Drifting to peace: a claustrophobic seeker learns to float

Ali Mischke is a Structural Integrator and Registered Yoga Teacher based in North Cambridge. I love Ali’s description of her first float because it’s a classic early awkward experience. (Our Beginner’s Package is three floats in part because there’s a non-zero chance that one of your early floats will be less than perfect.) I’m impressed with her for overcoming her fears, and proud of her for coming back and giving it a second shot. – Sara

Drifting to peace: a claustrophobic seeker learns to float

I first encountered Float Boston before it opened, down a side road somewhere on my Internet travels. I had heard about floating for years and was intrigued by its potential to help overcome the psychological, physical, and spiritual effects of our over-stimulated modern environment. I love the Cambridge area, and I’m also acutely aware of how far the concrete and chaos takes us from our natural, centered state.

After meeting Sara, I quickly signed up for my first float. Upon arrival at the center, I was shown to my room. I turned off the overhead lights, put in earplugs, showered, climbed into the tank, shut the door – and immediately freaked out. With a history of childhood asthma, it doesn’t take much for me to feel like I can’t breathe.

In the warm darkness of the tank, claustrophobia took over. My lizard brain screamed that I was trapped. My heart started to pound; it felt like there was no air. I threw the door open and sucked air like a free diver who’s just beaten the world record.

89 minutes or so remaining. Oh, dear.

When I find something that terrifies me, I get curious and move toward it in an effort to expand my boundaries. I was determined not to run screaming from a situation in which there was no actual danger, not to mention how alarming the running and the screaming might have been to whichever lovely and unsuspecting soul was getting their float on in the next room over. It was time to get creative.

I was inside the tank, hanging onto the edge for dear life. I peered back into the darkness and considered my options. Between the silence of the room and the extra insulation of the earplugs, I could hear my breath and my heartbeat. Both were still pretty fast and irregular.

Keeping the door open, I lay back and stared at the soft light filtering in from the salt lamp in the corner of the room. I spent a few minutes focusing on deepening and slowing my breath. I paid particular attention to the length of my exhalations; a longer exhale stimulates the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system.

Eventually, I started to relax. It was still pretty far from the full experience, though, and I was determined to push on. I sat up and looked around the room and found a pool noodle designed for resting under your knees while you’re in the tank. Perfect. I reached for the door, propping it open with the pool noodle, and lay back down. My heart rate and breath rose again. Again, I spent a few minutes gazing at the light streaming through the 3-inch opening and working at controlling my breath.

10 or 20 minutes into my float, I was making it work, but I was not enjoying myself or feeling liberated. Where’s the Zen, I wondered? I am a yoga teacher, a bodyworker, and a self-proclaimed water baby. Being present in my body, pursuing freedom through mindfulness and self-inquiry, and finding joy while floating are my THINGS. I spent a few minutes contemplating self-compassion, noticing the urge to judge myself for “failing” at floating, and inviting the judgment to fall away. This is what is, I thought; how silly we humans are. How vulnerable; how endearing.

I spent a few minutes contemplating self-compassion, noticing the urge to judge myself for “failing” at floating, and inviting the judgment to fall away.

It was time to take the final step: removing the pool noodle (cue dramatic music). I reached up for the door and promptly managed to drip extra strength salt water directly into my eye. Youch!

The FLOAT staff has thought of this, and keeps a spray bottle of fresh water on an adhesive hook just outside the door. My eye on fire, I fumbled for the door, managing to slip on the bottom of the tank, banging and sloshing against the sides. Eventually I got the door open (it’s actually quite easy, but I was apparently in a state) and reached for the spray bottle. I must have reached with enthusiasm; the adhesive hook flew across the room, clattering against the opposite wall. Undeterred, I spritzed copious amounts of cool water directly into my eyeball. Relief.

As once again I found myself hanging with relief on the threshold of the tank, I began to giggle. This could make a great story, no doubt, but I signed up for this to relax?! 50 or so minutes remaining. It seemed like a long time.

I successfully removed the pool noodle that I’d been using to prop the door, took a deep breath, closed the door, and lay back in the darkness. This time, the air felt fresh and my heart rate stayed below the red line. For several minutes I counted my breaths, a technique I’ve learned to focus a wandering mind. As my senses took a break, I started to feel like I was spinning. I lay and spun and thought of nothing in particular for quite a while – at last! – until I began to anticipate the music that signals the end of a float. Would I be able to hear it? Why hadn’t it gone off yet? What time was it?

Eventually, I did hear music. I got out of the tank, reattached the adhesive water spritzer hook to the side of the tank, showered off, and went to the back room, where there was tea and comfortable chairs and journals. I read through others’ descriptions of their floats, feeling wrung out and curious about the stories that were so different from my own experience. It was relaxing in the end, and I felt a sense of achievement for having overcome my claustrophobia, but others were talking about life-altering experiences. Was floating just not for me?

I decided to reserve judgment and book two more floats. Float usually recommends you try floating three times before evaluating its effects, and I really wanted to give it a fair shake. Now that I knew the routine, would it be a better experience? A few weeks later, I arrived for my second float, a bit wary but willing. This time was entirely different: most notably to start, I had no need for the pool noodle trick, and no need to spritz water into my eyeball (yay!). I was able to close the door immediately upon entering the tank, and not freak out (again – yay!).

Sara had recommended floating head in, as the air circulation is located in the back, and any small light leaks through the door seal won’t be as visible from that position. As before, I had to do a little successive approximation before I felt comfortable with my head far from the door. It didn’t take long, nor was it nearly as… exciting as my previous experience. Listening to the sound of my breath and gazing into the darkness, I felt something therapeutic begin. Within 10 or 15 minutes, I had drifted off to sleep. I woke up just before the music started, feeling calm and refreshed.

My wrists had been aching for the previous few days from working a bit too much lately, and when I awoke they were spacious and comfortable. The Epsom salts had worked wonders for the inflammation. Over the next two or three days, I noticed I spent more of the time feeling calm and centered, and it was easier to return to a sense of presence after something disrupted it. It was delicious.

My third float is scheduled for a few weeks from now, and I find myself craving the experience. Sometimes when I feel overstimulated, I find my thoughts drifting to the tank. I do wonder what it will be like if I manage to stay awake this time, though I’m OK with it if I sleep. I trust my body will restore itself however it most needs. Either way, I’ve become grateful to have floating in my therapeutic toolkit, and grateful to Sara for so patiently listening and helping me troubleshoot the experience.

Float on! I plan to.

Learn more about Ali and her practice here.

Have a float story you’d like to share? We’d love to hear it. Send your float experience to sara [at] floatboston.com, and if we use it, we’ll send you a float credit in thanks. You can be as public or anonymous as you like. 

About Sara

Sara is a co-founder of Float, and has been a licensed massage therapist since 2003. The problems of two people may not amount to a hill of beans in this world, but this is our hill, and these are our beans.