Float, relax: Send your stress upstream

For one hour, it was nothingness. No pings, rings or screens. No sights, sounds or smells.


I was one with a universe of 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in 200 gallons of water.

What’s up with that?

Floating inside a sensory deprivation tank at a spa in Mill Creek Town Center, I was insulated from the external stimulation that bombards my soul: Traffic, texts, Facebook, doughnuts, work.

Valerie McDowell, owner of Mill Creek Float, sent me into a fiberglass float pod with this advice: “Don’t set up any expectations. Trust the process and enjoy. The point is to relax. Try not to attend to those ruminating thoughts. Go inward.”

A dial on the side let me select soothing LED colored lights or total darkness. I started with violet then went to pitch black. At first the blackness was jarring. Eyes opened or closed looked the same.

My mind started fidgeting. What the hell was I going to do for an entire hour?

What if I couldn’t find my way to shore? That was a stupid worry, as most worries are. The shore was at my fingertips. The water was shallow. There was no way I could drown in this salty cocktail. Or get lost. Or do anything but float. Effortlessly.

Back to the first question: What was I going to do for an hour?

It took about 10 minutes to zone out. After that, I let go. I floated through the starless night sky, drifting through space like George Clooney in the movie “Gravity.”

Getting tanked makes for great satire and sci-fi. On a float tank episode of “The Simpsons,” Lisa goes on a spiritual, mystical journey inside a tank and Homer sings like he’s in the shower. In the 1980 film “Altered States,” a scientist immerses himself in a tank and takes hallucinogenic drugs, then goes berserk.

I did none of the above. After my initial jitters dissipated, I just lay there, thoughtless and motionless. I was too relaxed to care about deadlines or doughnuts, which doesn’t happen often.

Is this form of floating solitary confinement therapeutic or a carnival ride?

“Float therapy or sensory deprivation tanks are an interesting and different way to relax,” said Paul Schoenfeld, behavioral health director at The Everett Clinic.

Schoenfeld speaks from experience. “I’ve tried it myself, and I found it to be very relaxing,” he said. “It takes a couple of times to get used to the experience — floating on warm salt water in a dark environment. Many adults find it to be a great antidote to the busy, stimulus-filled, crazy lives we inhabit. Some people love it. These have been around since the 1970s but have recently come back into style.”

Float tanks are used in salons and wellness centers worldwide. With the Seattle area getting a bit saturated with float pods and pools, McDowell chose Mill Creek as the place to open her spa last year.

Like so many trends, having a celebrity endorsement helps. McDowell said many customers mention wanting to try it because of comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, a floating enthusiast.

As Rogan writes in his blog: “Being alone with your mind is a very odd feeling, and it takes a while to get used to it. When you’re alone in the tank, it’s a different kind of being alone. It’s the kind of alone that just doesn’t let you bull—- yourself. If you were wrong, or off base about something, no matter how much you’ve been deluding yourself thinking that you were in the right, you’re going to see the whole picture with crystal clear clarity when you get into that tank.”

At McDowell’s spa, a float costs about $50 for first-timers who want to try it out. Groupon deals, packages and membership rates are available.

Three private rooms each have a pod with a separate filtration system. Each room has a shower, sink, towels, toiletries and everything needed for an hour retreat in a salty bath. Floaters can wear a bathing suit or their birthday suit.

It’s not a bath tub or a hot tub. The thick, salty water is skin temperature. The lid can be wide open, totally closed or anywhere between.

Inside the pod is a button that can be pushed to talk to the front desk if floaters have questions or concerns during the session. Another button controls meditative music.

McDowell, 42, earned a degree in pediatric medicine in Kazakhstan, but after moving to Seattle switched to a career in information technology for 16 years.

She went to a Seattle float spa to unwind. “The first time I was sort of anxious,” she said.

After the third time she was sold on the virtues. This led to a new business venture and a move to Mill Creek with her 11-year-old daughter.

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