Sensory Deprivation: Better (And Cheaper) Than A Massage

You want to relax? Like, REALLY relax? Floatation tank.

Enlightenment. It's as close as you can get to taking a vacation from your bod. In pursuit of that very goal, I recently took a dip in a sensory deprivation tank.

Sensory deprivation, at face value, is a concept that brings up thoughts of anxiety, claustrophobia, and solitary confinement, all of which are the exact opposite of relaxation.

Or are they?

We navigate, process, and interpret the world through our sensory inputs. What happens when you lose some of your senses? What level of mind and deeper sense of mental and physical relaxation can you achieve? This is the thinking behind floatation tanks. With your senses out to lunch, you're left with pure consciousness, a heightened level of introspection and relaxation.

Meditation is known to activate your theta waves, the level of mind typically associated with a supremely calm, dream-like state of consciousness. Many tank advocates say the sensory deprivation experience increases meditative states, decreases anxiety and emotional distress, lowers blood pressure, and ups oxygen levels.

Some of the types of individuals who seek this treatment include athletes, for muscle relaxation and tension relief; Fibromyalgia patients, for joint relief; academics, for creativity sessions and anxiety reduction; smokers, for relaxation and emotional stability during withdrawals; and travelers, for jet lag.

John Lilly, the neuroscientist who popularized sensory deprivation and immersion tanks, started developing floatation chambers in the 1950s. One of his students, Peter Suedfeld, later developed the Samadhi model that is widely used today. It's the kind of tank that I spent an hour floating in one recent Monday. And I loved it.

It’s like a large, comforting bath that you can dream in. Light proof and sound proof, chambers are eight feet long, four feet tall, and four feet wide. The water is 10 inches deep, loaded up with more than 800 pounds of Epsom salts for a buoying anti-gravity experience, and temperature controlled to 94 degrees (close to that of the human body).

I met with Sarah Stephens, co-owner of SpaceTime Tanks in Chicago, to get the inside scoop of all things zen before my first float ($50 per one hour session). SpaceTime Tanks is one of two floatation businesses in Chicago’s city proper and has been in business for over 22 years. It's the longest running sensory deprivation business in the country. SpaceTime is Big Time.

Getting ready to step into a coffin-like structure filled with nothing but water, salt, and complete darkness is nerve wracking. As I took off my shoes and turned off my cell phone, as instructed, my mind raced and I became anxious. But I nodded my head and smiled through Sarah’s pre-float rundown.

Here's what Sarah went over, and what I was thinking in my head...

Did you drink caffeine in the last 3 hours? There’s no need to stimulate your body prior to this experience. Nope.

Did you have a snack? You don’t want to be distracted by a growling tummy and hunger pains. Did I ever. Nachos, of course.

There’s indentation on the inside of the hatch, just in case you need to feel around to open it and step out of the tank. Wait, OMG, am I going to be able to do that? Why would I need to get out? What is going to happen in there?

Be careful when you go into sitting pose. Sometimes the water will drip over your face and you’ll get salt into your eyes. It burns. Get out and wash your eyes out in the shower. Oh! That’s why I may get out. I don’t think this will happen to me. I can handle sitting up. (Spoiler: it totally did happen.)

When an hour is up there will be a knock on the tank and that’s when you’ll get out and shower off.Perfect.

All the pre-float anxieties immediately disappeared when I stepped into the water, which doesn't feel like bathwater. The texture is different because of all the Epsom salt. It feels slippery and silky, like you’re a slice of banana on top of a massive Jell-O mold.

Experiences vary--some report hallucinations and out of body experiences. My experience was like an elongated waking dream state, blissfully relaxed with constant dream-like visuals. My brain toggled from conscious manifestations of thoughts and controlled mental paths to veering unconsciously into ideas and visuals that came out of nowhere. An hour later there was a knock on my tank wall. Time's up. But I didn't want to get out.

That night I slept better than I had in months, and days after I was told, on several different occasions, how great I looked. Thank you, float tanks.

Would you try a floatation tank experience? Do you have enlightenment aspirations?