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Sensory Deprivation Tank (OM Float)

I floated naked in a dark, enclosed tank for 90 minutes

When Brooks Brinson was living in Texas and competing as a precision shooter, he sought a way to deal with the stress and anxiety. He found a sensory deprivation tank for sale, set it up in his home, and began doing regular floats in the pitch-black tank in a solution of skin-temperature water and a high concentration of Epsom salt. Brooks and his wife Amy moved to Ashburn, Va., and last year the duo opened OM Float, Northern Virginia’s only dedicated flotation therapy center (and one of two in the entire metro area.)

Flotation therapy, as it’s called, is touted to ease sore muscles and joints, promote calmness and relaxation, expand consciousness and awareness and boost creativity. It can also give a natural “high” where endorphins are released and senses are heightened after you leave the tank. I heard about flotation therapy awhile back, but my thoughts of it had been limited to that creepy sci-fi movie from 1980 where William Hurt is completely submerged in a tank under the influence of psychoactive drugs in the name of therapy; not surprisingly, things do not go well. The term “sensory deprivation” also weirds me out a bit, as I associate that with torture techniques used to drag information out of non-cooperative criminals.

But what’s really been holding me back from trying it is the fact that I’m very, very claustrophobic. The mere thought of being in a closed tank not too much larger than my body, with absolutely no light or windows, really gave me the shakes. But I decided to face my fear and give it a go.

When I arrived at OM Float, I was welcomed by Amy. I told her about my claustrophobia and she said in her experience, looking at the tank from the outside is way more daunting than actually laying in it. Because you can’t see anything once you are inside, it actually feels spacious and open, rather than restrictive. Hmmmm. Okay. I also asked her if the Epsom salt is drying or damaging to hair or skin. She told me it’s actually the opposite: it makes hair silky, and keeps skin hydrated, not pruny or wrinkly like after a regular bath.

There are four private flotation rooms at OM Float, each with its own tank, shower, bench and changing area. Sessions are booked online in two hour increments, with the float itself lasting for ninety minutes, and time built on the front end for a brief orientation and a pre-float shower and at the end for another shower and to get dressed. Brooks showed me to my room and explained the entire process. I was instructed to shower before my float (they provided dispensers of shampoo and body wash, so there is no need to bring your own), and enter the tank naked, using the provided ear plugs if I wanted to keep the water out of my ears (I did), and covering any cuts with the provided packet of petroleum jelly. (It’s not recommended that you wax or shave right before a float as the salty water will make it burn.) Meditative, spa-like music would be piped in at the beginning, and fade out to silence after around fifteen minutes, after which I was invited to think, or meditate, or come up with creative thoughts. Ninety minutes, I thought, seemed like a loooong time.

I showered and entered the tank with my head opposite the door, as Brooks had recommended. Once I closed the door, I couldn’t see a thing. Nothing. I freaked out for about ten seconds, and then opened the door to make sure I wasn’t locked in. I wasn’t, obviously. I laid back, and couldn’t believe how buoyant the solution was--I was practically half out of the water I was floating so high. (I found out afterwards that 850 pounds of Epsom salt are dissolved in a hundred gallons of water, making the solution 30-35 percent salt.) The temperature was also amazing--it’s kept at around 94.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which is referred to as “skin receptor neutral”; not being too cold or too warm translates to one less distraction to keep you from getting the most from your float.

Any tiny movement sent my body drifting towards the sides, front or back of the tank, but a simple tap by my elbow or toes righted me and sent me back towards the middle. I found that keeping my arms at my side felt awkward, so I preferred to stretch them over my head, or rest them underneath my neck. (I tend to overextend my neck, and this helped.)

For some of the time, I thought about deadlines, and article ideas, and some personal stuff I have going on in my life right now. I also attempted the meditation techniques Brookes had suggested: focusing on my breath, emptying my mind of all thoughts, listening to my heartbeat, and watching the phosphenes, those swirling colors we see when we close our eyes. All made the time pass amazingly quickly.

One warning I did not heed, unfortunately, was to keep my hands away from my eyes. About ten minutes in, I got an itch on my face, and when I scratched it, a drop of water got in my eye. It burned so strong and for so long that I had to get out and stick my face under the shower. Ouch. Lesson learned.

Before I knew it, soft lights came on in the tank, low gongs started playing and the air conditioning kicked on--the signals that my float was over. Floaters are asked to exit the tank, shower and get dressed as soon as possible after their time is up so the room and tank can be readied for the next guest. The tank is filtered four times after each use, and also undergoes ultraviolet sterilization.

After leaving my room, I was invited to finish getting ready in an area stocked with beauty and skin care products and hair dryers. Next door to that was a softly lit room with beanbag chairs and pillows, if I wanted to relax and not face the outside world just yet. There was also a station with a selection of teas, and a lounge by the lobby with magazines, books and couches, if you want to linger even longer.

I asked Brooks if he thought floating provided more mental, or physical benefits and he asked if there was really any difference between the two. From a holistic perspective, that’s pretty true. Before I left, Amy told me that my float did not end when I left the water, and that I might experience better sleep, enhanced creativity or stronger senses (including brighter colors and sharper sounds) for the next few day. I have to admit I did feel different for a day or so, but it was more of an out-of-sorts feeling than a grounded or creative one. Maybe it’s all based on what you are thinking about or working through while floating. They recommend that everyone experience three floats before they decide if it’s something they want to do on a regular, maintenance basis. Would I return? Yes, I’m already planning another plunge back into the darkness.

A single float session at OM Float is $79; three sessions are offered for $169. Find out more at www.omfloat.com.

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