Photo by Meghan Tansey Whitton
Flotation therapy: A ‘mental and physical reset’
— By Casey Jones
The thought of being isolated in a dark, silent, water-filled tank may spark fear in some, but for Lindsay MacPhee it’s a life-changing practice.
MacPhee, formerly an environmental engineer, made the switch from the 9 to 5 lifestyle to open The Floatation Centre in Halifax's north end in 2015.
Whether you’re an elite athlete or someone seeking some serenity, the mission of the centre is to “provide a springboard for happiness and elevated levels of consciousness.”
WHAT IS FLOTATION THERAPY?
A float session involves lying in a dense yet shallow tank of Epsom-salt rich water for up to 75 minutes. The high salt content of the water allows the body to float without effort, and the tank itself is soundproof and lightless allowing for sensory deprivation during the session. Floaters are encouraged to take slow, deep breaths during the session, and to allow incoming thoughts to subtly pass.
The proposed benefits of a float session include stress reduction, improved athletic performance, and enhanced mindfulness. Author Michael Hutchison describes in his 1984 Book of Floating a state of heightened awareness, or mindfulness, after his first float, similar to what’s achieved during meditation (1). Mindfulness is described as a state of being present, or having an increased focus on experiences happening at the present moment. Athletes all over the world have increasingly adopted meditation techniques to cope with the stressors of competition and being in the spotlight (2).
Popular meditation apps such as Headspace and Calm have recently brought mindfulness to the masses in an effort to reduce anxiety and stress for all.
However the float experience cannot be re-emulated in iPhone app form. Frequent floater and two-time world champion sprint kayaker Karen Furneaux says that the mental reset obtained from a float session is unlike that from meditation or yoga. “The difference is in that unobstructed time that you get during a float session,” Furneaux said.
The three-time Olympian visits the float centre only every three to four weeks but both the physical and mental benefits she attains from a session are essential for her well-being. After being a part of the intense environment at the 2016 Rio Olympics with the CBC broadcast team, she found that flotation therapy gave her just what she needed.
“I had a nagging injury last year, and that in addition to the stressful environment at the Games I found I needed a reset,” she says of last summer. “Both the mental and physical reset and rebalance I got from flotation was very therapeutic and healing.”
It’s now a part of her regular routine, as she believes proactive therapy such as flotation is better than the “band-aid effect” to alleviate issues as they come.
Although the anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of flotation is abundant, controlled experiments has been somewhat lacking. A 2013 study showed that a one-hour flotation session significantly impacted blood lactate levels and perceived pain after a bout of exercise in young, untrained men (3). High lactate levels have been previously shown to be linked to muscle pain. Other studies have found that flotation therapy can result in decrements in heart rate (4) and blood pressure (5). Several studies have confirmed Furneaux’s finding that flotation therapy can alleviate pain as well (3).
Athletes are increasingly adopting flotation therapy into their recovery toolbox — even two-time NBA champion Stephen Curry swears by a float tank visit every two weeks (6). Although it’s a somewhat new and unique practice, the evidence points to flotation as being an effective physical and mental reset for the body.
If you’re looking for something new to rejuvenate your mind and body, a float may be for you!
Casey Jones is a master's in science student at Dalhousie University, where he studies the link between the human microbiome and pediatric Crohn’s disease in Nova Scotians.