By SELENE SAN FELICE
This was the summer of Stranger Things. The biggest Netflix show since Orange is the New Black had me, along with a lot of other subscribers, obsessed with its ‘80s vibe, unforgettable characters (RIP Barb) and eerie paranormal elements. What fascinated me most about the show was how a little girl named Eleven could open up another world in her mind by just floating in a tank.
Floating like Eleven is actually possible and can even be therapeutic. And unless you have her extrasensory perception (ESP), you most likely won’t open a portal to another dimension. I was just about to grab my kiddie pool, two tons of epsom salts and a hose to make my own tank, when I learned that people have been floating in professional tanks around Tampa for years.
Just around the corner from Mermaid Tavern on North Nebraska Avenue (about 10 minutes from campus) is Sacred Floats & Gems, a magical hippy spot that sells healing stones, offers oxygen therapy and boasts an infrared sauna. What it’s most known for, however, are the two deprivation tanks tucked away in a private back room. When I asked the staff about trying out a float, they were excited to help me with my first experience. I was assured that my minor anxiety wouldn’t be an issue, and the tank could actually help cure it. In fact, those who hesitate to float for fear of freaking out should know a couple things:
Floating is not torture. No one who is forced into a dark tank to lose all sense of awareness like Eleven is going to have a good time. But those open to the experience end up feeling totally relaxed and report relief of stress and anxiety, as well as physical pain relief. A 2005 study on REST (flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy) found floating to be “a valuable alternative to other stress-management techniques” with mood and performance enhancing effects more profound than other relaxation methods in fighting burnout and chronic fatigue.
Floating is not tripping. While an hour of floating can be a transcendent experience and completely change a mental state, floaters are by no means trapped. Those who try to transcend like this through psychedelics tend to freak out, and then spend hours stuck in a terrible mental state. Trust me, one time I took ‘shrooms and thought the floor was snakes and a bagel was a person for four hours. I was not about to do that again.
Floaters can hallucinate patterns and colors in the tank without being under any influence. In fact, floating is perhaps the most controlled way to push the limits of the mind. You can get out of the tank at any time, and that’s totally okay. Those particularly claustrophobic or uncomfortable can start their floats with the door open and let light flood the tank for as long as they want (though at that point you’re basically just taking a bath). The float is what you make of it.
With an open mind and a belly full of Eggos, I stepped into the Sacred Floats tank. The picture you see here shows me in a bathing suit, but for the full experience a nude float is recommended. Floaters are also asked to shower before stepping into the tank to rinse off any products and oils, and after to stop crystallization from turning them into a human salt lick.
As soon as I shut the tank door, being enveloped in total darkness brought on racing thoughts.
“Oh shit, I have to do this for an hour…I don’t even know what time I started. I don’t know what time it is right now…This must be what a womb is like…Is this what being dead is like? Grandma, can you hear me?”
There’s something about floating weightlessly, though, that calms those scary thoughts. I wasn’t dead, and I could see a teeny amount of light between the seal of the door and the tank. I could gently bump its edges while floating back and forth.
I never felt like I was floating through time and space, but I began to feel like I was drifting down a river. I lost my awareness of being in a tiny tank and felt as if I was floating in a vast, maybe even endless space of water.
Looking toward my toes, I could see a little purple light. I assumed this was a switch to some pump or a nightlight for scared floaters like me. The light kept me calm, and though my thoughts never quieted completely, I could actually relax.
Plot twist: after talking to store manager post-float and looking at pictures of the tank, that little purple light doesn’t exist. I don’t know how I saw or imagined it, but I was thrilled to know my brain could do something like that. I needed to hold on to my reality within the tank, but if I had really calmed my brain down and been more mindful, I know I could have gone to a different headspace beyond even imaginary lights.
Like me, many floaters need a lot of time to quiet their thoughts and adjust to the tank. Sacred Floats manager Memi Rodriguez recommends at least three sessions to get into the right mind while floating. She says the third float is where the body and mind align so well floaters can practically reach nirvana, and she’s not just trying to sell more sessions. That study on REST also detailed, “The enhanced effects of REST on well-being found in the long-term studies suggest that the effects of REST become stronger through repeated exposure. It may indicate that participants learned to profit more from their sessions, and that its effects were better integrated.”
While I would have loved to reach nirvana, I’m not sure I can afford it. An hour float at Sacred Gems is $50 a session, although students get a 10 percent discount and after 10 floats on your frequent floater card, the 11th is free.
Aside from money, I’m also one of those college students that lacks sleep. I Googled around and a few different—though non-scientific—sources claim an hour of floating can be equal to four to eight hours of sleep.
About two thirds of the way through my float, I understood exactly what this meant. I felt amazing–like I’d just woken up from the most perfect nap. I stretched myself a bit, extending my arms and legs, feeling my fingers and toes grazing the edges of the tank, and let out a little laugh of joy. I took this feeling and the relaxed state I was in post-float to mean I had really gained four hours of sleep, so of course I went right out to dollar beers. As it turns out, you still need to sleep and take care of yourself the other 23 hours in the day after your float. I felt just as shitty the next day as a normal morning-after, even with a float in my system.
Before I started wrecking my body, I did feel amazing post-float. Memi knocked on my tank to signal the end of my hour, and I took my sweet time showering off and preparing to enter the world again. The salty water left my hair and skin feeling soft, and all the tension I usually carry felt gone from my neck and muscles. The noodly relaxation was similar to how I usually feel after a good massage, but lasted hours longer.
Sacred Floats & Gems isn’t the only place you can float in Tampa, although it was the first in 2014. The pricier Kodawari Studios on Henderson Boulevard also offers flotation therapy that includes customizable colored lights and music in their “float pods.” Besides being Tampa’s OG floating facility, Sacred Floats & Gems is about to keep its edge with a brand new type of tank. Memi couldn’t share any of the tank’s details beyond that it’ll be “completely different than any pod you’ll ever see.” Once the store opens its new addition the mysterious new tanks will be ready for in-store floats and available for purchase.
Maybe floating isn’t sustainable for the young n’ broke lifestyle, and maybe you won’t develop badass powers like Eleven, but it’s something everyone should experience at least once before we float into the nothingness for real.
Selene San Felice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org