In the relentless chaos and noise that comprise most of my waking hours (even some sleeping hours if we’re being honest), I’ve often joked about needing a sensory deprivation tank. I mean, even when I get twitchy enough for my husband to realize that he needs to send me to my room and I go lock the door and close the curtains and hide under the covers, I can still hear everything. Maybe I should invest in some good ear plugs. Our two kids have a serious capacity for volume by themselves—yelling, crying, screaming, laughing, crashing, jumping, throwing, breaking—but then there’s dogs barking, TV blaring, tablet games ringing, loud husband talking on the phone (apparently he thinks he needs to yell, while pacing, in order for the phone to function correctly), and if it happens to be a get-stuff-done kind of day, there’s the addition of the dishwasher swooshing, dryer rumbling, and washer shaking the house.
So when I came across a Groupon for a “float tank” session, I bought it right away. I only recently learned this was a real thing accessible to regular people, not just for astronauts or Navy Seals or whatever. I was curious. I read up on it. I heard it was supposed to be relaxing for body and mind in the most transcendent of ways, more than a massage and a nap, which is a tough combination to beat. Float tanks, aka sensory deprivation tanks, claim to benefit everything from anxiety to arthritis, as well as reduce fatigue, enhance creavity, provide amazing relief for pregnancy symptoms, and probably cure cancer. People allege being transported to a magical world of peace and healing, having a deeply meditative and transformative experience while in the tank. I just wanted to take a nap in a quiet dark place (yes I will PAY for that chance), but major bonus if it also heals all that ails me, right? I mean, if I can take a bathnap and wake up wholly rejuvenated and self-mastery-ed and crap, that’s pretty cool.
I’m totally not knocking the float tank thing. Overall I left feeling somewhat mentally and physically rested, and although nothing miraculous happened, I am glad I tried it. I might even do it again and see if it gets better the more you go, as I’m told. I like trying new things, even new-age-y things like acupuncture and avante-garde voodoo-y things like the chiropractor. It didn’t seem like too big a leap to get in a salty warm pitch-dark bathtub so I went for it.
That said, let me detail the experience…
At this particular venue, they start you off with a combination two things: an inversion table and binaural beats. The inversion table hangs you by your feet at various upside-down angles, as to stretch the spine and increase circulation of blood, oxygen, and nutrients, which makes brain chemistry magic that fixes every possible mood disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic and/or Dr. Oz, according to the floaty place website. While inverted, you listen to mystical earth sounds—or “binaural beat stimulation”—meant to alter consciousness while enhancing physical performance and relaxation, mental clarity and creativity, as well as spiritual tranquility and mastery. It’s highly scientific, with gamma and theta and beta frequencies and all, so it must be totes legit. It’s basically a variety of tones and rhythms overlaid with ocean waves or serenely chirping birds, like a mystical hearing test or white noise machine for helping babies sleep. I only did it for like ten minutes because the inversion table is super weird when you’re pregnant, with the baby all up in your ribs. It’s possible I didn’t appreciate that part to its full potential.
The next step is stripping and showering and stepping carefully into the tank. The whole thing is in a private room: the inversion table, the shower, the tank…so the stripping part is fine. (As long as you have the moves.) The shower is supposed to be for getting oils and product off you. It was one of the best parts of the whole thing because of the phenomenal water pressure and consistent hotness of water, much unlike my home shower. But hey.
The water in the tank is full of Epsom salt, so it feels very silky and slippery. It’s weird. Not as weird as bathing nude in a tub where countless strangers also bathe nude, but they say you can’t allow yourself the distraction of clothing. (Bathing suits are allowed though.) Epsom salts are supposed to work wonders on body and skin, and occasionally, allegedly, induce euphoria. The saltwater is so dense that you actually do float, which is actually really cool. The water is “skin temperature” and so is the air, which is also very dense with salty humidity. Some describe it as womb-like in there, especially since you might be au naturel, but that gives me the super creeps.
The pitch-darkness gave me the super creeps too, when I initially laid back in the water and experienced the zero-gravity-ness coupled with the disorienting black nothing. I had to crack the tank door just a smidge to get my bearings and avoid a freak out. I tend to be a little claustrophobic, but the tank is large enough to sit up and much longer and wider than an average person so it’s not at all coffin-like. It’s just hard to remember that when you can’t see anything and the thick black air closes in on you. Cracking the door allowed in just enough light and fresh air as to not feel like I was suffocating in the trunk of a car that was submerged in a warm sea.
They warn you to keep your face dry, otherwise the salt in the air will condense and burn your eyes out of your skull. They also warn you that any cuts and scrapes might burn, and for the same reason, they warn you not to shave right before floating. They don’t warn you about other sensitive places that salt may or may not burn. They don’t warn you not to scratch an itch that may or may not arise downstairs in the presence of saltwater and may or may not commence with the serious salt burn after being scratched. In such a theoretical situation, the injured party could hypothetically get out of the tank for a thorough rinse in the shower, and upon reentering the tank, commit to avoid any further scratching and proceed to attempt to enjoy the rest of his or her float session.
Anyway. In the absence of all sensory input, the mind is free to wander. To think deep, profound thoughts with no distraction. Free for meditation and meaningful reflection. Or sublime napping. Or, in my case, to randomly spring forth with the most ridiculously obnoxious song trending on the web and continue playing it on a loop for the entirety of the float. “CHACHA-CHACHA-CHACHA-CHOW! FRAKA-KAKA-KAKA-KOW!” You guessed it…”What Does the Fox Say?” My brain replicated the abrasive voice perfectly, almost as though the actual track was playing inside the float tank. Nothing says relaxation like “WA-PA-PA-PA-PA-PA-POW!” abruptly (and incessantly) screaming in your head. And nothing says profound like “ducks say quack - and fish go blub - and the seal goes ow ow ow ow ow”. Thank you for enhancing my experience, Norway.
As if that wasn’t enough, the visual that my brain provided, also on repeat, was courtesy of SNL: the shot of the girl making her big-eyed, floppy-lipped horse face on their spoof of the Fox song. (“That girl looks like a ho-o-o-o-orse”, around 1:42.) Real tranquil imagery, brain. I couldn’t make the song or the picture go away. I tried and tried but that’s where my mind stayed.
The only actual sound that subsisted, speaking of horses, was my own deafening horse-like breathing, amplified by the fact that my ears were underwater. The. Whole. Time. The same way I can’t sleep when my nose is whistling or I’m slightly congested, I couldn’t relax or quit thinking about the blaringly loud inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. They say focusing on your breath can be meditative. Not so with me apparently. It sounded so much like a winded horse, nostrils flared, having just trudged up twelve flights of stairs. Yes, a horse on the stairs. Get over it.
I tried so hard to clear my mind and transport to another dimension. I wanted so badly to have the transformative relaxation raved about in all the testimonials. But I couldn’t get out of my head. Maybe it was too new and unusual an experience to fully appreciate it. I did have fun with the cool weirdness of antigravity water, but there was nothing subliminal to it...just strait up consciously marveling at the sensation of weightlessness, lifting my arms and legs out of the water to see how insanely heavy they felt, enjoying the way my whole body shifted from side to side with each subtle movement. I maybe started to appreciate the muscle relaxation—little tingles in my legs—is that good? Maybe I have to go try again a time or two so I can get deep, metaphysically speaking, and to fully appreciate the mental and physical benefits of floating. I just hope I can escape the fox song.
And the burning. That was slightly distracting too.