Week 36: A New Spa Experience: Floatation Therapy [Score +16]
Imagine a feeling of complete weightlessness. You can’t feel anything touching you on any part of your body, not even a bed or comfy couch. Take it a step further, and the sensation of that weightless floating is in a completely dark space, and the loudest sound you hear is that of your own breath. Now make it blissful: this space of peace and quiet and relaxation is all yours, uninterrupted by beeps, dings, messages, conversation, or cries for a full hour.
I’ve been there. It exists. It’s called floatation therapy, and I tried it.
While the idea of floating in water is nothing new, the intentional practice of floating as therapy was invented in the 1950s. It’s experiencing a new growth in popularity as we become a society increasingly over-stimulated by our environment. Floating is a type of therapy called REST: Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.
My first awareness of this actually came through the 44 Scotland Street series of books by Alexander McCall Smith in which one satirical character goes weekly to the local “floatarium” to escape her privileged life. I then started noticing float spas when I traveled, and my curiosity was piqued. On my latest trip to Steamboat Springs—at a time of year between seasons when much outdoor fun is restricted—I decided to try it.
An Orientation to Floating
As I checked in for my 90-minute appointment (60 minutes of which are spent floating), the kindly woman manning the spa handed me a pair of flip flops and led me to my private float room for a quick orientation. Upon opening the door, I was immediately hit with a wave of warm, humid air: the room itself was heated to 85 degrees. One of my first concerns had been getting cold during my float, so that was quickly dispelled.
The float pod—a curvaceous white container with a clam-like hatch—sat open, with a soft blue light and gentle jets circulating the water. This bed-sized pod was filled with ten inches of water saturated with 900 pounds of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate). The saturation allows you to completely relax every muscle in your body that might otherwise be working to keep you on top of the water in a standard pool. You literally can’t not float.
I was instructed to shower before climbing in to rid my skin and hair of all products that could dirty the water or damage the pod. My guide recommended I use the provided pair of earplugs during my float to keep the water out and prevent an ear infection afterward. Inside the pod was a clean, dry washcloth and spray bottle filled with fresh water in case I accidentally got water in my eyes while floating (ouch!). If I had any small cuts or scrapes on my body, a packet of petroleum jelly was on hand to cover them and prevent the water from stinging those, too.
After a few final directions, I was left to begin my session.
60 Minutes of Pure Solitude
The water itself is heated to skin temperature, so after I showered and settled in, my awareness of the water through my sense of touch faded away. I don’t have issues with claustrophobia, so I fully closed the pod hatch to seal out all exterior light and sound and get the full experience. (If that does concern you, you can leave the lid ajar, and the room’s motion-sensitive lights will turn off and seal you in darkness.)
Soft, yoga-like music played for the first five minutes of my float, then it, too, faded away. By then, my plugged ears were below the water, my muscles were relaxing into the sensation of weightlessness, and I was floating in complete darkness. I found the most comfortable position to be with my arms in a cactus shape: elbows straight out from my shoulders, bent with my hands extended above my head.
Most people haven’t experienced this kind of sensory restriction since their time in the womb, myself included. My own breath became the loudest sound within reach—and it seemed amazingly loud—but I could also clearly hear my heart beating and my digestive system working on my lunch from three hours prior.
At first, my mind was racing, cataloguing every sensation. It only took a few minutes for that to calm, and I was able to focus more easily on my breathing and heartbeat. I lost all track of time without any way of watching it pass. Had 20 minutes passed? 5? I had no way of knowing.
My only point of slight discomfort through the entire float session was the increasing humidity in the pod. My nasal passages, which were unhappy with the dry, cold winter mountain air before the float were now in the exact opposite environment and working overtime to adjust, so my nose started to clog uncomfortably in the last few minutes.
But before I knew it—at a point when I was guessing it had been 45 minutes—the music restarted and gently began to nudge me back to the real world (my cue for the end of my session). When I sat up to open the hatch, I accidentally splashed a little of that saturated water on my face (yuck and ouch), but the spritz bottle of water and subsequent shower washed all the magnesium sulfate away.
I dried my hair at the vanity in the common area, accepted a hot cup of chamomile tea to go, and reluctantly rejoined the noisy, cold world outside.
Ready to Float Again
Experts suggest that the effects of floatation therapy are cumulative; you need to go several times to start really reaping the benefits. After just one session, I felt notably more relaxed and less stressed (perfect at this time of year!). That night, I slept like a baby, a welcome change after a few nights in a row of interrupted, restless sleep.
In some ways, it felt unnecessarily luxurious: I can buy Epsom salt cheaply at any big-box store (or a 19-pound bag on Amazon) and soak in my own tub. But my tub is cramped and uncomfortable, I can’t fully submerge myself, and the water becomes uncomfortably cool after about 20 minutes. I’ll also never be able to recreate the weightlessness or restricted-stimulation therapy at home that can be achieved in the specially designed float pod.
I think the super-charged Epsom salt bath would feel amazing after a huge workout when my whole body aches. Many athletes and even NFL teams are touting the benefits they’ve seen in their recovery and performance (the New England Patriots reportedly have two tanks in their locker room).
I’ll definitely float again, especially during times when my anxiety level is notably elevated. In the meantime, I’ll just have to make do with my undersized bathtub.
Interested in trying it yourself? I recently found several deals on Groupon, so check there first!
- Did something outside my routine: +1
- Left the house: +1
- Ventured >50 miles from home: +10
- Did something entirely new: +1
- Activity benefits my health/wellbeing: +1
- Had a conversation with a stranger of at least 30 seconds: +2