Float On

Floatation therapy has come a long way since its inception in the 1950s.

To be honest, climbing naked into a float tank with the intention of floating for 90 minutes in tepid salt water in the dark made me question my intentions. I was curious about the tanks, which were invented during the 1950s heyday for altered states (and inspired a movie of the same name in 1980), but are now being recognized as a potent relaxation tool for overstressed 21st-century lives.

The tanks are filled with about 10 inches of water that have been saturated with epsom salts. The salt content meant that I bobbed on the surface of the water; the muscles that typically supported my body could relax. Both air and water temperature in float tanks are meticulously maintained at body temperature so that the distinction between your skin, the water and the air seems to dissolve. The tanks are also soundproofed and completely dark.

The tanks themselves are variable. Modern Gravity, the float centre co-founded by Matthew Smith, let me try one tank, a vintage model that looked like a submarine. It’s a giant Fiberglas thing, and the inside is cavernous and black with a green liner. (This is the beta version – when the new studio opens, he’ll have custom-made contemporary tanks.)

At Floatique, another float centre in south Edmonton that Tara Steinbach opened about a year ago, the tanks are newer. They’re white, round pods, and the insides are lit with colour-shifting LED lights. When I first relax into the water, turning off the lights with an interior button, I listen to several minutes of pleasant new age music.

Both Smith and Steinbach talk about three floats being the magic number. The first float, it’s such an unfamiliar experience that you end up focusing on that and the subtle movements of your body. The second float, you relax a bit more into the darkness. The third, your brain falls more quickly into the meditative state.

My experiences, apparently, were a bit unusual. Toward the end of my first float, the muscles in my hips and arms started to spasm. The spasms continued for days. My second float was an hour and a half of violent muscle spasms. It was not pleasant, and I emerged from the tank in a state far from the relaxed one I had been expecting. The third, while still full of spasms, was a breakthrough.

I’ve had my share of sports injuries, and Smith, a former athlete and personal trainer, says that the spasms are not unheard of for folks like me. Later, I spoke with New York-based physiotherapist Rob Schreyer, who uses float tanks to relax his patients. He also finds that floating, as it did in my case, helps his patients zero in on specific areas of pain, allowing them to better understand their injuries. “I see float as a really untapped resource for physical therapy and sport,” he says.

Justin Feinstein is one of the leading researchers into the effects of floatation therapy. He recently set up an institute in Tulsa, Okla., where he plans to study floatation with a scientific rigour that was lacking in much of the early research because the proper equipment wasn’t yet available. That research suggested myriad benefits to floatation – stress relief, pain relief and performance enhancement.

Feinstein has witnessed the resurgence of floatation in the past five years. The Float Conference, held every year in Portland, Ore., has gone from about 150 participants in its early years – both Smith and Steinbach among them – to more than 500.

In the past, Feinstein says, the altered states and drug use associated with floatation therapy gave it a bad reputation. “But now, a lot of that zeitgeist has disappeared. Now, people are really using it in the way that it was intended, as a form of deep relaxation.”

Floatique’s slogan is “perfect the art of doing nothing.” As the soothing music plays through the water, indicating that my third float is almost over, I feel as if I have, if not perfected it, definitely made some inroads.

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