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Floating to good health

By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Floatation tanks have long been rubbished as a New Age gimmick, where essentially you pay a large amount of cash to float in a dark room in a bath full of salts. But floatation tanks are entering the mainstream.

Day spa and floatation center, Float, has just opened in that bastion of bourgeois bohemia, Notting Hill and is doing well with regular clients and a sprinkling of celeb floaters.

Floatation tanks are used not only to assist in relaxation but to treat injuries and overcome a range of ailments from jet lag to depression.

But what is a "float" and is it for you?

What is floating?

Essentially it's spending an hour in a darkened tank filled with water and salts. Says Float founder, Roz Sullivan, "Floatation therapy is lying in 12 inches of lying in Epsom salts. The environment is controlled so there's no stimulus -- you can't see or feel anything else -- it's designed to trigger the relaxation response in the body and the brain. Your whole body is weightless so there is no pressure on it."

On my visit to Float, I was shown a room with a shower and a space-age looking tank. Once in the tank (swim wear optional) the roof was lowered over me and the lights in the tank gradually went dark as soothing rainforest sounds were played. The water is at skin temperature so its difficult to tell where your body ends and the water begins. After 10 minutes the music stopped and the tank was completely dark.

I spent the next 50 minutes floating until the lights and music came on and I had a ten minutes 'waking up' before my float was over.

What are the effects of a float?

For a start you are weightless in a tank, so any pressure on your body resulting from weight bearing is removed. Some people may find in a float their blood pressure drops, and their heart rate is lowered.

Circulation can be improved and aches and pains soothed. Many people use a float to wind down or to get over jet-lag -- as a deeply relaxing float has much in common with a deep sleep.

Says Sullivan, "Epsom salts are incredible for your skin, they are a muscle relaxant; they help draw lactic acid out of the muscles, so that speeds up the healing process. All your blood vessels and cells open up and your circulation increases, bringing new oxygen to the blood. So much goes on at a cellular level when you float."

Some floaters, such as Sullivan say being in the tank inspires great ideas and creative thinking. It was in a floatation tank that she got the idea to open the Notting Hill center. She says, "Restricting your environmental stimulus triggers a relaxation response in the brain -- your brain waves changes. Floating allows you to relax into your alpha brainwaves --something that many people can't achieve unless they train to mediate and practice it a lot. There are so many things going on when you float."

For others there is a sense of joy or peace as endorphins are released. I experienced none of this as I found the tank slightly claustrophobic. I felt bored and panicky for the first half then I relaxed into the experience for the second half and time went quickly.

But everyone has a different response to a floatation tank. Some swear by it -- others run a mile.

Sullivan suggests for some it takes a few treatments to get into it.

When and how often should you float?

Says Sullivan, "Anytime, it really depends on you -- when you feel you can relax the best -- it depends on the person. It's like any therapy if you commit to it regularly you'll start to see results."

"The effects are cumulative. If everyone floated weekly we would be very peaceful, but consistency is key for a float."


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Does a floatation tank experience match the therapeutic effects of the Dead Sea?

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