Inside the Tank of Nothingness: Diving into the Pain and Pleasure of a Sensory Deprivation Tank

Ever wondered what the stranded passengers of the Titanic felt like? You might give flotation therapy a try.EXPAND
Ever wondered what the stranded passengers of the Titanic felt like? You might give flotation therapy a try.
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If you're feeling anxious and you're in the vicinity of Preston Center, you could take a place in line for Carlo's Bakery and shove down the existential dread with Italian pastries, or you could spare your arteries and try the business next door. There, Adrift Float Spa sells hour-long sensory deprivation experiences in private "flotation cabins."

Adrift's windows sport decals promising clients benefits such as "freedom from fear," the kind of bold claims that normally set off your New Age bullshit detector, but you grudgingly set down your cannolis long enough to figure out if this alternative therapy really works.

Sensory deprivation tanks were invented by psychiatrist John C. Lilly in the '50s, as an investigation into the origin of consciousness; some neurophysiologists believed that without any stimuli to respond to, the brain would automatically go to sleep. Instead sensory deprivation was found to facilitate deep meditation, and so researchers in the '70s began exploring its therapeutic benefits. Studies have found that hour-long isolation sessions can reduce pain and stress.

Like all modern sensory deprivation tanks, the ones at Adrift rely on a highly concentrated Epsom salt solution to keep you afloat. At $89 a session, you expect it to be a pretty kushy experience, and it is. There's kombucha on tap in the lobby, which is decorated with Buddha statues and trickling water fountains, and after being offered a beverage you'll be directed to a locker room stocked with gluten-free cookies, robes and slippers, and anything you might need to fix yourself up afterwards, like hair dryers and lotion.

Before you head to your tank you spend 15 minutes having your muscles worked out by a zero-gravity massage chair. It leans you back and squeezes your limbs sort of like a blood pressure machine, or perhaps that Japanese robotic bear engineered to assist in suicide. Massage chairs are usually pretty disappointing compared with actual human hands, but these could really squeeze the life out of you, and we mean that to be positive.

Once you're nice and loose, you enter a private room where your tank is located. Floating is done entirely nude, and before you get in the tank you're required to rinse your body and hair for five minutes in a shower attached to it, so you don't contaminate the water. You'll also be given wax ear plugs, which are difficult to use but will later prove to be important. All of the instructions you're given are important, actually, although as a first-timer it is hard to remember all of them.

Case in point, you figure out why they recommend covering scrapes or sensitive areas with Aquaphor once you get into the tank and turn off the light. The salt burns. At first you flail around, which leads to getting the salt water in your eyes. Then the wax earplugs, which you're supposed to flatten over your ear canals rather than insert, come off and water gets in your ears. The salt stings hangnails and private parts. "God, a whole hour of this," you think.

But gradually the pain subsides, and you start to settle into the experience. Your body floats effortlessly. It's so perfectly dark that you can't tell the difference between having your eyes open and shut. Occasionally you hear muffled noises in the distance, but for the most part the only sounds are the ones coming from your own stomach.

At first all of this is a bit scary. Images rise in your head of the Titanic sinking. Well, at least here the water is a perfectly pleasant 95 degrees. Then it becomes a simulation of a wretched life after death: that it's just your consciousness out there floating, with no outlet.

But eventually you sink into a trance-like state. Reconciling yourself to the experience is in a small way like reconciling yourself to the experience of dying, being alone or having no purpose, all common fears. It sounds bleak, but in the security of the warm, womb-like tank, all of these possibilities seem OK. For the last half-hour you are in a state halfway between dreaming and waking.

When the light comes to alert you that the hour is up, it feels as if no time has passed. You feel rested and clear-headed. And because floating allows your muscles to relax in a natural position, any bothersome muscle pain is also gone. Despite soaking in water for an hour, the salt helps your skin to retain moisture, so you don't turn into a prune.

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Flotation seems to be one fashionable therapy for pain and anxiety that is actually effective. Adrift is a nice place to do it, although frequent visits are likely to be more beneficial, so it would be nice if less-expensive, more minimalist flotation options popped up around town. Nevertheless, you leave eager to return, with moisturized skin and a sense of fullness much more lasting than a sugar high. And it's not just all of the salt lodged deep in your ear canals.

5 Alternative Therapies, And Where to Find 'Em in Dallas

Sensory Deprivation
Ever say you want to get away from it all? Put your money where your mouth is and suspend yourself in a place with no sound, movement or visuals. Medical researchers argue about the benefits of entering a watery tomb and floating in darkness, but some effects are well chronicled. For example, it's not uncommon to experience hallucinations, which the pros sometimes call "faulty source monitoring." (Adrift Float Spa, 8315 Preston Road, 214-363-5628, adriftfloatspa.com)

Cryotherapy
One of the first pop-up cryotherapy companies, Cryozone, sprouted in Dallas in 2014. The idea here is to enter a nitrogen gas chiller set as low as -220F. A normal session is 3 minutes. This deep freeze will, according to the company, reduce cellulite, alleviate anxiety, reduce swelling, improve the skin, reverse signs of aging and help heal from surgery. There have not been a lot of studies to study long-term health effects, and the therapy hasn't been around that long, but athletes and health junkies are leading the charge into the "Cryo-saunas." (CryoZone, 6025 Royal Lane, No. 219-2, 214-447-9727, thecryozone.com)

Electromagnetic Therapy
Health and electricity have been linked since ancients discovered magnets. The Food and Drug Administration has only approved its medical use as a treatment for depression and, in a very narrow use, as a way to enhance cell growth in some kinds of bone breaks. That has not stopped plenty of places from offering EM therapies. In Dallas, the Kotsanis Institute offers Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy. "By restoring the body's natural electromagnetic energy through PEF therapy, cell metabolism is boosted, blood cells are regenerated, circulation is improved and oxygen carrying is increased," the institute's website says. (Kotsanis Institute, 2260 Pool Road, Grapevine, 817-435-4405, kotsanisinstitute.com)

Cupping
Most people have heard of acupuncture, but not as many know about cupping. The idea is that the suction formed by a bamboo or glass cup enhances blood flow and treats a slew of ailments. First, an attendant fills the cup with hot air, usually with a flaming paper, and then places it on the customer. Or, uh, patient. As the air inside the cup cools, it creates a vacuum. Saiyad S. Ahmad, who has a Texas license to practice acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, runs Green Crescent Herbs & Acupuncture Clinic. (Green Crescent Herbs & Acupuncture Clinic, 13520 TI Blvd., Suite 120, 214-718-7646, greencrescentclinic.com)

Reiki
Channeling energy is a tricky business. Reiki is a Japanese version of laying of hands, and it's based in spirituality, not medicine. The word comes from Rei, which means "universal life" and Ki, which means "energy." For all the talk about blocked energies and ancient techniques, a Reiki session is usually aimed at becoming relaxed, which like any massage can help promote healing and mental wellness. (Green Lotus Spa, 4447 N. Central Expressway, Suite 115, 214-520-6560, thegreenlotusspa.com)


(Be sure to read the rest of our counterculture guide to Dallas.) 


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