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Float tanks help relieve stress

Steve Buchheit of St. Louis relaxes into the floating pod during the first few minutes of his float. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to figure out a way to make my thoughts stop racing. This is a way to quiet the mind,” said Buchheit. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Steve Buchheit of St. Louis relaxes into the floating pod during the first few minutes of his float. “Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to figure out a way to make my thoughts stop racing. This is a way to quiet the mind,” said Buchheit. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

ST. LOUIS – When I would tell people that I was going to try this new place where you float in a tank in total darkness and complete silence for 90 minutes, I would get two reactions: That sounds blissful, or that sounds torturous.

F.LO.A.T. opened its doors and four float tanks to the public earlier this year, and I was one who couldn’t wait to indulge. With days filled with multitasking, juggling schedules, constantly analyzing information and relentless demands, the idea of doing nothing was welcoming.

That’s what floating is all about, the advertisements say – shutting the world out so your body can rest and heal and your mind can be free and wander.

A near zero-gravity state is achieved with 850 pounds of epsom salt that allow you to float effortlessly and relax every muscle. The water is 93.5 degrees, about the temperature of your skin, so you lose the sense you are even in water at all.

The tanks are also insulated against sound. You wear disposable ear plugs, and your ears stay just below the surface of the water.

“It’s a level of mindfulness,” said co-owner Kevin McCulloch when I dropped in to check it out. “You shut out all the stuff that doesn’t matter for a short period of time, and you become aware of little things that you weren’t before.”

Studies have associated floating with improving creativity, stress, anxiety, chronic pain, athletic performance and test-taking.

Sounds like something you’d find in a doctor’s office, but F.LO.A.T. feels like a spa with a spacious lobby and modern rustic décor. Two floating rooms have a giant bathtub you enter through a small door in a floor-to-ceiling wall (I floated in one of these). Two other rooms have giant pods, like your own one-person hot tub with a lid.

Despite the soothing atmosphere, I can see how this might freak some people out, especially the claustrophobic types. But as you float in darkness, you lose awareness of the walls. You can pretty much imagine you are in the middle of the Milky Way.

And don’t worry, germophobes, each room has a shower and soap to use before and after, and the salt water is filtered three times between each float and sanitized with UV light.

When it came time for my group to get our pre-float instructions, McCulloch assured us that this was not like a ride at Six Flags. You are not strapped in until coming to a complete stop. Keep the light on or the tub door open if you want. Get out any time you need to.

Some of the seriously sleep-deprived worry about falling asleep and drowning, but the water is less than a foot deep and buoyant enough to keep you afloat. I was more concerned about not waking up when alerted the float was over. McCulloch said they can flicker the lights and make waves in the water. I also noticed a loud speaker on the ceiling.

“We want to create an environment where people want to come in and stay after they float,” said Kevin McCulloch, left, who talks with Marcio Guzman at F.LO.A.T. in St. Louis. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

“We want to create an environment where people want to come in and stay after they float,” said Kevin McCulloch, left, who talks with Marcio Guzman at F.LO.A.T. in St. Louis. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Considering users have reported creative and personal insights during their floats – developing scientific theories and drafting portions of books – I was hoping for some sort of insight or grand idea that would save lives or earn millions. But my benefits were more physical.

As soon as I started floating, my upper back hurt so bad I thought I was going to have to get out. I tend to hold tension in my neck and shoulders, but geez, I was so uncomfortable. I experimented with different arm positions and found that I had to float with my arms over my head and allow my head to tilt back.

Eventually, the pain melted away. A shoulder injury I’ve been struggling with felt much better days afterward. Another fellow floater had a similar experience.

“It’s almost like learning how to relax,” said Matthew Antolick, 40, of St. Louis. “I saw areas of tension I didn’t even realize were there disappear. And it’s still happening, which is nice.”

After spending nearly half the time just trying to get comfortable, I drifted into that dream-like state between being asleep and awake. This is when the brain produces slower theta waves, which floating enthusiasts say is accompanied by vivid memories, sudden insights, creative inspiration and a feeling of serenity and oneness with the universe.

I have no doubt good stuff like that was happening. The problem is, I just can’t remember any of it.

Toward the end of my float, my brain waves picked up, because I was suddenly very alert and rejuvenated. The list of things I had to do that day crept into my head, and I started feeling antsy. I began to go through the choreography I needed to know for my dance class, thinking it could assure a flawless performance. The light began to come on before I was finished, and I was actually disappointed.

Something McCulloch pointed out during our instructions made more sense after I was done. He said floating takes practice, just like yoga or anything else you do for the first time. I can see how I could get better at relaxing, introspection and maybe remembering what’s happening in my theta state.

Maybe we can accomplish more in a float tank than at the gym, zooming around in a car, on the phone or in front of a computer screen.

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