Time Warp – Flotation, Sensory Deprivation and Theta Waves

My first flotation experience yesterday was so interesting, a quick check-in on FB just didn’t do it justice.  A friend suggested I join her for my first flotation session at Floathouse in Gastown last night, a twist on Saturday happy hour activities.  I’ve seen quite a few flotation places opening up and heard little snippets about it, but didn’t know anyone who had actually tried it.  Being shut inside a sensory deprivation tank, floating in super saturated water for an hour and a half . . . hmmm, well that sounds . . . interesting.  Not without a certain degree of anxiety (how big is this tank?) and because I’m usually pretty good at saying yes first and considering the consequences later . . .I said sure, I’m in!

What is flotation?  It’s a currently en vogue form of sensory deprivation with big health benefits flowing from the state of deep relaxation and meditation.  While not a formal practitioner of meditation, I’ve long enjoyed the deep relaxation and sometimes profound moments that come from the meditative process in yoga, hot yoga in particular has always been deeply meditative for me.  If I could overcome the thought of being shut inside this little dark tank for 90 minutes (would I be claustrophobic?  bored?  cold?) this might be kinda cool.  If you want to know more details, check out the video below.

What is Floatation

Each room is self-contained with shower, towels and everything you need.  I got naked, coz that’s how you float, took a cool, scent free shower (reduce all sensory input) and climbed into the tank.  10 inches of skin temperature water with about 900 lbs of epsom salts  – yes, 900lbs – several times more saturated than the Dead Sea.

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I took the good advice on my first time to sit comfortably at the door and practice opening and closing it a few times to be comfortable with total darkness and finding the damn handle if I panicked.  So far so good.  Next step, lie down and start to float, which you do effortlessly.  I forgot the next piece of advice, which was to keep my hands on the sides until the water stopped moving. With the complete absence of light or sense of gravity to cue spatial orientation, the movement of the water as I lay down made me feel slightly motion sick, or that I was somehow falling forward.  Strange, but with absolutely nothing to cue me my body to it’s alignment I felt like I was tipping forward.  If you’ve scuba dived at night or in dark conditions, you will have some idea of the complete spatial disorientation of being in a weightless, gravity free, three dimensional world.

The water motion stopped and I just lay there, trying to relax wondering if I would sink.  My skin temperature and the water temperature matched perfectly and soon it was hard to tell where my body ended and the water started.  I chose a 30 minute guided meditation for my first time, it was a great choice.   A basic savasana progressively relaxing from toes to scalp.

Thoughts and some very vivid images came and went, I don’t recall when the guided meditation ended and it got very quiet and there were a few moments when thoughts brought me back to the present, but all sense of time disappeared.  It felt like 10 minutes later I heard more gentle music and was completely unbelieving that 90 minutes had gone by.  It took several minutes to reorient myself to the physical presence of my body and conscious thought and movement in my profoundly relaxed brain.   I had to check my watch when I got out to convince myself that 90 minutes really had gone by!

So what happened that made time cease to exist for me?  Current research says that we have four major types of brain waves or activity.

  • Beta – the waking rythmn  – that’s when we are awake and going through our daily lives
  • Alpha waves are slower, we are awake but calm and relaxed, often with eyes closed.
  • Theta – as the brain calms and slows we experience these slow, powerful, rhythmic waves.  Everyone generates theta waves at least twice a day as we drift from conscious drowsiness into sleep and again when we move from sleep to consciousness when we wake up.  If we have the luxury of not being instantly wakened by alarms, children . . you know, life, we can experience unexpected, unpredictable, dreamlike but very vivid mental images (known as the hypnagogic images ) and intense memories.  It’s hard to maintain, since we tend to fall asleep as soon as soon as we begin generating large amounts of theta.
  • Delta – extremely slow, low frequency brain waves usually generated when we are asleep or unconscious.

DreamspaBrainwave

The deep meditative state we can enter during the profound sensory deprivation of floatation allow our brains to slow down enough to remain in a theta wave generating state for extended periods of time.  It was, quite simply, incredible.  When I got out of the tank I knew I hadn’t been asleep or unconscious, but I also couldn’t explain where “I” had been during that time.  A profound, and profoundly calming and restorative experience.  A few of the images have remained with me, as the everyday busyness and sensory overload of daily life dropped away, crystal clear, full colour images and memories resurfaced.

Once out of the tank you have to shower and wash your hair to get rid of the salt and it took me a while to recover my spatial orientation – that usually unnoticed sense of where our physical bodies are located in space – I had kept tipping over in the shower. And then it’s recommended to spend some time in the lounge rehydrating and getting back in touch with the world before stepping out the door.   I had a long chat with one of the employees and he explained the Theta wave state!   How did I feel after?  Energized, it was like I’d had a long, refreshing nap, without the sleepy hangover feeling.   And I slept deeply and profoundly for 8 straight hours last night and woke up relaxed and refreshed.   I’m a convert to benefits of flotation.

Pro tips:

  • Don’t rub your eyes or touch your face in the tank – salt stings like heck and you’ll have to get out and wash your eyes!  Same for shaving or waxing . . . just saying.
  • Remember a hairbrush, elastics etc if you have a long shaggy mane like me. Chrome domes, you got nothing to worry about.
  • I wondered if my skin would feel dry and nasty from the salt, but it doesn’t, just clean and soft.
  • Leave enough time after to relax in the lounge and reorient yourself to the outside world.

I always like to finish my posts with some music, the Revivalists from New Orleans have been in heavy rotation for me and Soul Fight has been rocking my world.

Revivalists Soul Fight

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Dear Sixteen Year Old Me

Three years ago I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. I was lucky; by sheer chance I had been at my doctor to have a small cyst removed and asked her about a little mole on my thigh that was irritated. She decided to send in a biopsy sample and that made all the difference.  It meant it was caught early, when melanoma is very treatable and has a high recovery rate.  Melanoma is one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer and if left untreated has a low survival rate – early detection is key.  Still reeling from the shock of hearing that I had a malignant skin tumor, I truly didn’t understand the seriousness of the diagnosis until I found myself in surgery 10 days later having a wide excision performed on my thigh to remove the tumor and a sentinal node biopsy with three lymph nodes removed.  The nodes were thankfully negative, the cancer had not spread beyond the primary site and although the scar still aches when I am tired I fully recovered from the surgery.

I have been faithfully going to see my dermatologist for check ups, first at 3 month intervals, then 6 months and was looking forward to the 3 year anniversary this summer and only having annual check ups.  The office visit was very routine, right up to the moment he scanned the dermascope over my right calf, paused and went back to check again, and then a third time. I knew exactly which mole he was looking at, in the week before my visit I had noticed a change and was concerned about it. He decided on a excision right there and then in his office and I limped home with stitches in my leg. Telling your family that you have a second suspicious mole is awful, I don’t think they were any less scared then me.  We began the long, terrifying wait for the biopsy results.

We only had to wait just over a week when I got the call to come in and see the dermatolgist the next day.  That night and the next morning were very, very long.  As I feared, the biopsy was positive for a second melanoma. Damn. The positive news is that is was detected very, very early and although I will have to have another excision, it will be smaller than the first one and no node biopsy this time.  That’s very,very good news.  I see the plastic surgeon July 8th and expect to have the procedure done within 7 – 10 days after that – they don’t keep you waiting with melanoma – every day counts. The prognosis is excellent, although I will have to go back to 3 month check ups and start the 5 year countdown again.

One of the interesting things that happens almost every time I tell someone about my experience with melanoma is they say “I have this mole I’ve been a bit concerned about – what do you think?”.

Here’s what I think.  IF YOU HAVE A MOLE YOU ARE CONCERNED ABOUT, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR IMMEDIATELY.

I would not in a million years have thought I had skin cancer.  It took me two years to say the “C” word.  Early detection is critical.  Don’t delay,if you see one of these make an appointment with your doctor and ask the question.  Here are the early warning signs of melanoma that The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you watch for, the ABDCE’s and the Ugly Ducklings: 

A = Asymmetry.  If you draw a line through themole, the two halves will not match, meaning it is asymmetrical. 

B = Border.  A benign mole has smooth, even borders, the borders of an early melanoma tend to be uneven. The edges may be scalloped or notched.

C = Colour. Most benign moles are all one color— often a single shade of brown. Having a variety of colors is another warning signal. A number of different shades of brown, tan or black could appear. A melanoma may also become red, white or blue.

D = Diameter.  Melanomas usually are larger in diameter than the eraser on your pencil tip (¼ inch or 6mm), but they may sometimes be smaller when first detected (both of mine were smaller).

E = Evolving.  Common, benign moles look the same over time. Be on the alert when a mole starts to evolve or change in any way. When a mole is evolving, see a doctor. Any change — in size, shape, color, elevation, or another trait, or any new symptom such as bleeding, itching or crusting — points to danger.

Ugly Duckling = all the other moles look relatively the same, but this one looks different. It’s the “ugly duckling”.  Go get it checked.

“Dear Sixteen Year Old Me” is a video created by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund to raise awareness about melanoma that went viral shortly after it was released in May, 2011.  It’s central message – Get to Know Your Skin, Be Aware, not Afraid.  Check your skin monhly for any changes, use sunscreen, and never, ever use tanning beds.  I grew up in Australia, we lived in the sun and at the beach 24/7.  No-one used sunscreen, we used baby oil and iodine to perfect our “healthy glow”.  In later years in Canada I would go to the tanning salon to get a “base tan” before our annual winter vacation in Mexico or the Caribbean.  I didn’t know, or didn’t believe.  Get to know your risk profile and enjoy the sun safely.

One of the ongoing conversations I’ve had  is about how being diagnosed with cancer changes you, how it affects on a very profound level how you live your life. I am very, very lucky. But hearing those words, and going through that surgery, absolutely changed me.  Now I’m walking the path a second time.  I wonder (actually I don’t wonder, I’m pretty sure) that the intensity that I bring to my life is tough on friends and family. I don’t believe in wasting time, I don’t believe in compromises. I believe in wringing the absolute most out of every single experience and moment. It’s not that I don’t plan for the future, I do that in spades, but I don’t put off making that future into my new reality. And if something isn’t working, I’m not wasting time on it, because time is a finite commodity. None of us know when our time  will run out, I just don’t want to get to that day and regret all the things I didn’t do.

No-one ever says “I should have spent more time at the office” or “I had too much fun” or “I took too many trips”, but they do regret time not spent with family and friends, dreams and aspirations unrealized, not saying I love you often enough and not realizing soon enough that happiness is a choice.

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No Bad Days in Baja

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Maids of the Mist at Niagara Falls

Choose happiness, make time, make love and say the words, it all counts.  This isn’t a dress rehearsal. 

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