Nothing says you are clueless about what to buy someone like a gift voucher. Normally I would consider them a last resort, yet last Christmas, I received a rather more imaginative token. I was presented with a card with an image which looked alarmingly like a dead body. Thankfully, the voucher was not for my own funeral, but entitled me to an hour’s float in a sensory deprivation tank.
You could be forgiven for thinking of sensory deprivation as the latest hipster fad to come out of the wellness industry. While I had some reservations, I wanted to experience it for myself before dismissing it. The experience was recommended by my younger brother whom my mum describes as having ‘hippy dippy tendencies,’ though on the whole I tend to rely on his judgement.
The concept behind sensory deprivation is that it creates an environment where you can experience total relaxation. During a session, you are enclosed within a tank of warm salt water. The idea is that the lack of stimulation frees your mind from the constant distractions of modern life and enables you to achieve a unique state of deep relaxation.
I was keen to include sensory deprivation on my list of 27 things as I rarely allow myself time to relax. Besides, I would probably need it after running around like a maniac trying to get all the other things on the list done.
On the day of the session, I doubted where I would be capable of achieving a state of deep relaxation. Typically, the tram had broken down and battling the replacement bus was not exactly conducive to tranquility. My mind was racing about whether I would make my appointment in time and the bus was filled with a questionable smell.
I power-walked past the Chips building to arrive sweaty, but on time, at the floatation centre. As I sat in the waiting room, apprehensive thoughts surfaced. Friends had reacted with horror when I told them my plans for the weekend. One helpfully commented that I was essentially signing up to lie in a coffin filled with water.
I’ve long had a morbid fascination with water, which perhaps started when I nearly drowned in childhood. Yet I also find being near water soothing, which perhaps is my Aquarius star sign coming into play. The positive impact of ‘green space’ is well established, yet research on ‘blue space’ has lagged behind. Yet there is emerging evidence that water can have similar positive effects on our mental wellbeing.
My thoughts were interrupted by a call to enter the floatation room. I was relieved to find that I was in my own room equipped with a lock, thus eliminating the risk of someone discovering me naked, and possibly drowned, in the tank.
I was instructed to have a shower and put in my ear plugs before entering the tank backwards. The attendant reassured me that it wasn’t possible to drown due to the high levels of salt, though raising the issue of drowning in the first place didn’t help to dispel my fears.
Once I had submerged myself in the water, it took me a few moments to acclimatise before turning the light off. Panic set in when I worried that I might not be able to find the light again. For at least the first fifteen minutes, I endured an inner monologue of self-recrimination for not relaxing and enjoying the experience.
Once I became accustomed to the idea that I didn’t need to tread water to stay afloat, I felt the aches and pains of an office job dissolve and even experienced a feeling of weightlessness. Initially, I felt slightly on edge that I couldn’t check my Fitbit for the time but as I became more relaxed I started to lose my grasp on time (or it lost its grasp on me). I surrendered to the moment.
As I focused on the soothing music, I found myself falling into a deep state of relaxation. After a while, I lost all sense of where I was within the tank – I could no longer tell which way was up or down.
I entered a dream-like, hallucinatory state. Interestingly, this is called oneirophrenia and was historically associated with acute cases of schizophrenia. This line of thinking is now largely out of fashion and indeed, people now pursue this dream-like state as a form of therapy.
Vivid images flashed into my mind. I observed myself drifting out into the open ocean. This was a welcome change from the usual series of tasks lining up in my mind like in a game of the SIMs.
When the lights turned on signalling the end of my float, I felt both that I had been in there for hours and that it was over too soon. It undoubtedly had a positive effect on my mood; I felt unusually serene on the replacement bus home. I wondered whether what I had expected to be a unique experience would develop into a habit. The price of a float session is prohibitive (about £35/hour) though it is something I will consider for an occasional reset and recharge. I resolved to have more baths with Epsom salts at home in the hope of achieving similar benefits.
For me, the floatation session represented a commitment to enjoy the ‘me-time’ which is so often sacrificed in favour of doing other things (such as the 27 things I’ve planned to do this year). It is difficult to not get caught up in the stream of thoughts and my floatation experience was an opportunity to pause and just be. As far as gift vouchers go, the gift of time has got to be the most precious of all.