The end of any year is always a time for reflection, and 2022 was no exception. As the smell of freshly baked Christmas cookies gave way to my typical kale-and-guilt January reality, I decided that this year, instead of making a list of discarded New Year’s resolutions at the end of January, I would jump on self care bandwagon.
Enter the Relax Lab in Tyler, Texas – East Texas’s first and only floating therapy center. Modern floatation therapy (you may know it as a sensory deprivation tank or isolation tank) has been around since the 1970’s. The idea is that deep relaxation can be achieved more efficiently by eliminating the distractions of sight, sound and even gravity.
What is a sensory deprivation tank?
The name sensory deprivation tank evokes mild anxiety in me. After all, it sounds a bit like something Jason Bourne might have been trapped in before he finally broke and handed over top secret information in exchange for his release.
Sensory deprivation tanks, or floating tanks, are shallow pools of water in an enclosed, soundproofed space that allow users to spend time without hearing or seeing anything. The water inside a tank has about 1,000 pounds of dissolved Epsom salt added. This is enough to simulate the buoyancy of the Dead Sea, allowing for effortless buoyancy. In fact, it’s impossible not to float – and with the water kept at 94.5 degrees – skin temperature – it feels like you’re not touching anything either.
Benefits of a sensory deprivation tank
Studies suggest that time spent floating in a sensory deprivation tank can have some benefits for healthy people, such as muscle relaxation, better sleep, decreased pain, and decreased stress and anxiety.
Relax Lab employees say that floating can also be a safe place to decompress and allow meaningful personal discovery to occur. In addition to these benefits, habitual floating will allow people to develop a kind of “body memory” that promotes energy and well-being – something they can carry into their daily lives and may even offer some relief for those with PTSD.
I was just hoping for a relaxing way to start the new year and perhaps some relief from a nagging pain that had recently flared up in my lower back.
Preparing for my sensory deprivation tank float
Thirty, 60 and 90 minute sessions are offered at the Relax Lab. I split the difference and go for the sixty-minute session, a little skeptical about a full hour in total darkness. I’m not normally claustrophobic, but I’ve never been cooped up in a small, dark space for an hour. Floating. In silence.
Taking off my shoes, I place them in a trash can and take in my surroundings. An herbal tea bar flanks the long hallway, and soft music plays in the background — it’s a very serene, spa-like atmosphere.
I’m ushered into a room containing the sensory deprivation tank I’ll be using – the Orb. Not at all the slightly frightening image of the words sensory deprivation tank had evoked in my mind. The Orb is a sleek white pod illuminated with blue LED lights. There is even a starry ceiling.
I’ll need to shower and shampoo before and after the float to avoid cosmetic residue; there is no conditioner beforehand. I was given a cotton robe and ear plugs and shown how to operate the controls on the orb.
Editor’s Note: While earplugs can help you have an even quieter experience and keep water from getting into your ears, you don’t have to wear them. Some floaters find them distracting. If you prefer to swim without earplugs, you can also skip them when floating.
The Sensory Deprivation Tank Experience
Naked as the day I was born, I step into the water and slowly close the lid. The water temperature is a surprise. I imagined it to be warmer – similar to a hot tub. The lights and stars, even the soft music, are on as I lie in bed. Users control the experience at all times and can adjust lighting and sound, and even the length of the float. To make the experience easier, I turn off the lights but leave the ceiling stars on.
It’s not at all claustrophobic-inducing. The orb is spacious. I’m a hair under 6 feet tall and have lots of room. I can even sit down without fear of bumping my head.
I squirm a little, not because I’m anxious; it seems so weird – but in a good way. I’ve done scuba diving before and thought the feeling might be similar, but it’s not. While both experiences promise weightlessness, SCUBA requires a lot of equipment. Tanks, weight belts, respirators and usually a wetsuit. In the tank, it’s just me.
I want to try all available iterations. Then, after a while, I turn off the music, slowly dimming the stars until I’m in total darkness. Pitch black with just the sound of my breathing, suspended above the water with zero effort. I resolve to be still and meditate, acknowledging my thoughts as they pass through my mind. I don’t know where the water ends and my body begins. Suspended in space and seemingly in time.
The music begins to play so softly that it registers as little more than a vibration. Gradually it becomes louder as the lights come on. I’m stunned. There’s no way I’m floating around for an hour. Stepping out of the orb, a glance at my watch confirms it’s true.
After rinsing it off, I notice that the slight pain in my lower back is gone. I feel great – like I took a nap. I put my clothes in the bag provided by Relax Lab, change into the provided robe and head to the drying bar, which is full of products to help get ready to go back out into the world. After drying, I notice that my skin looks fantastic – an unexpected bonus. I leave feeling refreshed and light as air.
I spend the rest of the day feeling great – happy and unfazed, even with the horrible rush-hour traffic. I get a great night’s sleep, and two days later my back is better than ever.
Would I do it again? You bet! It’s a busy world, and many of us multitask, experiencing sensory overload on a daily basis. As we move through our days, we are constantly bombarded with sights and sounds. The fluctuation forced me to slow down and focus on the here and now. To hit the reset button.
To learn more about self-care, consider