"Sensory-deprivation tanks? You mean like Altered States?"
It's the question everyone asked upon hearing I would try out the services of the newly opened Floatation Therapy Winnipeg, home to a floatation tank -- also known variously as a float pod, think-tank, isolation tank or -- yes -- sensory-deprivation chamber. By any name, they offer a similar experience: an extended period lying weightlessly in total darkness and silence, generally for relaxation or recreation.
Floatation Therapy Winnipeg opened in December in Roi and Liz Jones' nondescript St. Vital home. The couple converted their basement into a spa-like space with a waiting room and a second area housing a floatation tank -- a three-metre by 1.5-metre, lightproof, soundproof metal pod filled with 30 centimetres of skin-temperature water and 450 kilograms of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts.
The Joneses started thinking about sensory-deprivation therapy after catching a Vice documentary on the topic on YouTube a year ago. After conducting more research, they decided to take the plunge, so to speak, spending thousands of dollars to import a tank from California -- even though neither had actually tried one.
"We were thinking about getting a hot tub or getting a float tank, and they're around the same price," said Roi. "But with a hot tub there's a lot of chemicals and stuff, and we thought no one really has a floatation tank here, so it'd be nice try it out and see how it goes, and then later on the whole business model came."
Invented in the 1950s, floatation tanks have become widely associated with a kind of hippie mysticism involving recreational drug use and astral projection. Neither are referenced at Floatation Therapy; they focus on the health benefits of floating -- such as stress and pain relief -- and on personal-development benefits, such as boosts to creativity and introspection.
"People are starting to recognize it as alternative therapy, It's not new-agey, it's not snake oil. It's actually legitimate -- there's a lot of research, a lot of science behind it," says Roi.
So on paper, floating has benefits, but what's it actually like in the floatation tank? I went for an hour-long, $50 float to try it out.
Taking the plunge
Clients float in the nude, so after a quick briefing and instructions, you're left on your own in the tank area. You shower before and after floating in the tank's water, which is filtered several times between clients and is also mildly chlorinated for health-licensing reasons.
The black hole of the tank is both alluring -- a whole hour without a phone bleeping! -- and slightly alarming. What if it's boring? What if I feel trapped?
"The majority of people, they have an expectation of feeling claustrophobic... but then when they come here they're like, 'Oh, it's really bigger than I thought it was,'" says Roi.
And, he emphasizes, you can hop out any time.
"There's no locks or anything on there. If there were, that's a torture chamber," he notes.
Closing the pod door and lying back, I became immediately aware of my unusual buoyancy in the water, which has a thicker, heavier consistency than fresh water or sea water. It's impossible to sink or roll over -- even pushing a hand or foot to the bottom of the tank, just a few centimetres away, takes great effort.
My brain hurried along during the first while in the dark. I thought about things I had to do, questions I wanted to remember to ask, my shopping list for the weekend.
"For the first 10 to 20 minutes, your brain is just running and running and running," says Liz. "Once you get past that, your brain will start to really calm down and start to pay attention to your breath or your heartbeat."
My nose itched -- something Liz had also mentioned, warning that if I touched my face I should take care to shake off the super-salty water to avoid getting it in my nose or eyes. I spent time considering whether I should scratch my nose, and by the time I decided to scratch it, it was no longer itchy.
After a time, my mind did relax. With ears submerged, my heartbeat and breathing were the only sounds in the tank, other than muted splashes if I moved a hand or foot.
Not being able to see led to a feeling that I was slowly turning in circles -- an impossibility in the tank due to its size, but a convincing sensation nonetheless. I did float slightly to the left and right early in the hour, bumping lightly into the tank wall with a shoulder or hip. The slightest fingertip push reoriented my body in the middle, where I eventually stayed.
Feeling like a parsnip
Some people in float tanks report visual or auditory hallucinations, such as patterns of light or music. I didn't experience that, though after some time I realized I wasn't sure if I was asleep or awake. This cusp-of-sleep feeling is what the Joneses describe as "the zone," a meditative state associated with a different type of brainwave activity than experienced when awake or asleep.
It's kind of like a hot tub, but it's for the mind.
Around this time I began to feel I was floating in a pleasant soup -- and then spent what felt later like a long time considering what type of vegetable I would be in the soup -- certainly an odd, dreamy mental conversation to have. (I settled on parsnip.)
In the tank, there is no way to tell how much time has passed, which is, in itself, an unusual state of mind in today's world full of clocks, watches, phones and on-the-hour beeps. After a long period in "the zone," I suddenly felt a bit more alert, and started to wonder if perhaps the Joneses had forgotten about me. Then I decided I didn't mind -- such was my serene state of mind.
A "very small minority" of people who try out the float tank leave before their first hour is up, says Roi. "They're not in the right mind space. They're just bored. They don't know what to do," he says. "Obviously you can just walk out -- there's no problems."
The Joneses did not forget me, of course. Some unknowable length of time later I heard music, the signal that my hour was up. Playing through underwater speakers, the music seemed at first to be coming from within my own body, which was perhaps the most transcendental part of the whole experience.
After exiting the tank and showering, I felt relaxed, quiet, meditative. A bit dopey, even, like I had sent my brain for a massage. At no point had I devolved, Altered States-style, into an ape or protoplasm.
"It's kind of like a hot tub, but it's for the mind," describes Roi. "It's like being back in the womb."
The Joneses are pleased at the interest in their floatation centre. They estimate they've had between 150 and 200 clients, ranging from teenagers to an 80-year-old. They're planning an expansion, and they've heard a city hair salon is opening another centre.
"The industry is at a boom right now, so everyone's wanting to take advantage of it, ride the wave. It's a cool thing. It's very simple, but very interesting," says Roi.
The Joneses expect their newly named Jellyfish Float Spa, with three large-size commercial float tanks, to open in south Winnipeg in the fall.
Would you pay to try a sensory-deprivation tank?
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