Where’s the most relaxing place you can think of if you needed to unwind? A beach in Tahiti? The vacuum of space? A room of wall-to-wall kittens? What about a giant water tank in the upstairs bedroom of a private residence in South Austin?
Although it may sound a bit strange at first, my trip to Austin’s only certified public sensory deprivation tank proved to be one of the most exciting — and conversely, most relaxing — experiences I’ve had the pleasure to check off my bucket list.
The tank, located at the Zen Blend home massage studio of husband and wife team Kristi and Brian Ludlam, is not the science fiction torture device you might imagine when you hear the phrase “sensory deprivation.”
I, myself, had grown up hearing that extended periods of time in a tank of this nature could drive one insane. But charged with a unique invitation and a journalistic lead, this water-wary, unadventurous sourpuss was ready for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Make no mistake, however: I was doing my research and staying extra vigilant.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, a sensory deprivation tank is a lightless, soundproof tank in which subjects float in a magnesium-heavy salt water solution that is kept at skin temperature. Floaters lie back in the queen-bed-size contraption that contains a wading pool’s worth of water, allowing their head and limbs to relax on the surface of the dense saltwater.
At Zen Blend, floaters have the option of a 60-minute float ($70.00) or a 90-minute float ($90.00). First time floaters are encouraged to do the full hour-and-a-half in order to overcome their initial hesitations and receive the full relaxation benefits.
In my research, I found that these tanks were first used by John C. Lilly in 1954 in order to test the effects of sensory deprivation on mental conditions such as schizophrenia and clinical depression. Proving less than effective in those regards (or perhaps because he also offered his patients LSD), the modified tanks soon became popular commercially for meditation, pain management, and in alternative medicine practices.
The original, rather ominous-sounding moniker — “sensory deprivation tank” — conjures up dastardly images of torture devices employed by James Bond’s greatest villains. Therefore, today, the watering holes are more simply called "float tanks," "flotation baths," and, most eloquently, "sensory attenuation tanks."
The last name is perhaps the most indicative of the float tank’s purpose, as the primary implementation of the float tank today is to help reduce the unending psychic overload of sensory stimulation we endure every day. Taking away radio, television, iPads, computers, coworkers, and even daylight and weather, the float tank allows the viewer to simply escape the corporeal world and float, both literally and figuratively, through space.
Without anything else to do, one is left with one’s own thoughts: a dangerous occupation for the more… unquiet minds among us.
The float tank at Zen Blend is truly a unique experience because it literally sits in the bedroom at the top of the stairs in the Ludlam’s renovated two-story house in the suburbs. (Brian tells me afterward that they had to completely remove the exterior wall of the house in order to get the tank installed upstairs.)
After being instructed on how to get in the tank, where I would undress (yes, this is a disrobed endeavor), where I would shower off the detritus of the day, where I would walk my robed self to the tank, and how I would let myself in, I was left to my own devices. I was provided with silicone earplugs to keep the water out, although I did also opt for soft relaxation music to be piped in the tank at the beginning and the end of my hour-and-a-half float.
Brian took his leave down the stairs, past the beaded and velvet-lined curtains separating the downstairs from the hallway, and promised to answer any questions I might have through the baby monitor on the table next to the tank, in case of emergency.
After showering and plugging my ears, I stepped into the slippery, latexed floor of the space-age float tank, grasping firmly to the oddly-placed handles that help me maintain secure balance. I lowered myself into the salty-smelling brine and closed the lid, prepared for the promise of calm that comes from absolutely no sensory stimuli.
And, let me say, it is an absolutely alien experience losing track of the world around you. We have all become so accustomed to taking in every blip and blur and squeal and shout that occupies our waking lives that it’s truly jarring to spend an hour-and-a-half in complete sensory darkness.
It took a solid twenty minutes (at least) to stop fighting with my mind that this was valuable. And then, upon realizing I had bumped against the edge of the tank, I tried correcting myself back in the center. And that’s when it happened.
I barely touched the edge of the tank, and everything suddenly felt unreal. I knew I was in a tank in the pitch black, but I had lost all depth perception. Even the slightest movement would trigger a sensation like I was hurtling through space. I started playing with this notion and realized it was best when I kept completely still.
After my brain worked out all its immediate neuroses, I found myself accepting my empty environment. I wasn’t tired, but it felt like I existed somewhere between sleeping and wakefulness.
Needless to say, the relaxation worked.
I imagine there are a lot of people — control freaks like myself — who would absolutely hate losing touch with their senses, if even for an hour. But for those who are curious about what extreme relaxation feels like, and for those suffering from temporary or chronic pain, floating is definitely an option I would suggest.
As I headed out to my car, on to that dead street in a quiet South Austin neighborhood, the lights did indeed seem a bit brighter and I was in the best mood I’d been in all month. Perhaps it’s the thrill of tackling a new experience. Or maybe floating naked and senseless in a pool of bath salts really does give you that much relaxation and clarity.