Salt therapy is reborn as a a new yoga practice that claims to cure colds, reduce inflammation, and even make you a better athlete
My therapist once told me I don't breathe enough. Seriously? I'm still here, aren't I? Apparently, though, my shallow, quick breaths are a symptom of my desk job, where I hunch in front of a computer for a minimum of eight hours a day. It's something my weekly yoga classes should help with, but to be honest, I barely think about my breath—even in the middle of a vinyasa flow.
While there are, obviously, plenty of studios that focus on meditation, my fitness-minded friends and I tend to seek out more athletic studios, ones with classes called Power Flow or with temperatures cranked up to 105°F, where a good sweat and a solid workout are guaranteed. Breath ends up falling by the wayside as I try to squeeze in pushups between chaturangas. (Ahem, these 10 Exercises to Prime Your Arms for Tough Yoga Poses are excellent.)
Enter: salty yoga. Breathe Easy, a halotherapy spa, is the first place to offer the practice in New York. The salt room—covered in six inches of Himalayan rock salt, with walls made of rock salt bricks and lit with salt crystal lamps—is mostly used for dry salt therapy; visitors simply sit and breathe in the pure salt pumped into the room via halogenerator. But one night a week, the room is converted into an intimate yoga studio with a slow flow practice focused on breathing led by founder Ellen Patrick.
If this all sounds like a gimmick (think pot yoga and snowga), think again. Salt therapy has a long history in Europe and the Middle East, where salt baths and caves were used to improve the immune system, soothe allergies, better skin conditions, and destroy stubborn colds. That's because salt is an all-natural and effective antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory mineral. And while there isn't a ton of research backing up these claims, one study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that inhaling salt-infused vapor improved breathing for 24 patients with cystic fibrosis. Another study in the European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that people with asthma reported breathing easier after several weeks of regular halotherapy treatments. And, as Patrick says, the negative ions given off by salt (particularly from pink Himalayan salt, and especially when it's heated) combat the positive ions emitted by computers, TVs, and cell phones, which tend to be agitating. (Psst: Your Cell Phone Is Ruining Your Downtime.)
Salt therapy can even be used to boost athletic performance by reducing inflammation in the respiratory system, says Patrick—it creates a larger opening for breath to travel through and oxygenate the body. It can also kill any bacteria or viruses that lead to congestion and dry mucus, she adds (and if you've ever forced yourself to the gym with a cold, you know that when you can breathe easier, you perform better). Salty yoga also boasts those benefits, combined with poses that help to build strength and flexibility in the primary and secondary muscles of respiration, thereby increasing—even more—breath capacity, oxygenation, endurance, and performance. (It's more proof that you can Breathe Your Way to a Better Body.)
When I went, I figured at worst, I'd enjoy a soothing meditation class. At best, I'd leave feeling one step closer to a mermaid. To be honest, I took the whole premise with a grain of, er, salt.
But it's hard not to feel more relaxed in the cocoon of salt rock and crystals (the tiny studio fits just six yogis). In salty yoga, each asana focuses on opening specific parts of the lungs and diaphragm, and whether it was as a result of those particular poses or the salt air pumping into the room (you can't smell it, but you can taste the salt on your lips after 15 minutes or so, not unlike when you've been at the beach for a few hours), I found my breath syncing to the slower moves. Turns out, sitting at a desk all day makes it tough for the diaphragm to really expand, causing your breath to come shorter and faster (a stress response that signals to your brain that you're anxious—even if you're not). Spine-lengthening poses like Mountain Pose and Warrior II help open the diaphragm back up, signaling to the nervous system to relax. The more salty air I breathed in, the slower my breath got. And as I became more in tune with my breath, I felt able to move deeper in each pose—a win-win. (No time for yoga? You can try these 3 Breathing Techniques for Dealing with Stress, Anxiety, and Low Energy anywhere.)
Would my former therapist be proud of my more intelligent inhalations? Not so sure about that—but I left not only with a distinct craving for French fries, but with a newfound appreciation for how breath and yoga go hand in hand (even if I couldn't #humblebrag about my latest inversion). And that's the goal of salty yoga: for yogis to take that appreciation to their next athletic yoga class, where they can actually use their breath to nail those pretzel-y poses, and beyond. Unfortunately, you'll have nothing to blame your salt cravings on after that except yourself.