The Saltwater Flotation Experience

Integrative Strategies for Health and Wellness

Pondering a Pond

Are you unhappy with the results of your current too narrow focused physical or mental health care program? The failure to resolve your problems or to get optimal results might be from a program that has a too narrow or conventional focus. Considering exploring some complementary or alternative options that may help or enlarge your current healthcare work. The goals of doing so would be for regaining optimal health and well-being. The following is an article, looking at one of the potentially beneficial interventions or therapies that could support you in reaching your health and wellness goals.

The Invitation for Saltwater Flotation

A friend and colleague invited me to experience saltwater flotation in his Asheville program called Still Point Wellness. “Still Point” not only has a saltwater flotation tank but highly skilled massage therapists, which includes Esalen Massage, yoga therapy, massage workshops and a Somatic Psychologist. I had experienced a saltwater flotation tank session many years ago when visiting a yoga retreat center earlier in my career as an integrative internist and psychiatrist. My memory of it was pleasant and very relaxing. I was eager to give it another try, especially with my interest in integrative strategies for health and well-being.

Over the years I have had rich experiences in many different integrative approaches to mind, body and spiritual therapies like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Water has always conveyed to me a meaning of cleansing, flow, flexibility, and consciousness. In Taoism – the Way – the represented symbol is water (see Existence – A Story, by David Hinton).  In yoga, both in prayer and song, the representation of consciousness is often the ocean. When I was nine years old and hospitalized with post-polio meningitis, I was treated with soaks in a hot tub and hyperthermia treatments (being wrapped in warm wet blankets). Years later, my father had come to visit after he had broken several ribs; he hadn’t slept well for weeks. When he rested on the waterbed I had at the time, his pain was relieved, and he slept like a “baby.” I was in the water a lot growing up as I had learned to swim with the “dead man’s float,” which is floating stretched out on my stomach. I even got to float in the Dead Sea during a visit to Israel.  I know now as an ardent swimmer that swimming is about being one with the water, learning the art of flow, technique, breath control, and streamlining. So, when I got the chance, I gladly accepted the invitation to return to a salt water float experience.

Saltwater Flotation Tank Details

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons (benefits) on his (her) fellow (people).”  — Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949, p. 30.

Before I take you on my “Hero’s Journey” – as I describe my three 90-minute float session experience –  in the salt water flotation tank, there are some interesting details about flotation.

Saltwater flotation tank sessions typically are either 60 or 90 minutes.  The flotation space is like a sacred sanctuary with minimal noise, darkness, and a marked reduction in the usual bombardment of stressful stimulation emanating from the outside world. The body floats on top of the comfortable, warm water that is supersaturated with Epsom Salt. The nervous system and brain settle down from its more active brain waves – from beta to the more relaxed Alpha – as it then drifts to the even more relaxed Theta, which appears near sleep or when coming out of sleep.  Enhancement of creativity, learning, problem solving, spiritual attunement and the gaining of a more enlightened perspective have been associated with these more relaxed brain states. Flotation research came to public attention through the research work of John Lilly and others who were interested in the effect of sensory deprivation on people’s bodies, brains, and nervous systems. Studies in the States and worldwide have supported the positive benefits of sensory deprivation and use of float tanks for various mental and physical health benefits: as pain reduction, stress reduction, anxiety and mood improvement.

One can experience saltwater flotation for relaxation as this can be a clearing for the mind and senses from outside stresses. Floating can help one go deeper into a more meditative and spiritual state of mindfulness, awareness, and being. In the state of deep relaxation and heightened receptivity, techniques or programs to foster change as self-hypnosis, other self-improvements or educational programs can be utilized. Floating in the Saltwater Flotation Tank allows better brain learning as this reinforces the integration of new learning material, which can improve performance skills for artists and athletes. Flotation also complements other therapy work, body work, and other healing methods. There are now flotation centers offering flotation therapy around the world with a continuing growth since the 1980’s. Several professional athletic teams utilize float tanks in their training facilities.

In Frank Lawson’s book, Psychoneuroplasticity Protocol for Addiction, he discusses the use of sensory deprivation in his addiction treatment program.  As stimuli, can have an addictive nature, whether drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, or any of the other readily available stimuli that our minds seek for entertainment, gratification, escape or stimulation. And it is easy to become not only addicted but a slave to the stimuli of choice, which can take over one’s life. This can lead to a loss of spontaneity, awareness, responsiveness, creativity, and focus on what is important or essential. Some flotation sessions in a therapy context may be a helpful tool for “stimulation addiction.” See Neuroplasticity article.

Flowing River, saltwater flotationStudies have shown that saltwater flotation sessions reduce elevated levels of stress hormones and increase beneficial hormones like dopamine and endorphin levels. Some of the benefits reported are lowering blood pressure, and aiding in the reduction of stress-driven illnesses and degenerative diseases, as well as improvement in day to day performance, longevity, memory, awareness, and well-being (see Awareness article) .

The positive effects of saltwater flotation can be achieved in other ways, but this could take longer periods of dedicated training, practice, and skill development just as it does with the Zen Monks in their years of monastery training. The use of meditation, yoga or other ways of gaining sensory deprivation and isolation, can also bring some of the similar benefits as floating.  Salt Water Flotation is ultimately a unique experience for each person and has the potential to have positive benefits for each and every one according to their needs.

For more detail and discussion about the salt water flotation tank, see the Still Point website and blog and an article there by Michael Hutchison who wrote a comprehensive book about salt water flotation. I enjoyed reading Hutchison’s excellent detailed book about floating and all the facts, history, scientific research, etc., The Book of Floating.

My experience in the Saltwater Flotation Tank

My float experience is similar to the Hero’s Journey, (see an article by William B. Hart – Hero’s Journey)  a theme Joseph Campbell develops in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces.”  The hero’s journey per Campbell has three stages as typically found in mythology – the departure, the initiation, and the return. As I had scheduled three floats, I felt the number three rang true for my anticipated “hero’s journey”.

“The Cave you Fear to enter Holds the Treasure you Seek” – Joseph Campbell – found on the wall of Asheville’s fabulous Elements restaurant.

The “Hero’s Departure” stage

according to Campbell, is the preliminary period before actually going into a new adventure. In my situation, this stage would be the planning and preparation for my anticipated salt water flotation. I become enticed or beckoned by a trusted friend and the call for adventure – to explore the unknown, expand personal growth and spirituality. I had the willingness to enter the portal into another world or space (the Float Tank) as the hero of myth goes on a quest. This departure period for me also was a time of recall of prior experiences with flotation and water-related experiences (some pleasant and some traumatic). My anxiety and ambivalence had to be overcome to follow through with the planned float.  A friend and an owner of Still Point Wellness helped to get me past any personal fears and reluctance. He gave me an overview of what to expect with Salt Water Flotation and some practical tips on participating in the process.

The final step in the initial departure stage of the “hero’s journey” is to pass the “thresh-hold guardian,” which enabled me to enter (the door into the float tank) the unknown entry way into the unfamiliar experience and the darkness. Still Point made all this pleasant with its well-trained staff. Complete guidance was given on how to enter, use the flotation tank, and about how the session would run: as the knock you would hear on the outside of the tank when your time was up, how to use the showers, ear plugs, towels if you got salt water in your eyes, how to exit the tank when needed, and of course much more.

The “Hero’s Initiation” stage

is the second of the three stages in the “Hero’s Journey” per Campbell. My initiation began at the point I entered the flotation tank for the first time and closed the door into the silent darkness, and pleasant softness of floating in the warm (near body temperature) Epsom salt saturated water. Rapidly, the unfamiliar becomes familiar with the onset of a soothing deep relaxation. My inquisitive mind became more and more active with general wonderment about the physical experience. I focused on some discomfort in my body, which led to some experimentation with body position. I then began to wonder about how much time had passed or when the session would be over. My general awareness then shifted toward observing just how active my mind had become out of the depth of silence. Specific residues of the content of my prior day’s activity and thoughts or worries came up. I found my mind looking for purposeful mental activities to do during the float, such as doing some periods of meditation and mantra, or observing for visual images to come out of my mind or from the darkness.
Swimming Hole, saltwater flotation

In my second float, I was much more relaxed with less mental activity as well as having some periods of being in and out of light sleep, which is called in the literature the “hypnogogic state.”  This is where deeper states of learning or the potential for making deep change in habits can occur. Awareness of time seemed to disappear. As I was preparing for a swimming competition, I spent a little time reviewing or rehearsing the sequence of events I would be doing. Flotation is used by performers and athletes and is reported to be helpful. After the float, I improved my swimming time in all five events in which I had participated.

The third float was very pleasant and seemed to go by quickly as I went into a deeper state of relaxation and meditation. There was an awakening of consciousness to the transient nature of thought and mind, from the silence and emptiness to the arising of a rich landscape of thoughts, ideas, and insights. The experience is as varied as individual differences and life experiences. There exists the potential benefit of new learning and perspective change.

The “Hero’s Return Stage”

is the third of the three stages in the “Hero’s Journey” per Campbell. When I exited the flotation tank, I began the task of integration of the float experience.  The difference in the body’s level of relaxation, the mind’s level of heightened awareness and sharper sensory acuity, and the new insights and learning – needed reflection and processing. Also, there was the new challenge of encountering the once familiar world through the changed mental, physical and spiritual perspective arising from the recent journey (float tank experiences). This process of reintegration is also helped by experienced helpers, teachers or mentors (as helpful staff at Still Point) and by reading and study with the books and the references noted in this article.

Water-lilly floatingAs floating is a process, there is a benefit to continuing the journey with more floats and processing, which is also true with other positive conventional and alternative learning, adventures, and therapies. If one becomes more aware, open, accepting, compassionate, restored, transformed, spiritually attuned, or enlightened, there is more potential not only to be helpful to one’s self but to others.

Ron Parks, MD, writer and Shan Parks, editor

Question/Comment:

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