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Rejuvenating in Rutland

Taking an affordable and quirky spa day in an unlikely location


Published January 16, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.

The door shut quietly behind me, and I was alone in the Himalayan salt cave. I had come to the Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center in Rutland to clear my mind and pamper my body. Yet I was suddenly overcome by anxiety. Was I really supposed to sit still for a whole hour in here? Each of the seven “zero-gravity” lounge chairs was positioned differently around a hearth; had I chosen the right seat, and how far should I recline it? If I fell asleep, would I miss out on my opportunity for meditation? Was the peach-hued “Himalayan salt” surrounding me in bricks on the walls and rough crystals on the floor really salt?

I couldn’t relax until I knew. So I scooped up a handful of the stuff from the floor and rubbed it between my fingers. Then I touched my finger to my tongue.

OK, it was definitely salt. And I’m definitely going to get a parking ticket, I thought, my frantic thoughts returning. I had parked an hour and a half ago in a two-hour metered spot directly across from the spa on Merchants Row. Let it go, I told myself. Just let it go.

Pyramid is no ordinary spa. It offers services as diverse as mental health counseling, acupuncture, massage (for humans and pets), energy readings, ear candling and nutrition counseling — in a city not known for a monied or trendy clientele, right across from a Walmart. It has exotic touches, too, like an oxygen bar and the cave where I was currently trying to relax.

When homeopath Margaret Smiechowski built the Himalayan salt cave several years ago, it was the first public one in North America. Modeled after the naturally occurring salt caves in Smiechowski’s native Poland, the 500-square-foot structure remains one of the wellness center’s most notable features. It took four months to construct, and involved stacking Himalayan salt bricks up the walls and creating a cave-like ceiling — complete with stalactites — from papier-mâché and chicken wire, dotted with twinkly fiber-optic lights.

To give the cave a homey feel, Smiechowski outfitted it with props such as an antique sewing machine, old suitcases and chests, dimly glowing lanterns and miscellaneous old-timey tools. She calls it “Grandma’s Cabin.”

I had expected more of a sauna experience, but the cave is just slightly warmer than room temperature, and clients wear regular clothes inside. The health benefits, explains Pyramid owner William Kelley, come simply from breathing the air, which is saturated with Himalayan salt, famous for its high mineral content and anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antifungal properties. The cave contains 16,000 pounds of salt, imported from Pakistan.

Despite my anxiety at the start of my cave hour, I eventually let go as I snuggled under one of the provided fleece blankets. I stared up at the ceiling with its stellar lights and slipped into a kind of trance. At one point, I started seeing animals — a wolf and an eagle — in the curves and divots of the papier-mâché.

I emerged an hour later utterly relaxed.

The Pyramid opened in 2007 on West Street in downtown Rutland. Kelley, a 42-year-old mental health counselor from New Hampshire, said he made a conscious choice to open his holistic wellness center in the much-maligned city. “I know that, had I done this somewhere else, like Burlington, it would be much more financially successful,” he admitted. “But this wasn’t about financial reward — it was about doing work I love in a place that really needs it.”

In 2008, a rainstorm flooded the downtown sewage system and severely damaged the Pyramid building, including the original salt cave. “This is take two,” Kelley said of the new Merchants Row space. “It’s allowed us to fix some things we didn’t quite get right the first time.”

The Pyramid has been expanding ever since. Kelley now has seven employees and contracts with 40 practitioners. At their request, he recently opened up a shop in the spa where he sells their handmade jewelry and other crafts, as well as books, relaxation CDs, candles, gemstones, tarot cards and even jokey T-shirts — one says, “What happens in the salt cave stays in the salt cave.”

You can take yoga, kickboxing, belly dancing and martial arts classes here; browse the health-and-wellness library; sit under a lamp to combat seasonal affective disorder for free; or work out on your own at Pyramid Fitness, which opened a block away two years ago.

The Pyramid even has its own massage and intuitive-wellness schools. Of the latter, Kelley explained, “We wanted to give legitimacy to some of these modalities, the stuff that most people think is sort of out there.” Acknowledging that it’s difficult to certify someone in intuition, Kelley said his instructors focus on teaching the business and ethics of being a healer.

The breadth of activities going on at Pyramid on any given day is enough to make the head of a less Zen person spin. But Kelley keeps his cool. “My desire is to create a place where the stuff that people want happens,” he said. “We make the space for it.” And he works to keep it affordable. Treatments, on average, cost about $1 a minute. An hour in the salt cave is $12.

Most of Pyramid’s clientele comes from within about a 50-mile radius of Rutland, Kelley says, but it now has customers from as far away as Montréal and New York City, including a family of four who take regular trips by train to use the salt cave.

Kelley himself is a mental health counselor, hypnotherapist and musician. He does energy readings. His new-age compositions, featuring binaural beats — which Kelley describes as occurring below the level of human hearing — play inside the salt cave. He’s a parrot enthusiast (he has five of them). And he’s a lover of all things Egyptian (hence the name Pyramid). Upstairs, in what was once the local Shriners’ lodge, Kelley has created the Cairo Club, a large space for poetry readings, local bands and other community gatherings decked out with papyrus scrolls, a mural of Giza and a pharaoh’s throne.

The Pyramid’s quirkiness extends to the massage rooms, which each therapist has personally decorated according to a rainbow color scheme. “People joke that this one is the purple leather brothel,” said Kelley, showing off a particularly eccentric room before leading me to a sun-filled meditation garden with front-row seats to Merchants Row and the Pyramid’s behemoth of a neighbor, Walmart. Kelley looks on the bright side of the megachain’s location. “Let people be in the middle of this bustling downtown and feel like they have an oasis,” he said.

I certainly found my oasis in the “jungle room” with massage therapist Corinne Morris. The room has pistachio-colored walls, green lights, a pair of bamboo plants and a faint smell of pineapple. The parallel wooden bars used in Ashiatsu massage — which a therapist performs with his or her feet rather than hands — are bolted to the ceiling above the massage table. Next time, I told myself, I’ll get one of those.

I started asking Morris about fascia, the connective tissue she was so adeptly separating from my taut muscles with her deep-tissue massage — but then I drifted off, completely blissed out.

An hour later, I stumbled out of the jungle room feeling woozy. I had one treatment left: the oxygen bar. In preparation, I sat in the Pyramid’s sunny café, sipping freshly squeezed carrot-beet-celery-pear-ginger juice and eyeing the black-bean soup and baked goods.

The oxygen bar is located down the street at Pyramid Fitness. I’d never considered paying someone money so I could breathe highly concentrated oxygen infused with essential oils. (Pyramid charges $5 for five minutes of oxygen; $2 for members.) But I figured that since I was there, at Vermont’s only oxygen bar, I might as well give it a shot.

Jen Lasell, the cheery young woman who works the Pyramid Fitness desk, led me through the gym into a closet-size room. Colorful liquid bubbled in eight different illuminated beakers on the bar. I felt like I was at a 1980s future-themed party. The whole thing would have been a little weird if Lasell weren’t so charming.

“You know those things they put in your nose at the hospital?” she asked as I climbed onto one of three barstools. “It’s like that, only we have them in cool colors.”

She handed me a light-pink nose cannula (another $1, but I can reuse it) and instructed me to connect it to the plastic tube running from my oxygen of choice. I picked cinnamon, which was labeled as a male aphrodisiac. I was curious what it would do to me.

Each session is limited to five minutes. Extended exposure to concentrated oxygen, I later learned, can actually be harmful to the lungs, according to Vanderbilt University Medical Center. But small doses of the stuff, Lasell said, are supposed to help with headaches and hangovers and even improve sexual function. She’s seen it heal people in other ways, too.

One woman trying to quit smoking, Lasell told me, comes in regularly to reward herself with the oxygen — and it’s apparently working. Another woman came to Pyramid’s bar when she lost her sense of smell during chemotherapy. She told Lasell that the oxygen brought it back.

It definitely felt strange sticking the tubes up my nose. I listened to the gentle bubbling in the beakers and inhaled deeply. There was a gentle cinnamon kick and the slightest head rush.

It might have been a placebo effect, but I felt energized. Which was a great thing. Because, after a day of holistic pampering, I sure needed a boost to get me through the long drive home.

Pyramid Holistic Wellness Center, 120 Merchants Row; Pyramid Fitness, 79 Merchants Row, Rutland. Info, 775-8080.