After Ashley Ward stepped into the pod, surrounded by darkness and quiet, she had to fight to shut off her mind.
Then it was effortless.
The Fremont, Nebraska, woman felt like an astronaut floating in outer space.
And she was floating, except it wasn’t in outer space.
Last month, Ward tried out floating at the new Omaha Float Spa.
Omaha is seeing a flurry of float spa openings. Omaha Float Spa opened Nov. 28. At least five others are expected to open across the city between now and springtime; one is set to open in Lincoln in February.
Spa-goers enter a private float tank nearly double the size of a bathtub. Hundreds of pounds of Epsom salt have been dissolved in the shallow pool of water so people float on top. The tanks are dark and quiet, although at some locations users can control light and sound during the one-hour sessions.
Proponents say floating reduces muscle and joint pain, shortens recovery time from athletic training or injuries, relieves stress and increases creativity. Studies back up some of those claims, though experts say more research needs to be done.
Floating dates back more than 40 years, though its popularity had waned by 2000, according to one expert. Now it’s making a comeback.
The trend regained popularity in part because of professional athletes using the tanks, including NBA star Stephen Curry and the World Series champion Chicago Cubs. Athletes say they use floating to better their game.
Before opening Omaha Float Spa near 180th and Pacific Streets with his wife, Brad Winterstein floated in tanks in Des Moines and in Lincoln. Tracy Winterstein floated in Dallas.
Both found the experiences to be relaxing and rejuvenating.
“The first time is just so different, alien,” Brad Winterstein said. “Imagine laying in a dark room, and all you can hear is your heartbeat and every breath you take.”
Ward, 34, was one of the first to try floating at the spa.
She was hesitant to spend an hour in the enclosed space. Being without light, sound or a cellphone seemed daunting — terrifying, even. After doing her own research and talking with the owners, she felt comfortable enough to give it a try. The owners assured her the tank doors don’t lock and can be left open during a float if preferred.
Before slipping into the water, Ward showered at the facility. Floaters are required to shower to wash off any lotions, makeup or other body products.
The density of the salt could make a swimsuit uncomfortable or distracting, so staff recommend floating naked. Also, the salt could irritate wounds, so a floater can use petroleum jelly to cover minor cuts. A floater also receives earplugs and has access to fresh water to wash out any saltwater from her eyes, should she accidentally get some on her face.
As floaters settle into the lukewarm water, they lose the ability to distinguish what parts of their body are underwater. It adds to the floating sensation.
Once in the water, which Ward described as silky, she became so relaxed that she fell asleep. The buoyancy of the solution keeps snoozing floaters from flipping over.
Ward meditates about four times a week and often fidgets to deal with pain in her shoulders and hips.
“In the water it was the first time that I was able to meditate without having any pain in my body,” Ward said. “It was such a freeing experience.”
Exiting the tank, Ward still felt as though she were floating. She spent the night feeling relaxed and pain-free.
Stress reduction and pain relief are the two most common findings in floating research, said Justin Feinstein, clinical neuropsychologist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Researchers haven’t found that floating has adverse affects, but Feinstein said users should take that with a grain of salt: Most studies have been done on healthy people. Feinstein and other researchers are just beginning to study floating’s impact on those with health problems.
Jessica Stuttle, 34, wanted to see if floating would help with her mental health. The Blair, Nebraska, woman was diagnosed with depression and anxiety six years ago.
Like many other floaters, she found it hard to relax when she first got in the water at Omaha Float Spa.
“It was hard to focus on being there in the moment. It’s like your brain has a bunch of computer windows open at the same time,” she said.
In the tank, no panic or anxiety set in. Stuttle floated for a second time just days after her first experience. She plans to continue floating.
Floating isn’t recommended for everyone.
At Omaha Float Spa, those with uncontrolled medical conditions such as fainting or seizures are asked not to float. Pregnant women must check with their doctors before floating. Those with open wounds or serious rashes shouldn’t float because saltwater could irritate the injuries. Floating isn’t recommended for those over 7 feet tall because of the size of the tanks, and some spas impose weight restrictions.
Sessions last 60 to 90 minutes. The price of a single float ranges from $65 to $90.
Jeremy Warner is a frequent floater and owns Escape Flotation Tank, which manufactures floating equipment in Lincoln. He said meditation is the most important part of floating.
“It gives you a place where for 90 minutes there’s no cellphones, no TV, no advertisements. You can really spend some time with yourself, and the effect of that is just really cathartic,” Warner said.
Warner intended to start his own float spa, but instead started building float tanks in 2012. The Lincoln-based business has distributed tanks in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Australia and Europe. He made tanks for two local float spas.
Floating advocates have some advice for skeptics: Give it a try.
Jordan Concannon said trying a float tank is like trying a new food. She’s opening Blue Oceans Float near 72nd and Pacific Streets in February.
“Try it once, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to try it again,” she said. “You never know. You could fall in love with it.”