How would you feel about being enclosed inside a pod filled with water for 90 minutes, entirely alone, with nearly all your senses switched-off?
I have a noisy mind. I practice mindfulness when I can, I try and cut down on caffeine, and attempt to externalise excess 'load' using journalling. Nonetheless, there's a lot of mental chatter up there, and I'm always keen to experiment with ways of becoming more comfortable with solitude. Letting the mind 'be', without feeding it with more input.
The benefits of sensory deprivation
I came the across the concept of flotation therapy (also known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy) via a podcast. The concept : you lie in a purpose-built pod, filled with water, heated to optimum body temperature, combined with an intense solution of epsom salt - creating the necessary conditions for your body to effortlessly float on the surface. To ensure absolute relaxation, the pod is both sound and light-proof - giving the body and mind a chance to disconnect from the constant bombardment of sensory input that everyday modern life brings.
Clearly, not for the claustrophobic.
I'd heard reports of some people only being able to stand 15-20 mins of this kind of sense-depriving isolation. Yet I was still intrigued, particularly when I found a flotation centre close by. I booked an appointment- no turning back.
More salt than the Dead Sea
I arrived at the centre and the owner gave me an introduction to the experience of floating. He showed me around a pod, mentioning that the water was filled with half a ton of epsom salt - "more than the Dead Sea".
There are optional levels to the experience, I learned. At the most superficial level, you can simply get in the pod, leave the lid open with the lights on, and just experiencing floating in the solution. The centre has regular visits from athletes and those suffering from sleep disorders - the huge hit of magnesium coming from spending 90mins in a floatation pod is enough to alleviate muscle tensions and bring on a heavy and peaceful night's sleep.
One step further: enter the pod, close the lid, and set the lights moving on a kaleidescope of colours. Earplugs are provided to ensure excess sound is blocked out.
At the most 'deprived', you can enter the pod, close the door, pop your earplugs in, switch off the light, and see what happens.
In for a penny, I thought.
Complete and total darkness
I changed, showered and stepped into the pod. The water was about a foot deep, and as I entered I noticed that the water had a thick, almost jelly-like quality. I pulled the lid close, switched off the light and tentatively stretched-out in the darkness. I felt the water take my weight and lift me onto my back.
Instinctively I closed my eyes.
Panic started to set in. I became aware of how loud and shallow my breathing was. It's the sort of panic that you get when you have a snorkelling mask on and put your face down into the water. "This doesn't feel natural", my brain was telling me.
Slowly, I brought my breathing back under control and started to release the strong temptation to put the light back on. I tried a 'body scan' mindfulness technique - something I usually find difficult when distracted by visuals/sound, but here it was like child's play. Noticing my neck was aching slightly from lolling back in the water, I grabbed a spaghetti float and stuck it behind my head. Better. My breathing had returned to normal and a sense of calm began to set in.
It dawned on me that with my senses of sight and sound switched-off, both touch and smell were heightened. The pod smelled hot, warm, salty- in the same way a sauna does. The water was neither warm nor cold - almost as if it were the same temperature as my skin. Aside from occassionally making contact with the sides of the pod, and being conscious of the syrupy water at my fingertips, I could feel little sense of my body in space, nor any idea of how big the pod was.
I decided to open my eyes.
Darkness. It was as pitch black as with my eyes totally closed.
This was such a bizarre experience. Ordinarily when you open your eyes in a dark room, they adjust to the light and slowly start to make out shapes. Here my eyes were wide open, searching for corners, hints of the space around me - but they gave me nothing. I tried to focus on something.
Patterns and random lights started dancing in front of my face.
Odd, that. I decided to go with it.
Nothing too bright - but I could make out constellations of stars, purple and yellow shapes and figures passing by, just like the 'warp speed' effects in sci-fi films. It was exciting, akin to a roller coaster ride without the intense rush of air or stomach-churning g-forces hitting your body.
Have you ever been drifting-off to sleep and felt like you were slightly floating above your body? That's what happened next. Except, unlike in the pre-sleep scenario, I was beginning to feel the sensation of weightlessness, as well as movement. My mind was telling me that I was floating off into this dark space of lights and patterns, but at the same time I knew that I could only have been moving no more than a foot either way from where I'd lay down.
I'd been experiencing this for what felt like a few minutes when the lights gently faded-up. My cue that the 90 minutes was over. I was gobsmacked. Where had that time gone? In total it felt like I'd been in the pod for no more than 15-20 minutes.
I carefully got out of the pod and showered-off the salty water. The air in the room outside of the pod was cool, refreshing. Instantly I noticed a sensation of lightness, and that kind of sea-leg feel you get after stepping off a boat - in a good way. My mind felt focussed, calm and peaceful.
Would I recommend it? As a therapy or an experiment in something different - absolutely. Way beyond mindfulness, into something else entirely. Experiencing that feeling of lightness, calm and invigoration (all of which stayed with me for some time) is something completely unique, and one which I hope to revisit again soon.
Intrigued to experience this for yourself? Book your appointment at Yorkshire Flotation Centre, Redmayne Lodge.