As a working mother of two, my usual relaxation routine consists of a 10 p.m. beer and an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) channel on YouTube. However, as my second baby reaches toddler age, I occasionally need something a little more potent. I find myself fantasizing about being knocked unconscious or being part of The Matrix – not the action adventure part of the movie, but the part where all the people are sleeping in pods.
Sensory deprivation tanks, or “floating” as it is called in the spa world, sounded like heaven. As I looked into it, I came across a host of unusual relaxation technologies that seemed like viable candidates to help an achy, over-interacted-with mom find a little rejuvenation.
The technology behind floating was developed in the mid-1950s by John Lilly, the same pioneer who brought us LSD and dolphin-talking. It uses darkness, quiet, and a body-temperature saline solution to reduce sensory input by 93%.
The technology has evolved beyond the vertical tanks and deep sea helmets used by the mid-century National Institutes of Mental Health, where floating was found to be helpful in treating PTSD. Now float tanks range from the Escape Pod URTH, which resembles a movie prop from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to the space-age clam shell shaped i-sopod.
Many float spas are white, ultra-modern, medical spa centers that appeal to those looking for a technology-driven approach to relaxation. At Transcend SA, which uses the URTH tanks, the feel is more earthy (or “urthy,” perhaps). Floating fits into owners Brad Clawson and Celina Garcia’s vision of holistic living.
The space in Five Points is a converted warehouse, with natural light creating high-contrast tableaus in the welcome space, yoga studio, and large massage treatment room.
“We needed a lot of area because we wanted to do so much,” Clawson said.
The tanks and smaller massage rooms are tucked away behind a wooden door in a warmly lit hallway.
A sign on the wall in the float room answered my first, and most pressing, question. “Get Naked,” it read.
Before I did so, however, Clawson and Garcia talked me through what to expect.
While regular floating can facilitate deep meditation and even sleep – overnight floats are available – most people spend their first float getting used to the experience. Time of day and intention also affect the float experience. With more practice, deep relaxation comes sooner in the float.
“You literally get to where you can’t feel your body,” Clawson said.
Most floats are an hour long, and at $65, the cost is on par with a massage. The Sunday special is $35 for a 60 minutes float. Transcend offers a package of three floats for $99. This encourages people to try the therapy multiple times and experience more benefits, Clawson said.
Once I had been briefed and left alone, I showered and climbed into the tank.
Closing the door over my head, the first thing I had to do was banish images from every horror movie I’ve ever seen. No eels or cadavers waited for me in the tank. No cold hands grabbed my ankles as I slid into position, and the 1,100 pounds of epsom salt in the water buoyed me to the surface.
My mild concern that I would fall instantly to sleep and drown was also alleviated. The tank contains only 10 vertical inches of water, so you can always reach down and touch the bottom. Submerging my head was nearly impossible because of the water’s buoyancy.
Those who struggle with claustrophobia can leave the tank lid open. Even when closed, the door is lightweight and easy to open. You really won’t be trapped or buried alive.
It’s hard to track time in the tank, but roughly the first third of my hour was spent drifting around enjoying the weightlessness. The physical benefits of the float tank are obvious. Spinal alignment and muscle relaxation are almost immediate, but the epsom soak can help with chronic joint pain, fibromyalgia, and other conditions as well. Of course, pregnant, nursing, and recently postpartum women should talk to their doctors before floating.
I started to really relax – and then came the thoughts. With nothing to interrupt or distract, I was able to fully board my own train of thought. I thought through stories, reflected on life changes, and considered some recent career advice, each train pulling softly into the station, allowing me to step off and reset my brain as I floated. It makes sense that many artists use the tanks to summon creativity.
Suddenly, I got the sensation that I was done. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts anymore. I wanted out of the tank. I hopped out and checked my clock: almost an hour on the dot.
This is not unusual, Clawson and Garcia said. At noon on a Friday it was unlikely that I would be turning off my mind completely. With practice, though, Clawson said, anyone can find zen on a weekday.
I’m not sure my budget would allow me to completely replace my Tecate and ASMR with regular floats, nor that I will ever be a total “zen out” kind of gal. However, I do plan to float again, especially when I have big events or decisions on the horizon. Whenever I find myself lusting after sci-fi movies where characters are held in suspended animation, or even running around asking if anyone has any poison apples or enchanted spinning wheels I can borrow – I’ll know it’s time for a float.