Remember the jingle, “Calgon, take me away!”? It became a motto for stressed-out women. Stepping into a tub of bubbles was any and every woman’s way to escape her problems: the job, the kids, the housecleaning, the husband. Tranquility was just a bathtub away. For many of us, a soak in the tub is still a great escape. It is for me. Same with swimming, whether in a pool or the ocean.
If these ways to be soothed by water have always been delightful for me, then what about a sensory deprivation float tank? With the theme of this issue in mind – transportation – I thought I would explore being transported by going to a float tank. It worked.
Finding a float center
I had booked a 60-minute float for a friend and myself in side-by-side tanks at Requiescent Float Center in Albany, NY. (There are several flotation centers in the Hudson Valley. They’re listed at the end of the article.) I had a sense of what to expect as I had been in a float tank once before, though it was way back in the early 1980s. My memory of that experience was very positive – transporting, for sure – and I was looking forward to something similar. My friend had never had a float tank experience and in fact had never heard of such a thing.
Prepping to float
Requiescent Float Center’s motto is “Walk In & Float Away.” It’s as simple as that, really.
We were greeted by Vam, a friendly and attentive man who explained that each tank room featured a shower, some towels, a couple of pairs of wax ear plugs, a thin foam ring to put behind your head to keep it safely buoyed while floating, and the tank itself. Locking yourself inside the tank room, you took off your clothes, showered to get wet, secured the wax ear plugs (so as not to get the Epsom salt-rich tank water in your ears), climbed in, shut the tank door, pushed the button to turn off the single light in the tank, and lay down to float. Vam explained that when the hour was up we would hear music that would slowly increase in volume. After a few minutes of music, a light would flash. Emerging from the tank, we could throw away the ear plugs, shower, and get dressed. We were excited to start our floats.
The temperature of the water is 94 degrees, which is regulated to complement a normal body temperature. It’s warm, but not too warm. It’s not deep, either. The tank is essentially a large rectangular bath tub with a nice high ceiling. There was no odor in the tank, either, which was nice. Once the button was pressed to turn off the tank light, there was complete darkness and complete silence.
Settling into the experience is like settling into meditation. If you’re practiced at quieting your mind, you’ll float away sooner, I suspect. My monkey brain kicked in and I was hyper-aware of whether I had the ear plugs in properly to keep the salt water out. It took sitting up a few times and squishing them around to reassure myself that they were indeed doing their job. The water moves you around a tiny bit, like an inflatable on a still pool, and my mind fussed a little with that.
I’ve meditated and done relaxation exercises before, so I steered my thoughts in the direction of focusing on my breathing, taking deep breaths, and sinking into the float. Out of nowhere I felt like crying, but it came up and went away. I imagined myself in a favorite place, on a rock at the top of a hill in a pasture where I grew up. I felt the sun on my face and could see everything around me clearly and calmly. People from my past bubbled up, people I hadn’t thought about in years.
The thin foam piece behind my head was very comfortable, but I felt tension in my neck and shoulders. This was interesting to me, as I have chronic pain in my right shoulder for which I’ve tried several treatments with varying degrees of success. I bent my elbows and positioned my arms with palms facing up on either side of my head, picturing my cat on her back in the sun. This was much more comfortable and I stayed in this position.
The feeling of being safely buoyed by the water – floating – was wonderful. There was nothing but the sound of my heart beating in my ears and my breath coming and going. And just as Vam had said, at some point I became aware of music. Massage music. Slipping in like a stream of color. Becoming aware of it made me realize I hadn’t been aware of anything physical for who knows how long.
Getting out of the tank took discipline. It was really nice in there. The shower was great, though, and they had body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion, as you’d expect at a spa. I heard my friend emerge from the adjacent tank and the sound of his and Vam’s voices.
Back to earth.
The after effects? The float left me and my friend feeling, well, floaty. We both wrestled with settling into it at first and both felt that when we heard the music at the end of the hour, it was like no time had passed. A kind of dreamy contentment floated with us for most of the day, even when we spent time with a very active toddler later in the day.
Who came up with this stuff, anyway? I hadn’t given any consideration to the creating of the experience when I did it in the ‘80s, but I wanted to know now.
Thank you, Dr. Lilly
The isolation tank was a creation of John C. Lilly, MD, a noted physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, and psychonaut. (A psychonaut is someone who, in sum, seeks to investigate their mind using intentionally induced altered states of consciousness for spiritual, scientific, or research purposes. Timothy Leary, with whom Lilly was friends, was considered a psychonaut as well.) While studying neurophysiology at the US Public Health Service Commissioned Officers Corps in the early 1950s, he became curious about the brain’s function without sensory input. He created what has remained the prototype of an isolation tank – a dark, soundproof tank of warm salt water in which subjects could float in sensory isolation. The therapy was called REST – restricted environmental stimulation technique.
He said of the work, “At the National Institute for Mental Health, I devised the isolation tank. I made so many discoveries that I didn’t dare tell the psychiatric group about them all because they would’ve said I was psychotic. I found the isolation tank was a hole in the universe. I gradually began to see through to another reality. It scared me. I didn’t know about alternate realities at that time, but I was experiencing them right and left without any LSD.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Lilly and a fellow floating enthusiast, Glenn Perry, thought to expand the use of floatation therapy for the public. They formed the Samadhi Tank Co. and were able to offer tanks for home floating by 1973. They opened the country’s first floatation center in Beverly Hills, CA, in 1979. Perry said of floating, “In my life, I have always had a deep-down feeling that I was not okay, not complete, that I did not accept myself. Whenever I float, I come out feeling at ease, at peace, and loving. The more I float, the more this feeling fills my life.” The Samadhi Tank Co. is still in business (samadhitank.com).
The early 1980s was a good time for flotation therapy. The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea, by Michael Hutchinson, brought it to a wider audience, and the movie Altered States, starring William Hurt, did even more to promote Lilly and the therapeutic and mind-altering benefits of floating. It fell out of favor in the late 80s, however, when the AIDS epidemic led to suspicion that the warm, wet tanks in which people floated naked could provide an environment of transmission of the disease.
Rebounding from AIDS, the 1990s was about wellness, and flotation therapy fit right in. Always considered odd and somewhat experimental, it was featured in an episode of The Simpsons in 1999 when Homer and Lisa floated in side-by-side tanks. More recently, podcaster Joe Rogan is a very vocal proponent (and what a microphone he has, reaching nearly 11 million people per episode of The Joe Rogan Experience). Professional athletes float for mental and physical health benefits. Several NFL teams use flotation therapy. Basketball star Stephen Curry credits floating with elevating his game through visualization.
In the research I did, the positive effects of flotation therapy were proven and even profound. On WebMD (which I consider a trusted source), I read that one hour of flotation therapy can equal up to six hours of sleep; that “people participating in a seven-week-long flotation program finished the program with significantly less depression, anxiety, pain, and stress. Sleep quality and optimism, on the other hand, increased.” The only reasons cited not to go into a float tank were if you have epilepsy, open wounds, claustrophobia, low blood pressure, kidney disease, or a contagious disease. Oh, and if you aren’t open to a potentially mind-altering experience.
Frequent floaters call the therapy “getting tanked,” and it’s definitely catching. Medical practitioners continue to learn about benefits for chronic pain, addiction recovery, and more. Mindfulness and holistic therapy enthusiasts love it for where it can take body and soul.
Dr. Lilly has a website that’s as weird and wacky and brilliant as the man himself. He passed on in 2001 at age 86. You can spend a college semester on the site exploring all the areas this highly educated and scientifically curious man was into. Then you can read one or more of the 19 books he published. I love how his bio reads.
Here’s just part of it:
“Lilly’s life and work at the forefronts of human knowledge encompass the major themes of the twentieth century. A distinguished brain researcher even before he became a public figure, Lilly has sown the seeds of several scientific revolutions, including the theory of internal realities, the hardware/software model of the human brain/mind, and the initiation of worldwide efforts at interspecies communications with large-brained dolphins….Lilly pursued a brilliant academic career among the scientific leaders of the day [and] has lived in the company of associates and intimates including Nobel physicists Richard Feynman and Robert Milliken; philosophers Buckminster Fuller, Aldous Huxley, and Alan Watts; psychotherapy pioneers RD Laing and Fritz Perls; spiritual teachers Oscar Ichazo and Baba Ram Dass; and a host of luminaries, inventors, writers, and Hollywood celebrities.”
What a trip! I know I’ll go and float again. •
Three flotation Therapy Centers in the Hudson Valley: Requiescent Float Center, Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany. Requiescent.com. Mountain Float Spa, New Paltz. Mountainfloatspa.com. Zephyr Float, Kingston. Zephyrfloat.com.
*Disclaimer: All medical claims made in this article are information provided by the subject. The information is general in nature and not specifically meant for any particular individual. You should always seek out medical assistance from a medical professional based on your individual needs and circumstances.