Free Floating

float tank

I am standing in a warm, salt-smelling room. It’s dark; what little light there is casts a surreal rosy glow. In front of me sits a giant plastic pod, the shape of an avocado. Its mouth is open. Its tongue is 12 inches of tepid water.

That’s where I’m planning to spend the next ninety minutes. Naked. Immersed. Without sight or sound.

Honestly, I don’t know if I want to. Ninety minutes? Ten minutes of waiting can feel like an eternity. Multiply it by nine? That could feel like hell.

But here I am. I’ve made my appointment, showed up at the center, pushed in my ear plugs, stripped, showered. All that’s left is the floating.

A few months ago I wrote an article about a new business opening up in Roanoke, Va. Still Water Floatation was the first float center in my neck of the woods. I wrote about the trend in “sensory deprivation tanks,” about how this West Coast phenomenon had been traveling East for a decade, about how the owners of Still Water had become passionate about educating area residents on floating’s benefits to mind and body. As part of my reporting they offered me a free float. It took me weeks and weeks to take them up on their offer.

sensory deprivation float

I step inside. At first the water feels not as warm as I wish (it is set to skin temperature, more or less). I fiddle with light and music dials (I can have constant light, pin-prick lights, or no light at all; there’s a flute soundtrack that can be loud, medium, quiet, or altogether gone). I close the top of my pod then opt for no light, no sound. I am plunged into nothingness.

When my hands and toes let go of the sides and the thousand pounds of salt take over, it’s a freaky feeling. I am not touching any surface yet I am not exerting any energy. Have I ever felt this suspended before? In other water, I have to work to stay afloat. I have never parachuted or spent time in zero gravity, so I’ve never floated through air. This freedom is intoxicating. Now I’m wondering if ninety minutes will be enough.

I am not a big meditator but I’ve enjoyed my share of yoga classes. Reflexively, I begin to deep breathe. And it’s nice. That’s what I hear, my breath. As I in and out, I find myself consciously relaxing specific muscles: face, neck, torso, arms, stomach, legs, toes, hands, feet. Then I repeat. Each round, the relaxation deepens.

Then something magical happens. The bit of a chill I first felt is gone. I am one with the water in every way. I have lost my body, actually. Without touching any surface, it disappears completely. What’s left is my breathing, my thoughts.

I do not sleep. There are several moments when sleep comes knocking but I — not consciously — do not open the door. Instead, I let my mind wander. I think of work and unknot a few tangles. I consider if I want to use my time to sort through something deeper, but my Zen brain declines. It is content to meander. It’s like I’m rocking on a front porch on a beautiful day. I simply soak, happy to be here.

Then I reach a new level of body awareness. I begin to feel my heartbeat. I can hear it in my ears. Feel it thud in my chest. I sense the reverberation through the water. I listen for a while.

And then I wonder for, seriously, maybe only the third time, how many minutes have passed. I realize I haven’t moved, haven’t so much as swallowed in a long, long time. I stretch a little, rotate my ankles and wrists. As if on cue, a strain of notes plays. Then a light. Then a voice. The pod is calling me back to life.

My float is over. It was better than I imagined. I step out of the water feeling a little rubbery, the slightest bit pruny. I shower, dress, say my goodbyes, squint into the sunlight.

The rest of the day, my muscles are happy. My deep breaths keep coming even as I sit at my desk.

I get it. A break like this, it’s a big one, a needed one. Probably more relaxing than any vacation I’ve been on in years. I see now why floating has found its fans. I very well may become one.

sensory deprivation tank