Float Away

by Tanya M. Williams

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When was the last time you experienced utter silence? Or found yourself in such total darkness you couldn’t see two inches in front of your face? In a world pulsing with stimuli from noise, light, scent, and touch, these seemingly basic experiences are nearing extinction. For many, luminous computer and television screens fill our field of vision for hours each day, and sound seems a constant companion, even in the wee hours of night. For city-dwellers there is almost no break from the buzz and din of civilization.

All of this sensory input keeps the body’s nervous system working overtime, and an overtaxed nervous system puts us at a significant disadvantage when it comes to recovering from stress, illness, and even depression. Factor in the slow but measurable impact of gravity on the muscles, bones, and joints and suddenly it’s no surprise that our society is plagued with discomfort and disease. “As a society we are sleep deprived and constantly bombarded by media” says Dr. George Rozelle, psychotherapist, neurotherapist, and owner of MindSpa in Sarasota, Florida. “We have a mentality that doing is better than being and the consequences are insomnia, anxiety, and stress.”

Curious what the brain would do without external stimuli, American physician and psychoanalyst John Lilly began researching sensory deprivation therapy in the mid 1950s. Shortly thereafter the floatation tank was born. Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy or REST utilizes a specially designed floatation tank filled with ten inches of tepid water (warmed to skin temperature, about 94 degrees) and saturated with 800 to 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts, making the water both sterile and very buoyant. Clients enter the one-person tank in the buff, close the lightweight door, and lay down in total silence and darkness. The density of the water makes it impossible not to float, and the close-to-skin temperature eliminates the sensation of heat and cold making the floatation tank a true place for the mind and body to rest. Michael Hutchison, whose work, The Book of Floating (Gateway Books, 2003) is widely considered essential reading on the subject, describes it as ‘the most profound relaxation available on the planet’

With such scientifically documented benefits as reducing blood pressure, relieving pain, decreasing levels of stress hormones, boosting immunity, promoting circulation, and even harmonizing and integrating the left and right hemispheres of the brain, it didn’t take me long to book an introductory session at the local floatation center. An experienced yogi, I imagined floating would be something like a long, blissful savasana without the asanas and the sweat. Though my mind wasn’t in its usual thought-overdrive, I was fidgety. Where do I put my arms? Can there really be that much tension in my neck? Should I be focusing on my breath? The darkness was immense, the solitude extraordinary. When I finally let go of my mental chatter and controlled breathing, time seemed to stop. I sank into a place of just being. I could hear only the sound of my own heartbeat, much like a baby in the womb. Within minutes, the session was over. Clearly, ‘good’ floating takes some practice.

Allison Walton, co-owner of FLOAT in Oakland, California, advises first-timers to float three times in three weeks to receive the full effect. She notes, “The first float is most unusual, and about 80 percent of people need more than just one to really let go” Brian Ludlam, owner of Zen Blend in Austin, Texas, tells his new clients “to let go of effort. Don’t try to meditate. Don’t try to concentrate. Just let go and let be. . . And if at all possible, try to float again the very next day or within a week.” I couldn’t agree more. Being in the floatation tank feels familiar, yet it is totally different than traditional spa therapies and other relaxation techniques. It takes some time to unwind and release, and like all new experiences, the environment itself takes some getting used to. Keeping at it, however, has well-documented rewards.

At MindSpa, Rozelle uses the tank as a complement to a comprehensive ‘neuro-fitness’ program. Many of his patients suffer from chronic arthritic pain, rare nervous system disorders, and insomnia, while others are generally healthy individuals who are looking to optimize athletic or creative performance or to sink deeply into the more subtle layers of consciousness. Several of Walton’s clients are artists and creative types who utilize the tank to break through mental blocks and stimulate creative thought. Her business partner, Filomena Serpa floats twice a week to manage frequent migraines. Others have seen great success in relieving the discomforts of pregnancy, working through emotional stress, and even managing (or in some cases, preventing) the ‘attacks’ associated with multiple sclerosis.

So what makes floating such a powerfully healing experience? Hutchison, who logged countless hours in the tank while researching and writing his book, contends one of the most obvious explanations is the increase in full body circulation and oxygen delivery to all the cells in the body. “Floating promotes vasodilation, facilitating blood flow to all the parts and systems of the body, including the brain. It creates a whole body healing effect.” The almost zero gravity environment and the high Epsom salt content play a vital role in the relaxing and pain relieving qualities of floating, while the drastic reduction in sensory stimulation may account for the anxiety-relieving, nervous system-calming benefits. It is often said that an hour in the tank is like several hours of good sleep, but what about REST’s effect on the mind?

Since most of us operate almost entirely in our verbal/analytical left brain, the more subtle, visual, intuitive strengths of our right brain literally get drowned out. By helping balance the two hemispheres, floating enhances our ability to learn, assimilate, and come up with spontaneous solutions. Rozelle also suggests that “There is a noticeable increase in alpha activity [found during relaxation] and a greater likelihood of the more meditative theta [an even slower wave associated with insights and intuition].” Ludlam notes that he came to floating by way of meditation study and estimates that “about 50 percent of my clients are students of meditation or yoga. They recognize that the tank is an ideal environment for meditation.”

Like a long-term meditation practice, the benefits of floating are cumulative. Neuroscientists and psychotherapists have long known that the brain can be ‘rewired’ to manage stress, change behavior, and increase our awareness of internal states, from emotional reactions to heart rate and blood pressure. “Experienced floaters achieve that alpha-theta state rather quickly when they enter the tank,” notes Rozelle. “It allows them to go very deeply into consciousness exploration, which is conducive to self-suggestions and even self-hypnosis.” And as many dedicated meditators will tell you, the benefits of quieting the mind regularly spill over into their daily lives. “The day I had my first float, our car broke down and we couldn’t drive home,” says Ludlam. “Normally, I would have been frustrated and upset about it, but instead I took it in stride. Floating has helped me learn to really accept things as they are.” And that’s a lesson we can all benefit from.