Afloat: When Buoyancy Lets Our Fears Drift Away

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Sophie Flax floats in salt water at Hamptons Float in Water Mill. Michael Heller photo

The process of submerging oneself in a warm pool of heavily salted water in a pitch dark and totally silent room — “floating” — was invented in 1954 by John C. Lilly, a neuroscientist interested in the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain.

Sensory depravation. It’s a term that brings up images of “Altered States,” that 1980 movie in which William Hurt plays a professor who devises an experiment involving sensory deprivation tanks and hallucinogenic drugs in an effort to discover new levels of consciousness. Like they often do in movies of this ilk, things soon go awry and as the professor spends more and more time depriving his senses, his grip on reality begins to slip away.

I have to admit, that’s kind of what I was thinking as I stepped into Room #2 at Hamptons Float Center in Water Mill and eyed the shallow blue pool where, for the next 90 minutes, I would lie in perfect silence and complete darkness while soaking in a tub of 93.5 degree water saturated with close to 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt — making it more buoyant than the Dead Sea.

I was here with my 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, who was next door in Room #1 and, believe it or not, has been longing to float for quite some time. Perhaps it’s her tendency to get anxious in certain situations that made her want to try it, or maybe because, as an inherently quiet soul with a dislike of big crowds and loud noises, the urge to utterly and completely escape the wider world is a compelling one.

Whatever the reason, when I heard from a friend that Hamptons Float had opened up just before the end of last year, I ran right down and bought my daughter a gift certificate for her first float as a Christmas present.

That’s when Steve Rosborough, co-owner of Hamptons Float, suggested I give it a try too.

A mother/daughter float? Sounded like a great idea to me, even if we’d actually be floating in separate rooms. Steve gave me a tour of the place and showed me the four float rooms, each with a double-door to ensure total silence and darkness, and he explained that sometimes groups of friends book all four so they can float at the same time. Inside each room is a small changing area outfitted with a bench, robe and earplugs. A full shower is located on the wall right outside the float tank, which, on the day I floated, was a soothing shade of blue thanks to underwater lights (you can customize the colors) while soft music played on the speaker in the tank room. Realizing that some people are prone to anxiety, Steve pointed out a silver button on the wall above the tub that you can hit at anytime to put the lights back on once the float begins.

Incidentally, floating is done in the buff, and before entering the pool you must shower well with soap and shampoo to remove impurities, oils and perfumes (the hair conditioner is only used after floating, and believe me, with all that salt you’ll need it). Steve explained that it’s helpful to dry your face completely before entering the tank and avoid touching it while floating in order to keep salt water out of your eyes, though a spray bottle with fresh water and a dry washcloth are provided within easy reach in case you need them. There’s also a donut shaped piece of flat foam which functions as a pillow if you like.

You’re given about five minutes or so to prepare for your float. Then you step into the tank (use the grab bars, the salt makes it very slippery), get comfortable and stretch out and soon the lights go out and the music fades. For the next 90 minutes, it’s just you floating in the silent pitch black. You know your time is up when the music starts up again, and the tank lights come on.

“We decided you need 90 minutes to get to that point where something potentially special can happen,” said Steve, “and we thought we would be short changing people at 60 minutes.”

Forget about the claustrophobic inducing isolation pods of the early days. These tanks are generously sized — about eight feet long by four and a half feet wide with 10 inches or so of water. All that Epsom salt gives the water a viscosity that slows your movements dramatically. That means you can steady yourself by touching both sides of the tank until you are perfectly still and float in one place. Or you can explore your environment by bouncing off the edges — you have time to do both. You also have plenty of time to explore the thoughts in your head.

So, what did I think about?

I’ll be honest. At first, there really was a moment of panic when things went totally dark in the tank, and I’m not a particularly anxious person. Steve explains that people prone to claustrophobia often expect they will be unable to handle floating, but in fact, often end up as believers. Perhaps it’s a matter of confronting one’s fears? Maybe the super-ego taking control of the id and convincing those primitive impulses that there is nothing to fear here?

Whatever the case, my own heartbeat is what I ended up focusing on. Also, the sensations and surprisingly loud sound of breathing in… out…. in…. out… very slowly. I began to imagine the salt water as a fluffy, soft supportive structure beneath me and made a conscious effort to relax my upper back and shoulders, moving arms overhead and underneath or simply at my sides until I found a comfortable position. That’s when I stopped moving and decided to just be in the moment. My mind began to drift and I had a sensation similar to that on the verge of sleep. I never totally went out, but I did realize at one point that I hadn’t breathed in awhile.

There was something very womb-like about the experience. Knowing my daughter was next door, I wondered if she was experiencing the same sensations. Listening to my own internal rhythms reminded me of the sound of the fetal heartbeat from sonograms and when you think about it, floating is probably the closest thing to reliving the prenatal experience we full grown humans can obtain. Complete darkness, utter silence, bathed in warm, salty water. No wonder babies come into this bright and loud world screaming and kicking. Who wouldn’t?

That’s the kind of thing that goes through your mind while floating, and it’s certainly what I was thinking when the lights of my tank came up and the music began playing … Or maybe I’m just weird.

For me, the time in the tank seemed to go quickly. Just as I was finding my comfort zone, the music started, the blue lights came up and the experience was over. Afterwards, I asked Steve about the kinds of experiences people have in the tanks, and he pointed out that each is extremely personal. Wherever your mind takes you while floating is completely fine and even if you get to a point of pure relaxation for only a moment, it’s a moment you can return to during times of stress.

“These tanks seem to be a gateway. It can be hard to meditate in this busy world and people shut down to that word. You go in here long enough, you find a moment of peace, even if it’s just this long,” he said snapping his finger. “That’s you and it has nothing to do with anyone else.”

“Even if you haven’t meditated before, these tanks can take you to the place between waking and sleeping,” he added. “That’s a very sophisticated level of meditation.”

When I entered the lounge area, I found two men relaxing on the couch who had just finished their first floats. Like me, one of them loved it and was amazed at how quickly time had passed. The other man, however, admitted that after 45 minutes, he’d had quite enough and exited the tank early.

As Steve notes, both responses are fine. Floating is not a competitive sport or an endurance relaxation technique. It’s about the individual. He added that more time in the tank can also yield greater benefits and people often sign on for multiple floats after their first experience.

Speaking of sports, gymnast Aly Raisman is an avid floater as is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who has his own float tank at home. Steve explained that floating is great for relieving aches and pains of strained backs, joints, bones and muscles. Floating has also been recommended for pregnant mothers, people with anxiety, those recovering from car accidents, or battling addiction, high blood pressure, PTSD and even ADHD.

In short, pretty much everyone, and it turns out that the effects of regular floating on people with these conditions is not entirely subjective. Dr. Justin Feinstein from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research at the University of Tulsa has studied the effects of floating on both the body and brain. He has also explored its potential as a therapeutic treatment for mental health and healing in patients who suffer from anxiety.

In short, Dr. Feinstein’s float experiments indicated a reduction in anxiety and muscle tension along with increases in feelings of relaxation and serenity. Significant blood pressure reductions were also evident throughout float sessions while reduction in muscle tension was felt most prominently in the upper and lower back. His research shows that multiple sessions in the tank led to continued improvement in many of these conditions.

While I’d like to say that it was true for my daughter and that she came out of her first float experience less anxious than she had been going in, alas, her experience was less successful than my own. After some time in the dark, she felt uneasy and put the light on. She ended up climbing out of the tank early.

Though Sophie may have not have been able to entirely relax while floating, I feel she definitely learned something important about herself in the process.

“I think I have an issue with not being in control,” she confessed on the car ride home.

That, in and of itself, is something. It also makes sense given that my kid is not a fan of roller coasters or flying in airplanes — two situations in which the passenger is definitely not in control. So in the end, floating in the dark was illuminating for us both, in our own, personal way.

While Sophie may not be jumping back into the float tank again any time soon, I’m thinking I may need to sign up for a multi-session package. With the stress of the busy summer season on the East End now on the horizon, retreating to a warm, dark place from time to time may be just what I need to survive the coming months.

Tips for Floating with Anxiety

  • Give yourself permission to turn off your stressful thoughts inside the tank
  • Make it a sacred space where you commit to deep rest and healing
  • Promise yourself you will pick up your problems, if you must, after you leave the tank

As a point of housekeeping, the water in the tanks is cleaned between floats, cycled through filters multiple times and treated with ozone from UV light and hydro peroxide.

Hamptons Float is located at 760 Montauk Highway, Building 2B, Water Mill. For details visit hamptonsfloat.com or call (631) 500-9296

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