I’ll Try Anything Once: Sensory Deprivation Flotation Therapy

Would you lie in a giant pitch-black tank full of tepid salt water for an hour? I did!

Dec 28, 2011 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

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I might be the only wired person who hasn’t been on the daily deals bandwagon. It took my good friend Becky basically curating and forwarding the best coupons for me to start paying attention.

After one of her fortuitous coupon purchases led to an epic binge at the Bay Area’s best vegan soul food restaurant, I was literally sold. I bought a meal deal of my own, and now I get daily emails about cheapo yoga classes, discount sushi and budget coastal getaways.

I mostly delete them without paying attention -- that is, until a couple of weeks ago, when a particularly strange deal arrived.

“Hour of Flotation Therapy, 51% Off”

What? Really? What does that mean?

It basically meant I was going to lie in a pitch-black tank of salt water for an hour. The extremely high salt density would keep me afloat in my own personal Dead Sea, and it would be totally silent and dark.

Or, to be more formal about it, everyone’s favorite questionable online source Wikipedia explains that floatation therapy in an isolation tank, sometimes called Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST!), promotes meditation and relaxation. In one study, “Floating was shown to improve creativity in jazz musicians, accuracy in rifle shooting, focus before academic examinations, and stress relief.”

I’m no gun-slinging jazz singer, but I need to be inspired and soothed. Plus I tend to like therapies that might be considered, colloquially speaking, woo woo. Dark, quiet, humid vat of Epsom salt water? Sign me up!

What about you? Are you freaked out yet? Because most people I told about the big briny bin were skeptical.

My partner said the very description made him feel claustrophobic and kept insisting, “It sounds like being in a casket.” Another friend kept making punny jokes about how floating was out of her depth.

There was only one person who could possibly understand my excitement. I emailed Becky, who is both a terrific bargain dining companion and is also the friend who turned me onto migraine-healing acupuncture several years ago (yes, I will write about that soon, headachey xoJaners!).

My thrifty gal pal is always up for a relaxing holistic adventure. She’s obviously the best.

“Becks, you want me to buy you a pass to this flotation therapy thing?”

She wrote back 10 minutes later. “I already bought one of those!”

Of course she did. Great minds and all that. The center didn’t have a shared time soon enough to suit me, so I gamely said I’d go first and report back.

When I called to confirm the appointment, the woman on the phone warned that I might be a little dazed afterward and that I should bring a change of clothes.

“And just my bathing suit, right?”

“Ah, no,” she said. “The people on the website have on swimsuits, but that’s because it’s a website. It’s sensory deprivation. You float naked. You’d feel the fabric otherwise.”

Oh. Duh.

Two days later, my quest for isolated relaxation began. The actual flotation center (which is also part art gallery) is in a half-residential, half-industrial area on the edge of Oakland. I drove under the freeway, alongside a rumbling Amtrak train, and parked across from someone’s plastic-lawn-ornament-covered front yard.

There is absolutely no way I could have gotten there using public transit and/or my own two feet. In other words, you don’t just stumble through Oakland and happen upon the unique combination of flotation therapy and mosaic displays.

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When I walked into the converted loft, a mellow dude was sitting on a sofa in the center of the room drinking tea. The floatation center attendant bustled around, carrying armloads of laundry behind some big plastic curtains.

I heard a crazy whooshing sound akin to that of a water park ride, which I assumed was one of the isolation tanks emptying and refilling with a dense Epsom salt mixture.

I perched uneasily on a chair across from the mellow guy, who smiled and asked, “First time?”

“Uh, yeah,” I smiled shyly. He motioned upstairs and said he was waiting for his wife.

“I couldn’t get my husband to come with me,” The man nodded as if he understood. We sat silently until his damp-haired spouse joined him on the loveseat. I strained to hear as they compared notes. “It felt like being suspended in Jell-O!” “I fell asleep!”

While I waited, a regular waltzed through the door. The attendant looked up and said, “Hi James! Your things are ready upstairs.” OK, so not everyone was new at this.

The attendant came over then to give me my pre-float pep talk.

“Try not to think too hard about what you will tell people afterward,” he instructed as I nodded earnestly. “The time in there is yours. Don’t worry about anyone else.”

Always good advice.

Then he asked, “What’s your shoe size?”

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I was ushered off to shower in the very homey bathroom because you have to be squeaky clean to float. When I emerged, I put on a complimentary robe and Crocs in my size that had been left for me. I was pleased that my flotation tank was on the second level, right next to the restroom. No traipsing up and down the stairs, no real potential to run into anyone else.

From the outside, the tank itself didn’t frighten me. It’s imposing, but I should point out that it’d pretty much be impossible to drown in that thing. The water is only about 10 inches deep, and if you do doze off and move around, the sting of imbibing salt water will wake you up if all else fails.

I kicked off my clogs and put my robe awkwardly on top of the tank. Not keen to hover around the thing naked, I eased myself into the lukewarm opaque water and sat there for a moment before I closed the heavy door at my feet, situated as such so I could sit up and open it at any time.

I was very thankful that my fear of the dark had long ago been cured as I suctioned myself inside.

If I ever want to imagine being trapped in a cross between a cellar and a giant piece of Tupperware, I’ll just think of the isolation tank.

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I gasped a bit in the stifling humidity and tried to relax my neck to allow myself to lie back. At first, until my position in the tank stabilized, I gently drifted into the sides, bumping the edges with my hands or feet. I’d sort of push off again and try to hover near the middle for maximum sensory deprivation.

I needed to stay somewhat alert because the salt water comes right up around the most sensitive parts of your face. But at least once, my head must have nodded to the right as I dozed because salt water stung my eye something fierce.

Other times, I couldn’t feel my body so much as I was aware of my organs. Because I’m prone to anxiety and used to carry pills for panic attacks, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was most aware of my thumping heart and heaving lungs with my body floating around them.

Most of the time, I didn’t feel like a physical human but just a disembodied heap of uterus, heart, lungs, and body hair.

I should have considered that half-submerged tufts of hair might cause just as much noticeable friction as that swimsuit I’d hoped to wear.

How conscious was I throughout my floating time? It was impossible to tell. Time obviously passed, though I don’t know how much. I had that crazy "Inception" feeling of falling that I can only attribute to sleeping in there, minus Leonado DiCaprio’s pensive intensity.

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that I fell asleep in a big dark tank of salt water.

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I do know that at probably the 45-minute mark, I had my only (requisite?) momentary freak-out. Trying to breathe through the heavy humidity finally got to me, and I sat up very suddenly, heart pounding, and shoved the door open for a breath of fresh air.

I was aware that sitting upright and letting in the light wasn’t very meditative, but it beat feeling like I was suffocating in a shallow oceanic box.

After lying back down, it seemed like only a few minutes later when I heard the heavy knocking on the tank that signaled my time was up.

I got out slowly, feeling rather dizzy and unused to the light. Besides a warning that the salt water made everything slippery, I was terrified I would fall getting out because my balance felt off. I have never considered that I should be thankful for Crocs, but I sure was happy to have those little rubbery sandals to help me get safely back to the shower.

Though I’m sort of a moron about beauty supplies, I should note that the bathroom was equipped with stacks of fluffy white towels and all sorts of lovely products: moisturizer for both face and body, a proper hairdryer, some sort of hair and skin moisturizer mist, and Q-tips for salty ears.

They could stock Suave in there, but they’d sprung for Aussie shampoo. It’s the little stuff.

Back in the open lobby-ish space, I drank tea like the couple before me and tried to compose myself enough to battle the weekend Bay Bridge traffic. I gazed around at the locally produced artwork, wondering if I’d ever become a person who sees art on a wall and impulsively buys it (let alone one who has room for it).

“How do you feel?” the friendly attendant asked me, setting some agave syrup next to my teacup. I smiled. I guess I felt fine?

The main and obvious benefit of my buoyant encasement was that my neck, stiff because of my stubborn refusal to get a better pillow, felt remarkably loose and relaxed.

In order to enjoy the full benefits of isolation therapy, I was told I should float at least twice. The first time involves so much time spent adjusting to the environment that two sessions are more effective. Still, I’ll take soothed neck muscles from only one treatment.

In the weeks since, when I’ve recounted the story of the tank, I end up shaking my head, laughing a bit, and using phrases like, “It was OK-aaaaaay,” or saying, “I don’t know” a lot. Because even now, I don’t know what I think.

More importantly, I don’t think my frank descriptions of the isolation tank really sell anyone on the idea. I mean, do they? Are you moved to find relief in high density salt water? Would you try this once?