SANTA FE, N.M. — A cave lined with nine tons of pink Himalayan salt has been carved into the heart of Santa Fe.
Not a real cave, of course. The space was instead constructed as part of a recently opened business offering an alternative wellness treatment.
The Santa Fe Salt Cave, which opened in mid-October, specializes in the practice of salt therapy, or halotherapy.
Owner Kim Rash says the experience of inhaling tiny salt particles and sitting in a salt-saturated environment is believed to have medical benefits, as well as to improve mental and emotional wellbeing.
Looking for a fresh start, the 36-year-old Kentucky native, who is also a certified massage therapist and aromatherapist, moved to Santa Fe in March after she sold her half of a Louisville salt cave business that opened in 2015.
She first discovered salt caves when attending aromatherapy school in North Carolina. “It was so beautiful, and so sacred-feeling and healing,” Rash recalled about her first experience.
Rash said she’d wanted to move to Santa Fe since first coming here in 2011, and being drawn to the land and its beauty. Back then, she spent about a month as a resident at the Life Healing Center. She credits the center with showing her the power of holistic and alternative treatments, which is what inspired her to start practicing massage and aromatherapy.
“So, I feel like I made it full circle when I came back here to open this,” said Rash of the salt cave.
According to Rash, small particles of pharmaceutical-grade salt – with no additives or chemicals – are blown into the cave through a vent using a machine called a halogenerator. Clients breathe in the tiny bits of salt during 45-minute sessions.
“You’re breathing these particles that have properties of being anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and anti-microbial,” she said. “So when you breathe in those particles, it opens up airways, it kills infection, it helps dry up mucus, so that’s what makes it so great for respiratory issues.”
Her website also states that if the skin is exposed, the salt can help reduce inflammation or clear out bacteria that causes acne. She likened the salt cave experience to the clearness people often feel when spending a day in the salty air at the beach.
But Rash says the main reason people have come to the Santa Fe salt cave is for relaxation. She said salt-saturated air produces negative ions, a natural occurrence that she says can stabilize levels of serotonin, a chemical in the body that helps control emotions and moods.
“I can’t describe to you how relaxing it is,” she said. “It seems like everyone either falls asleep or at least gets into a dream-like trance state while they’re in there; a highly meditative state.”
Salt therapy is growing
The practice of salt therapy, which traces back centuries in Europe, has gained traction in the U.S. According to the website for the Florida-based Salt Therapy Association, there are about 650 facilities in the U.S. and Canada that offer some form of halotherapy.
While there have been some small-scale studies done in the U.S., the long-term medical benefits of the treatment have not been scientifically proven.
A 2016 post from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America states that, while people can use halotherapy as a de-stresser, it’s not likely to work as a natural remedy for treating things like asthma. It goes on to say there has not been enough research to draw conclusions about the medical benefits of salt therapy for people with pulmonary issues and they should “err on the side of caution and avoid salt rooms.”
A post on the American Lung Association website updated in October states that, while there are no official medical guidelines for salt treatment and that its use should be discussed with one’s doctor, it’s possible that the treatment can help people with mucus buildup or other lung-related conditions to feel better.
Rash acknowledged the lapse in research, but said she has witnessed results among her Louisville clientele, as well as from her own use. She says she saw customers with bad allergies who were able to come off medicines they had long used. She added that she leaves salt caves in a better mood and with more energy than before.
“I’m a believer because of my own experience, and from owning one (a cave) for two years and being a witness to other people’s experience,” she said. “So I’m hoping someone will fund the research to back everything up.”
Supplies from Pakistan
At the Santa Fe Salt Cave, the 380-square-foot artificial cave is covered from floor to ceiling with pink Himalayan salt mined and shipped from Pakistan. Those who enter walk on grainy pink salt and the walls are covered with bricks of it. The cave can accommodate 10 people at a time, each seated in zero gravity recliners. Soothing music is played during the sessions.
“It’s like a nice little escape,” Ivonne DeWolf, a Santa Fe resident, told the Journal as she was finishing up her second session earlier this week.
Citing factors like the music, the salty air and being away from her cellphone, DeWolf described the cave as a place to unwind. And although she didn’t have problems with it before, she said she felt like her breathing improved, explaining that it felt “lighter.”
Rash said she wants to start a small “healing community” in Santa Fe, with special events in the cave. Later this month, a session will featuring a musician who plays instruments such as Native American flutes, and a “chocolate ceremony” – a Mayan-influenced meditation and ritual that includes serving unsweetened liquid chocolate – hosted by a local healer. Later on, she hopes to add hypnotherapy events and yoga classes.
“Just building a healing community where we can all come together and support each other,” said Rash.