I saw it on Groupon, and thought it’d make a great gift for my mother. A voucher for a “float tank experience.” She loves hot tubs, baths, etc., and she’s usually up for novelty experiences. The reputed relaxation effects of floating made my decision and the appeal of a mother/daughter “spa” day made me buy a pass for myself as well. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the experience as much as she might. But I was curious, and I didn’t want her to have to go alone.
What is “Floating?”
Floating, or float therapy, is pretty much what it sounds like. It involves floating in a specially designed pod or tank that has been filled with about 10-12 inches of body-temperature water and a thousand pounds of Epsom salts. The salt increases the density of the water so that when you’re lying in it, you float effortlessly.
These pods are also known as sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks. When the door to the pod is closed, sound and light are blocked completely. Essentially, you are eliminating all external stimuli while removing gravitational stress and pressure from the body. Floating in a sensory deprivation tank is said to make it easier to reach deep meditative states, even in those who find meditation difficult.
Proponents have reported all sorts of benefits including:
- Reduced muscle tension and cramps
- Improved athletic performance and recovery time
- Headache relief
- Chronic pain improvement or relief
- Reduced stress
- Improved anxiety and depression
- Reduced symptoms of chronic fatigue
- Improved insomnia
- Increased creativity, focus, and drive
There are small scale studies to support many of these claims, but most of the evidence is anecdotal at this time. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to try it for myself.
It is possible that in addition to the sensory deprivation effects, floaters may benefit through transdermal absorption of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt). Many of the benefits of floating are also those associated with magnesium deficiency – including muscle cramps, weakness, fatigue, headaches, anxiety, and insomnia. There is a plethora of information out there, some of the research conflicting…but positive testimonials abound.
I had to see.
First Time in the Tank
The day came, and we were both a little nervous…we had done research and had an idea what to expect, but we weren’t sure if we were really supposed to get naked! (You are, although you do have the option to wear a swimsuit. When in Rome…)
Upon arrival, we were quickly put at ease by the helpful staff and the new-agey atmosphere. Since they only had one pod, one of us would float while the other enjoyed their AWESOME massage chair. (The chair!!) We would shower before and after our float–towels, robes, flip-flops, and assorted toiletries were provided. We were surprised to learn that we needed to sign a multi-page waiver. There are a number of conditions, both physical and psychiatric, in which floating is contraindicated. This was not an issue, nor were the “I-promise-I-will/nots” in place to maintain the cleanliness and sanitation of the facility and tank.
My mother floated first, and after an hour she emerged. When I asked her how she felt, she sort of giggled and said “like the brain–in Star Trek!” I was nervous for a second, because she seemed out of it. But then she said it was amazing, and that she was so relaxed she felt like rubber. She wasn’t even sure if she had fallen asleep.
Okay. Deep breath. My turn…
Freshly scrubbed, I step into the room and locked the door behind me. Everything was very clean…nothing to make me bug out. I tossed the optional inflatable pillow in the pod, because I didn’t believe that my head would stay afloat. The pod was equipped with a speaker for the music of your choice and lights that cycled through a variety of hues.
I hung my robe, put my earplugs in, and stepped into the tank. For the first few minutes, I left the door open because I wasn’t sure how claustrophobic I’d be. I rationalized that I could just open it back up…but it wasn’t a problem at all.
I laid back and immediately noticed that I really was buoyant and that it would take serious effort to sink in the water. I began to relax. The ever-changing lights became a nuisance before I realized that I didn’t care to hear any music, and both were off early in my session. Then the pillow had to go, because all it did was cause neck strain.
I quickly settled into the dark silence and noticed a flurry of random, sometimes nonsensical thoughts popping in. At first they were incessant–memories and ideas demanded attention, and there was a chattering that seemed to grow louder and louder. I pushed these aside and before long, they faded away completely. I was left with the realization that my brain seemed disconnected from the rest of me and I understood my mother’s Star Trek reference…
I could not tell where my body ended and the water began. I had no sense of direction or time. I honestly had to blink a few times because I could not tell if my eyes were open or closed. I was vaguely aware of the slight movement of the water with each breath, because I knew it was about a centimeter away from my eyes. but beyond that, there was nothing. My mind was actually quiet, and my body was completely relaxed.
I don’t think I fell asleep, but it wasn’t long before the music came on to signal the end of my session. I was a little wobbly at first, and a bit disoriented. I showered, dressed, and returned to find my mother sipping herbal tea and reading a book about floating. She looked so serene.
The drive home was amazingly peaceful, considering the crazy traffic on the highway. We agreed that the level of relaxation was way beyond what we expected. My mother, who suffers from chronic pain in the form of fibromyalgia, stated that she was in considerably less pain than usual and would like to do it again. I couldn’t help notice that the ever-present kinks in my upper back and neck were gone. I’m not sure if the super amazing chair massage contributed, but massages have never fully relieved the kinks.
I slept a sound, restorative sleep that night. I woke up the next day, still relaxed and noticed I was much more resilient to stress than is typical for me. A general sense of well-being lasted for days afterward.
My mother noted the same effects, with the added bonus that she woke up the next morning pain free. (Her pain is usually either pretty bad or really bad, though she never complains.) In the days that followed, her positive response to float therapy prompted family members to gift her with future float sessions.
This was about a year ago, and we’ve been back several times. If cost were not a factor, and the float center were closer to home, we’d be going every week.
So, not only did I survive, I enjoy and benefit from float therapy. If you’re curious, I’d recommend trying it. It may work wonders for you or it may do nothing. If it does nothing, at least you got to experience “sensory deprivation” and probably had a relaxing afternoon.
Hopefully, further research demonstrating the benefits of float therapy will convince insurance companies to cover the cost of these treatments and it will become a viable option for many who’d rather not take so many pills…
One can hope…