Just steps away from traffic-clogged Transit Road, inside a nondescript retail building, Tadgi and Kelly DeBerg have built Erie County's first salt cave.
AURA salt cave and wellness is filled with 20,000 pounds of pink salt from Poland, with large chunks of salt stuck to the walls and 3 or 4 inches of coarse salt spread out on the floor. Mood music and the sound of rushing water fill the cool, dimly lit room, where patrons recline in zero-gravity chairs as salt in aerosol form is sprayed into the air.
"It's incredible how much work has gone into that space," said Wendy Lane, a SUNY Buffalo State instructor from Williamsville who works in meditative self-healing.
The owners say they got the idea to open the salt cave after visiting one in Niagara Falls, Ont. Tadgi and Kelly DeBerg say the salt therapy can help with everything from sinus infections to snoring, from chronic bronchitis to hangovers.
"There's so many people that can benefit," Tadgi DeBerg said.
The DeBergs aren't the only ones who see the value in salt caves. Ellicottville also has one, and Orchard Park is getting one this fall.
DeBerg said Wojciech Chalcarz, the owner of the cave in Niagara Falls, Ont., has helped set up about 15 salt caves in Ontario, New York and Vermont, including AURA.
After the DeBergs visited Chalcarz's salt cave last year, and became convinced of the value of salt caves, they hired him to help them establish theirs. Tadgi DeBerg said Chalcarz brings over massive shipments of pink salt from Poland that he then delivers by semi to the new salt caves.
"It's the purest salt on earth," DeBerg said.
DeBerg said she and her wife settled on the 6429 Transit Road site, near Casey Road, for AURA because of the neighborhood's demographics and the traffic volume on Transit.
They started setting up the salt cave in April, and opened for business in July.
The DeBergs sell salt-related products at a retail shop out front. AURA also has a far-infrared sauna – which refers to a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum – and a Himalayan salt hand and foot detoxifier.
The salt cave is a 330-square-foot room entered through a wooden door, but visitors have to put blue booties over their shoes first.
Foam in the shape of stalactites covers the ceiling, which also has blinking lights that mimic the night sky.
Large chunks of salt, held in place by dripping mortar, stick out from the wood beam-lined walls.
Pink- and apricot-colored lights glow from the floor and the ceiling. Guests are provided blankets because the cave is kept between 62 degrees and 64 degrees.
The DeBergs use a halogenerator to pump fine salt, like exhaled cigarette smoke, into the room.
The DeBergs say salt therapy – known as halotherapy – can help with numerous respiratory ailments, as well as acne, anxiety and a host of other conditions. Salt, when it is breathed in, tends to clear out mucus, kill bacteria and reduce inflammation throughout the respiratory system, according to proponents of the therapy.
However, a 2014 article in the International Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease concluded that there had not been enough high-quality studies to determine the effectiveness of salt therapy in treating COPD.
A disclaimer on AURA's website says it can't make any medical claims and that the information offered about salt therapy is opinion.
A 45-minute salt cave session normally costs $40, but the new business does offer specials as it tries to build clientele.
DeBerg said people have some misconceptions. Some think the room will be hot, like a sauna.
"People ask, 'Do we take our clothes off?' " DeBerg said. "No, you keep your clothes on."
Five people, fully clothed, had booked the salt cave during the 10 a.m. session last Thursday.
Two were John and Marti Theal, of Williamsville. John Theal, 71, is retired from Nynex. He quit smoking 35 years ago, but he has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
The Theals bought a monthly pass and come three times a week because, John said, the visits have helped considerably with his coughing, phlegm and shortness of breath.
"After the first couple times, I did feel the improvement," Theal said. Now, he said, he can do 40 minutes on a treadmill at a brisk walk.
As the 10 a.m. group came out, Kathy Opalack of East Amherst, a volunteer with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, was filling out the paperwork for her session.
Reached afterward, Opalack said she's not sure she'll see an instant change to her health but she appreciated "just being able to shut the world out."