Arts & Life

I tried sensory deprivation and didn’t freak out

And we’ll all float on alright
Already we’ll all float on alright
Don’t worry even if things end up a bit too heavy
We’ll all float on alright.
– Modest Mouse “Float On”

I bought a three pack of floats, as they’re called, with the idea that it would be a bonding experience for my mom, sister and I. I can’t think of a better way for three women to bond than by being in sound-proof, light-proof tanks filled with salty water, in completely separate rooms. When I casually broached the subject over dinner, careful not to give away my plan, my mother responded with “that sounds like my nightmare.” Fair enough.

I should back up, though.

While I’m not always the biggest fan of the term ‘self care’ — I feel like it’s privileged and has been co-opted by well-meaning people, thrown in with the quinoa, kale, crystals and yoga — I do know it’s important to do things for yourself. Life, whatever it looks like for you, can get a bit much at times, and it’s important to do something to make things okay. So, in the immortal words of Tom Haverford and Donna Meagle, I had a Treat Yo Self! day.

While I wanted to try something new, I am cynically optimistic about trying new, or ‘new wave’-type things in the name of self improvement or self care. I think they’re great, and there’s merit to them, but please don’t tell me I “have to try this awesome new thing, ’cause it’ll change my life!” Often, I find what is new to us is really something that’s been around for a really long time, and we’re just late to the game. A couple of float therapy places had recently opened up, so, in the name of being open-minded and deliberately doing something for myself, I decided to look into floating.

Prior to this decision, what I knew about sensory deprivation came from the movie Altered States and an episode of the Simpsons. Also, I knew that Joe Rogan was a big fan; he has two tanks at home, and speaks about the benefits of floating often. On the most basic level, the idea behind floating (or sensory deprivation, or R.E.S.T: Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) is that by removing all external stimuli, your body and brain are able to calm down and just be. They’re not forced to deal with the onslaught of stuff our senses have to deal with on a daily basis. This happens by creating an environment that is light proof and sound proof, and where you float in heavily salinated (there’s 850 pounds of Epsom salts per tank, and the tank has ten inches of water) skin temperature water. In other words, I had an opportunity to close myself into a pitch black tank and float in salty water? Sign me up!

Before going for the float, I read the FAQ section on Float.calm’s website: each pod is in its own room; yes, you can be naked; you should eat a little bit about an hour before floating; don’t shave for a couple days before (salt stings); and don’t drink caffeinated drinks because they could mess with your ability to chill out.

My sister and I arrived, and waited in the lobby. There was tea, a journal and on the wall were messages from other floaters (I feel weird even writing that) describing their experiences. No one said they had had a complete emotional freak-out, so that was positive. Going in I had that kind of nervous excitement I get before a date, or a job interview. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wanted whatever was going to happen to be good. I also had nagging feelings of what happens if I can’t shut off? What happens if nothing happens? What happens if I freak out? The woman who showed us the tank and went through what to do was great, and made it clear that this was our experience, and if it wasn’t going well, we could always get out.

“See you on the other side,” my sister joked as she went to her room.

tank w closed door
Sensory deprivation tank

When you get in the tank and close the door, it’s a really weird sensation because it’s so dark you can’t tell if your eyes are open or closed. As you lie down and start to float, you do something called ping ponging — you swish from side to side in the tank. To stop this, you starfish. Yup, you spread your limbs out and slowly bring them in to where they feel comfortable. And then, you just float. At first, my internal dialogue was yammering away, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t. I had a couple crazy body tremors, the ones you (may) have right before you fall asleep, where it feels like you’re falling. The fact that you have ear plugs in means your heartbeat and breathing are amplified, which give you something to focus on. Sessions are ninety minutes, which may seem like they would be too long, but they’re over before you know it. I have no idea how long it took me, but I got to that point that you experience right before you fall asleep: you’re aware of what’s going on but you’re so relaxed you don’t care. And then, just like that, music gradually made its way in, and gently brought me back.

I didn’t hallucinate. I didn’t freak out. I felt amazing.

I felt like I had just woken up from the best sleep of my life, or had just had really great sex; I felt like I was gliding through the menial tasks of getting showered and dressed. My sister, while less verbose than me, said she felt good. I was in a fantastic mood, and I felt like I had been reset in some way.  Both times I’ve gone I’ve left with this feeling, and it’s lasted for days.

Floating isn’t the cheapest thing out there to do for yourself — a single float is $69 — but there are promos and packs that make it more affordable. In one of his podcast episodes, Joe Rogan says that consciousness is like an onion, and the more you float, the more you peel the onion. So, here’s to peeling that onion, one float at a time.


Sara is in a committed relationship with Winnipeg. They fight, and sometimes need to take a break, but they always come back to each other. You can follow her on twitter.