Seventy-something days into lockdown, my home office chair had really done a number on my lower back. The news was depressing, social media was angry and work deadlines were piling high. And there was personal stuff. Like the family and friends who were ill with The Virus and the fact that I couldn’t go see them. All in all, it was a lot. I felt like I just needed to get away for a bit but, you know, travel ban. So in lieu of a few nights away in a farmhouse somewhere remote and pretty, I booked a half-hour float in a sensory deprivation tank.
What Is Sensory Deprivation Float Therapy?
Officially known as Floatation-REST (reduced environmental stimulation therapy) the idea is to deprive your body of stimuli, including light, sound and gravity. You float in a one-person pod, in water that’s heated to skin temperature (between 34.5 – 36.5 degrees celsius) and combined with 350-380kg of Epsom salt to create buoyancy. Once the pod is closed, there’s no light whatsoever. And once the water has stopped sloshing and you’ve slipped down with your ears beneath the surface, sound disappears as well. The buoyant salt water removes the need to tense your muscles against the effects of gravity, so you feel weightless. The idea is that removing stimuli allows your body to to enter a non-reactive state where you can fully relax and “reset”. Kind of like switching yourself off and on again.
Fear of the dark? You can choose to have different-coloured LED lights give you a dose of colour therapy while you float instead.
The A-Z Of A Floating Session
I arrived at Neuro Float in Cape Town with my husband on a chilly Saturday in June. We were led to separate rooms, each with its own tank and shower. Before you get in the tank, you need to rinse off. Then you climb in, close the lid, and float for your allotted time – you can choose a 30, 45 or 60-minute slot. The sound of music playing signals that your time is up. You then have a quick shower — organic body wash, hair products, moisturiser and towels are provided and there’s a hairdryer outside should you wish to use it.
What It Feels Like Inside The Pod
As I closed the pod, everything went dark. The kind of absolute blackness that feels infinite and empty. Yet, at the same time, the increased air pressure made me feel enclosed. I felt like I could reach out and touch a wall right above my nose or keep reaching forever and never touch another object again. Like Schrödinger’s box, any option was possible. And it was silent. My breathing, imperceptible a moment before, suddenly sounded very loud in my ears. The water, sloshing against the sides of the tank, became an ocean. It was the perfect temperature for me to forget that it was there, neither hot nor cold. I realised why they advise you to be naked. With no other distractions, you immediately become aware of the tiniest sensation, like an air bubble moving up your back. The fabric of a swimming costume against my hyper-sensitive skin would have been an annoying distraction. I don’t do well with feeling trapped and I thought I might feel claustrophobic, but I didn’t at all, possibly because I wasn’t aware of how close or far the sides were.
The lid works with hydraulics so you don’t need to be strong to move it. No chance of getting stuck inside!
Hitting The Reset Button On Yourself
I’d never realised how much gravity weighs us down until I wasn’t bound by it any longer. At first I lay in the pod like I would in the bath, tensing my core to stay afloat and holding my head up. Little by little, I realised I could relax my muscles. I let my core go, my legs and finally my neck. With my muscles free to relax at will, the tension left my neck and my lower back. I practised yoga breathing to activate my parasympathetic nervous system — deep inhales and longer exhales. I became disorientated. I imagined I was touching the bottom of the tank. At one point I was convinced that I had rotated 180 degrees, even though the dimensions made that physically impossible. My thoughts flitted past, random and strange, like waking dreams. By the time I heard music playing far in the distance, I felt like I’d been gone for hours.
The Physical Benefits Of Floating
Stefan Bester, who owns Neuro Float, where I booked my session, is a personal trainer with a particular interest in helping his clients achieve better mind-body connection. He believes you can’t achieve optimal physical performance without holistic wellness. Before starting Neuro Float, Stefan tried floatation therapy for his own recovery. “As a trainer I realised that a big obstacle for me was recovery and feeling optimal is a goal I have for myself and my clients. Floatation provided me with a tool for muscle recovery. I can really feel my body recovering physically and mentally a lot faster than before,” he says. “I also realised that gravity has a huge effect on our bodies. It can be negative, especially when you have bad posture. Removing the gravitational pull from the spine while floating released any back pain I had from sitting or driving.” Being marinated in Epsom salt (a.k.a. magnesium sulphate) has additional benefits, as magnesium is essential for various processes in the body, including muscle and nerve function.
READ MORE: How To Use Breathing To Get A Better Workout
Every day we get bombarded by stimuli: cell phone notifications, meeting requests, bright screens, nagging children, “my fellow South Africans”. Our sensory nervous system is wired to pick up on these signals so that our bodies can react. It never switches off. Even in the midst of a meditation session, your ears are still picking up the traffic outside; your skin is noticing the hardness of the floor you’re sitting on. You just choose not to focus on these things. By removing almost all stimuli, sensory deprivation actually does give your nervous system a break from processing millions of signals at once.
“Something that stands out for me is the fact that it helps clients with stress, anxiety and muscle tension,” says Stefan. “And that it really shows them how busy their minds and thinking are, especially the first 15 – 20 min in the pod. The relaxed facial expressions after sessions, are priceless moments.” In a 2018 small study of 50 patients with different forms of anxiety, published in PLoS One, researchers found a single floatation therapy session reduced symptoms of anxiety to the point of being non-anxious after the float. Another study in 2014 found a series of 12 floatation sessions reduced pain, stress, depression and anxiety in participants and increased their sleep quality, optimism and mindulness in daily life.
How Hygienic Is It?
I was a germaphobe long before COVID-19. I once did a float in a floatation pool at a spa. It was nice…ish, but I couldn’t help thinking about how many other people’s bodies had floated in that water and what they might have left behind. It also bugged me that the room was dark… what grossness were they trying to hide? The tanks, on the other hand, were reassuringly sanitary. The room was brightly lit so I could inspect my tank and I found nothing untoward. Stefan was also happy to explain the — very thorough — cleaning protocol that he routinely follows. It involves daily sterilisation with hydrogen peroxide, an ozone water purifier and regular replacement of the water and salt, in addition to other routine checks and procedures at regular intervals. With COVID-19, there are additional precautions. Each client gets screened and temperature tested. The pods and entire studio get disinfected after every session.
How Often Should You Float?
A one-off session is great when you’re feeling overwhelmed — I felt more relaxed, less tense and had better clarity for about three or four days. For lasting results, though, you’ll need to go at least once a month. But if you can afford to go more frequently, Stefan does a 45-minute session every week. Most of his regular clients also float weekly.