Floating away

’Tis the season for family, festivities and a whole lot of frustration on Capitol Hill. Mix together the demands of high-pressure jobs, the expectations of loved ones and hectic travel, and you’ve got the recipe for tension leading into the congressional Christmas break.

“People in Washington are very stressed,” longtime local resident Leyla O’Day told The Hill. The single mother and former bakery owner was juggling quite a lot 25 years ago, when a fellow guest at a party told her about an unusual way to unwind.

O’Day learned about sensory deprivation tanks; lightless, soundproof tanks filled with body-temperature water. Invented by neurophysiologist John Lilly in 1954, the flotation tanks remove all external stimuli and allow for enhanced relaxation and meditation.

O’Day tried it and was hooked. She sold her bakery and started H&H Flotation Spa in Tenleytown 23 years ago. Located at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and Chesapeake Street NW, it’s the only place in Washington offering the flotation tank experience.

The first thing you’re asked when you make an appointment to float is if you are claustrophobic. Flotation tanks are dark and completely enclosed, and can make some folks a tad squeamish.

The spa isn’t for those expecting a high-end experience. Tucked away on the second floor of a strip mall above a restaurant, H&H’s amenities are minimal at best.

Three white doves in cages greet you when you enter, and O’Day happily bustles about explaining procedures and telling fascinating stories from her past. But the interiors are sparse, and there’s little more here than the tanks themselves.

Taking up half a room, the white flotation tank resembles the hull of a futuristic speedboat. A hatch on the top pops up, and after a shower, you climb into a completely dark interior and submerge yourself in warm water.

The hatch closes, and then you’re alone with your thoughts. The water creates a feeling of total weightlessness, and there is no noise or light to distract you. It is a completely foreign sensation, being free of the hustle and bustle of daily life.

Flotation tank users are warned that the experience can be quite alarming, including hallucinations and feelings of panic. But the warm water is utterly relaxing, and it is a pleasure being free of the demands of modern life, if only for a short time.

Gone are the holiday doldrums, the worries about work, gift-buying, family fetes and everything else that clutters our minds come December.

In addition to relaxing the mind, the flotation tank offers a surprising level of mental clarity. Problems that might have plagued you before for days or weeks suddenly become easily navigable.

O’Day is more than generous with appointment time, and before you know it, two hours have passed by. Once out of the tank, lights seem brighter and noises more acute. But the feeling of tension release is noticeable and better than any massage or yoga routine.

In order to get the full effect, O’Day recommends flotation tank users try it at least three times. The first and even second time, it can be difficult to fully let go and relax the mind.

At more than $80 a session, it can be an expensive habit to cultivate. But the cost is on par with the average massage in Washington, and is just as, if not more, therapeutic.

Still, for those wary of such an extreme relaxation experience, there are other uncommon ways to unwind in Washington around the holidays.

Many local professionals and spas now offer cupping, a type of vacuum therapy massage favored by Hollywood celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow. It involves warming air inside a glass, wooden or metal cup and inverting it over the body, and is reported to relax tight muscles and stimulate circulation.

Aromatherapy is said to help calm the mind, while body wraps ease aches and pains. Downtown Washington’s Celadon Spa combines the two, with aromatherapy body booster wraps that exfoliate skin and promise to detoxify and cleanse the system.

Those looking to stay closer to the office can instead visit Spa on the Hill near Eastern Market for a mud wrap. Clays and oils are rubbed into the skin to decrease inflammation and increase detoxification.

If the thought of such unusual relaxation methods leaves you feeling even more stressed, there’s always the simplest standby of all: a cup of tea. Long recognized for its healing properties, tea can provide a temporary oasis from holiday demands.

Café Promenade, Empress Lounge and the Tea Cellar all offer afternoon tea and delectable snacks. As temperatures cool, a hot cup of tea in a lovely setting can be just the ticket for de-stressing.

It might be a time for joy and good will, but lawmakers and congressional staffers operate under a great deal of pressure, balancing work with families who often live far away.

As so many on Capitol Hill focus on the needs of constituents far and wide year-round, it’s OK to take a little time for yourself this holiday season and make sure you’re ho-ho-holding up as well as you can.