It’s 2:00PM on a Saturday. It’s pitch black. All I hear is the sound of my breath, and I’m floating. I’m floating in one foot of saltwater in an oversized bathtub in a stranger’s Manhattan apartment.
Let me go back a day.
It was Friday afternoon, and I was less than 48 hours away from the Queens Half Marathon. I wanted to prepare my body and mind for the 13.1 mile run. Several months earlier, a friend mentioned the relaxation method of “sensory deprivation” or “floating” as it’s now commonly called. With a quick Google search of “sensory deprivation tank nyc,” I debated between Blue Light Floatation and Aspire Center for Health. According to Yelp, these were my top options in the limited market for floating.
After reading reviews and browsing both company sites, the services seemed comparable. My big decision was the environment: a physical therapy center (Aspire) or a stranger’s Manhattan apartment (Blue Light Floatation). I wanted a last minute Saturday appointment, but this was New York City where “last minute” does not exist.
I emailed Blue Light Floatation and received a response 13 minutes later instructing me to call Sam Zeiger, the owner of Blue Light. Zeiger informed me that he had a cancellation, and I could take this opening. Zeiger was extremely knowledgeable, calming and walked me through the whole process over the phone. I don’t know whether it was his personal attention or the tea he promised at the end of the session, but after 15 minutes the choice was obvious. For the first time in my life, I went out of my comfort zone and picked the stranger.
Sensory deprivation is the idea of removing stimuli from one or more of a person’s senses often used in alternative medicine for meditative purposes or to induce psychological distress as an interrogation tactic. In 1954, medical practitioner and neuro-psychiatrist, John C. Lilly, pioneered the isolation tanks to better understand consciousness and how it relates to the brain.
An hour in an isolation tank was seen to increase relaxation, enhance creativity, strengthen the immune system, rejuvenate muscles, and help maintain positive behaviour changes like quitting smoking.
In 1984, Lawrence University explored “the effects of restricted environmental stimulation using a floatation tank to the effects of a normal sensory environment on relaxation.” The results of the study found individuals who practiced relaxation methods in a flotation tank reached greater levels of relaxation than those in a normal environment.
That was during the heyday of sensory deprivation floatation tanks — during the 1980s they were being produced for commercial use as more individuals sought relief from stress, pain and anxiety. A hotspot for this surge in floating? New York City.
This growing trend and a viewing of the movie “Altered States” brought Sam Zeiger to the business he’s operated for nearly 30 years. “I had been reading John Lilly and was like I have to try that. As a child, I used to spend summers in the Catskills and felt like everything was perfect; the world was perfect and nothing could bother me. I had a sense of complete well being. I felt that after my first float. Something spoke to me during that float that said, this is for me,” Zeiger recounts.
Falling in love with floating, he purchased his own tank, a Samadhi Tank. He found himself in between jobs, floating every day in his living room and wanted to share this special practice with people. This was 1985. “At first it was a hobby, and as the places started closing down around the city and word started spreading about me and people were coming here to float, I had a business going. It was never something like, ‘I’m going to do this as a business.’ It was an outgrowth of something I loved.”
On Saturday at 1:30PM, I entered Zeiger’s fourth floor Manhattan apartment. He was finishing with a previous client so that further eased the tensions of entering a stranger’s apartment. After the client left, Zeiger introduced me to the floating tank which looks like an oversized bathtub. He explained how to enter, where to position my head and how to turn off the lights. There’s 1,000 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts in the eight foot long by four foot wide tub. It’s maintained at 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and it takes about two hours to produce one gallon of the filtered, salt water.
Zeiger is meticulous when it comes to the cleanliness of his tank. After each guest, the water is filtered and cleaned for 30 minutes. He uses a 500 watt halogen work light to scan every square inch of the interior for impurities to insure the room is pristine for the next person. When he is not with clients, Zeiger says he’s constantly preparing the water and maintaining the tank.
Next, we were sitting in his living room further discussing the floating process. I was comforted by his large collection of spiritual and meditation books, the Tibetan flags hanging from a light and the Himalayan Salt Lamp — all things my father had in our house growing up, so I knew I was in good company.
Ten minutes later, Zeiger showed me to the bathroom where I showered to remove any dirt from my body. Once finished, I was ready to float.
I walked into the floating room and closed the door behind me. I hung my towel on the wall leaving me completely naked. I enter the tank through a small sliding door. The air is warm but without steam. I had heard some tanks can smell like a locker room (not a good sign), but this tank had a mellow, salty smell. I lower myself into the 12 inches of water. As soon as I sit back, my legs come out from under me, and I’m floating. I center myself in the tub so I’m not touching any of the sides and find stillness.
Every noise was louder than ever before: breathing, water movement, fingers and toes cracking. For someone who meditates regularly like myself, it still took a few minutes to adjust to absolute quiet and darkness. Very quickly, I lost all sense of my surroundings. It has to be the closest anyone can get to floating in outer space. I had no perception of how deep the water was or how close the edges of the tub were. My mind knew I was in a small tub, but my body’s senses completely shut down.
I yelled “hello” to get a sense of how noise interacted with the space. My eyes remained slightly open, and I focused on my breath. Deep inhale and long exhale. I was awake and aware for what I think was about 15 minutes. The next thing I know quiet, soothing music begins to play indicating my hour is over. I never fell into a deep sleep but was in a relaxed, meditative trance.
It took me a second to remember where I was before I began to sit up straight. Some water rolled down from my head into my eyes. It burned with the heat of a thousand suns. If you have ever floated in the Dead Sea, you will know how bad this feels.
I wanted to stay in the tank, but I also did not want Sam Zeiger pounding on the door. I exited the tank and rinsed off in the shower, just enough to remove the excess salt. I was in my own world. I have never felt more relaxed and calm in my life. My mind felt still. Thoughts did not race around; I was very much in the moment. My concentration was fierce. I was very aware of every little thing I did. All of my senses were enhanced having been deprived for an hour. It was the closest I will ever feel to having super powers.
I exited the bathroom and Zeiger greeted me in his living room with a glass of iced tea as promised. We spoke for a few minutes about my first experience. He mentioned I could benefit from a longer float seeing how I was very comfortable for the hour. A few minutes later, I was back on the bustling streets of New York, but I remained unphased.
The whole enlightening experience cost $US80. Though you are floating for an hour, the whole process from start to finish took nearly two hours. More experienced floaters float for two, sometimes three hours. The rate at which people go becomes very personal based on time and money. If I had more disposable income, I would easily go once a week. I’m strongly considering this a monthly routine.
Zeiger says he gets first time floaters like myself every day. He hasn’t seen this popularity since the 1980s. “In the ’90s it was completely dead. Early 2000s, completely dead. For the past seven years there’s been a resurgence,” he told me.
Zeiger attributes this resurgence to a change in consciousness in our world and the Internet. People are looking more inside, and there’s a greater sense of well-being. It’s no longer word of mouth; it’s YouTube videos and blogs. The floating trend is not limited to New York, but sensory deprivation tanks are easier to find in major cities including San Francisco, Denver, Dallas and Seattle.
It’s an experience you should treat yourself to at least once in your life. We all look to tune out the world, but there are not many places where you can turn off the light and the noise. I would also recommend wearing earplugs because I had water in my ear for several days after. The next time you want to get away, think about a float.
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