Melt Away Stress in a Sensory Deprivation Tank

None of the passersby know this as I walk down the street, but I have just emerged from complete darkness, silence, weightlessness and solitude. The experience was one I can only describe as otherworldly.

As I meet the eyes of the other café-goers along Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, I wonder if they can tell that I’ve just been plunked back down into the real world from an anti-gravity blackness that perhaps only an astronaut would be familiar with. Can they tell there’s something different about me? Am I smiling too much?

No, I have not just been released from an extraterrestrial abduction—although I feel as though I could have been—I’ve actually just emerged from Toronto’s recently opened H2O Float Spa, where I spent the last hour-and-a-half floating in a sensory deprivation tank half-filled with water and 1000 pounds of Epsom salts. With a higher salt density than the Dead Sea, I was lifted afloat as though the tank was free of gravity.

The tank also happened to be void of other sensations we’re accustomed to: the sounds, smells, sights, lights, and just about every other source of sensory input that bombards our brain day in and day out—even while we sleep. And the treatment lasts for 90 minutes.

Ninety minutes of nothingness is a long time, I thought, as my taxi neared the spa. Will I panic in there? I wondered. Will I fall asleep, drown or get bored? And will I look like a prune when it’s over? All valid concerns, I thought, which probably makes me an ideal candidate for the therapeutic, meditational experience.

Float tanks aren’t new; they were a 1950s invention, designed for the study of sensory deprivation on the human brain. What began as a mechanism for science experimentation was soon heralded for its therapeutic benefits, which range from lowering blood pressure, stress, anxiety and depression to relieving aches, pains and promoting circulation. Increased creativity and feelings of wellbeing were also reported along with a prolonged meditational state in which the brain emits theta waves. The naturally fleeting, (but particularly restful) state is normally only experienced briefly before and after each sleep cycle. Also of note: the sensory deprivation subjects rather liked it.

After arriving at the spa, and changing into a complimentary robe and sandals, Shelley Stertz, the spa’s co-owner led me to my own private room with a beautiful, glass-door shower, fresh white towels, two sets of earplugs and the tranquility tank. I had anticipated a small, dark enclosure and wondered if a twinge of claustrophobia might set in, but the tank was larger than a Jacuzzi and had a giant pull-down door that could be kept open. Inside the pod, the space was illuminated with calm blue light and jets swirled the water. It was spacious and inviting. My concerns melted away and were instantly replaced by excitement.

After a quick shower, I put in my earplugs, hopped into the pod and pulled the door closed. Stepping into the tub felt neither warm nor cold, because the water and air inside a sensory deprivation tank are set to exact body temperature. This is important because a warm bath would feel nice, and in here, you’re supposed to feel nothing.

Did I float? Effortlessly. As I laid down in the pod’s shallow water my fears of drowning dissipated. The saltwater was supportive and my face was kept above water as though resting on a perfectly moulded pillow. After a bit of swishing around, I switched off the lights and tried to “get Zen.”

While the tank isn’t small to begin with, the enclosure felt positively endless once it was dark. My eyes played tricks on me a little, and at times I couldn’t tell if I was looking into pitch darkness, or glaring brightness. There were also moments when the edges of my body felt undetectable, as though they blurred into the blackness. The water and air, if you’re lying still enough, can’t be felt. Still, was it total sensory deprivation?

Debatable.

Debatable because even mid-float, when I couldn’t tell the difference between holding my eyes open or having them shut, with a lessened sense of my body and certainly no sense of time, being so alone with my thoughts seemed loud. As the world’s volume switch was flipped to mute and the lights reduced to nothing, the drumming of my heartbeat and the swish of my breath were outstanding. I could even hear my eyelids opening and closing, which was especially strange, as I could see nothing either way.

“Hurry up and relax,” I urged myself—it was the theta-wave state I was after. But I quickly realized that I was far too excited—this being my first-ever float—for that level of complete relaxation. And it was exciting. Then, long before it felt like 90 minutes had passed, the water jets gently started up to signal the end of my float and the soft blue lights switched back on.

After showering away the Epsom salts, which left my skin silky and without a hint of pruney-ness, I headed to a nearby café to collect my thoughts.

And so? I feel clear-headed, and I feel observant. It seems that an experiment in “nothingness” does wonders to sharpen the senses we normally take advantage of, and have learned to tune out. Floating with so few distractions was an escape from the world that lasted just long enough to make me feel awakened and more connected to it afterward. It’s as though I’ve emerged from a tutorial in mindfulness, and I feel intrigued and excited to experience the world through what feels like a new set of eyes. Did the world get better during my mental vacation, or did I?

The black rice pudding and vanilla bean latte I’ve just sat down to taste more delightful than I’ve ever noticed before, the air feels especially fresh on my skin and I can’t believe how beautiful the sunny street looks today. I’m already looking forward to my next sensory vacation, but for now it feels especially good to be back.

For more information or to book a float, visit h2ofloatspa.com.

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