flotation tank – the experience

Friday night I went in my first flotation tank experience. A bunch of you, and friends on IRC, asked me what it was like, so here’s my attempt at writing it up.

Content warnings: Minor health issues and recent traumatic events mentioned in passing only.

The place I went to is about half an hour from my place by bus and subway, transfer times included. I put my headphones in, started up some podcast or another, and zoned out until I got there, stopping briefly at the subway vendor for a packet of sesame snaps. I filled in the usual disclaimer form and was escorted to a changing room, where I changed into a robe and sandals, and locked up all my belongings in a locker.

My chaperone/guide lead me back to my room. This facility has both “open concept” flotation pools and the traditional pods. You can achieve complete blackout conditions in either, but since I tend to get cold easily, I opted for the pod, figuring it’d reduce airflow a bit more. So the room has a pod in it, a shower, and you’re given a towel and some waxy-type earplugs. (I brought my own that I prefer.)There’s instructions on the wall that my chaperone explained to me as well. I was instructed to put the earplugs in, take a 5-minute shower to rinse myself off (using the provided shampoo and/or body wash if I wanted – but not the free conditioner!), turn off the light switch for the room, then get into the pod. She showed me in the pod that there is a control to turn the under-the-water LED lighting on and off, but unfortunately no way to control the audio system. She offered to set the audio to have ocean sounds, nature sounds, or nothing; I asked her to have the ocean sounds play for half of the time, then nothing the second half. In the pod there was also a small inflatable neck pillow, a small spray bottle of water, and a washcloth. The last two were so I could wipe my face if I got any of the pool water on it, since it’s full of 1100 pounds of salt and would sting badly. Finally she showed me the handle to open and close the pod itself. I noticed that the room thermostat was set to around 30C, and had read previously that they keep the water temp about 34C, supposedly the average skin temperature.

She left. I took my shower, got into the pod and closed the lid. The water is thick, almost syrupy from all the dissolved Epsom salts. The bottom surface was slick, but I only spent a few seconds there while getting myself aligned with the pod itself. I turned off the light and proceeded to float.

Physically, how was it?

The first 20 minutes or so, I kept feeling like my body was rotating in the tank. I was constantly worried that I’d bump my head into the left side of the tank, where the ledge was the held the pillow/spray bottle/washcloth. But for some reason I refused to reach out and touch the walls to convince myself that I was centred in the tank. I eventually convinced myself later that it was OK to touch the sides to align myself, and discovered I wasn’t rotating at all.

I did have a little bit of a hard time getting my neck comfortable at the start, but some of this is just because my neck is typically in a lot of pain anyway from constant computer use and poor sleep posture. I didn’t use the air pillow because I knew the feeling of the plastic on my neck would distract and bother me. By the end of the hour my neck had gotten used to the position, and didn’t hurt at all.

I also had a light abrasion on the back of my left hand. When it got wet, it stung a fair bit. I was able to wipe it off with the washcloth and this stopped the stinging. I’ll know next time to put a bandage over any wounds or abrasions if I had any.

One thing I didn’t expect at all was how startled I was when I touched my belly. After half an hour of almost no sensation, it was almost too much! I discovered that the water that had splashed up on my chest had evaporated, leaving behind lots of salt. I wiped this off with my hands and squeegeed the rest of the water off so salt wouldn’t build up in piles again.

I noticed my stomach gurgling a little bit towards the end. Next time I’ll eat a bit more food than just sesame snaps before getting to the centre. I also started to get a little cold, leading to the occasional shiver. Next time I might ask if I can increase the room temperature slightly. Just 1C would probably be sufficient for me.

By the end of 60 minutes in the tank, I found myself physically relaxed, more than I was when I went in. And I know that next time I will be prepared for the minor distractions I experienced.

Other than not comforting myself sooner that I wasn’t spinning out of control, the earplugs I brought are probably better than the ones they supply, meaning I don’t think I heard the “gentle music” they played over the speaker to tell me it was time to get out. They eventually had to yell at me over the intercom *sheepish grin*. Next time I’ll just tell them to yell at me the first time.

Rating: A-

Mentally, how was it?

I’ve had a lot on my mind for a week. You know how research has shown that human working memory is about 7 levels deep, plus or minus 2?

My theory of my own state of mind is that I tend to get things stuck in my working memory, reducing the number of free ‘slots’ I have for everything else that I do. For instance, this week I had 1) my dear pet Ecchi die, 2) some serious security-related open source development work ongoing, 3) a problematic customer at work running Windows that took up a lot of my time, and 4) some ongoing health issues that need constant attention. So my working memory at the start of the tank session was something like:

It was hard to concentrate, and my preoccupation with these things (and some other thoughts they tended to trigger) made it difficult to relax. General nightly meditation that I do only helps somewhat; I tend to obsess about these things until I can resolve them adequately.

After about 10 minutes in the tank, these ideas became “louder” in my head. It seemed like the sound of waves crashing on the shore, being played over the speaker in the tank, only exacerbated the problem. Add to the above that I’d binged episodes of Soap the night before and couldn’t get the theme song out of my head, my worries about spinning in the tank and hitting my head, and the stinging on the back of my hand, and my working memory was full:

As I tried to convince myself to meditate on other things – a quiet shoreline, a wooded glen, a canoe on a placid lake – I couldn’t push these other ideas out of my head. They were a buzzing din, slowly building in volume and intensity – though, oddly, none felt urgent, meaning I already felt separated from them at least by one degree, giving me some perspective.

So I decided to just let them do what they were going to do.

About halfway through the float, the sea noises recording stopped. And one by one, these ideas in my working memory also started to fade away to nothingness. Occasionally the Soap theme tune would flash in my mind, or memories of playing with my cat, but they were brief. Towards the last 5 minutes of the float, all I could hear was my heartbeat and my blood rushing through my inner ear canal, and the occasional splash of water. Meaning, I got back to:

…which was exactly why I went in the first place. I didn’t have any sort of traumatic experience; in fact, if anything, the float helped me deal with my recent trauma in a positive and supportive way.

I’m sold. I like this over yoga by quite a bit.

Rating: A

How was the facility?

It was fine. The gendered changing room was small but had 3 private stalls with curtains. I noticed a “quiet zone” area with a TV showing a beach scene and gentle music. They also have RMTs on staff if you want to combine your float with a massage.

After changing back into my street clothes, I noticed there was fresh fruit, water, tea and espresso on offer. I had a commitment to get to, so I didn’t sample any of those things.

The only real complaint I have is that you can “feel” the subway going by on occasion, as it’s right over one of the 2 main subway lines in Toronto. I didn’t find this distracting, more comforting, and even a way to sort-of tell how much time had passed. I guess if you are going for a complete sensory deprivation experience, you might prefer one of the other spas in the city with flotation tanks. I consider this a minor detraction.

Rating: A-

Overall, I liked my experience very much. I got the relaxation I desperately needed; friends said they noticed an immediate change in my behaviour. They offer 6-month and yearly subscriptions, where you get floats at reduced prices. I may very well sign up; it’s cheaper than my local gym (by a LOT). I might even be able to get it covered under insurance if I get the occasional massage with it as well.

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