Relaxation in Isolation: Float spas offer retreat from your senses

By Jade Swartzberg

I can still recall the weightless feeling of sitting cross-legged, without any effort, in the Dead Sea. Floating in that historical body of water in 2008, I experienced the unusual buoyancy that results from such an uncommon concentration of salt water. At the time I believed I had just completed a once in a lifetime event.

And so, when I learned through Facebook that spa owners were bottling up this weightless experience and marketing float spas as an escape from stress and a cure for physical ailments, I was intrigued.

Float spas, which already dot the map in Europe, are gaining ground in North America. They offer customers a unique, and potentially transcendental, experience by putting them into tanks filled with high levels of salty water and allowing them to float for an hour or more in an environment designed to limit all outside stimuli and promote relaxation.

Flotation tanks about 1.2 metres (four feet) wide and 2.4 metres (eight feet) high are filled with 25 centimetres (10 inches) of water saturated with about 260 kilograms (800 pounds) of Epsom salts, creating buoyancy that mimics the Dead Sea. The water remains at a constant temperature that matches the body’s own normal temperature, and floaters rest in darkness wearing earplugs to restrict sight and sound.

Photo courtesy of Cloud9

Photo courtesy of Cloud9

Lulled into a state of complete relaxation, floaters often claim to experience numerous benefits, including stress and pain relief, addiction control, increased spirituality, and enhanced creativity.

Cloud 9 Float Spa is the only float centre in British Columbia. And a few days after learning about this Float Spa experience, I drove to Cloud 9’s Abbotsford location to give spa floating a whirl.

Stepping through the doors of Cloud 9, (located in owner Travis McLaren’s basement), I was enveloped by a feeling of tranquility. Peaceful music and Buddha statues invite guests to leave their worries behind them and prepare for a time of meditation in this professionally run spa.

Cloud 9, which opened in August 2012, offers guests two floating options: floating in an enclosed tank or in a large tub (much like a hot tub). Wanting the authentic sensory deprivation experience myself, I opted for the tank.

McLaren gave me some pointers about floating, cautioning me not to rub my eyes while in the water to avoid getting salt in them, which burns. After a quick shower, I returned to the float tank in a robe. Bathing suits are optional, but as the room is private, I disrobed and climbed into the tank in my birthday suit.

With the door closed and the light off, I felt momentarily claustrophobic, but I lay perfectly still on the surface of the water and started to relax. Since the water matched my skin temperature, I experienced the strange sensation of not being able to feel my limbs; my body felt one with the water.

Photo courtesy of Cloud 9

Photo courtesy of Cloud 9

McLaren had warned me that with no other stimuli, my mind would start to race at first, and it did. I live by my watch so I was fixated on time and wondered how I would be able to last an hour in utter darkness without knowing how much time had elapsed. But the tank represents an exercise in selecting and controlling one’s thoughts and after a while, I let go and tried to enjoy my hour away from the world.

Floating weightless in total darkness, the small tank became irrelevant and I felt like I was drifting down a stream (I had, in fact, not drifted at all). The only real movement occurred as I experimented with how to position my arms. I tried letting them rest at my side, but found that with them stretched above my head there was less tension in my neck.

When I heard about floating, I was concerned that someone could drown if they fell asleep. McLaren assured me that there was no risk of flipping, and when floating on my back, I felt well balanced and surrendered myself to the tank’s tranquility.

I must have drifted off to sleep, because when I heard the soft music indicating my time was up, I was surprised that an hour had passed.

After showering again to remove the excess salt, I returned refreshed to the front lounge where I had an opportunity to chat with McLaren.

In the eight months since he opened his float spa, McLaren has seen all kinds of people walk through his door.

“They range from 17-years old to 70, with about a 50/50 split between male and female,” he said.

Customers’ reasons for floating are varied. Some come simply out of curiosity, while others seek relief from pain or stress.

“People are moving at an accelerated rate and their minds don’t stop,” said McLaren. “Floating is the perfect way to unplug for an hour.”

“One man told me he felt like he was able to achieve in one hour, what a Buddhist monk achieves in five years.”

Some people make life-changing decisions in the tank, while others break down fears like claustrophobia.

McLaren, who floats almost every other day, says floating has helped him become conscious of his thought patterns and allowed him to remain more relaxed and emotionally balanced, even when negative things happen.

While these flotation spas are multiplying across North America, sensory deprivation tanks are not a new idea. American psychoanalyst, John C. Willy, pioneered the concept in the 1950s as he studied the nature of consciousness.

Deprived of outside stimuli, the brain is able to slow down; rather than producing the beta waves that keep you conscious and alert, the brain switches to the alpha waves of deep relaxation and finally to the theta waves your brain produces just before you fall asleep. In this deeply relaxed state, people often experience moments of clarity or sparks of creativity, even vivid imagery.

A tiny percentage of people do report hallucinations — and Willy himself experimented by ingesting psychedelic drugs like LSD while in the tank — but the notion that flotation is a naturalistic substitute for drugs has been largely exaggerated by pop culture references to sensory deprivation in television shows such as Fringe and The Simpsons, where Lisa hallucinates while in a float tank.

Thankfully, my own experience was not psychedelic. An escape from stress sounded grand, but I wasn’t chasing hallucinations. People who do come seeking an out-of-body experience are often disappointed, so McLaren urges people to try floating with an open mind.

Still, whatever the reason, he encourages people to come by for a float.

“Floating is such a unique experience, people need to try it at least once,” said McLaren, who will expand his business to the Tri-Cities by the end of the year. “I can see the difference in people almost immediately — they are different people when they come out.”

Cloud 9 Float Spa offers curious customers an introductory rate of $30 for the first 60-minute float; after that, it costs $45 for 60 minutes and $60 for 90 minutes in the tank. You can book a session at www.cloud9floatspa.com

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