What is Floatation?
Floating, also known as float therapy, is a method of relaxation and stress relief by immersing the body in a shallow tank of salt-saturated water at skin temperature. The buoyancy enabled by the dense Epsom salt solution relieves the effects of gravity on the body and provides the individual with an experience of total weightlessness, which is found to reduce both physical and mental tension and is claimed to have a variety of benefits.
Floatation R.E.S.T. (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy/ Technique) takes place in a ‘tank’ like an enclosed bathtub or small room where the external sensory stimulations (sight, sound, touch) are reduced to enhance the relaxation experience. Inside the floatation room or tank which contains 10 inches (25 cm) of salt solution at the temperature of the skin (93.5o degrees Fahrenheit ; 34.5o Celsius), the environment mimics that of the Dead Sea in which the human body – whatever shape, size or weight – will naturally and without effort float. After a while, the individual can scarcely differentiate which parts of the body are in contact with the water and which are not, which together with a darkened space and the elimination of external sounds, add to the sensation of floating free and weightless in mid-air or mid-space. These elements create an atmosphere in which to experience the feeling of deep relaxation and well-being.
What to expect
When you arrive at a Floatation centre, the whole process is clearly explained to you in advance, because no-one is with you during the session. Although there are trained attendants outside, you have your “float” experience entirely on your own. You’ll be shown to a private room and after a swift shower you immerse yourself into the tank of warm Epsom solution. (Rigorous hygiene procedures are observed and the total volume of water used is cleaned and filtered after each use). Relaxing music plays and soft lights help you to get into the mood of relaxation. After about 15 minutes (unless you especially ask otherwise) both lights and music fade out so that you can be free from distractions and external stimulation. A float generally lasts for an hour, though the lack of outside reference can make it seem a timeless experience. During the session, you are able to submit to the sensations of tranquillity (some describe it as a meditative state), and you are free to end the session at will. Music returns to let you know that the session is over, and you can shower to rinse off the saline solution. After dressing, you may sit and relax and reflect on the experience you have had. Some report a pleasant gentle relaxation, others say nothing much happened for them, yet others experience deeply creative episodes or profoundly restorative and therapeutic experiences. It is said that each float is a unique experience, different each time for each individual.
The effects & benefits
Scientists estimate that up to 90% of the brain’s daily workload is caused by the effects of external factors – gravity, temperature, touch, light and sound on the muscles, nervous system and sense organs of the body. Floatation screens out these external physical stimuli, creating a state of relaxation, ‘time-out’ for the senses. While floating, the body has a chance to utilise its natural powers of restoration, while you simply lie back and rediscover the latent power of a deeply relaxed mind.
As large areas of the nervous system are not receiving external stimuli, this triggers a spontaneous chain reaction throughout the body known as the parasympathetic response. Muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen consumption all drop dramatically. The chemistry of the body subtly alters.
Researchers and users have reported the following benefits from floating; it can:
- relieve both mental and physical stress;
- revitalise and energise after physical stress (and has been found particularly effective for jet lag);
- help to regulate sleep patterns; it’s claimed that one float has the restorative effects of 4 hours of sleep;
- balance left and right brain activity – increasing clarity and alertness, it promotes problem-solving and creativity;
- lower blood pressure, increase circulation, distribution of oxygen and nutrients, and detoxify the system;
- ease arthritis, other joint pains and backache (anecdotal evidence and university research supports this);
- release the body’s natural painkillers, endorphins, to relieve acute and chronic pain symptoms;
- decrease the production of Cortisol (stress hormone), ACTH, Lactic Acid and Adrenaline;
- improve the condition of the skin and hair (the high content of Epsom Salt makes the skin feel smooth after a session);
- relieve backache during pregnancy (the buoyancy of the water lessens pressure on the abdomen and enables floating to be undertaken throughout a pregnancy);
- stimulate the imagination and creative thinking (a number of artists and writers regularly use floatation to inspire them);
- improve concentration and accelerate learning (American research has shown floating can significantly improve memory and mental performance);
- assist in the treatment of depression, phobias, fears and addictions (alongside conventional talking and self-regulating therapies);
- improve athletic performance, help prevent sports injuries and speed healing process (also used in visualisation and enhances the ‘inner game’).
Fascinating Facts about Floating
- ‘Isolation Tanks’, on which the idea of floatation was founded, were first used by American neuroscientist and psychoanalyst John C. Lilly in 1954 to test the effects of sensory deprivation.
- NASA employed floatation to simulate weightlessness and isolation for space research.
- Epsom Salt is now made from a rock substance called Dolomite, found in a region of the South Tyrolean Alps called “The Dolomites”. It consists of two metals, calcium and magnesium, combined with two non-metallic elements, carbon and oxygen, and takes the form of a neutral double salt known as carbonate of calcium and magnesium.
- Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis, once described as the world’s greatest athlete, used float-tank visualisation techniques to psyche himself up for his long jump victory at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
- In recent research undertaken at the Human Performance Laboratory at Karlstad University, Sweden, Dr. Sven-Åke Bood concluded that ‘regular floatation tank sessions can provide significant relief for chronic stress-related ailments. Studies involving 140 people with long-term conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression and fibromyalgia found that more than three quarters experienced noticeable improvements’.
- Actor Nicolas Cage spent time in an isolation tank to simulate the claustrophobia of his character, the heroic Sergeant John McLoughlin, in the 2006 film World Trade Center.
- In a float tank, the ‘theta’ state of consciousness (slowing down of brain waves to a level of consciousness that resembles sleep) can last for several minutes. Many use the extended theta state as a tool for enhanced creativity and problem-solving or for ‘super-learning’.
- Michael Hutchinson, author of The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea (Gateway Books) explores the question Why does Floating Work? What can be so actively beneficial in an essentially passive device? He comes up with seven intriguing alternatives in his ‘Seven Theories of Floating’:
The Antigravity Explanation
The Brain Wave Explanation
The Left/Right Brain Explanation
The Three Brain Explanation
The Neurochemical Explanation
The Biofeedback Explanation
The Homeostasis Explanation
The Float Tank Association
In the mid 1980’s when the first floatation tanks were introduced in the UK, The Floatation Tank Association of the UK and Eire (FTA) was established with the joint aims of educating the public about the benefits of floatation and ensuring that the therapy was provided in a consistently safe and ethical fashion.
FTA members are required to comply with an established Code of Practice which covers public liability insurance, and requires that staff will give orientation instructions to new users of the facility. The Code obliges stringent guidelines for health, safety, hygiene and sanitation to be observed by all, including that, ‘The entire volume of tank water will be filtered between uses’, and that ‘The end of the float session will be signalled in a gentle way consistent with the experience and ensuring the client’s privacy’.
The Floatation Federation
The Floatation Federation is a non-profit organisation, established to promote the benefits of floatation therapy. It is a web-based federation of manufacturers and commercial centres with the aim of providing up-to-date information about floating and to promote floatation all around the world.