Up for a float? I’m not talking about down river or in the backyard pool, but at a flotation spa near you. If you live in a progressive city such as Portland, Seattle or D.C., you may have heard about flotation therapy. Otherwise, you might have no idea that this new trend is popping up across the country.

Though it sounds woo-woo wind chimes and fairy dust crystals, it’s a sensory deprivation healing modality that helps the body both physically and mentally. Studies performed in the United States and Sweden indicate that flotation therapy (tested in tanks) delivers wide-ranging benefits including significant reductions in not only stress, but also chronic pain, swelling, headaches, depression and insomnia, all while lowering blood pressure and improving skin.

“Several studies show ongoing flotation chamber sessions can positively ‘reset’ stress response hormones like cortisol, ACTH and epinephrine — and much of the research found that these positive effects last months after ‘floats.’ Studies on flotation's brain impact showed it improved creativity in jazz musicians and boosted focus in academic examinations,” says Mia Kyricos, chief brand officer for the Spafinder Wellness Trend Report.

Here’s how it works: Clients typically enter a private spa room outfitted with a floatation tank that holds 93-degree water containing 850 pounds of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts. The water is as dense as the Dead Sea, where one can float on the surface effortlessly without any body manipulation. Clients enter the tank nude, wearing earplugs and close the hatch behind them. They then lie back and float for 60 to 90 minutes in complete darkness.

Because the temperature of the water is the same as skin temperature, within a few minutes you lose the sensation of where the body stops and the water starts.

After a profound experience floating on a work trip on the West Coast, Kimberly Boone knew she wanted to work with floating and share it with others. She bought a tank for her home and soon had 40 people a week wanting to use it. She now runs Hope Floats in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the most well-known floatation spas in the country, providing floating sessions for athletes, physical therapy patients, people with injuries like back and neck pain, fibromyalgia patients, people with emotional issues and those just looking for relaxation or a psychedelic trip.

After all, floating was pioneered in the 1950s by John Lily, a physician known for his work on communications between humans and dolphins who was on a quest for psychedelic adventure. It was also somewhat crazily depicted in the 1980 movie “Altered States.”

Boone’s experience floating included the feeling of someone physically pushing her through the right path plus flashbacks from childhood she equates with learning to let go of emotional baggage.

“You are getting into your own brain waves during a session,” she says. Though she says it’s a personal experience, and every float is different for every person each time.

A few things are universal: the loss of sensation of a closed space, which initially concerns some people about claustrophobia; the humidity in the tank, which most people easily adjust to; the fact that many need a second float to really appreciate the benefits; and the overwhelming feeling of wellness when you’re finished floating.

Flotation tank

Flotation therapy often uses tanks that close to isolate the user. (Photo: The Float Shoppe)

Sandra Calm, co-owner of the Float Shoppe in Portland, Oregon, says the first float is a period of acclimating — noticing everything from the salty smell to the darkness, your heartbeat underwater and dealing with your racing thoughts.

“Each float is dependent on that day’s psychology and physiology,” she says. Like Boone, Calm and her partner had floated a few times when they looked at one another and thought, “We should do something with this.” They opened the Float Shoppe in 2011.

For Calm, floating restores and refreshes senses, is a spiritual experience that connects her with other people, and leaves her rested and clear. The first day or two after floating most people sleep incredibly well, so it’s a wonderful treatment for insomnia. It’s also an antidote to stress and provides better energy. Calm, who is a nurse, is involved with a fibromyalgia study in which patients float 10 times and report their experience. So far patients have shown a vast improvement in symptoms.

“There’s a marked change in the way stressful things are processed,” Calm says about floating. She chalks this up to why people leave the float feeling like everything is OK and nothing bothers them. There’s a deep sense of relaxation and inner peace. Many claim colors are more vibrant after floating and you notice surroundings like someone who suddenly got new glasses after having hazy vision.

Floating is also favored by athletes because the body absorbs magnesium from the Epsom salt infused water, which facilitates flushing of lactic acid from tired muscles.

Writers, musicians and other creative types are now using the therapy to boost their creative mojo. Holli Beckman, 35, of Washington, D.C., tried it out of curiosity.

“I find that it has been a great place for the more creative side of my brain to kick in and solutions to issues I was not even thinking about have literally popped into my head while floating.”

The Float Shoppe offers package deals that include floating plus massage or acupuncture sessions. At Hope Floats, floating’s been dubbed one of the top 10 unique date ideas as “couples float” is a popular activity.

“It is better than meditation. Being still in a quiet space for an extended period of time really does clear your mind. As an athlete, the combination of the Epsom salts, perfect water temperature and release of pressure from all joints is pure heaven,” Beckman says.

A floating session costs about the same as a massage, depending on the city — $70 to $90, and spas may offer packages.

Word of mouth coupled with growing research seems to point to floating as a fad turned extraordinary physical, mental and spiritual healing technique.

To locate flotation therapy near you, visit www.flotationlocations.com.

Related on MNN:

What is flotation therapy?
Spending time in a dark tank of warm salt water might sound a bit wacky, but converts say there are plenty of physical benefits.