It took 850 pounds of Epsom salt, but I floated. For the first time in my life I floated. Last month I visited Float On, a business located in the Hawthorne district of Portland, Oregon. Float On is part of a new movement in entrepreneurship – providing sensory deprivation tanks for rent by the hour.
Floatation tanks, also known as isolation tanks and sensory deprivation tanks, were first developed by John C. Lilly in 1954. In the 1970s the practice also became known as REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy. While the connotation attached to the tanks has varied over the years, it has been used to effectively treat everything from stress and anxiety, to migraines, to chronic pain and fibromyalgia, to mental disorders. Given its supposed benefits, both mental and physical, one would think it could make a good recovery practice for athletes.
It was from this perspective, that of an athlete, that I approached floating. I had long been encouraged by a couple fellow martial artists to give it a shot. They insisted I would enjoy it, but I don’t swim, and more importantly, I’ve never even figured out how to float, so the whole thing seemed quite daunting. I also get vertigo whenever I can’t see a horizon line, so I really wasn’t sure floating was for me. Ninety minutes of floating, at that.
But I was told everyone can float in a floatation tank. The high level of Epsom salt in the water, 850lbs according to Float On, will keep anybody on top of the water. The water itself is kept at roughly skin temperature, with the idea that you don’t feel it against you. You are given the option to wear earplugs, which I did, and you disrobe entirely. The tank is soundless and lightless inside, and unless you reach out with your arms to touch the sides of the tank, you quickly lose sense of time and physical orientation.
As it turned out, getting into the tank and getting situated was the most awkward part, and once I was able to relax, it became quite pleasant and some of the best sleep I had in a long time. After getting in, I hung onto a pipe on the wall for a while. I was afraid if I let go of it my vertigo would kick in. Since I had the earplugs in, all I could hear was the rhythm of my breathing. After a while I decided to just hold onto a ledge at the side of the tub with the tips of the fingers of one hand. I practiced relaxing my neck and letting the water creep up on my face. Then I finally let go. Everything started spinning and I sat up with a splash, pawed at the walls, and reoriented myself. It’s actually not easy to sit upright in water that salty. And then I went through the whole process again. Logically, it was very silly. The salt water was eleven inches deep and the tank was shaped such that I couldn’t possibly change direction without bumping into a wall. But logic and emotion and instinct are not necessarily companions.
Eventually, at some point, after who knows how much time had passed, I let go – physically and mentally. Turns out it’s scientifically proven that loss of sensory input results in relaxation of the body. So, my friends were right, no matter how my body resisted it, I was bound to relax. According to a 1999 research study, during floatation there is an increase in the theta waves in our brain. Theta waves have been shown in other studies to be activated by meditation.2 They are also the brain waves active during REM sleep and the drowsiness immediately before and after sleeping.
In addition to increasing the positive theta brain waves, floating has been shown to reduce unwanted negative activity in the body. According to the same 1999 study, “Plasma and urinary cortisol, ACTH [adrenocorticotropic hormone], aldosterone, renin activity, ephinephrine, heart rate, and blood pressure, all directly associated with stress, consistently decrease.”
That’s a lot of big words and a lot of references to body functions you may not recognize. Long story short, floatation makes your brain happy and reduces stress all over your body. And science backs this up. A 2001 study found spending time in the floatation tank showed a strong ability to reduce severe pain, increase optimism, and decrease anxiety and depression. In addition, study participants fell asleep easier following floatation tank treatment and experienced a higher quality of sleep.4
And if that’s not enough for you, it turns out floating in Epsom salt has benefits in and of itself. Epsom salt is comprised of magnesium and sulfate. According to the National Academy of Sciences most Americans are deficient in magnesium. Raising your magnesium levels can improve your circulation, improve your body’s ability to use insulin, ease muscle pain, regulate electrolytes, and relieve stress.5
According to the Universal Health Institute:
Although magnesium can be absorbed through the digestive tract, many foods, drugs and medical conditions can interfere with the effectiveness of this delivery method. Therefore, soaking in an Epsom Salt bath is one of the most effective means of making the magnesium your body needs readily available.
Epsom Salt also delivers sulfates, which medical research indicates are needed for the formation of brain tissue, joint proteins and the mucin proteins that line the walls of the digestive tract. Studies show that sulfates also stimulate the pancreas to generate digestive enzymes and help to detoxify the body’s residue of medicines and environmental contaminants. Studies indicate that sulfates are difficult to absorb from food, but are readily absorbed through the skin.
Plus when you get out your skin will be all exfoliated and soft. Actually, your whole being will feel exfoliated and soft. So much so that you might feel a bit disoriented and woozy for a while, but you’ll also feel really happy and at ease and you won’t much care.
Whatever your feelings are about floating, whether you think it’s for hippies or you’re worried about turning into a monkey-man a la Altered States, I would suggest letting go of that and giving it a try. I would suggest letting go altogether and experiencing what floating can do for both your mind and your body.
- Cover any cuts you have on your body with Vaseline. Open skin doesn’t feel good when it comes in contact with the Epsom salt.
- You might have difficulty relaxing your neck on your first session. Bringing a small floatation device to tuck under your neck will help. You can use your arms to hold up your head, but then you don’t truly relax.
- Try not to have expectations of what your experience will be. Some people float for transcendental purposes, some just float to relax. You will enjoy it more if you let it be whatever it is for you, and know it might be different every time.
- Bring a brush if you have long hair. Trying to handle salt-soaked long hair after getting out of the tank isn’t the most fun.
- Don’t have anything scheduled following your float. You are going to be one mellow cat for at least a day or two. Plan on comfy clothes and long weekend of lounging.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.