My first time floating in a sensory deprivation chamber

A few weeks ago I was hanging out with a friend and we got on the topic of work and life and I let myself verbalize a bunch of things I was having a hard time with. This is unusual for me.

I’m not usually one to complain too much, or to share much about what I’m working on or what is stressing me out. There’s always a ton of stuff going on in my head, and I don’t think it’s productive to talk too much about it with most people. Most of the time, I’m holding most of it in except for with a handful of close people in my life.

Apparently I really needed to talk, so I let that guard down for a little while and let myself unpack everything going on in my head.

When I was done all she said was, “have you ever floated before? I want to give you one of my passes to the place where I go float in a sensory deprivation chamber. You could really use that right now.”

For those of you that aren’t familiar with floating, it’s where you climb into a soundproof isolation pod full of water heated to human body temperature. The water is also full of 1200 pounds of epsom salt (enough so you float). Once you’re in the pod, you close the hatch so you’re immersed in pitch blackness, hearing no sound, and floating in water that is no cooler or warmer than your body temperature.

You feel, hear, and see absolutely nothing.

Oh, and you’re totally naked in there too. No swimsuit of any kind.

I was stoked at the offer. I’ve wanted the chance to hop into a sensory deprivation chamber for a long time, ever since first hearing about it 10 years ago from a friend of mine who raved about it. I’m not sure why I haven’t done it by now, especially since a handful of friends, like my buddy Chandler Bolt, swear by it.

So of course I took her up on the offer and scheduled the appointment for after work last week to see what my experience would be like floating for the first time.

Now, you’re probably asking who on earth came up with this rather elaborate idea of floating in the first place?

Well, apparently in 1954 this dude named John C. Lilly, a doctor and neuropsychiatrist, was playing around with sensory deprivation as a form of relaxation. Floating in a warm pool of water with all the lights off was apparently the most efficient way he found achieve a satisfactory level of deprivation.

Basically, what’s supposed to happen is that absent all sensations from even what is touching your skin, you can shortcut your way to a deep meditative state. You slip into a peaceful state state where your brain is producing theta waves that are associated with creativity, relaxation, and healing. Lilly wanted a way to reliably induce this state with minimal effort, so he decided to build a big pod and fill it with water.

I sorta want to have been in the room the first time he poured 1200 pounds of salt into what I assume must have been a kiddie pool in the middle of a gymnasium and turned all the lights out (just like in Stranger Things). I am fascinated by the thought process that led him to this.

He apparently experimented with floating without any psychoactive substances for the most part, but since it was the 1950s and psychedelics hadn’t yet become taboo in the scientific community, he also dropped acid and floated to see whether that would help.

While that sounds fun and all, my mother will be happy to read that I did not entertain floating for the first time with any additional chemicals in my brain. But no judgement to anyone out there who is into that sort of thing. The comedian Joe Rogan apparently swears about floating while on DMT, which I learned (from Googling!) is a super powerful psychedelic.

Anyways, all of this was swirling through my head as I walked into the storefront of Reboot Float Spa on Lombard Street in San Francisco last week. Walking into the business was like walking into any run of the mill place for a spa appointment. There’s soothing music playing, some comfortable chairs, filtered water and some tea off to the side that you can help yourself to as you’re greeted by a friendly someone (in my case, a friendly dude) at the front desk who tells you to go ahead and take your shoes off and exchange them for a pair of flip flops.

The friendly dude sat me down and had me watch a 5 minute video of what floating entails (which I described above), the history of it (also above) and a few rules, like don’t get the salt water in your eyes (it burns like hell – found that out the hard way!), and a few other tidbits.

In the video, I also learned about the Theta waves. In particular, I learned that children are supposed to experience Theta waves in greater volume than adults do, and this is part of why children are often more creative and less inhibited than adults. The assertion is that through floating, and I assume any sort of deep meditation, we can reclaim that childlike spirit. I’d agree, based on the people I know who are serious about meditation.

After the video, I went to the bathroom one last time, and he took me back in to the room with the huge float tank. He explained to me how the tank worked, what my hour would be like, and then left the room so I could disrobe, shower off, and then hop into the tank.

A quick word, that apparently Steph Curry likes to float, and he does it at the same spot on Lombard. Who knew?

With only a passing thought to Steph Curry, I climbed into the tank and closed the lid and could feel my body relax into the water. My body was floating in the water, and would sometimes gently bump against one side or the other of the tank like a rubber duck in your bathwater.

I was slightly terrified that once deprived of all of the stimulus that I’m used to, not to mention ripped away from my phone and my laptop for an hour, stuck inside of this pitch black and soundproof chamber that I’d get really anxious and start freaking out.

That wasn’t what happened at all. I didn’t get anywhere near freaking out. From the get-go, it was incredibly relaxing and soothing to detach myself from the rest of the world and just be whatever I was, floating on a warm pool of water.

Escape is a huge thing for me. I routinely make an effort to create situations to detach myself from what is going on around me and remove myself from the rapid pace of life. I just need space to think and be.

I used to go to a monastery outside of Austin every couple of months for several days at a time. Nobody can get mad at you for not answering your phone or checking email when you’re at a monastery. I’ve also tried plenty of less productive ways to escape, like I’m sure we all have.

It’s nice to not feel any of the anxiety or pressure from the world around me. Sometimes, I simply need to get some distance and quiet and to hit the reset button. Turns out floating is a really good way to do this.

I lay there in the chamber for the hour blissfully floating around in that strange plane between being fully awake and fully asleep. My mind wandered around aimlessly, sometimes thinking about things, sometimes not, but not focused or locked in on any one thing or another. I was simply existing, and it was really great.

Now, I’m fairly practiced at meditation, and find it fairly easy to regulate my breathing and calm myself down into a meditative state in most circumstances, so your results may vary, but the experience inside the tank was incredibly easy to sink into. No fear. No anxiety.

During my hour, I experimented with relaxing tension in various parts of my body. I focused on my breathing. I relished the lack of care and the absence of any need to be focused on any one thing or another.

I just floated.

The sound of meditative music came on and signaled that my hour was over long before I expected it to be. The time had flown by. I was stunned at how quickly it passed, and that I wasn’t going to be in the tank for a much longer time. Again, I’d expected the time to drag on, but it was over in an instant.

I left in a bit of a daze, incredibly relaxed and without a lot of my bearings, but it took me a long time to calibrate how out of whack I was. I was so relaxed that I couldn’t even get a sense of how relaxed I actually was.

I wanted to be outside for a while, so rather than grab an Uber to get home, I walked the mile back up Lombard and Van Ness to my house and let my thoughts drift. I could feel the pain in my ankles and feet very palpably as I walked home. A bit moreso than normal, and I worried that the walk would negate the positive effects of floating.

When I got home, I made some tea and went straight to bed where I expected to be able to fall asleep immediately, but instead I lay awake for a good bit.

As I lay there, not sleeping, I was suddenly aware of how I felt younger than I had earlier in the day. My emotions and my mind felt the way that they did at 25 or 26, not at 30. Like layers of armor and processes I’d learned in the last four years had dissolved away inside the tank. This seems like it would be a good thing, but it freaked me out because I have come a long way in the past several years, and I didn’t want to have to face my work or my life without the learnings and skill I’d acquired.

I felt more at peace, but in that peace I felt a bit less prepared to deal with life. Now, that fear was unfounded because I had an intense day of work when I woke up the following morning, but that evening I was terrified about it.

Floating - zero fucksFor the next few days afterwards, I noticed that I cared a great deal less about texting my friends. A buddy of mine texted me the night of to ask me about it, and was like “you have a major shortage of fucks to give, right?!”

That was exactly how I felt. Where I normally would have really cared to share the whole experience of floating, I simply couldn’t be bothered.

He’s got back pain and finds incredible release when he floats. I didn’t experience anything like that level of pain relief from my arthritis that first time.

For a few days after, I also found myself much more creative than normal. Little tiny things that I wouldn’t ordinarily think about doing, but were actually rather inventive, started popping into my head. I could tell the difference in my clarity of thinking in and out of work.

That was the part I liked the most. The ingenuity that came after floating. It makes me think that the bit about Theta waves and creativity are very true. I could see my brain working better.

My plan is to float a few more times in quick succession over the next couple of weeks so I can get a very good sense of what good it does me, and to let the effects build up as much as possible to maximize what gain I might have.

So if you’ve read this far and are still wondering if you should try floating or not, you should. It’s an overwhelmingly positive experience that I recommend without reservation.

Hope this helps. 

Austin W. Gunter





I’m Austin. I live in San Francisco, practice Tai Chi, have rheumatoid arthritis, listen to a lot of loud music, and host a lot of dinner parties. Want more? Start here.

One comment

  • Thanks for sharing! It’s be nice to see these places pop-up more around the locales instead of massage places. Looking for one around the San Diego area now.

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *