My first time floating … aka “A Claustrophobic’s Guide to Floatation Therapy.”
If you know how afraid I am of getting on an elevator alone or how I cringe even thinking about tight spaces, you’d be surprised to learn that I did a float in a flotation therapy tank recently.
A self-diagnosed claustrophobic who has turned down offers to go caving, I get sweaty palms imagining being shut in a dark, noiseless chamber half filled with water for 60 minutes — the conditions required for float therapy.
I first noticed my fear when I played with my siblings in the living room making forts out of the furniture. One time, as I slinked between the couch and the wall, my brother blocked off one end effectively shutting me in. I panicked.
The fears continue into adulthood. I didn’t get a wink of sleep the night before a scheduled MRI for a knee injury, and last year, while living in Europe in a seventh-floor flat, I chose tromping up the dank, dark, cement stairwell (at night) rather than taking the 30-second modern lift — alone.
The word “claustrophobia” originates from Latin, “claudere,”
which means “to shut” and Greek, “phobis,” which means “fear.”
With a lump in my throat and my anxiety level mounting, I decided to conquer the fear: in February, I met Dan Martin at Afloat, his three-year-old floatation space in the Workstudios building at 112 Iowa Street in Bellingham, Wash.
Dan and I go back a few years when we were both signed up for a Mountaineers climbing course. An avid outdoorsman, Dan excelled at mountain climbing, and after traveling to cool places around the globe and doing jobs that required wearing a harness at heights, he went back to school, earned a master’s degree in psychology and opened his floatation business.
Dan has invested time and money (a low-end tank can cost at least $10,000) creating an attractive, professional space for people to soak in the restorative effects of floatation therapy. Studies show floating can help reduce blood pressure, anxiety, relieve physical pain, and a slew of other ailments. In fact, floating is supposed to trigger a deep relaxation response known as Theta, a state much deeper than the one we get during our eight-hour slumber. The scientific approach to deep relaxation, something Dan explored as part of his master’s degree, is Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique or R.E.S.T.
Drive just four hours south to Portland, Ore., and you can float in the middle of night if you want at Float On, a spa open 24 hours that boasts six float tanks. Not only a float center, Dan says, Float On has become a consultant to the float industry, and even runs an international float conference every summer.
Floating may seem new when you consider Portland’s Float On and Dan’s Afloat in Bellingham are less than ten years old. Entrepreneurs, too, are getting creative. Look at Float: Floatation & Art Gallery in Oakland, Calif.. Celebrating nine years, it offers a gallery of local artists and massage therapy. New centers seem to be popping up around the country like daisies in springtime.
But a guy (well, he happened to be a neuroscientist), John C. Lilly, became known as the father of the sensory deprivation tank in 1954. For a separate experiment, he devised an isolation tank and found it had restorative benefits. (He also happened to be experimenting with psychedelic drugs like LSD, but that’s another story. Lilly died in LA in 2001.) In the 1970s, the tanks got more comfortable and commercial and the floating therapy took off.
Facing the fear
As part of his training, Dan has done thousands of floats — some for as long as four to five hours at a time. This allayed my fears, slightly. A typical client float is 60 or 90 minutes. Further, law requires that the owner be in the next room. Knowing someone was nearby gave me a sense of security.
I arrived 10 minutes early so Dan could give me the beginner’s rundown. It seemed like a lot of directions (“do this, then do this, don’t do that…”) and I was already a little nervous. Apparently, most people are worried about the possibility of drowning (I was more anxious about the tight space; I didn’t care about going under.)
The water is diluted with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate, MgSO4), a natural skin emollient, so when you get out of the tub you will feel silky smooth, Dan explained. More importantly, this means it’s impossible to drown as your body is forced to the surface. “The tubs contain ten inches of water and due to the 850 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in the water, a person will pop up to the surface and float like a rubber ducky,” according to his website.
Read more info about the tank here.
As per Dan’s directions, before getting into the tank, I took a warm shower and then dabbed my face dry with the towel. It’s best to avoid using deodorants, colognes, perfumes or hair gels the day before so you can enter the tank as free of chemicals as possible. A float tank is way more clean than a public pool or sauna due to the salt content, the filtration process and changing of the water each time, he said.
Getting in and out of the tank is probably the trickiest part. There are sturdy handrails on the edge, so while holding on, you maneuver yourself to get in but stay close enough to the door to grab it and close it behind you. As someone whose blood pressure rises at the thought of tight spaces, this was nerve-wracking. I grabbed “the hatch” (the best way to describe the door. It’s kind of like the one I would imagine on a spaceship) and closed it behind me. It’s heavy, but doable.
While preparing the tank for me, Dan had turned on the little nightlight inside but once I was in and realized I was fine, I turned off the light and put in earplugs. Remember, you want to minimize any distractions as much as possible: light, sound, touch. This is why it’s best to go in wearing your birthday suit, rather than your bathing suit, with nothing touching your body.
At 5’4", I fit in the chamber easily, and Dan, at 6’2", apparently fits in the tank just fine too (not at the same time, silly). As I got in, my body swished around a bit, sort of gently banging against the sides, something Dan had warned about. Once you relax, your body comes to a stop. I laid with my arms down at my side but after a few minutes, really letting each muscle group relax, I felt more comfortable and natural with them in a “hands-up” position (as if I were being arrested).
Breathe. Breathe. Oh, yea, breathe.
“You’re fine. You can breathe. You can get out anytime,” I reminded myself. “This isn’t so bad,” I thought, also thankful I didn’t have to pee. (Rule #1, be sure to use the restroom beforehand, even if you don’t feel the urge. Just do it. If you do need to get up during the session, there is a comfy bathrobe to wear to the bathroom, which is down the hall.)
As I was in dozing/meditation mode, I did that thing where my leg twitches and jerks me awake (do you get these at night?). My arms flailed splashing saltwater on my face. My eyes stung.
Not to worry. A spray bottle with tap water hangs from the door, within arm’s reach for this very instance. Again, as per Dan’s beginner directions, I sprayed my face and blinked, making sure not to rub or touch my eyes. This was the most inconvenient moment of the float but I readjusted, left the light off and went back to my “hands-up” formation.
In the last few weeks, my computer and mouse use at my desk exacerbated shoulder pain I’d been having. I used the float time to scan my body and relax every single muscle group. First my face, my jaw, my shoulders, my hands — all the way down my body to my feet.
Thankfully, I had some meditation practice to draw from. In 2011, I did 10 days of vipassana at a retreat in Washington state. We practiced Noble Silence — sitting quietly, void of verbal speech or hand gestures, eye contact or nonverbal communication. The practice is about observing, accepting what you have, what you are, and how you are feeling at that moment.
You can read about my 10 days of silent meditation here.
Thoughts that had been meandering through were now demanding my attention, like little first-graders yanking on their teacher’s coattails. It was time to get out.
Dan had said I would hear the chime at 60 minutes, however I made it to 45 minutes and was ready for that hot shower, where there is a vinegar solution that helps neutralize the salt water on your skin and hair. (My curls were extra tight and bouncy that afternoon.)
I took my time toweling off and getting dressed trying to extend the relaxed feeling I absorbed from the float.
Once I re-entered the waiting room, Dan commented on my post-float glow. I sipped fresh water; he recommends staying hydrated through the day, then as we chatted, I enjoyed a hot chamomile tea. You may be “float drunk” the remainder of the day, he said. That’s the relaxed high working its restorative benefits through your body.
It surprised me that I felt calm once I entered the chamber. My claustrophobia, probably mild compared to others, is rooted in loss of control, helplessness and a fear of being restrained.
But the float conditions are completely different. It’s voluntary and safe, Dan is in the next room, and I have complete control of getting in and out of the tank, albeit a small space. I found the experience relaxing and calming — a gift of time and space to shut down for a complete hour (although I made it just shy by 15 minutes) — a time to turn off any worries and thoughts altogether.
Is floating for you?
Like any therapy, floating is not for everyone, especially when considering your pocketbook. A 60-minute float can range anywhere from $50-$75, depending on whether you’re in a small town or metropolitan city. Costs are akin to massage therapy, which some people consider a luxury, and unfortunately most health insurance plans do not cover floats. But if you’re in pain, anxious, just curious or want to pamper yourself for your milestone birthday, I say go for it. Most centers offer package deals, or like Dan’s location, you can get the “Noisy Neighbor Special,” a reduced rate during times of the day when you may hear bleed-through noise from a nearby business. I did a second time at Afloat during this period, and with earplugs, didn’t notice any noise.
Is floating a fad? People like Dan Martin who hold a master’s degree and have studied the therapy, say hell no. He’s also a businessman in for the long haul. These days, you see fitness centers across the country incorporating meditation services — an about-face from the weekend warrior sweat camps that pump you up to get your heart rate climbing.
Customers apparently want to slow down and chill out. In fact, next time you’re in the Big Apple, go to Crunch Gym on West 19th Street (bet. 7th & 8th Ave.) and take the Antigravity® Cocooning class, described on its website as: “Supercharging the Power Nap.” Go figure. You can pay them to take a nap.
Jennifer Karchmer is a freelance writer and book editor and proofreader. She hosts the weekly podcast, “The Whatcom Wordsmith,” on KMRE 102.3FM in Bellingham, Wash. Read her essays at: www.jenniferkarchmer.com
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Originally published at bloggerlite.wordpress.com on March 26, 2016.