Saltwater Flotation's Therapeutic Journey
One of Many Integrative Strategies for Mental Health, Wellness, and Wellbeing - My Floatation Experience
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 a holistic 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 and modalities for health and wellbeing.
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 high salt 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 saltwater float experience.
My Hero's Journey
"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.“ 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.
THERE ARE INTERESTING DETAILS TO SHARE before I take you on my "Hero's Journey"—as I describe my three 90-minute float session experiences in the saltwater flotation tank - there are interesting details to share.
A saltwater flotation tank session typically lasts 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 common in the outside world environment. The body floats on top of the warm water, 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 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 gaining a more enlightened perspective occur with these more relaxed brain states. Flotation research came to public attention through 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 the use of float tanks for various mental and physical health benefits: 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 external 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, you can use techniques or programs to foster change as self-hypnosis, other self-improvements, or educational programs. Floating in the Saltwater Flotation Tank allows better brain learning as this reinforces the integration of new learning material, improving performance skills for artists and athletes. Flotation also complements other therapy work, bodywork, and other healing methods. There are now flotation centers offering flotation therapy around the world, with continuous growth since the 1980s. Several professional athletic teams utilize float tanks in their training facilities.
In Frank Lawson's book, Psychoneuroplasticity Protocol for Addiction, he discusses sensory deprivation in his addiction treatment program. As stimuli can have an addictive nature, whether drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, or other readily available stimulants 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. Stimuli addiction can lead to a loss of spontaneity, awareness, responsiveness, creativity, and focus on what is essential. Some flotation sessions in a therapy context may be a helpful tool for "stimulation addiction." See Neuroplasticity article.
Studies have shown that saltwater flotation sessions reduce elevated stress hormones and increase beneficial hormones as dopamine and endorphin levels. Some benefits reported are lowering blood pressure, reducing stress-driven illnesses and degenerative diseases, and improving day-to-day performance, longevity, memory, awareness, and wellbeing (see Awareness article). (see Awareness article) .
You can achieve the positive effects of saltwater flotation in other ways, but this could take more extended periods of dedicated training, practice, and skill development, just as it does with the Zen Monks in their years of monastery training. Using meditation, yoga, or other ways of gaining sensory deprivation and isolation can also bring similar benefits as floating. Salt Water Flotation is ultimately a unique experience for each person and can have positive benefits according to individual needs.
For more detail and discussion about the saltwater flotation tank, see the Still Point website and blog and an article there by Michael Hutchison who wrote a comprehensive book about saltwater flotation. I enjoyed reading Hutchison’s excellent detailed book about floating and all the facts, history, scientific research, etc., The Book of Floating.
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.” Per Campbell, the hero's journey 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 expected "hero's journey."
The Departure Stage of the Hero's Journey
The 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 expected saltwater 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. For me, this departure period was also a time of recall of prior experiences with flotation and water-related experiences (some pleasant and some traumatic). My anxiety and ambivalence needed attention to follow through with the planned float. A friend and an owner of Still Point Wellness helped 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 part of the departure stage of Campbell's hero's journey is to pass the "thresh-hold guardian," which means overcoming any fear or resistance and entering the door into the float tank - the challenging entry into the unfamiliar experience, and the darkness. The first time entry into the floatation tank was more pleasant with the help of well-trained staff and their guidance: on how to enter; use the flotation tank; and about how the session would run. Information shared included: there would be a knock that I would hear on the outside of the tank when my time was up; how to use the showers, earplugs, and towels if you got salt water in your eyes; how to exit the tank anytime needed, and much more to ease any concerns and make my experience more pleasant.
The Initiation Stage of the Hero's Journey
The second of the three stages of Cambell's Hero's Journey is the Initiation Stage. My initiation began when 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 deep soothing relaxation. My curious 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 previous day's activity and thoughts or worries came up. I found my mind looking for purposeful mental activities during the float, such as doing some meditation or observing for visual images passing in my mind or from the darkness.
In my second float, I was much more relaxed with less mental activity and had some periods of being in and out of light sleep, which is called in the literature the "hypnogogic state." During these times, more profound learning states or the potential for changing habits can occur. As I was preparing for a swimming competition to occur later in the week, I spent a little time reviewing or rehearsing the sequence of events I would be doing. Flotation benefits performers and athletes in their preparation for performances. After the float, I improved my swimming time in all five events in which I had taken part.
The third float was enjoyable and seemed to go by quickly as I went into a deeper state of relaxation and meditation. Awareness of time seemed to disappear. There was an awakening of consciousness to the transient nature of thought and mind. There was a movement from the silence and emptiness to the raising of thoughts, ideas, and insights. One's experience varies as individual differences and life experiences. There is the potential benefit of new learning and perspective change.
The Return Stage of the Hero's Journey
The third of the three stages in the "Hero's Journey" per Campbell began for me when I exited the flotation tank and began the integration of the float experience. The difference in the body's level of relaxation, the mind's heightened awareness, sharper sensory awareness, and the new insights needed reflection and processing. Also, there was the unique challenge of encountering the once familiar world through the changed mental, physical and spiritual perspective arising from the float tank experiences. This reintegration process happens smoothly when experienced helpers, teachers, mentors, or therapists are available as needed.
As floating is a process, there is a benefit to continuing the journey with more floats and processing, which is true for other positive conventional and alternative teachings, adventures, and therapies. If one becomes more aware, open, accepting, compassionate, restored, transformed, spiritually attuned, or enlightened, there is more potential for mental, emotional, spiritual health, and wellbeing.
A too narrow-focused physical or mental health care program may fall short to get the optimal results you may be seeking. Exploring some complementary or alternative options can provide the opening you need for a more rewarding and successful health care journey.
Lead-in photo for the article: ©kzenon/123rf.com