I have a 15 month old. That means I haven’t slept longer than 4 consecutive hours in the last 15 months. In fact, if you include that last uncomfortable month of pregnancy, make that 16 months. I actually do pretty well considering. I take a couple of key supplements which keep my energy levels high in a way which doesn’t tax my adrenals (i.e. I don’t rely on caffeine to keep awake). But still, as much as I love the constant chatter of my toddler and as much as I enjoy running around after her as she waddles around the house and in the park, the thought of an hour of quiet relaxation while floating in warm water in a dark room seemed…luxurious.
I do have to admit to being more than a little bit on the claustrophobic side, so was worried about the concept of being stuck in a big dark box full of water. I remembered the coffin-like floatation tank in that episode of Frasier where Niles had to talk down Maris from one of her fits of pique through the heavy iron door. *Shudder* But the new floatation pods are made from a lightweight white plastic (as if Apple had designed them!) and the door doesn’t lock, but rather gently pulls down to a closed or semi-closed position, depending on your comfort level. There is also the option of a gentle violet light which you can keep on during the session, should you wish to. You won’t.
I arrived at the floatation centre early as it was located about a 30 seconds walk from the Vauxhall tube exit, set in a peaceful and quiet square with a large fountain. The staff were welcoming and gave me a card explaining the flotation process. The centre was decorated with a simple elegance and was immaculately clean. I was showed into my private room, everything was explained to me in great detail, including what to do after I’d finished my float. I started by undressing and having a shower in the spa shower before stepping into the floatation pod, and once I was comfortable, I shut the lid and listened to the calming relaxation music which eventually faded to silence and I then shut off the light once I was comfortable enough to do so. Once deprived of any visual sensation in a space dark enough that my night vision could not even illuminate, I couldn’t quite let myself relax yet. I pushed myself from the top to the bottom of the tank, enjoying the warmth and sensation of ‘flying’. I say ‘flying’ rather than ‘swimming’ or ‘floating’ as you would in the sea because the water in the tank was so viscous with salt, I could not really tell where the air ended and water began aside from a slight change in pressure. An oddly comforting sensation. In time, I began to not realise whether my eyes were open or closed – and it didn’t really matter because it was just as dark either way. And while I didn’t ‘let go’ enough to fall asleep or reach a deep meditative state, I did unintentionally achieve a level of calm introspection, enough to simply focus on the beat of my own heart, the sound of my lungs rising and falling and even the sound of my saliva glands. The sound of my own body at work, powered only by my autonomic nervous system, suddenly seemed so loud. And while it didn’t feel particularly meditative at the time, I realise in retrospect that it was actually as much as one could expect from a light meditation, and with time and practice, I would be able to experience a deeper relaxation during float sessions.
The first floatation tank was developed in 1950’s by an American who was studying the nature of consciousness by working with isolation, dolphin communication and psychedelic drugs. Well quite frankly, while the idea of dolphin communication does sound quite lovely, the isolation and psychedelic drugs aren’t my thing. And in a way knowing that kind of diminished the spiritual purity of the experience for me. But here are some other reasons to float:
The water in the tank is salt water; specifically epsom salt water. Epsom salt is the common name for magnesium sulphate. Most people are deficient in magnesium and sadly, that huge awkward Cal-Mag tablet you’re taking everyday is unlikely to help because most magnesium supplements the less bioavailable forms of magnesium. (Magnesium citrate is the best tablet to take, all factors considered, if you do want to take a tablet.) However, one of the best ways to get your magnesium is actually not in a tablet at all, but transdermally – through your skin. There are great magnesium oils, lotions and epsom salts bath products available to buy commercially, but nothing’s going to give you the ‘magnesium high’ you’re going to get from a floatation session. With roughly 800 lbs (363 kg) of epsom salts in each pod, the water you’re floating in is 1.5 times denser than that of the Dead Sea. (That’s about £300 worth of epsom salts in case you’re thinking “hey, I can just do that at home!”) I mean, by all means, do take regular epsom salts baths at home, but be aware that they’re not going to have the same level of therapeutic effect as a session at a floatation centre will.
The lack of auditory, physical and visual stimulation during a float session allows the body to completely relax and achieve a meditative state in a fairly short period of time. As Chris, the owner of the floatation centre I went to explains, “the brain moves from beta state (high frequency) through to alpha and theta where you experience a light REM sleep.” He went on to explain that activity in the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response) decreases. Endorphins and serotonin (happy chemicals) are released and help relieve anxiety and depression while increasing creativity. At the same time, production of cortisol (the stress hormone) decreases.
“Blood is able to flow freely around the body due to the complete lack of gravity and all muscles and joints relax completely.”
The floatation centre I went to was Floatworks in Vauxhall and at this particular centre they are equipped for you to arrive with absolutely nothing other than yourself. There were natural Faith in Nature brand toiletries in the spa showers – necessary to wash the immense amount of salt out of your hair after you’ve finished your float session. Upstairs they have a glamorous makeup room with high powered hair dryers and GHD straighteners, as well as combs if you’ve come without a hairbrush. I’d have lingered in here a bit longer to fully style my hair, except that the guy a couple seats down from me went to town with the Lynx body spray and I quickly left the room with damp hair and the threat of a nasty headache. It actually was the only thing that spoiled any part of the experience for me. As I escaped the Lynx-ey pong, I found the Chill Out Room, which was reminiscent of the snack & coffee corners at Etc Venue centres where I used to hold corporate events; that is to say quite simple but bright, modern, cheerful and comfy. I helped myself to a cup of herbal tea, wrote in the guest book and leafed through the coffee table books before receiving a pleasant surprise visit from the owner, Chris. The centre is fairly new and he wanted to see how I’d enjoyed myself. Of course, rather than ask him any intelligent questions, I was just pretty zoned out and after finishing my tea and having a quick chit chat, I was given some aftercare advice and I floated my way home. Well, as much as one can ‘float’ on the 185 bus.
I slept 9 hours straight that night.
There was some muscle tenderness afterwards in my shoulders as they truly relaxed for the first time in years. I felt taller and more limber, relaxed and more focused. The occasional muscle cramps I experienced during the float itself went away afterwards and did not return. I now see that I could have benefitted from a few float sessions throughout my last trimester of pregnancy when every position seemed to put weight and painful pressure on some part of my body. In fact, there are a variety of mental and physical health conditions which floating is said to improve. And I can see why.
But I went to a floatation centre to relax.
And relax, I did.