At the time when John Balquist decided to float for the first time, about a year ago, he was suffering from sleep deprivation. “I have two little kids,” he said, “so I hadn’t had a stretch of long sleep in about five years.” The night after he floated, Balquist said he slept soundly. He also felt a creative surge: He picked up a forgotten guitar and wrote five songs in a month.
Balquist, who also practices yoga, said floating in sensory-deprivation tanks is unlike other forms of relaxation or meditation because floaters don’t need to worry about posture or external sensations. “Whether or not I start paying attention to my breath, I get into a very meditative state,” he said.
Which is why Balquist decided to open his own float center, Oakland Floats, this past February. Although it’s just the second floatation-tank center in the city, and one of eight in the Bay Area, its popularity reflects a renewed interest in floating that’s currently sweeping the country — even though the tanks were invented almost sixty years ago.
Proponents of floating are often effusive about the many benefits the practice provides. They use words like “amazing,” “beautiful,” and “very personal” to describe their experience, and some claim to feel like a new, younger person — “completely rejuvenated” is how one put it.
But could floating in a tank of Epsom salt really make someone feel all those things? I decided to find out.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I visited Oakland Floats in its upstairs space overlooking 40th Street and Manila Avenue.
After waiting for a few minutes in the reception area, manager Dacia Alexander led me into the room where I would try my first float. There was a terrycloth robe for me to wear before and after my session, as well as a towel and earplugs. And, of course, there was the tank. The white, rectangular chamber sat on the floor and was about as high as my chest.
“It’s much bigger than I expected,” I said. Alexander laughed. A lot of people comment on that, she replied. What I didn’t say is that it looked a little like a vault or a meat locker. My stomach tightened.
I was about to lie in that eight-by-four-foot box. The ten inches of water at the bottom contained eight hundred pounds of Epsom salt, which would make the water so buoyant that my body would be suspended. The water was kept at an exact 93 degrees Fahrenheit, the same temperature as my skin, so I wouldn’t feel the water or anything surrounding me. Since the tank is soundproof and I would be wearing earplugs, I would hear nothing. And I would close the tank door behind me, so I would see nothing, too.
And then I would float.
Floatation tanks, also known as sensory-deprivation or isolation tanks, were invented by neuroscientist John C. Lilly in 1954. The tanks eliminate all external sensations, and the result, proponents say, is complete relaxation. Studies indicate that benefits include improved sleep, decreased stress, and reduced blood pressure, according to the Floatation Tank Association. Floating may also help produce theta waves, which are what the brain produces when in deep meditation or drifting off to sleep, according to studies from Texas A&M University and the University of Colorado.
Although drug use is prohibited at most centers, drugs are intrinsic to the history of floating. Lilly wrote about floating under the influence of LSD and ketamine, and the 1980 film Altered States is based on his experiences with drugs in the tanks. But floating can also just be some quiet time in an Epsom salt bath.
I was trying to remember this as I stood in my robe and stared at the tank. Alexander had left so I could shower in a nearby restroom and come back to float in the private area. Although I knew I could get out of the tank at any time, I was worried about claustrophobia.
I took a deep breath, slipped off my robe, stepped into the salty water, and closed the door behind me. I lay down and tried to be still, but my body swayed back and forth. I knocked into one wall with my elbow, which sent me into another wall. Once the waves died down, I closed my eyes. The sensation that I was surrounded by nothingness took over and I started to slip away.
The popularity of yoga, meditation, and floating may have similar roots — more people are seeking alternative relief from technology and stressful schedules. Samadhi Tank Co., based in Grass Valley and run by husband and wife Glenn and Lee Perry, worked with Lilly to develop the first commercially available tanks. The Perrys opened their business in 1972, but Lee said sales and interest have increased tremendously in the last four months.
“I’m not sure what the original [cause] is,” Lee said. “Tension in the world and people responding with a need to get away from it? I don’t know … but people suddenly have realized that these tanks have been around for forty years and it’s something they must go and try out.”
What’s more, she said, while tank sales were split in the past between people purchasing a tank for their home and those starting a business, she said about 60 percent of their sales are now by people interested in opening centers or adding a tank to their business.
At Float On in Portland, the largest float center on the West Coast, about 1,000 people float each week. Allison Walton, owner of FLOAT: Floatation Center & Art Gallery, Oakland’s oldest float center, said that business was slow when the center opened in 2006, but that interest has boomed in the last three years. At Oakland Floats, business has also steadily increased, thanks in part to a LivingSocial deal in April. While there were 47 floaters in March, the center’s first full month of operation, Balquist now sees about 11 floaters per day.
Back inside the tank, my 75-minute session sped by. Suspended in the water, I realized how much tension I carried in my neck and tried to relax. After a while, I started to feel weightless. I forgot where the water stopped and my body began. And then I fell asleep.
I had no idea how long I napped. Even after I woke up, I felt as though I was drifting in and out of consciousness. Finally, the water filter came on, signaling that my time in the tank was up.
When I stepped out of the tank, I felt disoriented, as though I had taken a long nap or meditated in a dark room for too long. But after I rinsed the salt off of my skin in the shower and sipped some berry tea, I felt more centered.
Later that night, I slept like a rock.
A version of this story also appeared in the East Bay Express.