If the words 'float tank' (or 'sensory depravation tank') bring to mind images of Homer Simpson splashing about in the dark and then going on a hallucinogenic trip (see the episode Make Room For Lisa for details), you're probably not alone. But listen up: there's a lot more to this humble wellness method than that. We asked Hannah Ireson, founder of the Oxford Floatation Centre, to fill us in on how exactly it all works and what the benefits of floating are.
What is a float tank?
A salt water-filled pod that cuts off all external stimuli and leaves you floating in the dark, in an effort to guide the body towards a deeply relaxed state. In terms of physical size, the pods (or tanks) themselves vary (you can even get entire float rooms) but, says Hannah, what's most important is that whatever shape or size vessel you're floating in in, that the water is set to body temperature (around 34°C) throughout and has been saturated with half a tonne of Epsom salt (around 500kg). The salt is what makes you float, like you would in the Dead Sea.
"You must also be in total darkness and free from audible distractions," explains Hannah. "Once you have these four elements perfectly balanced, the weight of gravity is removed from your body allowing the brain a chance to feel what else is going on in there."
It's at this point that the mind is said to switch off, the heart rate lowers, breathing becomes deeper and joints and muscles loosen. "The neck relaxes too and headaches can disappear."
What happens during a float tank session?
"My clients will shower the day away, put ear plugs in and climb into the pod, they'll pull the lid shut and disconnect from the outside world, reconnecting with themselves," says Hannah.
Some people like to float in a spread eagle position, while others place their hands behind their head – or you could use a "float halo", like a little bobbing pillow. "Typically floats begin with 10 minutes of music to ease you into the experience and are then completely silent, up until the last 5 minutes when the soft music plays again to wake you up."
What do you wear in a float tank?
It's recommended that you float completely naked, allowing you to be at one with the water, without any unnecessary distractions of, say, a bikini strap digging into your shoulder. Some people liken float tanks to being back in the womb.
What are the health benefits of float tanks?
In the year since she opened the Oxford Floatation Centre, Hannah says her clients report experiencing relief from chronic pain, lessened anxiety and depression, and better back and posture health.
"Float tanks can also help to improve mobility and in America are commonly used to treat PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder)." Float tanks are thought to help users reach a deeper state of meditation too. Small studies into the positive effects of floating on mental health and sleep quality have shown promising results, but large-scale research is still yet to be done.
Can you recreate a float tank at home?
In a word, no. Sadly having a regular bath in the dark won't quite cut it – given the precise water temperatures and sheer amount of Epsom salts that a 'professional' float tank uses. "It's also unlikely that an at-home bath would be wide enough to let you float freely, without touching the sides," adds Hannah. "And each of my tanks are filled with salt costing around £600."
What is a float tank experience really like?
Our writer went along to review a 60-minute Float Session at 3Tribes London.
"In theory, as someone who has been diagnosed with anxiety, I loved the idea of being shut out from the world for an entire hour, slipping into a deeply relaxed state and not having access to my phone. Sadly, in practice, floating (for me personally) wasn't so glorious. While there's no doubt that the 3Tribes studio is well-run, beautifully maintained and exudes calm, despite following their simple instructions of covering any cuts with Vaseline, my eczema still quickly started to feel irritated and sting. Big time. Ditto, err, other 'sensitive' areas (which, to be clear, I did not cover in Vaseline).
"When I arrived in the studio, a helpful staffer on the front desk explained the process clearly (shower before you get in the tank, put the squidgy ear plugs in, immerse yourself in the water wearing absolutely nothing and relax). After a few minutes in the tank featuring soothing lights and music, they went out/stopped playing, and I was left alone. I panicked a bit, then breathed deeply and calmed myself down. However, I then found that all I wanted to do was itch my red hot, irritated skin and get out immediately.
"Salt water went in my eyes. I tried using the provided regular water spray to cleanse them. It didn't help. I accidentally touched my eyes with my salty hands. It got worse. Twenty minutes in, I squawked, could no longer handle feeling like I was literally on fire, got out and showered. However, not one to quit at the first hurdle, I then reapplied the Vaseline (a thicker coating this time, truly giving it my all in the name of journalism) to my eczema and tried again. It burned again, so I went home. Imagine eating a bag of Walkers Salt and Vinegar crisps whilst your hands are covered in paper cuts and it was basically the same vibe, only all over my lower body. Gulp. If you're skin condition-free though, I'd still say it can't hurt to try a float tank, given that they cost around the same as a massage."
See here for more information about 3Tribes London.
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