The dark, cavernous room is silent except for the sound of trickling fountains. It feels like a steamy church, with wooden cathedral ceilings and marble floors lit by votive candles. I step gingerly down the stairs in the dark, trying not to trip. My eyes are fixed on the glowing turquoise pools below.
I hang up my robe and fiddle with my swimsuit next to a vacant salt pool, feeling the self-consciousness that typically accompanies any first visit to a ritual-bath setting. City dwellers used to bathe only in public bathhouses, and in the buff. Now, not so much. Even in a suit, it takes a moment to get comfortable.
The chest-deep salt pool is pleasantly warm when I climb in. Not sure what to do, I crouch near the wall so the water reaches my neck. I’m waiting for the salt to soak into my skin and magically calm me down. This doesn’t happen. Instead, I find myself gripping the metal railing at the pool’s edge, resisting the saline’s natural buoyancy by forcing my feet to the floor. This is neither magical nor calming, so I climb out.
After a few rounds in the other pools, all of which bear Latin names recalling the public baths in the ancient Roman empire — caldarium, tepidarium, fridigarium — I return to give the salt pool another try. It’s now occupied by a few regulars: an older couple and a younger man whose long swim trunks bloom in the water. Rather than fighting the water’s buoyancy, they rest their heads on the railing. They float.
I paddle cautiously to an unoccupied corner and tuck my elbows behind the railing. This time I let my feet float up, toes bobbing at the blue surface. Even in this odd position, the sensation is pure weightlessness. Soon I untangle my arms and rest my head on the railing. Remaining suspended in this position is effortless. Deep, lung-filling breaths make me even lighter. It’s like floating in space, if space were a warm place illuminated by candles instead of stars.
Relaxing in that salt pool at Aire Spa in New York City was transformative — and not just while I was floating, but for the rest of the day. Sidewalks crowded with texting pedestrians, unseasonably hot weather, ongoing political catastrophes — none of these had their customary frazzling effect. I felt grounded in an unfamiliar and pleasant way. Like I could handle it, whatever it is.
Halotherapy (halos is Greek for “salt”) was first used in therapeutic mineral baths at 12th-century Polish resorts. Spa waters were purported to offer a variety of healing powers, such as improving skin health and exorcising mental demons. Today’s salt pools and flotation tanks reportedly offer similar benefits to their legions of devotees.
Neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who had an interest in expanding human consciousness, developed the first flotation tank in 1954. During the following two decades, they became popular with artists seeking enhanced creativity. More recently — perhaps due to the hyperstimulating climate of the digital age — the tanks have resurfaced with a vengeance.
Unlike the salt pool I visited, most flotation tanks are enclosed environments, and the practice of floating sometimes goes by the acronym REST, for reduced environmental stimulation therapy. The average tank is about the size of a comfortable bed and contains a 10-inch-deep pool of skin-temperature water loaded with Epsom salts. The salt gives the water a density greater than the Dead Sea, allowing the floater to bob near the surface like a rubber duck while blissfully losing track of space and time.
Sarah Gunther, 47, a medical researcher in Los Angeles, describes the tank she visited as a Mork-from-Ork travel device: a large egg with a door. Others resemble coffins with tented tops. They’re typically situated in private rooms with showers, so you can undress, climb in, and switch off the interior lights to float in the dark. Afterward, you rinse off in solitude.
This privacy supports a basic goal of floating: to escape from external stimuli. In addition to stress reduction, therapeutic benefits reportedly include relief from chronic physical pain and depression, and even the cultivation of hallucinatory states. With no distractions, not even the feel of the water, the mind can settle down and observe itself.
Gunther says she’s normally claustrophobic, so on her visit she left the tank door cracked open slightly. Even though she didn’t strictly follow protocol, she says she felt more peaceful when her hour was over. She noticed her hair and skin felt exceptionally soft from the salt, and the lingering effects of a hangover had disappeared.
Minneapolis-based writer Quinton Skinner, 49, says he finds the benefits of the float tank so profound that he’s made it a regular part of his self-care routine. To date, he’s floated about 30 times.
“It’s extremely relaxing physically,” Skinner explains. “There’s no sense of gravity pulling on your bones and muscles. Your mind tends to wander into a meditative state without much effort; if you’re a trained and daily meditator, it goes wow! very quickly.”
He says a 90-minute session (which costs about $60) is the ideal amount of time for his mind to “cycle into a state of deep relaxation” and then resurface. He also appreciates how these reflective states tend to linger. He reports feeling “very relaxed, a bit spacy” after floating, which also produces a “good measure of distance and objectivity” for the remainder of the day.
Floating in salt is just one form of halotherapy; others involve breathing it in.
In the mid-19th century, according to halotherapeutic lore, a Polish doctor named Feliks Boczkowski noticed that local salt miners seemed free of the lung problems that plagued miners of other minerals. He attributed this fact to the humidity and airborne minerals in the salt mines. Contemporary research appears to support his thesis.
A 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that salt inhalers can improve pulmonary health for people with cystic fibrosis. Other studies have found similar benefits for chronic smokers. And there are now a growing number of salt caves around the United States promoted as boons for respiratory health where you can inhale airborne salt like a genuine Polish miner.
“Salt cave” is a little misleading; most are rooms with walls built from salt blocks. The cave I visited is in a former chiropractor’s office rebuilt with six tons of Himalayan rock salt. I was curious to see if it could help clear the remains of a cold.
The room was small and warm, around 85 degrees F, with a half dozen antigravity chairs facing a glowing pink-orange wall of salt bricks. Fine salt, like sand on a beach, covered the floor, and ocean sounds played softly from speakers overhead. Four of us settled into chairs while the director disappeared to “turn on the salt,” using a device called a halogenerator that releases fine salt particles into the air.
The initial experience was not entirely pleasant. The airborne granules triggered a couple of coughing fits, and the air tasted briny. One woman pulled her sweatshirt over her nose and mouth. No water bottles were allowed. I started to wonder if 45 minutes was much too long.
But soon my coughing abated, and the air no longer tasted salty. I wiggled my toes in the salt on the floor and leaned back in the suspended chair. I felt a mild tingly sensation in my nasal passages and lungs. A couple of my neighbors snored peacefully. Timing my inhales and exhales with the ocean-wave sounds helped me breathe easier.
By the time the lights behind the salt wall began to brighten, indicating that the session was ending, the 45 minutes had passed quickly. It’s hard to say whether the airborne salt or the chance to breathe mindfully in a pink-lit room full of whooshing sounds caused my newly oxygenated state; maybe it’s some combination of the two. Either way, deliberate deep breaths seem to have healing power, whether floating in water or suspended in an antigravity chair.
And a little salt does bring out the flavor.
This originally appeared as “Worth Their Salt” in the May 2018 print issue of Experience Life.