“What if there’s a fire?” my girlfriend asked. “Would anyone come and get you?”
Not the positive re-enforcement I was hoping for before stepping into my first float in a sensory deprivation chamber, the latest wellness fad to come to the Peninsula. I had psyched myself out all weekend, watching the 1980 movie Altered States and a Vice News documentary, both about bad trips in sensory deprivation chambers. Now structure fire had been added to my list of worries.
Nevertheless, I walked into Balance Float in Redwood City, sandwiched between a Bed Bath and Beyond and a Wingstop. I signed a waiver, was shown to my room (named Malachite, the rooms are named after butterflies — Painted Lady, Monarch, a gentle way of signaling the metamorphic intent) showered, and watched an orientation video.
Shampoo’s okay, but no conditioner. Wipe off your face so you’re not tempted to touch it later with salty hands. Earplugs in. The chamber itself resembled a person-sized Zojirushi rice cooker. A bad trip seemed imminent. I enter and shut the lid closed.
If you think I’m being melodramatic consider that “floating,” as it’s known today, has an iffy history and that just because an activity is franchised doesn’t make it safe (if you missed the story of the cryotherapy employee who froze herself to death, here it is). I first learned of sensory deprivation from the heaviest user of psychedelics I know, who took it up thanks to celebrity endorsements from people like Fear Factor host Joe Rogan, who talks openly about his pursuing enlightenment through drug use. The developer of the floatation tank, scientist John C. Lilly, wrote about his own LSD use and tried to establish human-dolphin communication (among many other endeavors). Sensory deprivation, more broadly defined, has been used for both health benefits, going back to the 1970s, and as a way of breaking the willpower of prisoners, including by the U.S. on Al Qaeda suspects.
Athletes such as Steph Curry and Tom Brady have endorsed floating for muscle recovery and to help improve visualization techniques. The marines are using floating to combat PTSD and depression. Medical clinics that would typically prescribe acupuncture for patients for back pain or sleeping issues are telling patients to go float. In 2011, there were 85 float stations in the United States. Today, there are 339, three of them on the Peninsula.
If you’re unfamiliar with floating, here’s how it works: you strip down and float sunny side up in a pod-like chamber that’s completely dark, quiet, and filled with 10 inches of warm, epsom-salted water. Spend an hour as a piece of fleshy flotsam and you’re supposed to have an experience similar to meditation. Except with meditation you can get up when you’re ready to.
Balance Float’s origins, however, are anything but sinister. Andrew Dannaoui moved to Portola Valley last year from Australia and was making the trek to San Francisco for floats. He and his partner, Valerie, decided they’d rather open a spot close to home than keep commuting and Balance Float opened in November. Insight Float in San Carlos and Float Station in Campbell are the other two studios nearby.
“There’s a physical side to floating. With that much salt in the water, it’s a muscle relaxant and a zero-gravity feeling,” explains Dannaoui. “There’s also a mental side. You’re shutting down the five senses to the brain, which is very unnatural. This allows the brain to go into a very deep state of relaxation.”
My floating experience was something a bit shy of total relaxation but the sensations were entirely new. As I entered the pod a soft blue light lit the water and soothing tribal music surrounded me. Then, silence and a short time after, darkness. I struggled to calm my thoughts, then got frustrated that I was trying to calm my thoughts. I had almost no feeling or sense of my body. At one point, I was completely still and wondered what would happen if I submerged my feet under the water. Suddenly my back popped up and I felt as if I were doing somersaults in outer space. I became aware that this wasn’t actually happening and eventually the sensation dissipated.
I thought about some problems and came to some conclusions in my human rice cooker. I was restless for only a short time, wondering when my hour would be up, then the soft blue lights and drumbeat returned. My float was over.
No bad trips. No fire. And no anxiety about any of the work ahead of me that day. When I returned to my car, the clock read 5:40 p.m. My appointment was at 5 and for a moment I thought they must have pulled me out too soon. Then I remembered I hadn’t changed my clock since daylight savings. It was 6:40. Time had disappeared.