
And seriously, the American Lung Association’s latest State of the Air report gave Pittsburgh failing grades in three different measures of air pollution. To quote the Moody Blues: “Breathe deep, the gathering gloom.”
Let’s amend that to something more optimistic: “Breathe deep, the salt-filled room.”
Just make sure it’s pharmaceutical grade.