Sensory Deprivation Tank at Floatessence
I had my first “float” in a sensory deprivation tank a couple of days ago, and no, it wasn’t like taking LSD. Most people who have yet to “float” seem to associate the experience with having hallucinations, expanded consciousness and possible regression into a devolved humanoid form.
It won’t be like that. Not for your first time, anyway. Wink.
So here’s where to do it, folks. Shanghai’s first float center, Floatessence.
“Floating” in this context means total elimination of physical stimuli. A proper sensory deprivation tank will cut out all light and all sound, and even the physical presence of your body. That’s because you’re being “carried” by a warm cocoon of water that’s kept at the same temperature as your body.
The water becomes a kind of foam mattress pad thanks to a high concentration of Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate. It’s the stuff that’s usually found in bath salts because of its ability to moisturize, exfoliate and provide anti-inflammation relief for muscle tension or pain.
In recent years, floating has become known as one of the quickest, most effective ways to de-stress.
It’s also supposed to open up the mind. When left alone, with nothing for your senses to latch on and react to, your mind is likely to produce the stimulants for you. Some people see things, some people hear things, and some people even experience light physical sensations.
What you need
In terms of equipment—nothing, really. An open mind and a naked body that’s free of open sores or cuts would help. The high concentration of salt in the water would burn you a new one.
If it’s your first time, then you’re supposed to arrive 20 minutes before your session for a pre-float consultation. The owner of Floatessence, Harry Zhang, speaks fluent English and Chinese, so there’s little risk of things getting lost in translation.
After that, you do a smell test of seven aromatic oils—they’re meant to help alleviate symptoms ranging from headaches, insomnia and muscle tension to psychological effects like unplugging blocks to your creativity. Zhang tells me this is based on holistic healing therapy from ancient India.
Then, you get a little tour of the four tanks available—a single-person open tank, a larger open tank for couples or singles who want more floating space, a single-person enclosed pod and a larger enclosed tank. This last one even has a star ceiling effect, so it looks like you're staring up at the twinkling night sky.
I wanted to go all the way. I chose the one-person enclosed pod, AKA the Womb Simulator 2000.
First you’ll need to completely wash off in the changing room, including shampooing your hair and removing your makeup, if you’re wearing any. These toiletries are provided.
Once you’re clean, you enter your room in a bathrobe and the attendant shows you how to operate your tank. You have full control from within the pod, with four buttons within arm’s reach—a panic button that connects you to a Floatessence receptionist via intercom, one for opening and closing the hatch from inside, and one each for turning light and music on or off.
Your room is also sealed off with an electronic lock so that no one can get in during your session, unless if there’s an emergency. De-robe and pop in a pair of earplugs and it's time to climb in.
I opted to turn off all the mood lighting and elevator music. Floatessence programs a gradual descent into total darkness and silence, rather than shocking your senses right away. I saw the soft lights of the pod’s ceiling sizzle away within a few minutes, and then it went pitch black.
It’s fucking scary. I’m not much of a claustrophobe, but I lifted my hands up and reached up several times just to make sure the space wasn’t closing in around me. It took me about 15 minutes to relax a little, after which idle, mundane thoughts about my plans for the night and my roommate’s obsession with glitter—
I feel like I'm floating in space, and what previously felt tight and enclosed now feels open and vast. And did you see that? There was a little squiggle of bright red light in that corner.
Yes! YES! It’s happening!
There’s a little phantasmagoric light show of colors and it’s amazing. It looks like a soft, wispy 3D version of those screensavers that come up when Windows computers are left idle.
Then I hear footsteps that don’t go away and it jolts me out of this stupor and I want to cry. I hit the light switch and a soft neon pink reassures me things are OK.
Lights out again, and I try to go back to that previous happy place, but this time I feel like the air is getting thinner and thinner. Within a few minutes, I’ve effectively scared myself into feeling motion sickness. Shit, shit, shit. At this point I feel like it’s getting harder to breathe so I open the hatch a little to let some air in.
That relaxes me and I float for a little while, almost falling asleep. Before I do, the lights come on and an automated message plays to let me know that my session is over.
I climb out of the pod and into the adjacent shower. I am dazed. I slough off a coat of salt that’s crusted over my entire body. I do it with slow, unsure movements, with my knees on the shower floor. This is what it feels like to emerge from the womb, I think, blinking slowly.
Anyway, I finally get out, dressed and more lucid, and a Floatessence attendant takes me into a lobby for tea and small snacks. I scarf them all down and ask for seconds. She chats with me about my float, tells me that the footstep sounds were probably coming from my stomach—it was NOT, I insist—and gives me tips on how to improve my next float.
Who goes in for this
Right now, mostly foreigners who are already familiar with floating as a wellbeing concept, and busy business types looking for rest and a sense of rejuvenation.
Zhang says some of his clients have called it the “best rest they’ve had in their lives”, and that one hour of floating is on par with 8 hours of sleep when it comes to recharging the mind. That’s because the average floater is able to enter the sub-conscious stage of deep sleep relatively quickly, and that floating can bring some people to the same frequency of brain waves that monks in deep meditation reach.
People with arthritis, muscle tension, spinal ailments, insomnia and the like have also been stopping by for floats, says Zhang.
How much of your life will this take up
About two hours for first-timers, perhaps an hour and a half for more experienced floaters.
You’ll want to physically prep yourself for your session, too. Don’t drink too much alcohol before going in. Don’t eat a big or heavy meal, either. You’re paying good money for this. It’d be a real shame to interrupt near-nirvana with a full bladder or a fart.
The mind-body relaxation bit is supposed to last anywhere from three to five days, and for those who want to maintain the effects, Zhang recommends a float or two per week.
How much does it cost
One hour-long float will set you back 380rmb. That price remains the same no matter which tank you choose. If you end up liking it and want to start floating routinely, then your best bet would be purchasing a package deal.
Floatessence is currently holding a Christmas promo on those: three floats for 990rmb (non-shareable), 10 floats at 2980rmb, or 20 floats at 4980rmb. The latter two are shareable, so if you pull some friends together, then that works out to 249-298rmb per float.
After regaining my bearings, I felt a level of relaxation and endorphin rush that no spa session has ever given me. I felt high. Without the heavy eyelids or slowed motor skills. Floatessence has even had to keep some customers from driving home themselves because their floats leave them rolling on another plane of existence.
And, this high lasted all night. I'd pay for that alone.
The place has the look and feel of a spa, too. The facilities are really clean and it feels like they’re using quality stuff. Zhang tells me their float tanks are imported from a British company called Floataway. The salts are high-purity varieties imported from Germany.
The staff also says that their saltwater is disinfected with a hybrid hydrogen peroxide and UV filtration system. They put it through the filter process twice. When I came out of the tank, my skin was dewy and smooth. It didn't prune up or dry out at all.
Motion sickness. Apparently this is a real problem for some people, but I later learned that flipping over on the belly for a few seconds helps with offsetting that.
Some people have zero response to floating, so it’s a real “to each his own” kind of thing. Zhang tells me some people are too restless to stay still for that long, and that one guy ended his session early because he couldn’t be apart from his cell phone.
It’s a bit of a splurge, too, if you want to continue floating over time.
For a full listing and map of Floatessence, click here.