Inside a rectangular box of a building not far from the Northway, you can step into a Himalayan salt cave.
There's no descending by elevator or vehicle into the depths of a mountain. You just walk through a stylish wood door. Salt Den owner Robert Duff has attempted, with the help of a Vermont designer who does just this thing, to recreate the experience of being in a cavern filled with chunky white and amber crystals.
"It's a place to detach from the world," he said.
Duff has jumped on a trend in speleotherapy ("cave therapy") or halotherapy ("salt therapy"). Salt dens or salt caves have been popping up around the country, touting benefits to breathing, skin conditions and muscle aches. Leo Tonkins, founder of the Salt Therapy Association, said there are now about 300 salt therapy facilities in the country up from a dozen in 2012. They come in a variety of styles, from Zen-style rooms in fancy resort spas to rooms intended for kids to stomp around in salt crystals.
Salt caves — actual caves in actual salt mines — have long been considered therapeutic in parts of Europe. Duff, a 50-year-old Amsterdam resident, first visited some in Austria and Switzerland, traveling to the depths of the mines in rail cars, when serving in the Navy in Germany several years ago. After a visit, he said, his breathing and thinking were both clearer. He thought the concept could be beneficial to veterans with post-traumatic stress or to people like his 84-year-old father, who suffers from asthma and other lung disorders.
An article on the American Lung Association's website suggests there could be some real respiratory benefit to halotherapy. Dr. Norman Edelman, senior scientific adviser to the lung association, said the salt caves are generally free of allergy triggers and that breathing in the salt air may ease breathing by thinning mucous on the airways. There is not enough scientific evidence, however, for halotherapy to be recommended as a medical treatment.
An electrician at Albany Medical Center with some Navy experience in emergency medicine, Duff has invested about $250,000 to create the Salt Den on Watervliet Shaker Road in Latham.
The centerpiece of the facility is the "cave," a dimly lit room where the floor and walls are covered in 70,000 pounds of Himalayan salt. Salt is also in the air, in aerosol form, pumped in by a halogenerator. Visitors can sit on reclining chairs or right in the crystals, which when rubbed on the skin have a smoothing effect, not unlike beach sand.
A typical $35 session lasts 50 minutes, with as many as 10-12 people in the room. A couple times a month, Duff's assistant, Susie Truesdale, conducts a $50 session in the cave with crystal sounds bowls, and Duff intends to add yoga classes in the cave in the future.
Truesdale wanted to work for the Salt Den as soon as she heard it was opening, she said. She has visited a half-dozen or so salt caves in Florida.
Electronic devices are not allowed in the cave, both because they are a distraction to deep relaxation, and because one benefit of the salt is to negate the positive ion charge of electronics, Duff said.
The Salt Den also includes a red light therapy bed, which looks like a tanning bed, but emits no ultraviolet rays. Duff said the red light has positive cosmetic effects on the skin. Massage therapy is also available.
Planned for the end of June is an infrared sauna, a dry sauna fueled by invisible light rays that penetrate the skin. An infrared sauna operates without steam, at a lower temperature than other dry saunas.
About 500 people have found the Salt Den since its soft opening two months ago, Duff said. The facility's grand opening is scheduled for Thursday.
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