Into the Deep

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‘Experience Nothing.’ When my local float centre was under construction, this phrase kept catching my eye. Beneath the text was the image of a featureless Vitruvian man, milk-white, hovering in yoga’s śavāsana pose. Tranquil. Effortless. Floating imperceptibly upwards. Was that what it felt like?

Years ago, I had read that the stand-up comic Bill Hicks, a teen idol of mine, had enjoyed floating. More recently, I’d heard the comedian and floating evangelist Joe Rogan describe the tank as ‘the most important tool I’ve ever used for developing my mind; for thinking; for evolving’. It seemed similar to meditation, to which I’d been trying to dedicate myself for years. When the float centre opened with an introductory offer – three floats for $120 – I signed up.

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The floatation tank was invented in 1954. Amid debates over whether consciousness was a purely reactive phenomenon or generated by resources of its own making in the mind, the neuroscientist John Lilly arrived at a novel way to examine the problem: isolate the mind from all sources of external stimulation, and see how it behaved. Serendipitously, Lilly’s place of work, the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, possessed a sealed, soundproof tank, built during the Second World War to facilitate Navy experiments on the metabolisms of deep-sea divers. The first floatation tank was born. It resembled a large upright coffin, in which the floater was suspended in water, head engulfed in a rubber breathing mask. Despite this grim setup, during his floats Lilly perceived that the mind was far from merely reactive, and that ‘many, many states of consciousness’ emerged from total isolation. He was hooked.

Lilly was the sort of scientist it’s hard to imagine rising to prominence today. Alongside inventing the first floatation tank, he was an evangelist of psychedelics fascinated by human-dolphin communication and convinced that a council of invisible cosmic entities governed reality. Despite a mixed reputation among his scientific peers, Lilly’s almost single-handed promotion of floating in the 1960s caused it to catch on. In 1972, the computer programmer Glenn Perry attended one of Lilly’s floating workshops, and was so taken with the tank experience that, over the following year, he designed the first inexpensive tanks for home use. To this day, his so-called ‘Samadhi’ tanks (after the ultimate stage in meditation) remain among the most popular, with retail prices starting at around $11,000.

Cultural notables such as the polymath Gregory Bateson and the self-help guru Werner Erhard visited Lilly’s Malibu home and tried out his tank. Word spread. In 1979, Perry opened the first commercial float centre in Beverly Hills.

The popularity of floating peaked in the years after release of the 1980 cult hit Altered States. This film – a psychedelic sci-fi with a horror streak – stars a young William Hurt as Dr Edward Jessup, a Lilly-esque scientist who, during a series of hallucinogen-enhanced floats, regresses through the stages of hominid evolution, ‘beyond mass and matter … beyond even energy … back to … the first thought’. The film’s success spoke to floating’s ongoing mystical allure. After sports teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles and the Philadelphia Phillies installed float tanks in their training facilities in 1980, they won the Super Bowl and World Series respectively. By the middle of that decade, celebrities from John Lennon to Robin Williams had acquired tanks.

Yet by 1990, floating was already in decline. Consult any online history of floating, or interviews with float-centre owners, or the documentary Float Nation (2014), and you’ll find that the AIDS scare of the mid-1980s was to blame. In its early days, AIDS was a terrifying mystery – ‘There were lots of theories,’ says the AIDS activist Cleve Jones, in Randy Shilt’s history of the period And the Band Played On (1987). ‘Maybe they put something in the drinks, the water, the air.’ People thought AIDS might be as contagious as the common cold. Shared bodies of water were particularly open to suspicion, and it seems plausible that the floating industry was crippled by the same panic that closed many public baths.

Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and the pre-eminent floating researcher, has been investigating the psychological science of the practice since the 1970s. He cites more prosaic reasons for floating’s decline: enthusiastic but entrepreneurially naïve centre operators, and a lack of repeat customers. Whatever the cause, floating entered what Suedfeld called ‘the doldrums’ for more than 20 years.

But the decline wasn’t terminal. Over the past decade, the practice has undergone a gradual rebirth, and, more recently, a bona fide boom. In 2012, the Float On centre in Portland inaugurated an annual floating conference. Across North America, new centres have opened in such un-New-Agey states as Mississippi and Arkansas. My own centre – Float House, in Vancouver, Canada – opened in May 2013, and has been expanding ever since. Athletes are once again taking notice: the soccer player Wayne Rooney, captain of the England national team, reportedly spends 10 hours a week in his home tank.

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It is June 2015 when I arrive for my 16th float. I am used to the process: check in with the cheery staff, quick trip to the toilet, then head for my float room. Select a lighting colour and lock the door. Strip down. The tank dominates the space, a huge white oblong resembling the pods sci‑fi characters enter before being cryogenically frozen. Prop the door open. Shower with the unscented body wash provided. Cleaned and dry, bury silicone plugs in my ears. Perhaps some light stretching, a final glance in the mirror. And then in I go, feet first into the gloom, as with the waterslides of my pre-adolescence.

I lie back, the door directly above my face. Pull it shut. Utter darkness, a night sky stripped of stars. The water is a welcoming temperature – 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), to match the skin – and so saturated with Epsom salts (850lbs!) that it feels like liquid silk. Sixty years’ refinement of Lilly’s earliest experiments have produced a near-perfect setting. I bob, like flotsam and jetsam (what is the difference between them, I wonder, my mind already alighting desperately on things with which to occupy itself). The silence is deafening; usually I break it with a few grand exhales. And so begins the next 90 minutes.

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If you try to describe floating to people, many look bemused. And with good reason: floating is strange. Virtually everywhere else in modern life, opportunities to expend one’s leisure time are based on the explicit promise of sensory stimulation. The majority of people’s spare time and money goes towards experiencing the precise opposite of nothing: tastes, sounds, smells, sights. My float centre, for example, sits next to an ice-cream parlour. More than once, alone in the blackness, I have thought of their salted caramel offering.

The freedom afforded by capitalism is nothing if not the freedom to excite our senses when and how we please. Such freedom is what many see as the pinnacle of our day and age; hence we deny it to those we imprison. We want bigger, louder, more vivid things. IMAX cinemas, clubs with four floors, 10-bird roast dinners – sheer sensual load, a ‘hedonic treadmill’ that correlates directly with value. We crave it with our evolved biology, the same way we crave sugar even as it makes us obese. The hollow utopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is one in which this tendency is taken to its logical conclusion; in which a citizenry has willingly sacrificed all worldly freedom in return for the 'imbecile happiness' of unceasing sensory indulgence.

In his unfinished novel The Pale King (2011), David Foster Wallace creates a narrator who speculates that:
Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling.

This insight has empirical back-up. In July 2014, Science published a study in which volunteers were placed in an unadorned room and asked to entertain themselves with their thoughts for between six and 15 minutes. Participants overwhelmingly abhorred the experience. In one part of the experiment conducted in the subjects’ own home, a third actually found it impossible, and resorted to ‘cheating’, usually via their mobile phones. In another part of the study, 67 per cent of men opted to give themselves an electric shock rather than simply sit with their thoughts. The mind untutored in meditative techniques, concluded the study’s authors, ‘does not like to be alone with itself’.

Viewed in this context, floatation tanks are culturally subversive. An anomaly. Sensory starvation and the mind alone with itself is precisely what floating offers.

When are tax returns due? Am I eating too much wheat? I’m bored. Everyone I know will one day die. Must remember to buy toilet roll

‘The truth,’ wrote Samuel Johnson in his apologue Rasselas (1759), ‘is that no mind is much employed upon the present: recollection and anticipation fill up almost all our moments.’ The first thing you learn during a float is the same thing you learn when you meditate: Johnson was right – conscious, inward-directed thought is a stormy business.

During the first phase of every float, a sort of frantic summary of the immediate conditions of my life intermingles with random, angsty ruminations. The personal blends with the general, the trivial with the profound.

When are tax returns due? Am I eating too much wheat? I’m bored. Is it too hot in here? Everyone I know will one day die. Must remember to buy toilet roll. Should I be putting ‘all the best’ or merely ‘best’ at the end of my emails? Overpopulation. My first kiss. Can I actually muster anything meaningful to say about this for Aeon? What is the difference between flotsam and jetsam? This is what the dark initially provides. A psychic carnival of just about everything that isn’t the eminently worry-free present.

Deprive the senses, and you have nothing to pay attention to but yourself. In the naked blackness of the tank, beautiful memories and the faces of loved ones bubble up – but so do neuroses, worries, guilts. With nothing to distract you, you become the distraction, and often an unpalatable one. ‘The most terrifying thing’, said the Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung, ‘is to accept oneself completely.’ But the tank demands this acceptance. No escape. Your heartbeat your only companion. One must bear witness. Avec moi, le déluge.

Floaters were not the first to suspect that the ever-preoccupied, sensually-obsessed mind might be distracting us from something better. In the Judaeo-Christian conception of life, the senses continually distance us from God. ‘The mind governed by the flesh is death,’ implores St Paul, in Romans 8:6. During the 10th book of his Confessions, St Augustine rails against ‘concupiscence in eating and drinking’, ‘the allurements of smells’, and, of course, sexual lust. Among many Native American tribes, the vision quest – in which a person spends an extended amount of time alone in a natural setting, often forgoing sleep and sustenance – was long regarded as a vital rite of passage into adulthood. In Buddhist philosophy, number one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment is kāmacchanda, sensual craving.

Today, the Buddhist concept of sati has been secularised as the practice of mindfulness – the therapeutic and sometimes transformative practice defined by the Buddhist scholar B Alan Wallace as ‘the moment-to-moment, non‑judgmental awareness of whatever arises in the present moment’. Though the goals of mindfulness are less transcendent than those of the ancient mystics, there is a common thread: we must resist the temptation to flood our consciousness via our senses. Opt for the relative boredom of a meditation cushion, and the reward is psychic control.

I spent the first 20 minutes of my debut float beset by a mysterious creaking sound. Then I realised it was my jaw

I’m better at being in the tank than I was. Having an (inconsistent) meditation practice helps. Amid the din of helpless thinking, I do my best to simply observe, to not chase any thought too far down a mental rabbit hole. It’s difficult: my mind is like a fireworks display in a hall of mirrors. Breathe, observe, breathe. Jung’s terrifying acceptance. Those who sniff at self-help talk of being in the moment should try it first. It ain’t easy. Our minds would rather be anywhere else.

And then, after an amount of time that is impossible to calculate, my body begins to relax. This too is more complex than it sounds. Unconsciously, we knot our shoulders, stiffen our toes, furrow our brows. I spent the first 20 minutes of my debut float beset by a mysterious creaking sound. After a while, I realised it was my jaw, struggling to go from imperceptibly tense to fully slack. My yoga teacher says we worry too much about developing strong muscles, and not enough about learning how to let them soften. I hadn’t the faintest idea what she meant until I floated.

Alongside this physical relaxation, something happens inside the skull. In tandem with the fibres of the flesh, consciousness softens. Without my noticing, a quiet has crept in. The thoughts are less like hailstones, more like gentle rain. I am really in the blackness now. Something of me has evaporated, something else remains. Eventually – sometimes only in patches – the body submits to weightlessness. All gone, bar the breath. This is the heart of the float now, if it’s a good one. Hard to believe there is a whole world out there, a human race.

Browse the marketing literature, and you’ll be hit with a barrage of hard science on the benefits of floating – redefined by Suedfeld and the New York psychologist Roderick Borrie as a form of ‘Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy’, or REST. A small amount of evidence suggests that floating aids creativity. In a 1987 study, five psychology faculty members at the University of British Columbia spent six sessions in the tank, and all found that the ‘novel ideas’ generated afterwards were both more abundant and of a higher quality than those generated during six parallel sessions spent simply sitting in their office. In a similar study of 30 psychology students, the 15 who spent time in the tank reported increased creativity compared with the 15 who relaxed on a couch.

Far more evidence shows that floating enhances athletic and technical performance by facilitating visualisation. In two separate studies, a single session in the tank significantly improved basketball players’ free-throw accuracy. Similarly, college tennis players dramatically upped the frequency of their first-service wins after a series of floats. In other studies, floating improved performance in gymnastics, competitive archery, dart-throwing, even music. Indeed, Suedfeld showed that four floats ‘had a beneficial effect on technical ability in freely conceived jazz improvisation’.

To these various studies, I offer my own anecdotal support: for me, playing soccer borders on an addiction, and I’ve found that visualising certain technical movements – cushioning the ball with my chest, striking it on the half-volley with the outside of my foot – leaves those aspects of my play smoother, at once more precise and more relaxed.

There is solid evidence that the tank reduces stress by triggering a drop in blood levels of cortisol and vanillylmandelic acid, a pair of adrenal hormones. Reduction in these hormones serves to alleviate hypertension and chronic pain, among other conditions. In a 2011 study, patients with the pain syndrome fibromyalgia reported an average drop of 30 per cent in stress levels and 33 per cent in muscle tension, with the effects lasting for more than two days after each float.

Embracing what we spend our waking moments trying to avoid – the quieting of the senses – helps with many afflictions

Studies suggest that floating can ease the discomfort of rheumatoid arthritis, whiplash-associated disorders, persistent lower back pain, migraines and premenstrual syndrome.

Finally, there’s evidence that floating can help treat psychiatric disease. It reduces anxiety and depression, helps prevent burnout, and eases the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Floating’s capacity to aid sleep disorders is highly supported by one study. There is evidence that both addictive behaviours and eating disorders can be alleviated by time in the tank. And one of the most currently active areas of interest centres on floating’s capacity to help post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly among veterans.

All the data shows how embracing what many spend their waking moments trying to avoid – the quieting of the senses – can help with a panoply of afflictions. Which makes me wonder: why is floating still so far from making any ripples in mainstream medicine? Are we so scared of boredom, of coming ‘face to face with ourselves’, that we would rather stay sick than endure it?

Not long after weightlessness sets in, things get strange. The tank is the closest I’ve come to a hallucinogenic experience without hallucinogens. Time loses shape. So does space. It feels as though I am slowly spinning, like the spokes of a great wheel. Then I am tipping, head lurching calmly over heels. The whole order of things gets lost. A vast country between sleeping and waking reveals itself. My consciousness is crowded, a sort of comfortable claustrophobia – yet at the same time what I normally term ‘me’ is totally absent, leaving a mere cipher over which memory and fantasy wash like waves on a shore. Now I am floating. I come back to myself, reappear in the tank, again and again – sometimes in fits of laughter, sometimes with hot tears prickling at my throat. The source of these reactions can be recalled with crystalline clarity, or remain an utter mystery.

Of course, this is all if I’m lucky: I have had a couple of floats where, put simply, nothing happened. Frustration can well up: $40, for this? The vast country will quickly exile you; one must not want too much to arrive. Joe Rogan talks of ‘actually letting go, really letting go, letting go from letting go, letting go from the feeling of letting go’. This infinite inner regress is at the heart of the float experience. It runs so counter to our ideas about effort, attainment, achievement. Wu wei, the Taoists called it: ‘effortless action’.

Post-float, Lisa Simpson muses: ‘Gee, I should cut Dad some slack’

It is in the depths of a good float that you brush up against whatever humans down the ages have believed can be found beyond the senses. The silky void is a deeply personal portal. Float centres might stress the objective benefits which attend floating – but the comments books occupying pride of place in their lounges are replete poetic, mystical flights of language. Turn to any random page, and what you will find is that in attempting to explain the experience of floating, no one is mentioning dopamine, or stress hormones. They are talking about the self, the cosmos, the void, even God.

One of the most tangible effects of regular floating I have discovered is described in an episode of The Simpsons where Lisa and her father Homer try it. Before getting in the tank, Lisa is irritated at Homer’s boorishness, his lack of cultural refinement. In the tank, she occupies his consciousness, and witnesses via his senses and thoughts how he really does do his best, suffering ballet purely because he loves her. Post-float, Lisa muses: ‘Gee, I should cut Dad some slack.’ I have experienced similar leaps of viewpoint in the tank, commandeered other pairs of eyes and felt deeply that I should judge a little less harshly. Scientists would probably call this ‘increased empathy’, but it’s deeper than that – it’s the chance to jump, albeit briefly, across the thin membranes between minds.

Lilly coined the word ‘inperience’ to talk about tank sessions. An awkward term, to be sure, and one my spellchecker dislikes – but it does make more sense than its far more common inverse. There is something ineffable, something inexpressible about the float experience. The research is wonderful, and as Suedfeld says, crucial ‘if we're going to develop a science of floating that scientists outside the community can believe’. But inside the float community, everyone is already a believer. And inside the tank, it is pure subjectivity.

At my centre, floats end with a crescendo of rousing music, all exotic chanting and heavy strings. It rumbles through the tank water, jarring despite its gentleness, the sudden intrusion of linear time. Sometimes I am shocked that 90 minutes have already passed. On other occasions it feels as though the crescendo has taken days to arrive.

‘When you come back from a deep tank session,’ wrote Lilly, ‘there’s always this extraterrestrial feeling. You have to read the directions in the glove compartment so you can run the human vehicle once more.’ I know what he means. After a good float, I feel genuinely overhauled, reborn. The moments immediately after a deep session can be almost unbearably vivid. At the end of my first one, I recall gingerly opening the door and leaning my torso out. My vision found the beads of tank water falling from the tips of my hair to the purple-lit tiles of the floor below. For a while I hung there, utterly captivated by the gravity of each droplet’s descent, the way the water spread out in a little soundless explosion, refracting petals of light.

Floats have a similar feel to drug trips: something profound, slipped through your fingers. Still working its magic, but invisible to you

For good reason do float centres all have lounges. Coming back to the world of the senses can take a while. Colours are vivid; every little sound lassoes your attention. And the last thing you want after a float is to rush to leave. I have a mind disposed towards antsiness, towards a feeling of being pressed for time, of wondering always where next. But never after a good float. I could sip this ginger tea for hours. No hurry. None at all.

And then, after however long, it’s back into the world of daily living, which is the exact opposite of the tank. Traffic, the sky, women, fresh fruit. The senses need no persuasion to come back alive. It’s actually hard to imagine what it was like in the tank, once you’re out. Perhaps this is why I keep going back. In this, floats do have a similar feel to drug trips: something profound, slipped through your fingers. Still working its magic, somehow, but invisible to you.

Floating plays with a paradox at the heart of being human. We are drawn to the drowning of our senses, but nagged by the feeling that they desperately need a rest. The drowning drains us, but we suspect the rest will feel too much like boredom. This dualism sees many of us live in a sort of merry-go-round of indulgence and repentance, like magnets penduluming between two poles.

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Even in this godless age, the free market, at once mirror and engine of our desires, embodies this split. What it largely offers us – an abundance of sensory distractions – doesn’t quite satisfy. On some level we are all binge consumers, who will all eventually push ourselves to nausea. At which point we want the opposite of stuff. And just as it can sell us diet pills having already sold us doughnuts, the market can sell us nothing – in the form of three floats for $120 – even as it sold us too much something.

Today’s float renaissance, then, is simply the latest manifestation of one of the oldest, strangest aspects of the human animal; one of our most vexing contradictions, on which every religious and spiritual tradition has trained its gaze. Exactly what resides on the other side of nothing might always defy rational explanation. But the search is compelling. The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal declared that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. I’ve come to suspect he is right. Henry David Thoreau knew all about this inability. ‘It is easier,’ he wrote, ‘to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with 500 men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one’s being alone.’

Why, though? Why is it so hard, this naked aloneness? And, more beguilingly still, what might be gained from enduring it? Relaxation? Creativity? God?

To the tank.

21 July 2015

 

By MM Owen

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Enthusiasts tout health benefits of flotation therapy

gettinginpodWearing only a smirk, I struggled to focus — or, really, not focus — in the dark.

I was drifting atop water with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts in a confined tank — roughly the dimensions of a portable toilet tipped on its side.

My buoyant limbs quickly mellowed, but my busy brain ticked through its usual mile-a-minute worries:

Is the house locked?

Did I put enough money in the parking meter?

My work email — I have so many unanswered messages.

Flotation therapy, a new-age practice associated with hippies and the 1980 horror flick Altered States, has attracted wider attention in recent years as more businesses offer the idea — and curious patrons (including me) test the 93-degree waters in search of escape.

With no light, gravity or visual stimuli in the tank, one can do little except zone out.

Which, of course, is the point.

“Your body is learning to shift to a lower level of arousal. It almost starts to ‘reset,’  ” said Tom Fine, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toledo College of Medicine and a 20-year tank researcher who serves on the board of the Floatation Tank Association, which comes up with standards.

“It’s sort of a sense of endless space.”

Pioneered in the 1950s by American neuroscientist John C. Lilly, the vessels — once known as sensory-deprivation tanks — are thought to alleviate a range of mental and physical ailments: depression, migraines, arthritis, muscle tension and more.

The weekly floating regimen of Zedrick Clark, a Columbus life coach who last year opened Reflect Float Center in a basement-level Short North space, stopped a lifelong nail-biting habit, he said, and weaned him off supplements to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Plenty of floaters, however, just want to unwind.

“This can really be a transformative tool,” said the 41-year-old Clark, who offers floats in 60- and 90-minute increments (priced at $75 and $90).

“The idea is to be able to explore what’s going on in your mind.”

As my own hourlong session played out, my cerebral din did indeed diminish.

I didn’t experience hallucinations, as some recipients of the therapy report, but I briefly saw swirling colors — akin to the northern lights — overhead.

The sounds of my breathing and heartbeat were enhanced as in an isolated outer-space scene from, say, Gravity.

I didn’t even hear the staccato beeps of a timer signaling the end of the session; the starting of the water jets brought me back to reality.

Later, back at my office cubicle, I felt as if I’d taken a midday nap — a common reaction, I learned.

In the tank, a user experiences “a decreased activity of the nervous system, just like you would when you were sleeping,” said Paul Morgan, a University of Pittsburgh research associate who has studied the effects of flotation on injured athletes.

Still, Morgan said, the time spent hovering naked in 10 inches of warm, salty water doesn’t involve snoozing: “Once you relax and get into your frame of mind, it’s an absolutely very clear, vivid experience.”

Far less prevalent in mainstream society than massages or meditation, the flotation concept has customers asking plenty of questions, said Katie King, manager of True Rest Float Spa in Powell.

“They say, ‘What am I getting myself into?’  ” said King, 23. “Once they try it out, they end up loving it.”

The first True Rest outpost in central Ohio — the fifth in the Arizona-based franchise — opened on May 10.

A second area location, in Columbus, is in the works.

The business in Powell features five private rooms, each with a futuristic egg-shaped flotation pod allowing a client to select optional elements of music and mood lighting. An initial one-hour visit costs $59; and a follow-up, $79 (with package discounts available).

Gravity Spa, which has operated two tanks for the past three years in the Dayton suburb of Beavercreek, has seen its clientele increase yearly.

There and at other locations, floaters are assured they won’t drown (I tried to flip over but ended up with only a stinging eyeful of salt water) and that the tank door can be opened at any time.

“You’re in complete control,” manager Noah Mask said.

Unlike spas and swimming pools, flotation tanks aren’t regulated by the state, said Columbus Public Health spokesman Jose Rodriguez, adding that such vendors are “on the radar.”

The tank proprietors in central Ohio use ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide for sanitation. A shower is required before entering the tank (with bathing suits optional) and recommended afterward to remove the salt.

The water, which is filtered between appointments, is naturally sterile because of its high salt content.

“They call the Dead Sea ‘dead’ for a reason,” said Clark, of Reflect Float Center.

Chris Hawker floats there twice a month. The inventor and entrepreneur, with a child at home and a job that often involves traveling, relies on the chance to recharge.

“For me, floating is almost part of a necessary antidote to the hecticness of my schedule,” said Hawker, 40, of the South Side. “I find it actually improves my productivity.

“Plus, it has a lingering effect — a profound impact on my positive sense of well-being.”

 

By Kevin Joy

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How Floating Therapy Changed A Mum's Life For The Better

thefloatspaCamille Pierson was an incredibly ambitious marketing director working in agencies throughout Surrey and London before she had her first child, Dali.

However when Dali was 11 months old, she became incredibly ill.

Pierson struggled to cope with balancing her demanding job and caring for her daughter. She found herself buckling under the pressure and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

But after discovering the practice of flotation, Pierson drastically changed her life and set up her own business.

"My daughter was just very unlucky," Pierson told HuffPost UK Parents.

"She had cold after cold after cold, however she was not getting over any of them and then she’d get a new one.

"I remember getting a worried call from my husband saying he'd collected her from nursery. We decided to take her to A&E."

 

Dali's condition deteriorated fast. She was put on a life-support machine, and then transferred to St George's Hospital in London.

The 11-month-old was under 24-hour care. Her immune system wasn't working and she had a bacterial infection in her upper airway, croup and bronchilitis.

"Watching your child so fragile, with 11 canulers sticking out of her arms, legs, feet, nose, mouth whilst having a ventilator breathe for her - there are no words to describe how bad it was," said Pierson.

Within a few days of treatment, Dali began to respond well. She was transferred back to a hospital in Brighton to continue her care and was released a few days later.

Unfortunately for Pierson, her demanding job meant her manager was on the phone instantly, asking when she was going back to work.

"This is where I completely fell apart," she explained. "I felt it was my fault she got sick in the first place.

"I’d let clients down, at home I felt like I had let my daughter down. PTSD is difficult - I had never experienced it before and I wasn’t expecting it."

Pierson said she spent that summer in tears, not being able to think straight. That was until her dad suggested she started floating - a practice where you lie in a pod of Epsom salt water.

Initially skeptical, she accepted after her dad bought her the book of Floating by Michael Hutchinson.

The Flotation Tank Association has researched the benefits of this therapy. Scientists Thomas Fine and Roderick Borrie found that during a float, your mind becomes still, allowing you to focus on healing and resting. The spine lengthens an inch, chronic pain is relieved, and your muscles are allowed to fully recover.

They also found that about 40 minutes into your float, there is a change in your brain waves, your brain stops producing the "Alpha waves" it usually creates and starts churning out "Theta waves".

This is known as being in a "Theta state", which is associated with meditative techniques and provides "clarity of thought".

"After reading the book, I tried a few centres," Pierson said. "And after the third session I was completely hooked.

"For me, allowing my brain to stop blaming myself, allowing my body time to adjust and come to terms with what happened was incredible.

"My daughter was alive and very well, having me crying all the time was stupid as I was wasting our time."

After several flotation sessions, Pierson said her real recovery began.

Dr Jessamy Hibberd, a chartered clinical psychologist talked to the Huffington Post UK about the benefits of floating for recovery.

"We're on the go all of the time. It can be hard to switch off. With any potential interruptions taken away from you, all there is to do is let your mind drift and slow down.

"There are far less opportunities for reflection in everyday life.

"Multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and make you feel on high alert."

According to Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a pioneering REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy) researcher, flotation tanks have been very promising in tackling "problems involving the autonomic nervous system, such as insomnia, stress symptoms, dysfunctions of the skeleto-muscular system, chronic headache, and the like."

The practice helped Pierson tackle her own problems: "I soon realised my job was an issue, and not having an understanding employer was not an option. One thing I couldn’t get my head around was why there wasn’t there a float centre in Brighton.

"It had helped me. So I started to look to see if this was possible and whether I could open one. After years marketing leisure centres, spas and health clubs, I knew I could get the people in - but could I run one?"

isopod1Pierson's dad is a successful businessman and helped her towards her goal.

"I gave up my job in October 2014 and we opened the doors at The Float Spa in February 2015," she said.

Comparing herself to a year ago, Pierson said she is a "completely different person".

"I am still moved by what happened, but my aim is to keep moving forward.

"I want to be a role model for my daughter - I want her to know that good things come out of bad situations.

"You need to take responsibility of yourself. If you put in hard work, if you put in time for yourself, then good things will happen.

"The fun part has been meeting all the customers. It’s truly amazing seeing how much floatation therapy impacts people for the better."

HuffPost UK Lifestyle are running a month-long campaign called Celebrating Parents throughout June, to highlight the great things parents do every day, as well as the times they've gone above and beyond the call of duty.
If you would like to contribute, either with a special message of thanks to your mum and/or dad, or if you know of a parent (your own or someone else's) with an inspiring story to share, then please email us here with "Celebrating Parents" in your email's subject line.
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And it's not just Pierson who has been helped by The Float Spa.

Helen Blick is a regular customer at The Float Spa in Brighton. She initially visited after being diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition that affects the tissues supporting the skin, bones, blood vessels and other organs.

After discovering there was no cure, she realised she had to try to help herself: "I was pretty sceptical, but was willing to try anything at this stage.

"The first time I went I struggled to relax. As a mum of a three-year-old and a five-year-old, having one hour to myself to do nothing is very rare and I felt a bit anxious and guilty. Although I didn’t have any pain while I was floating."

"The second time was completely different, I was able to relax as soon as I got in," she adds.

"I enjoyed the darkness and drifted in and out of sleep, and most importantly the pain relief lasted for the rest of the day.

"I have now been eight times. This to me is like a miracle, I didn't believe that something as simple as floating could help me this much. It is the most valuable self-help tool that I have discovered to date."

Shelley Baker, 25, decided to try floating at the spa to relieve stress.

"It had been one of those frantic, busy weeks with lots of decisions to make and if I'm honest, before I went I was unsure I'd be able to switch my mind off," she said.

"I feared that I'd be lying in the dark in the water for the whole 60 minutes having to think about all the things I needed to do and sort out."

But Baker was pleasantly surprised.

"It was quite the opposite. I actually fell asleep twice, and emerged from the pod feeling like a heavy weight had lifted from my shoulders.

"I felt unusually peaceful but confident, knowing that I could take on pretty much anything the outside world would throw at me."

For more information on floating, visit TheFloatSpa.co.uk. Pierson also offers pilates, yoga and other types of therapy to complement flotation experiences for her customers.

 

By Amy Packham

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Foot Doctor Offers Tips for How Your Feet Can Look, Feel and Smell Better

Epsom SaltCHARLOTTE, N.C., April 15, 2013 – As the weather warms, Epsom salt can help your feet feel better, look better, even smell better, according to Dr. Jeffrey Bowman, an award-winning foot doctor who serves on several committees with the American Podiatric Medical Association.

Soaking in Epsom salt can help with a range of foot issues – from athletes who have been exercising aggressively to people with injuries, infections, inflammation or arthritis, said Bowman, who last year received the 1st Chairman’s Award from the American Academy of Podiatric Practice Management for helping other doctors with their practices.

Epsom salt – actually magnesium sulfate – can be absorbed through the skin, Bowman said. That helps ease muscle and joint pain, swollen and inflamed feet, foot and toe fungal infections, and odor and skin problems.

"Epsom salt helps reduce swelling and increase circulation," said Bowman, past president of the Texas Podiatric Medical Association and an avid runner who soaks in Epsom salt while training.

"There are days when I might do a 14-mile run, and my knees, ankles and feet are pretty sore," Bowman said. "I’ll soak for a good 15 to 20 minutes, and when I come out, my joints are looser and they don’t hurt as much."

Bowman recommends the same soak for his patients at Houston Foot Specialists as they battle foot issues. He said Epsom salt can help in several ways, including:

Easing muscle and joint pain, either from overuse after exercise or from arthritis
Decreasing swelling and inflammation from trauma or fractures
Soothing dry skin, which often stems from a lack of magnesium
Reducing foot odor
Helping draw out infections from foot and ingrown nails of the toes
Excessive moisture provides a breeding ground for fungus, Bowman said. To prevent that, he recommended three things: wearing acrylic socks that let feet breathe more than cotton socks, getting a second pair of running shoes so the sweat in sneakers has a full 24 hours to dry and soaking your feet in Epsom salt.

Epsom salt acts as a wicking mechanism to help draw out infections from the superficial surface area, the way a cotton tip would remove pus, Bowman said.

"Epsom salt doesn’t kill infections, but it helps with the wicking," Bowman said. "It gets down into the cellular level, forcing out the infection that would otherwise grow larger."

People should consult their doctors for serious or persisting conditions, and diabetics should check with their physicians before soaking in Epsom salt, Bowman said.

About Dr. Jeffrey Bowman
Jeffrey N. Bowman is an award-winning foot and ankle physician and leader in the podiatric industry. He serves on the American Podiatric Medical Association's House of Delegates, he’s a past president of the Texas Podiatric Medical Association and he’s won a 1st Chairman’s Award from the American Academy of Podiatric Practice Management for helping other doctors with their practices. Dr. Bowman works at Houston Foot Specialists, where H Magazine has named him one of Houston's top 100 doctors for the past six years. For more information, please visit www.houstonfootspecialists.com or call 713.467.8886.

About Epsom salt
Epsom salt – actually magnesium sulfate – is one of the most versatile household products, with uses ranging from creating at-home spa treatments to soothing achy muscles to helping start or improve gardens. It’s been used therapeutically for hundreds of years, and it’s gaining a new generation of fans looking for a safe, economical alternative in a sea of expensive, over-the-counter remedies. Epsom salt is easy to use, easy to find in your local pharmacy or grocery store and it costs about the same per use as a cup of coffee. For more information, please visit either www.epsomsaltcouncil.org, www.facebook.com/epsomsalt, or contact Peter Smolowitz, (704) 916-6163, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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A Buoyant Boost for Frustrated Buddahs: The Float Tank

oceanfloatroomsMy first real memory of my father was floating in the Atlantic Ocean in Hollywood, Florida. I must have been 4 or 5 at the time. He was a master floater. He perfected the hands behind the head float and the ankle grabbing from behind his back float. He could float for hours, gently bobbing up and down with the subtle undulation of the soft, warm South Florida ocean. I also remember pissing him off as I splashed, dove under and swam all around him, trying to get his attention. So it made sense that instead of scolding me for being the 5-year-old guppy that I was, his first instinct was to teach me how to float with him. And so we floated together -- drifting wherever the mild tide took us. I would look up at the puffy clouds and find animal shapes and watch them morph and mutate into childhood, imaginary, unnamed new animals. He never opened his eyes and played those games though. He would just float, lost in some far away state -- somewhere I wasn't, somewhere nobody was.

I am now 49 and have been living in California since 1985, and for those of us who grew up cradled in the bath-like waters of South Florida, you all know that the Pacific is not our friend. I can count on one hand the amount of times I actually submerged my entire bathing clad body in the Pacific Ocean. Sure, I have gone in up to thighs and even splashed around a tad, but submerge? Na ah. And so, when I came across an advertisement for a float tank experience that claimed "it's likely to be the most relaxing thing you've ever experienced" I was more than a little intrigued, although skeptical. It claimed to treat everything from stress, anxiety, depression to migraines, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and mental disorders. All right Floatman, I've been to the best spas in the world, I know from relaxation, bring it on! I made my first appointment at Float North County in Solana Beach.

Before I describe to you my experience in the tank, a few things are important to know. First, my husband, who was an army interrogator, quietly pointed out to me that Floatation tanks, also knows as sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks are used as a form of torture. I shot back, "Okay, maybe, but they are also known as REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation THERAPY." I read that somewhere and just said it to sound smart. Which is an important thing to do from time to time when you are married to a Ph.D. biochemist/interrogator. Second, I cannot silence my mind. Ever. It simply chatters away on its own terms without any permission from me. I tried guided meditation a few times and I think I made it to .008 of a second before the grocery list popped into my head. I also don't do yoga, am not a vegan and the thought of silent meditation retreats could be my version of hell. But that's not to say I don't NEED to still my mind. Oh, I do. Trust me, I do.

So off I went to visit the Floatman and check out what was boasted as "floating in a tank is like relaxing in outer space" -- cause like yeah, that's a thing, right?

I was greeted by the owner, Glenn. He explained the whole process (no, you don't need to wear a bathing suit -- in fact, they discourage it. Sweet!). Can I drown? Will I shrivel up like a prune? If I die how will he know? He then led me into a fairly large, private room with a shower, towels, shampoo and toiletries. Not unlike a spa environment. Cool, I'm in my element! He then showed me the door to the tank and opened it. A shot of warm, humid air hit me like a Florida storm in June. It was beautiful. A lovely, huge blue tub was inviting. All I had to do was get nakey, shower, and step in. The soothing music and the sparkly lights on the ceiling were a nice effect. Armed with the knowledge of where the light switch was, where the door handle was, and knowing there was a bright, red button that he failed to mention in the instructions, I lowered myself in. And I floated. Effortlessly. There were over 800 pounds of Epsom salt in this "pool." It took zero effort to float. In fact, it took more effort to move about! The soothing music stopped about 5 minutes in, and then I switched the light off. Complete blackness. No sound. No body movement. No Thing. For the first 10 minutes or so I was aware of my beating heart and my breath. That's it. There was nothing else. I slowly put my hands behind my neck and waited.

I tried to figure out where my body ended and where the water and air started. I couldn't. The temperature of the air and of the water were the exact temp of the body. I could not fathom where "the me" was in this tank. It was like I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I focused on my breath and my mind went blank. Did I fall asleep? I don't know. I can say that I went somewhere else. I went into a nowhere place. It was a completely new sensation for me. My brain was gone in a really good, good way.

The end of the 60 minute sesh wakes you out of your netherworld state by playing soft music. The music started and I was pissed! Really? Who screwed up and played the music 20 minutes into my nirvana? But no, it was the end of the hour-long float time. Really? It was over. I slowly unfurled my hands, forced my booty to sit down straight in the pool, turned the blue light on and pried myself away from the water.

Showered. Clean. I ventured out to the lobby. I looked at Glenn and just said, "Fucking profound, dude." He then said, "just write that down in the Floating Journal." I did.

I have since floated many times, and every time I float I go deeper and deeper into myself or maybe it's away from myself. Turns out it's scientifically suggested that loss of sensory input results in relaxation of the body. 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. I'm meditating, folks! I'm really doing it and it's effortless and there are no oms involved! 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. Am I experiencing these things? Yes I am. I so am! (And so, by the way, is my skeptico-chemist interrogator husband.) I'm no Buddha, but I am incredibly grateful to have found a mind stillness that has been elusive to me for so long. It's changed everything.

Finally, Dad, I know you are floating in heaven. You never explained to me why you floated like you did, and now I finally know where you were or weren't when you drifted in the ocean. You made the world disappear, quieted the incessant noise in your mind, and found your nowhereness. I was just too damn busy for the past 40 years making cloud animals and creating stories in my head to allow myself to simply close my eyes and let it all go. I can now feel your presence when I float, and that's been the best benefit of all.

 

By Michelle Rose Gilman

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