When I stepped down as branch chair, UNISON West Midlands Community generously got me a £50 ‘experience day’ voucher, which I cashed in for two sessions in a flotation tank. The attraction for me was mainly being totally alone in dark silence. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for me this is something which appeals and really doesn’t happen that often. Flotation tanks are said to be incredible for aching, tense muscles as well as the mind.
After booking, friends drew my attention to the slightly cheesy 80s movie Altered States in which the main character has intense hallucinations as part of his flotation experiments. That seemed like an interesting possible bonus. But more than anything else, I’ve been having an exhausting time with work lately, so I was very ready for my first float just as a big dose of relaxation.
I booked in with Relax and Float, based in Croydon. The flotation suite is within a suburban house and is more of a room than a tank. You arrive in a room with low lighting, strip off, and shower just to wet yourself. Put in some wax earplugs. Then it’s time. You step into a dark cell with about a foot of salty water set to body temperature. It’s dark, with a few blue lights under the water and starry lights set into the ceiling. Some relaxing droney music is playing and it’s not too bad.
You get yourself into a lying position face up. The water supports you immediately. It’s important to choose a posture that you can sustain without moving for one hour. Jenny the host advises me that various arm angles might work, and so I try a few before ending up with arms out to the side and above my head, palms upwards, in a kind of ‘don’t shoot’ shape.
Often people notice lots of tension stored in their neck and shoulders when they have a flotation session, but for me this time around at least it was all about the low back and the legs.
After 15 minutes the lights go out, the music stops and you are in silence. It’s dark but there is a crack of light visible at the door. I was satisfied that I wasn’t going to fall asleep so I closed my eyes. I had been worried about this on my way there, as I had felt knackered, so I knocked back an espresso at the station. Relaxation in a tank has some of the benefits of good refreshing sleep, but is a separate state of its own.
There was a distant scent of some sort of herbal oil, but it was not too overpowering and after a while less noticeable.
I had been expecting my mild tinnitus to be exaggerated, but it wasn’t a problem at all. Other people had said that I’d hear my heartbeat very loudly – it was there, but not the most prominent sound. That was my breath. It sounded like ujjayi (victorious) breath used in yoga. On occasional inhales there was a small metallic pop towards the back of my ribcage on the left hand side. I also heard the odd swift digestive squirt, like a shooting star.
You feel very little at the borders of your skin. Every now and then you touch the sides with a finger or toe, reminding you that you are contained in liquid and walls, and you just gently push yourself away back out into the sensory void.
I felt very remote from my feet, probably as there was so much internal sound coming from my head as I breathed. If I had wanted to flex my quads or my glutes, they would have been like, ‘nah…’.
It was very warm. Beads of sweat were forming and running on my face and exposed parts of the front of my body. The high temperature is partly to match body temperature and partly to prevent condensation on the ceiling which would mean drips.
Behind my eyelids I saw a few smoky visuals and patches of light. Whether these were created by the brain or something more physical that my eye nerves were doing I’m not sure. I felt my eyelids tremble only momentarily, but otherwise not much else to report. No hallucinations.
My thoughts were mostly narration of my experience, new as it was. I hoped there would be less of that the next time. Overall I did feel relaxed and peaceful. No busy mind, just a curious one.
The end is signalled by the music starting up again gently and the low lights under the water and in the ceiling coming back on. Time for a good stretch and whatever you do – don’t rub your eyes until you’re in the shower! Relax and Float provides toiletries which are not animal tested which is a nice touch.
If you know a stresshead who doesn’t mind darkness and solitude, this might be just the kind of appreciated gift that they would never buy for themselves. There aren’t a lot of flotation tanks out there. I can recommend Jenny at Relax and Float as a kind and welcoming host who runs this service for all the right reasons.