Water is incredibly comforting to me. Maybe it's because I'm a moon-crazed Cancerian born in the fiery heat of summer. Perhaps it's because I spent most of my childhood splashing at the old Coronado Club swimming pool. It could just be that my physical being is composed of about 55 percent water. Or does some deeply buried part of my subconscious know that my ancestors crawled or slithered out of the Paleozoic oceans 360-390 million years ago?
No matter what you believe, most people understand that water is good for you. So I was intrigued when I heard about the advent of flotation therapy in Albuquerque. What does it feel like? Do you see monsters like in “Stranger Things”? I decided to find out what all the fuss was about by visiting LUMEN Mind Body Float (2931 Monte Vista NE), a “whole body wellness center” in Nob Hill. When I first walked in for my appointment ($65), all I could see was a lounge area, some cool Himalayan salt lamps and a monster of an exercise machine (turns out it's a super fancy, computer-automated ARX). The owner of LUMEN, Dan Spanogle, quickly came out to greet me, and he took the time to explain a little about flotation therapy—sometimes referred to as R.E.S.T. or restricted environmental stimulation therapy.
It all started in the '50s and '60s with experimentation by Dr. John C. Lilly. He was interested in what would happen to the body if you took away all its exterior senses. Spanogle explained that the scientist eventually landed on something similar to what we use today: a closed container with warm water, no light, plenty of oxygen and “lots of salt added to the water” to induce a feeling of weightlessness. “It kind of caught on with the forward-thinking, New Age, hippy, experimental crowd,” and the industry has experienced a resurgence in this modern era. We have better technology, advanced cleaning systems, and the science behind it all is finally catching up.
Flotation therapy is being used to help heal concussions and increase the speed at which Navy SEALS are learning foreign languages. People in Silicon Valley are looking into floating as a technique to improve productivity. “There's all these different uses of tanks,” Spanogle told me, “It's not just hippy woo-woo. NFL is using them, NBA is using them, famous UFC fighters are floating ... The science is coming in that says, Yeah, it works. Science is [even] showing that it works for all those things plus stuff like PTSD.”
Basically, the “magic” behind flotation therapy is that the lack of sensory stimuli helps your body and mind to relax enough to get your brain to slow down into the theta range of waves (around 4-8 Hz). Theta brain waves are often seen during deep meditation, hypnosis, or right as you're falling asleep or waking up. Stress is reduced, muscles relax, blood pressure drops, breathing slows, and your mind is left with some space to stretch, be creative, wander.
Next, I followed Spanogle through a door and down a corridor with low, recessed lighting that flowed through colors while zen music filtered out of hidden speakers. I peeked into rooms set up for massage therapy and neuroptimal brain training, and passed an infrared sauna, then entered my float room. There was a shower and a large compartment—the float cabin. After orienting me and giving me a few mental relaxation tips, my guide left. I had five minutes to take a quick shower, then opened the white door. Inside, it was warm and humid. There was an aqua colored light and the gentle sounds of birds and music trickled down the walls. There was about a foot of water in the bottom. Naked, I stepped in and closed the door behind me. I sat and ran my fingers through the water that seemed oddly silky (from all the Epsom salt). I was so buoyant it was easier to lay back than sit, so I gave in and let the water hold me. I stretched out my arms and legs, getting a feel for the space. Then the sounds faded out, and the aqua light dimmed to black.
I played with opening and closing my eyes and waved my hand in the air above my face—nothing. I tried to relax, but noticed myself “pinging” (accidentally touching the walls) from pushing off the enclosure with my toes and fingertips, then spreading out my hair in the water and tangling my fingers in the salt-coarsened, seaweed-like tresses. Soon I realized I was unconsciously attempting to anchor myself, to give my mind a physical sensation to latch on to. So I steadied myself in the water, twisted my hair out of the way and made a conscious effort to relax each part of my body, starting with my toes. Then I began taking deep breaths—counting backward from 100 on every exhale—just as I'd been instructed. I lost count and drifted off into something like sleep.
Some time later, I awoke with a jolt, splashed around, then started counting again. The air inside the cabin seemed heavy, but it helped with the deep breaths. I imagined I was drifting on a balmy lunar lake under a star-filled sky. I drifted off again.
The second time I came back to myself, I felt invigorated and bored. I wondered how much more time I had; I thought up a plot for a short story; I made a mental grocery list. Then I remembered that none of that mattered, and so began counting backward once more. Around 76 I got distracted by the colors flowing across my field of vision. I followed a violently purple comet streaking to the west, then a neon emerald snake coiling and unwinding in a thick wobbly spiral. Dark gray oval dahlias fizzled to the east. After that, I really can't tell you where my mind went. I have no idea. I was light-years away. Totally gone.
Five minutes or two hours later, I plopped back into my skull as the aqua light dawned and the twittering of birds signaled the end of my float. I took a steaming hot shower to wash away the salt, then drifted into a lounge area. I headed for the exit, but felt a wave of resistance. I wasn't ready to face the noise and light of the real world. So I turned around and sat on a couch with a cup of honey-lavender tea as I rebuilt my mental palisades. After a final sip from my mug printed with the words, “Let it be,” I took a deep breath and headed outside. I smiled up at the blushing clouds sailing across the sunset and peacefully didn't yell at any of the people who cut me off on the way home.