FLOATING IS TOUTED as a way to calm your mind, to meditate and to relax. Float centers, where you can drift in water made extra-buoyant with Epsom salts, have popped up around the region. While floating always sounded lovely and restorative to me, it also sounded optional.
Then I injured my back. I will get into the details of my injury and recovery in a future column, but let me say the pain was excruciating.
I was desperate to alleviate the shooting pain in my lower back and ribs. A friend, also suffering from severe back pain, mentioned floating. She said it was the one thing that helped ease her back pain, releasing tension and letting her forget how much it hurt.
It sounded like a miracle that I needed, stat.
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I signed up for a 60-minute session at LifeFloat in South Lake Union. The premise for all the float centers is essentially the same: You get into warm salted water, and float in darkness.
The helpful employees at LifeFloat told me the first session is always an adjustment, from getting comfortable to realizing your mind is really busy and helping it settle into a quiet, dark space. I nodded. As long as my back felt better. They also told me I should try different positions to get comfortable.
At LifeFloat, you get an individual pool. You can take earplugs and use petroleum jelly on open wounds so they don’t sting in the saltwater. Inside, the lights were low, and the air was warm. Even if floating didn’t help my back pain, I already was more relaxed.
You get the option of music or no music. At first I thought I wanted music, but then decided total quiet was a rare treat and opted for silence. After I showered and stepped in the pool, the lights dimmed and my room went blackout dark.
I shifted around in the water, which was, at most, 18 inches deep. I put my hands behind my head to support my neck, a position I was told was easiest for most new folks.
It took me probably 10 minutes to adjust to the pitch-black, watery environment. At first, I didn’t want my ears underwater. I had skipped the earplugs, and it seemed like a bad call. I also was trying not to move and splash too much.
But once I decided it was fine for my ears to be underwater, and I let my head drop back, my neck relaxed. Once I stopped shifting so much, I started to relax in my shoulders and lower back. I could feel the intensity in my lower back easing up, and I focused on relaxing even more.
I opened my eyes once or twice and realized it was so dark there was no difference, so I closed them again. I occasionally wondered how long I had been in there. But mostly, I let myself drift.
I must have dozed off, because at some point the music started, and the lights went up to signal my float was over. That was quick. I checked on my back — it still hurt, but the natural buoyancy of the water had helped ease the pain.
Studies have shown that sensory deprivation in a float tank can lower blood pressure, and reduce pain, anxiety, depression and stress. Do it regularly, and there can be additional benefits. When it comes to alleviating pain, I’m willing to bet on floating.