A couple of months ago, I took a writing workshop with a man who has dedicated his life to promoting the health benefits of water. Mind you, he’s not pushing hydration or even ensuring the sanitation of the world’s drinking water supply, although he is clearly in favor of both of these actions. Wallace “J” Nichols’ mission is to remind all of us that humans are inherently connected to water and can use it to heal ourselves from myriad conditions. Simply looking at or being around bodies of water can have enormous health benefits, as can recreating in it. All of these phenomena are described in his bestselling book, Blue Mind.
I read Blue Mind in preparation for my workshop. As someone who has spent a huge amount of her life pursuing liquid recreation, I bought his “benefits-of-playing-in-water” argument hook, line, and sinker. After all, my life has been made richer through swimming, surfing, kayaking, rafting, and sailing. But, there was one water-related activity he praised that I had never tried: therapeutic floating.
If you’re not familiar with this recent health craze, it involves lying in a tank of ultra-salty water (we’re talking 1200 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in 400 gallons of water) for an hour to an hour and half. The tank is lightproof and soundproof, and the water temperature is regulated to match your body temperature. The density of dissolved salt makes you buoyant, so you don’t touch the sides of the tank with any of your body parts. In other words, you’re in a sensory deprivation chamber. Unless you’re chewing gum, there’s nothing to see, hear, feel, taste, or smell for the duration of your float.
The internet yields up all sorts of articles about the benefits of floating. Most of them center around the relaxation and lowered cortisol levels that result from a lack of stimulation. They claim that the magnesium sulfate (the main ingredient in epsom salts) calms the nervous system and speeds up recovery time in athletes. The anti-gravity effect of floating supposedly alleviates chronic joint and muscle pain, and the purported release of endorphins should help everyone feel better.
All of this sounded good, but I was mostly intrigued by the mental effects I’d heard about. I’d read that Steph Curry, a hot-shot NBA player, floated every week in order to get in the right frame of mind for his games, and I’d also seen articles that claimed floating could stimulate creativity. And, I’d heard that people sometimes had psychedelic experiences in sensory deprivation tanks. To be honest, the promise of a drug-free, low consequence, mind-altering state is what got me to fork over my money.
There’s a floating center less than a mile from where I live in Santa Cruz, CA that I’d biked past numerous times. I asked J if he thought I should give it a try, and, not surprisingly, he said I should. He also suggested that I buy a three-float pack, since, he said, many people feel confused or claustrophobic during their first float. Having additional opportunities to float gives folks the chance to settle into the process and get the full benefits of their later sessions. I wasn’t too worried about claustrophobia or confusion, but I signed up for a three-pack anyway.
When I arrived for my first session, I was reminded of the procedures that I’d been sent over email (go to the bathroom and rinse yourself off before you get in the tank) and shown where the petroleum jelly (for covering cuts and scratches—they sting from the salt!) and earplugs (for people who don’t like water in their ears—I didn’t use them) sit. I was told that the light in the tank and the music playing over the loudspeakers would stay on for about five minutes to allow me to ease into my experience. After that, they’d be turned off and my hour of sensory deprivation would begin.
After the attendant left, I looked around. There’s a complicated mechanism adjacent to the tank which cleans and sanitizes the water after each usage, but other than that, the room was pretty simple. Tank, cleaning system, shower, towel rack, chair, toiletries—nothing more.
I did all my preparations, climbed into the tank, shut the door and laid back on the water. I say “on” the water because it really does support you. There’s just enough buoyancy to keep your eyes, nose, and mouth out of the water while the rest of your head is submerged. I spent the first ten or so minutes of my first float trying to figure out what my hands and feet should be doing. I maneuvered myself into the right position to make sure they wouldn’t bump into the sides of the tank and got used to the idea that they would stay suspended on their own. I got a few drops of water in my mouth and in one eye, reminding me of just how intensely concentrated my bath was; it was a mental challenge just to think about something other than the burning.
After the burning and the novelty of my surroundings wore off, I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do. I could think about whatever I wanted, and I did, first running through my to-do lists, then letting them go to daydream. I knew I “should” be trying to clear my mind, but thought that felt like too much work, so I just let myself drift.
When the music came on at the end of that first float, I was surprised that an hour had passed. I suspected that I may have fallen asleep, or at least gone to that strange in-between place I go to during acupuncture. That seemed to bode well for my next session, as did the relief I felt the next day from my usual chronic back pain. I meant to schedule my next session sooner, but I got a whopping case of poison oak, then I went out of town, so I didn’t float again for a month.
Since I knew what to expect the second time, I had high hopes for my next float. These may have been my downfall. I have to say that during session number two, I got bored. I wasn’t uncomfortable or anxious, but I also didn’t feel any unusual lapse in time. In fact, I felt aware of each minute passing. On a number of levels, that’s very useful. Our time on this planet is finite, and we should be aware of it as is slips from us. But my back didn’t feel any better, and the psychedelic experiences I had heard about were not even close to happening.
I do have one more float on the books, so I’m holding out judgment until then. I’ll try to schedule this one sooner, but, in the meantime, I’m going to keep bobbing around in the cold Central California salt water in my super-thick wetsuit.