ST. CLOUD — At 8, Christina Piecek dreamed of owning a spa.
As an adult, she took the first step toward that dream by going to massage school, but she eventually ended up working in an auto body shop.
Then a few years ago, her father — a veteran who adopted Piecek — died by suicide after struggling with pain medication and its side effects for years.
"He was taking a bunch of pills every single day, and I saw him deteriorate from this big-muscled burly Marine to a shriveled-up person in a very short period of time," Piecek said. "He was prescribed pills, and he was prescribed pills for the side effects."
Piecek, 39, said she started researching alternative medicines after her father's death. She stumbled upon salt therapy by happenstance.
"I found a salt cave on Groupon," she said. "I thought, 'I'm going to try that.' I did and I loved it."
In mid-November, after five years of planning, Piecek opened Bella Vita Salt Caves in downtown St. Cloud.
"It's a dream come true, really," she said. "I want it to be a place of inner love and healing."
The salt cave has pink Himalayan salt scattered on the floor and walls lined with salt blocks illuminated by thousands of miniature lights. Above a grouping of five zero-gravity chairs is what looks like the night sky with sparkly constellations.
Forty-minute sessions are $25. Patrons sit facing a mural of a tropical beach stretching to the horizon, and listen to a recording of gentle waves crashing. And soon after sitting down, they'll be able to taste salt on their lips.
Because the real "magic," Piecek says, is the machine hidden on the other side of the wall that disperses small particles of salt into the air.
Salt therapy, also known as halotherapy, is a homeopathic medicine dating back to 19th-century Poland: A a doctor found workers at a salt mine had fewer respiratory problems than other workers and attributed it to the climate inside the salt mine.
While there's no scientific proof to claims salt therapy can improve allergy or asthma symptoms, supporters such as Piecek say breathing in salt aerosol in salt rooms — or salt caves, as differentiated by the décor — can help with respiratory issues and skin conditions by reducing inflammation.
Modern-day salt therapy uses pharmaceutical-grade salt, typically from the Himalayas or the Dead Sea. And while doctors remain skeptical about the effectiveness of dry salt therapy, most health professionals agree salt is known to have anti-inflammatory properties when patients use it for nasal rinses.
According to the trade group Salt Therapy Association, there are more than 2,000 facilities offering salt therapy in the United States and Canada, including a handful in Minnesota.
The salt cave at Bella Vita could also help clients with symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression by way of the mindfulness it inspires, Piecek said.
"Sitting down and being quiet for a minute helps you reset and refocus," she said.
Bella Vita also sells alternative supplements, candles and essential oils, meditative art, hemp products and copper and crystal jewelry.
"The products are from mostly women-owned businesses, and they are organic, hand-poured or handmade," Piecek said.
Piecek plans to host yoga and meditation classes in the salt cave, as well as meditate-and-paint classes in the store. She is also working on a second salt cave with a different relaxing setting: a forest with barn wood on the walls and a campfire.
"One of the main things I want to focus on is really being positive and manifesting what you want in your future," Piecek said. "I want Bella Vita to be one of those places where people start to learn to love themselves, which means they'll love other people, which means the world will become a better place."