What happens when you hang out with three tons of Himalayan salt?
Credit: Port Jeff Salt Cave, Marcy Guzman

What It Is: The Port Jeff Salt Cave in Port Jefferson, New York

Who Tried It: Sheila Cosgrove Baylis, PEOPLE Bodies editor

Level of Difficulty: 1/10 (You’re just sitting, breathing and listening to guided meditation.)

When I first heard there was a salt cave 20 minutes from my house that could supposedly boost my health and mood, I pictured a cavern buried deep within a 14,000-foot, non-existent Long Island mountain with glistening stalagmites and stalactites inside. Of course, that’s not what the salt cave looks like, but the real thing is pretty cool too.

Though I had never seen or been to one, there are salt caves scattered around the U.S., with two on Long Island alone. Advocates point to a variety of benefits, including relief from allergies, improved mood, and help for respiratory conditions like asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Enthusiasts also claim better sleep and improvement of skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, acne and rashes.

The Port Jeff cave is a good-sized room filled top-to-bottom with three tons of Himalayan salt. Pink bricks of varying shapes line the walls, and the floor is covered in pebble-sized salt crystals. There’s a nice looking starry “sky” on the ceiling and a warm glow from the large salt lamps around the perimeter of the room. All of the salt has been imported directly from the Himalayan mountain region by the owners of Port Jeff Salt Cave, Marcy and Rich Guzman, who are both nurses with 35 years of healthcare experience between them.

“It came over on a ship,” owner Marcy says of the salt. “Every piece you see in there has been hand placed.”

The care they put into the project was evident from the moment I walked into the shop, which looks something like a yoga studio from the street, with a large lobby, treatment rooms for acupuncture, massage and Reiki, and the cave in the back. And while they do offer yoga in the salt cave once a week for $30 a class, it’s primarily for sitting in and relaxing, and listening to a guided meditation by Marcy herself. A regular session is $45 for 45 minutes.

5 Star Salt Caves Wellness Center
Credit: Anya Semenoff/The Denver Post/Getty

Inside the cave are lawn chairs and blankets, and you rest in a seated or layback position for the duration of the session. The recorded meditation was nice, but I think I would have preferred to go without it and meditate on my own. But Rich reassured me that visitors can choose the type of experience they want to have.

“People can request music or bring headphones and listen to their own meditation,” he says, stressing that the important thing is to relax the mind to get the full benefit of the cave.

Marcy explains that there are three major health perks: The negative ions, the salt air and relaxation.

“While you’re sitting in the cave, lots of therapies are happening starting with the floor. The floor has radiant heating, as does the 200-lb. salt lamps around the perimeter of the room. They are omitting negative ions. So when you go in, sit down, you may feel your musculature relax and melt into the seat. That’s the effect of the negative ions,” she says. “Negative ions take down anything that’s positively charged in the air or bacteria, virus, pollens, dust, dust mites, mildew, that really do impact us in ways like we don’t even realize. Like irritability, inability to concentrate, insomnia, chronic fatigue, headaches – these are all symptoms of air that is too positively charged.”

When I ask her about the debate around the effectiveness of Himalayan salt, she points to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, and agrees that just a small lamp has limited effects. “It’s not like you’re going to turn your bedroom into a salt cave if you have a small salt lamp.”

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She points out that her facility has a special ventilation system to maximize the effectiveness of the salt air, which she says is “clinically shown to boost the immune system and bring down inflammation for approximately three days. And that’s just one treatment. All disease process starts with inflammation. We all carry a certain amount of inflammation in our bodies depending on lifestyle, genetics, exposure to toxins and things like that. When inflammation goes on too long into the body that’s when it can tip over into disease. So anytime you can have something that’s anti-inflammatory with no side effects except bliss and well being, it’s a home run!”

The third benefit, and the one I felt the most, was the meditation. Just giving your mind a break from the constant relay of worry-hope-worry has a calming effect and proven health benefits. The salt cave was an excellent place to meditate, since it cuts out distractions and sets a specific time frame for you to drop your habitual thoughts and relax.

Verdict: For my first visit to a salt cave,I was in good health and not terribly stressed out — so I didn’t notice too much of a difference between going in and coming out, apart from a salty taste on my tongue. I enjoyed the truly novel and beautiful space, and the care taken to build it. Just from my brief time there, I could see how it could help someone suffering from respiratory congestion, because while in the cave I could feel the salt in my lungs and airways, and any neti pot user knows how saline can help clear out mucus. I also love that Marcy and Rich have carved out a special space for the community to meditate, take time out of a busy day, reconnect and think about health in a new way.