Written by: Becca Borawski Jenkins
Floatation tanks, also known as isolation tanks and sensory deprivation tanks, were first developed by John C. Lilly in 1954. In the 1970s the practice also became known as REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy. While the connotation attached to the tanks has varied over the years, it has been used to effectively treat everything from stress and anxiety, to migraines, to chronic pain and fibromyalgia, to mental disorders. Given its supposed benefits, both mental and physical, one would think it could make a good recovery practice for athletes.
It was from this perspective, that of an athlete, that I approached floating. I had long been encouraged by a couple fellow martial artists to give it a shot. They insisted I would enjoy it, but I don’t swim, and more importantly, I’ve never even figured out how to float, so the whole thing seemed quite daunting. I also get vertigo whenever I can’t see a horizon line, so I really wasn’t sure floating was for me. Ninety minutes of floating, at that.
But I was told everyone can float in a floatation tank. The high level of Epsom salt in the water, 850lbs according to Float On, will keep anybody on top of the water. The water itself is kept at roughly skin temperature, with the idea that you don’t feel it against you. You are given the option to wear earplugs, which I did, and you disrobe entirely. The tank is soundless and lightless inside, and unless you reach out with your arms to touch the sides of the tank, you quickly lose sense of time and physical orientation.
As it turned out, getting into the tank and getting situated was the most awkward part, and once I was able to relax, it became quite pleasant and some of the best sleep I had in a long time. After getting in, I hung onto a pipe on the wall for a while. I was afraid if I let go of it my vertigo would kick in. Since I had the earplugs in, all I could hear was the rhythm of my breathing. After a while I decided to just hold onto a ledge at the side of the tub with the tips of the fingers of one hand. I practiced relaxing my neck and letting the water creep up on my face. Then I finally let go. Everything started spinning and I sat up with a splash, pawed at the walls, and reoriented myself. It’s actually not easy to sit upright in water that salty. And then I went through the whole process again. Logically, it was very silly. The salt water was eleven inches deep and the tank was shaped such that I couldn’t possibly change direction without bumping into a wall. But logic and emotion and instinct are not necessarily companions.
Eventually, at some point, after who knows how much time had passed, I let go – physically and mentally.Turns out it’s scientifically proven that loss of sensory input results in relaxation of the body. So, my friends were right, no matter how my body resisted it, I was bound to relax. According to a 1999 research study, during floatation there is an increase in the theta waves in our brain.1 Theta waves have been shown in other studies to be activated by meditation.2 They are also the brain waves active during REM sleep and the drowsiness immediately before and after sleeping.
In addition to increasing the positive theta brain waves, floating has been shown to reduce unwanted negative activity in the body. According to the same 1999 study, “Plasma and urinary cortisol, ACTH [adrenocorticotropic hormone], aldosterone, renin activity, ephinephrine, heart rate, and blood pressure, all directly associated with stress, consistently decrease.”3
Read the full article at Breaking Muscle