In the tank, my body bobbed in space. I couldn’t tell where my limbs ended and the water began. Were my eyes open or closed? Was I drifting from side to side? After a while, I decided it didn’t matter. I was floating.
“It’s sensory deprivation, but in a good way,” said Allison Walton, co-owner of FLOAT, Floatation Center-Art Gallery in Oakland. She gave me a 10-minute briefing before my float.
“It’s really spending an hour with yourself,” Walton said.
Floating is used as a form of meditation, as well as therapy for ailments of all kinds, especially back and joint pain.
The floatation pool is an enclosed tank with 800 to 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in about ten inches of water, allowing for a person to float effortlessly on the surface.
It was my first float and I had high expectations. I had read that people had experienced hallucinations, creative epiphanies, and moments of complete relaxation in floatation tanks.
In the 1950s, Neuro-psychiatrist John C. Lilly was interested in creating an environment in which a subject was isolated from external stimuli. He wanted to explore what effected consciousness, and whether or not the subject would simply fall asleep if external stimuli were removed.
From this question came more experimentation with the therapeutic possibilities of the floatation tank.
People, Lilly included, began to use hallucinogenic drugs to enhance the experience, and explore the possible benefits of floatation. Despite the history, clients at FLOAT must be completely sober when they enter the tank. Coffee and alcohol included.
“Alcohol just ruins it, and coffee makes you too jittery,” said Walton.
She has been running the float center and art gallery for three years now, but she first discovered floating when she was just 16, upon seeing the movie Altered States, in which sensory deprivation is used with hallucinogens in research. After viewing the film, she wanted to experience floating herself. When she finally did, she was hooked. She has been floating for 19 years.
“I’m a once-a-weeker,” Walton said.
Regulars at FLOAT include business people, pregnant women, athletes, students, and people with pain or stress they want to alleviate in the tank.
“The students that have come to float prior to a final or big test do it for rest, focus and clarity before they take their tests,” Walton said.
Walton also described clients who had successful therapy with floatation, including one woman who was around 60 years-old who came to FLOAT to reduce pain from back surgery. She floated twice a week for three weeks, and noticed significant healing.
Other people come to work through difficult or stressful problems. Walton recalled one client who came to relieve the tension he experienced as a new father. After realizing that he didn’t particularly enjoy being a father, he floated to reduce his frustration.
Walton described the clientele at FLOAT as “completely diverse and a really cool crowd.” With clients ranging in age from 14 to 84, Walton believes floatation can be for anyone, but because FLOAT is both an art gallery and an “urban spa,” it attracts many artists.
One artist, Michael Pargett has been floating for about a year now. He floats once a week for 90 minutes. Pargett is a project manager at a construction company, and admits his job can be very stressful.
“It helps enormously,” said Pargett.
Pargett said he enters the tank with a focus, intending to meditate, relax, or think of inspiration for his artwork. He works with illuminated glass sculptures. He described a float in which he was able to concentrate and think deeply about his work. Over the duration of the float, he envisioned how his next piece would look.
“I’ve gone in with the intention of getting some inspiration,” said Pargett.
“It’s kind of a cycle where I really settle in and go deep for awhile.”
The floatation tank can be intimidating. A dark, soundless tank of water might be a nightmare for those afraid of enclosed spaces.
“The only [skeptical] comments I’ve gotten from people who haven’t ever floated is that they are claustrophobic,” said Pargett.
Of course, sitting in a dark capsule without light or sound can be scary at first, but the feeling of weightlessness brings customers back.
“I’m totally claustrophobic,” Walton said, but she doesn’t feel afraid in the float tank.
I too noticed an alleviation of my fears while floating. After the initial nerves wore off, and I was able to enjoy weightlessness, I noticed a very clear change in my thinking. I was no longer a separate entity from the water. I had become the water, and the skin-temperature water made it feel as if I was floating through space. The pain and tension in my back and neck melted away.
After my float, I felt the clarity that many clients describe. I was awakened to every sense. The hot shower was extraordinarily refreshing, and the cup of green tea that Allison had made was soothing and warm in my hands. I drank the whole cup in five minutes. The artwork in the gallery was more colorful than when I came in.
Although I had no grand hallucinations or epiphanies, I was awakened to a little-known form of therapy and meditation that is growing in popularity through word of mouth, rather than outright advertising.
Even in the midst of a recession, Walton feels optimistic about the future.
“We are staying afloat,” she said.