We Floated in an Isolation Tank and You Should Too

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.

-Derek Walcott

We rarely experience total silence or darkness in our environments.

Wakefulness is Distractedness

Even if we stow our smartphones and turn off the television, our attention is drawn in a different direction every few seconds. The vision of a society where nothing is ever left in the private realm (read The Circle by David Eggers or just this article) marches forward. And even in sleep, we hear noise outside our windows and light filters in through drawn shades.

When does the matrix end, man?

In the last few years, sensory deprivation tanks (also called isolation or flotation tanks) have gained in popularity precisely because it’s often the only place that a person can completely deprive their senses in total darkness, silence and ambient water and air that allows the body to float effortlessly. 

Like most people of a certain age (as in, anyone under 40), I first heard about the isolation tanks on Joe Rogan’s podcast. I’ve wanted to try it for years, as Rogan wholeheartedly likened it to a vital, life-affirming experience and tool for self-awareness, and I am all about that, but I felt a little nervous at the prospect of being in a darkness so complete that I might lose my sense of existence. The idea of the tank also produced some strong feelings of claustrophobia. I don’t usually meditate for more than 10 minutes at a time. Could I really handle this?

What is a Sensory Deprivation Tank?

Since tanks are all about sensory deprivation, a picture of the outside is all we can show you...
Since tanks are all about sensory deprivation, a picture of the outside is all we can show you…

A small unit filled with about a foot of water and 800 pounds of Epsom salt to allow your body to float as soon as you lean back in the water. There are no lights or sounds in the tank, but air is pumped in continuously so that it doesn’t feel stuffy. The air and water are at the same exact temperature as your body (about 93 degrees Fahrenheit), and the darkness is complete. It’s mostly silent but you are able to hear some sounds, for example, if someone was talking directly outside or knocking on the tank.

What’s the Protocol?

You’ll have your own private suite to shower in and head into the tank for a timed 60 to 90 minute session. You will be naked (a problem if you are a Never Nude). But no one is around. You carefully step into the tank to avoid slipping and pull the door shut, creating total darkness. You can always open the door if at any point you feel uncomfortable, of course– this isn’t some torture chamber where you have to stay in for 90 minutes (like the best-ever craigslist post on a user’s Bikram yoga experience).

What’s the Goal?

What you do in the tank is completely up to you, but many people have a few key goals for using sensory deprivation tanks:

  • Meditation: Isolation tanks have been billed as a shortcut to meditation. Sure, there are no true shortcuts to mindfulness meditation, but it doesn’t hurt to remove a few obstacles to improving your concentration and insight, right?
  • Barring inability to meditate, simply being still in the tank and allowing the mind to wander from thought to thought
  • Disconnecting or taking a break from a busy day, week, or life
  • Setting the “reset” button
  • Creating an out of body or psychedelic experience
  • Smoother skin and lustrous hair from soaking in Epsom salt

What Does it Feel Like?

I was worried that 90 minutes would be too long, but it turned into an appropriate length of time – long enough that I was starting to feel ready to wrap it up in the last few minutes, but short enough that I am looking forward to another session.

I spent the first 30 minutes or so adjusting to what I was feeling, and I wasn’t really sure what I was feeling. I kept smiling to myself because I was aware of a lack of fear and complete comfort in the water. My body moved slightly in the tank as I moved my arms from my sides to over my head. My toes or head occasionally hit a side of the tank.

Then I fell asleep for about 20 minutes. But sleeping in the tank doesn’t feel like normal sleep. It feels like you fell asleep with your eyes open, because there’s no way to tell if your eyelids are open or closed– you still see the exact same black screen with intermittent flashing spots of rainbow color not unlike a Thrifty-brand Rainbow Sherbet.

I woke up from my eyes-open nap to a more relaxed state of being. I had the thought that I didn’t want to get out, but I reminded myself that I still had time to meditate, to float and enjoy the remaining time without needing to think through every thought that popped into my head. So I floated. Occasionally I would poke or squeeze an arm or a leg, just to remind myself I still had a body. In the last few minutes, I felt aware that my time was coming to an end, and so I waited to hear the knock on the tank to let me know my time was up, which came shortly after.

Floating can also be a unique experience for moms-to-be, pregnant women have noted that floating in the tank allows them to only feel the baby moving or kicking and feel more aware of the baby than any other time, which sounds pretty awesome.

What Happens After?

With my 90 minutes up, I pulled myself up to a seated position and pushed the tank door open. Post-float, you shower, get dressed and rejoin the sensory-rich environment of your daily life. The most immediate feeling that I had after an hour and a half of darkness, silence and floating was gratitude. I know it sounds cheesy, but I felt a wave of gratitude rush over me as I stared at my hands, thinking, these are my hands! those are my fingers!  and examining them slowly and carefully, front to back. I continued to examine everything, touching the walls, wiggling my toes, and squeezing my shoulders.

Where to Float in Orange County

While Los Angeles has a ton of flotation tanks, Orange County has just a handful, but we can definitely expect this trend to grow, and we’ll update this post with other places as we find them.

We visited Awaken Float Lounge in Orange, which has two NSF-certified Float Lab tanks. Awaken is in the back of a quiet strip mall and each suite feels luxurious without pretension. All sessions are 90 minutes long, and yes, the tanks are cleaned and filtered automatically after each visit (a 12-minute process including UV filtering, ozone and air filtration removes fine particles like skin debris). Prices range from $45 to $55 per float.

Joe Rogan did it. And you can too - float in an isolation tank and disconnect from the world in total darkness and silence.