WASHINGTON - Before I climbed into the 9-by 5-foot tank -- baring nothing but panic-induced goose bumps -- and shut the door to sit in complete darkness and 11 inches of water, I was told my "floating" experience would be like no one else's.
"Some people come out and say they're floating in space, floating in an ocean," says Kimberly Boone, owner of Hope Floats, a wellness spa in Bethesda, Md.
"Every time is different, and it is a personal thing."
After a brief wave of claustrophobia passed, I laid my head toward the back end of the tank and began to float.
Flotation therapy is a practice that utilizes sensory deprivation to promote relaxation and healing. The therapy takes place in a flotation tank, a device that was first developed in 1954 by Dr. John Lilly at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Typically, a tank is filled with 10 to 11 inches of water and enough Epsom salt required for a human body to float with ease. When the door is closed, the tank blocks distractions from light.
Sense of touch is cut off by the temperature of the water, which is kept at the same temperature of one's skin, typically 93 degrees Fahrenheit. And the only sound is the water.
"You're trying to cut off all senses. And your body will eventually feel like it's not even a part of you," says Boone, whose business has two flotation tanks.
After a few deep breaths to reassure myself, I slowly became aware of every minor cut and abrasion on my body. After all, 850 pounds of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salt will do that to you.
When several minutes passed, I closed my eyes. I was finally able to relax. I gave into my body's natural tension to keep my head above water and let go.
"It's a very cool feeling. It's effortless, you know, complete effortless. You just float," Boone says.
Boone first tried "floating" about a year ago when she was looking for a way to overcome issues associated with anxiety and depression.
"From the first time that I got out of the tank, I felt this serenity I hadn't felt in a long time -- maybe ever … Flotation gave me that relief," says Boone, who adds that floating helps to open her mind and make her see everything more clearly.
"I wanted to go back and try it again."
But Boone did more than try it again. She turned flotation therapy into her career. Boone built a space in her Bethesda, Md., home for a flotation tank and a private shower, and introduced the practice to close friends. The word spread, and soon Boone had more people interested in "floating" than she had hours in the day.
"I was getting people from 7 in the morning until 10 p.m.," says Boone, who has four kids and two dogs.
She decided it was time to expand.
About two months ago, Boone moved into her business' new location on Battery Lane, off of Wisconsin Avenue in Downtown Bethesda. Now, she has two flotation tanks and an infrared sauna, which uses light to create heat and vibrations to penetrate muscles, joints and tissues.
The uses for flotation therapy go beyond anxiety and depression. Boone says she sees clients of personal trainers and patients of physical therapists and doctors, seeking relief for aches and pains of muscles and joints, as well as chronic pain and addition.
"And then I just have people come in because they have heard about flotation. I call them the psychedelic people, you know -- they're looking for that ride. But once they experience it, they just want to keep coming back because they just feel good," Boone says.
Marshall Strisik, a Bethesda resident, first heard about flotation therapy two years ago, when a friend returned from a visit to the West Coast. About four months ago, he decided to give it a try.
Strisik was looking for an alternative to massage and meditation -- "Just another way to really just wind down, relax and recharge," says Strisik, who works as a health care attorney and has small children.
Now, he "floats" about once a week.
"Every muscle in my body finds its relaxing point within a few minutes into the float, so when you get out of the floating tank, you just feel really good … Your muscles are just kind of thanking you," Strisik says.
A typical float lasts for 60 minutes and costs around $70. Boone says her regular "floaters," as she calls them, practice the therapy once a week or once every two weeks.
"People are looking for alternative ways to just feel better and to find some peace in their lives," she says. "Washington, D.C. is a highly, highly stressed- out area. And we live every day with so many stimuli around us. It's impossible to find that space. Here, you can find that space."
Taking the Plunge
There is a methodology to flotation therapy, and knowing what to expect is ideal before you dive right in.
At Hope Floats, Boone leads her clients into a private room, complete with a shower, towels, a robe, the tank and its highly specialized ultra violet filtration system.
First: the shower.
Boone says taking a shower before getting into the tank is imperative so that previously applied lotions, oils and perfumes don't interfere with the salt water.
Next is the "accessory" preparation. Boone offers ear plugs, to keep the water out of one's ears, and Vaseline, to coat cuts and scrapes, on a ledge by the tank.
But don't even think of putting anything else on -- flotation therapy is best experienced in the buff, or so I am told.
"When you're going in, you're going in to cut off all senses. If you have [a swimsuit on], you're still going to feel something," she says.
Then, it's time to climb into the small door at the top of the tank. Boone suggests her clients lay with their feet closest to the door, and their heads toward the back of the tank.
"So when you go in, you close the door and then you're going to be in darkness, complete darkness. It's going to be completely silent," she says.
While getting used to the experience in dark and in the salt water, Boone says a lot of customers ask, "What now?"
"You're over-thinking it a lot or spending a lot of time trying to figure out the sensation," she says of first-time floaters.
To help some of her clients relax and feel at-ease, Boone will play meditative music for the first 10 minutes, which emanates from the tank's underwater speakers.
"When you're in the tank and you're shutting off all these senses and you're able to relax every muscle in your body … it has been referred to as ‘true rest,' because basically, this is the only place you're going to go where you can get that experience."
The Effects of the Float
Approximately five minutes before my float is up, the sound of Tibetan chimes play through the tank's speaker. I make a very concerted effort to push the limbs of my weightless body down to the bottom of the tank so I can sit up and push the door open.
I stand up and extend my head out of the confined space.
Boone describes the after-effects of floating as rejuvenated, yet rested. I can only describe my experience using a non-descriptive phrase: It was like nothing I've ever felt before.
It was relaxing, but a little nerve-racking. It was serene, but I was unsettled. I felt energized, but spent -- like I'd just completed an hour of intense yoga.
Strisik, a regular "floater," says that feeling is not uncommon -- he didn't even make it through the full hour of his first session. He feel asleep and felt a little disoriented and, as he describes, "euphoric."
"Now that I'm more comfortable, you know what to expect. It's more routine," Strisik says.
"Your whole body just feels a little bit lighter," Boone says. "If I go in there with my neck aching, it may still be aching while I'm in the tank … but it's healing. And when I get out and within minutes I'll notice, ‘Oh, it doesn't really hurt anymore.'"
Boone says the best part of floating is getting out of the tank and reflecting on the experience. She often encourages her clients to journal about what they felt.
And because the first time is more about getting used to the therapy and the tank, Boone says she offers clients their second float for free.
"The thing I love about the tank is [it's] you and you alone," Boone says. "You just get to be."
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