For my latest birthday a friend gave me a coupon to try “float therapy.” I hadn’t heard of that before (even though as I just learned, Cate blogged about it over THREE years ago). It reminded me of the “tranquility tanks” from the eighties (I think it was the eighties). You may remember those sensory deprivation tanks where you would float for an hour in dark silence. Now it’s called “R.E.S.T. (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy),” because, you know, everything in these days of wellness is “therapy” of one kind or another.
It didn’t appeal to me then. And I wasn’t so sure it appealed to me now (claustrophobia!). But when I checked the website I saw that you could book either a room or a pod. They seemed aware of the possibility that people might have claustrophobia, so they suggested that first timers try the slightly more spacious room over the pod.
It’s supposed to be totally relaxing because you’re floating in a shallow pool where the water has over 1000 pounds of epsom salts in it (more salt density than the Dead Sea) and that means you effortlessly float. Once in your floating position you’re in a zero gravity state, and that’s supposed to relieve your muscles, central nervous system, and spine of their usual load, thus alleviating the effects of gravity on these systems. If you turn off the lights and sound and move as little as possible, you purportedly go into a state of deep relaxation. The website makes the bold claim that research has shown one hour of floating is like four hours of sleep. I guess that’s if you do it right for the whole hour instead of taking 40 minutes to settle into it.
I think the first time is almost a throw-away experience. I was a mixture of skeptical and worried. Even though the room was recommended for first timers, when the attendant showed me the room I felt claustrophobic at the mere sight of it. You enter into your own space where there is a shower and a place for undressing and leaving your clothes. The float room is adjacent to that. It resembles a very large shallow bathtub, perhaps 8 or 9 feet long and about 4 or 5 feet wide, with ample head room of at least 6 or 7 feet.
I had a brief orientation where she showed me the room and told me to keep the salt water out of my eyes, mouth, and ears (they provide ear plugs). I would have seven minutes to shower before and some time to shower after as well. I would know my session was beginning because a woman’s voice (who sounds like “Mother” from the movie Alien) would come through the speakers to tell me it was starting. The attendant also repeatedly reminded me that the floor was very slippery, both in the anteroom with shower and the floor of the tub. This proved true and made me wonder how anyone with the least bit of balance or mobility issues could do this (I don’t think they could safely get in and out of the float room alone—I had to be very careful myself).
I found it alarming that there is no panic button inside the floating room. But the attendant made it seem as if I was the very first person ever to ask about that. She said if I was really panicking I could bang on the door (which turned out to be a useless piece of advice, as I will explain in a moment).
I undressed, showered with their super luxurious bath products, put in the recommended ear plugs and the head float thing (a flat buoyant circle of floaty stuff that fits around your head for extra support), and climbed in.
When you pull the large door shut, you’re in an insulated enclosure. The floating area (the tub) extends entirely to the sides, so there is no “edge” to speak of. Just four walls. Beside the door are two buttons to control lights and music. The water is not hot or cold — 93.5 degrees F, or the “skin-receptor neutral” temperature. The air within the enclosure is about the same. The air outside, in the shower and change area, is cooler, making it a bad idea to leave the door open.
Why might you want to open the door, you ask? Well, for my part, I found it difficult to breathe. The air is thick. And the enclosed nature of the thing, with no obvious ventilation system to circulate air into it besides the door, made me afraid to let go completely for fear that I would run out of air and suffocate. I kept thinking of things like refrigerators and container trucks where trapped people die from lack of air.
Once Mother told me my session was under way, I lost track of time, so what follows are estimates. I spent the first 15-20 minutes fiddling with the lights and music. At first, I had them both on. Then I remembered it was recommended as a sensory deprivation experience, so I turned off the music and tried to dim the lights. They were a lot like those hot tub lights that change colour every few seconds. If I could’ve steadied them on red and kept my eyes closed, I think that would have been fine. But I could see the changing brightness through my eye lids and I found it distracting. I messed around with it only to discover that there were just two settings. Completely off or cycling through the colours. I tried it with the lights off.
In this windowless enclosure, when the lights go off, it is capital “D” Dark. Like, can’t see your hand in front of your face Dark. I tried to settle into it, lying back in my floating position suspended in the salty water. But the level of Darkness just freaked me out even though I had my eyes closed. So I wanted to turn the light back on. But by then I had floated into a different position relative to the door and the light switches and I could find neither. And that’s when the panic began to rise and I thought for a few moments that I would lose my mind. And I absolutely couldn’t breathe and felt sure I would die right there. Which is why the instruction to bang on the door if I panicked did me no good at all because if I could find the door I wouldn’t be panicking.
I fumbled around and then remembered that basically it was just a room with four walls and if I traced a path along the wall with my hand I would find the door handle (it was like the bar you would find in the accessible shower stall). Beyond the door I found the light switch and turned the lights back on and then opened the door for about 30 seconds for some air.
At that point I started wondering how long I’d been there and how much longer and was I doing it right and I’m a seasoned meditator so why is this so hard? I didn’t do enough research into what you’re supposed to do, so I just tried to relax as much as possible and calm my mind. And breathe, which remained difficult. I settled into it enough after about half an hour to keep the lights off, but I opened the door for air at least four or five times. Finally, with I’d say 20 minutes to go, I settled in, confident that there was enough air in the room to last me to the end and that any sense that I couldn’t breathe was actually not accurate. I could breathe just fine, salt is supposed to be good for you, and in any case it’s almost done. I only had brief thoughts of abandoning the whole thing and had already decided this would be a one-off because…why am I here?
And that’s when I floated into a state of total, zero-gravity, sensory deprived R.E.S.T. I stopped thinking “when will this end?” and drifted off into floaty, relaxing, thought-free bliss. I’m guessing about 15 minutes passed before Mother’s gentle voice coaxed me out of my nothingness. If one hour of floating is equal to four hours of sleeping, my 15 minutes of mind-free floating must have been equal to an hour of sleep. And I did feel revived and recharged, disappointed that it was over.
Getting out was a careful process of trying to climb over the edge without slipping on the floor of the tub and then the floor of the shower and changing area (which is, to me, unnecessarily more slippery than it needs to be). I got a bit of the salty water in my mouth, and it tastes like something sour and disgusting and almost rotten. I showered with the luxurious bath products again, dressed, and went out to the vanity area to fix myself as best as I could for the outside world.
I asked to see a pod before I left. One look at the pod and I knew I would not be signing up for that. But I do think I will try the room again. Now that I know what to expect I think I can settle into a good experience a lot more quickly. I liked the final feeling of weightless zero-gravity and temperature neutrality. It’s comforting and stress-free (if you can get there). I’m not sure if it’s any more or less “therapeutic” than any other thing that forces you to quiet yourself for an hour, suspending the demands of the world. But the added bonus of zero gravity and sensory deprivation invite relaxation a lot more easily than, say, an hour of Vipassana meditation.
It’s not cheap. When Cate went, she paid $39. I had a $55 gift card (because it was my 55th birthday present) and I paid a $29 top-up for my hour of floating. I’m keen to give it one more go, which is more than what I would’ve said 30 minutes into it. But the price makes it an indulgence.
Have you had a floating experience? And if so, what was it like for you?