Health

I Got Into Pasadena's Sensory Deprivation Tank

Published On 06/10/2016 Published On 06/10/2016
Cole Ott/Thrillist

I’m not a guy who likes to be alone with his own thoughts, and I’m not really into the “spiritual” stuff: I’ve never been to a meditation retreat, I’ve watched people get ”washed in a sound bath” and couldn’t understand a reaction to a man blowing a glorified shofar in your face other than laughter, and any time I’ve tried to focus -- I mean, really, really focus -- I end up focusing on, like, what I may have in my fridge, or what’s on TV, or... anything other than focusing.

So, when I got the opportunity to lock myself in a small room, with absolutely no stimulation, alone with my own thoughts, totally naked, floating in extra-buoyant salt water, for an hour, in total, 100% pitch black, as a supposedly healthy spa experience, my initial reaction was, “well, but what am I going to do for an hour? I mean other than think??” But thinking, they say, is good for you, and I’m up for anything once. So, despite my fear, of course, I said yes.

And it was amazing.

***

Just Float in Pasadena is one of a growing number of sensory deprivation spas popping up around the country, but it’s also the biggest one in the world; with 11 rooms in a massive complex just outside of Downtown Pass, they’ve committed to what seems, on the surface, like a sort of ridiculous premise.

After all, “flotation therapy,” as they call it, has all the signs of hokum, especially the medical claims: a quick internet search reveals promises of everything from stress to pain relief from, well, what seems like the equivalent of taking a 60 minute stay in a hot tub. Just Float’s own site also talks of decreasing blood pressure and lowering heart rate (OK, that last one makes sense -- you are, you know, lying down for an hour.) So yeah: I was skeptical.

The waiting room at Just Float feels like what you’d see at a great dentist’s office, with cushiony chairs and couches in cool pastel colors. After walking in and signing my life away -- of course -- I was given a tablet with a quick, five-minute instructional/promotional video.

Warm music played as I was shown what to expect: I was to strip totally naked and wash myself off before stepping into the tank, where -- according to the video, which starred someone far better looking, thinner, and more female than me -- my apparently lithe body would stretch out and bob above the water, while even more warming music played. I’d hit a button along the wall, and slowly the music would fade, the lights would fade, and it would be pitch black, completely silent, and I’d be alone.

Totally alone.

Alarmingly alone.

****

A nice guy in scrubs led me to my room, which looked like something out of a ‘90s Schwarzenegger movie: behind the first door was a small anteroom with a shower and a shelf, as well as a robe, but towards the back was where the magic was allegedly going to happen. A branded, aqua-colored door in the middle of the wall, with a massive handle pulled up to reveal a low-lit, square space, much shallower than a typical pool and much wider than a bath -- 8ft long and 5ft wide, full of 250 gallons of water and 1300lbs of salt, to ensure that I would be floating the whole time. I’d assumed that the whole thing would be a claustrophobia-inspired casket-sized space, so I was glad to see the ceiling five or so feet above me, glowing a cool blue hue, with the knowledge that I could sit up if I did get panicky a relief.

After taking that shower, I took a deep breath, closed the door to the room, and climbed in, first sitting and then laying all the way down with my head floating in the water, before hitting the button by the left side of my head to signal that I was ready to start the experience.

Complete blackness, and not in the “hey, there's no lights in the desert” way, but in the "there's no lights in the anything" way. 

Slowly -- very, very slowly -- the calming music that had been playing both in the room and underwater faded out, and the dim light that had illuminated the space mellowed before disappearing completely. And then: nothing. Complete blackness, and not in the “hey, there’s no lights in the desert” way, but in the "there’s no lights in the anything" way. And no sound, either, other than the light lapping of the water.  And my breathing.  And then the thoughts started:

“Woah, my breathing is loud. Is that actually my breathing? Am I snoring? No, I’m breathing. Yes. Wow. That’s a lot of breaths.”

The water was both extremely refreshing and colder than I expected (they claim it’s nearly at body temperature), but I got used to it quickly, loving both the buoyancy offered by the saltwater pumped into the tub and the realization that if I moved my body just so, my butt could hit the bottom and pop back up without my head ever leaving the water. I did this a few times -- three? four? -- before realizing I had no idea how much I was actually even moving in the water. The darkness and the unnatural buoyancy had stripped me of any spacial awareness. Even though they were just a foot or so below my feet and above my head, the walls and ceiling seemed like they were forever away as I shifted my body weight.

This went on for a minute or two in this pitch-black space, a mild, brief distraction. But I was there to commit to the experience. So I started breathing again. In. Out. In. Out.

My mind never completely shut off, but eventually I found myself wondering whether my eyes were open or closed; when I opened them, it was so dark that I couldn’t see my hands at all, so I closed them again, convinced there was no way I could actually, you know, fall asleep while lying in water, though I did, maybe, just for a little bit. Music flowed through my brain, in and out, then in, then... out. Maybe 20 minutes had passed. But it was hard to tell.

Random thoughts blew through my head: for one moment I’d think about whether I’d get a phone call from my mother that day or not, then it’d be about why Captain America: The Winter Soldier was better than Civil War, then it’d be wondering what the parts of my body that were above the water -- literally, my nose, beer-gut, and, uh, groinal area -- looked like on that even plane, and whether that was the oddest way anyone could possibly see a body.

Once I got into it -- probably halfway through -- what I was thinking about was... nothing.

But mostly, once I got into it -- probably halfway through -- what I was thinking about was... nothing. And that’s insanely rare for me. I’d disappear into the idea of relaxation, which I found far easier to do there than on a massage table with someone touching me, or in a yoga class with a teacher in my ear. All I could focus on was breathing, and that breathing eventually became hypnotic, the silence in the room surprisingly welcoming instead of deafening. I’d never have expected it, but it felt... freeing.

And then it didn’t. All of a sudden, my brain turned back on, and started thinking.

“How long have I been in here? Has it only been 10 minutes? 5 minutes? This feels like FOREVER!! Man. This has to end soon, this must be over soon, is this going to go on... ”

That’s when I heard the music -- or at least I thought I did; with my ears underwater, it could have been a hallucination, or coming from another room. But then it got louder, then louder; then a faint light glimmered above, signifying my time was up.

I unlatched the pod, naked and exposed, hearing my joints crack under me, exiting into the shower area and stretching to the sky -- and feeling, well, great. The hour alone with myself was liberating, and the feeling in my body electric.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be a candidate for actual long-term meditation, and the Just Float experience was clearly a fleeting one, rather than one that would change my life forever. But if a float-spa was close to my house? I’d go back again. Maybe that time I could shut it all off. But for now, getting close would have to do.

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Jeff Miller is the editor of Thrillist LA and will do any odd spa experience once. Find him on Instagram at @jeffmillerla.

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