Getting tanked: AquaFloat promises physical and mental relaxation with sensory-deprivation flotation therapy

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The flotation tanks block light and sound, providing a sensory deprivation experience that AquaFloat owner Ted O’Neill describes as a “help-all.” Photo courtesy of AquaFloat The flotation tanks block light and sound, providing a sensory deprivation experience that AquaFloat owner Ted O’Neill describes as a “help-all.” Photo courtesy of AquaFloat

It looks a lot like a spa or massage parlor upon first glance. Relaxing is something I’m not especially skilled at unless a beach-side bar is involved, but when I entered the AquaFloat lobby with its soft, aquamarine-and-sand-colored decor, sounds of nature playing in the background and friendly staff who immediately offered me a cup of green tea, I could feel my tension begin to dissolve. That is, until I saw exactly what I was getting myself into: an enclosed tank with about a foot of water that blocks virtually all light and sound.

AquaFloat Charlottesville, which opened last fall, offers customers a relatively new form of meditation, relaxation and, they claim, even relief from chronic pain. Flotation therapy is exactly what it sounds like—step into a tank full of salt water, shut the lid and float on your back. Owner Ted O’Neill was the head pharmacist at Meadowbrook Pharmacy when he discovered flotation therapy. He drove to Chesapeake for his first float a couple of years ago, and never looked back.

“There’s no such thing as a cure-all, but this is a help-all,” O’Neill said.

Each tank contains up to 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt—magnesium sulfate—giving the water a 25 percent salinity. The water is warmed to 93.4 degrees, which staff member Oliver Beavers said is a neutral temperature to the skin receptors. That combined with the lack of gravity allows for a whole new level of relaxation.

“Even if you’re relaxing on a massage table, you still have gravity applying pressure, but in here you don’t,” Beavers said. “So over the course of 90 minutes your body has a chance to sort of experience what it’s like without that, and parts of your body will just loosen up.” The experience will set you back $60 for a single session or up to $400 a month for unlimited floats.

Meditation, Beavers pointed out, is usually intentional. Quieting the brain’s constant jabber takes deliberate effort, and for most people, it isn’t easy. I enjoy meditating, but I’m terrible at it. So even with my slight anxiety about claustrophobia, I was eager to see what floating on my back in pitch black and dead silence would do for my ever-chatty brain.

“You get the same benefits as intentional meditation in here just by allowing your body and nervous system to respond to the tank,” Beavers said. “I’m not telling you to try to think no thoughts or try to relax. Just allow yourself to get out of your own way.”

With his instructions fresh in my mind, I prepared for my float. Each tank is in its own little room with a shower stocked with body wash, shampoo and conditioner, plus towels and a robe. I’d assumed ahead of time that I’d need a bathing suit, and felt a little silly when I asked over the phone, “So, what do I wear in the tank?”

Oh—nothing. Got it.

Once in the tank with the lid closed, I spent the first few minutes fidgeting, trying to figure out what exactly to do with my limbs. With my arms bent and hands comfortably floating near my face, I took a deep breath and turned the light off.

Beavers had been right when he told me it didn’t feel like floating in a tank—it felt like floating in the universe. The pitch dark eliminated any feeling of claustrophobia, and with my ears underwater, it was just me, the water and my thoughts.

Then, it was just me and my thoughts. The skin-temperature water seemed to seep into me in a way that made me lose track of where my body stopped and the water started. For what I perceived to be the first half hour or so, my brain chugged along as usual—impending deadlines, e-mails to send, what to make for dinner, everyday worries and fears, etc. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is O.K., but 90 minutes is an awfully long time. I feel like I’m going to be in here forever.”

After that, it gets a little hazy. I found myself in that asleep-but-awake state, and it felt like I was watching my thoughts instead of actually thinking them myself. Next thing I knew, a soft light filled the tank, informing me that my float was over and the automatic filtration system would soon kick on.

Back in the lobby, Beavers greeted me after a few minutes with another cup of tea. He nodded and laughed in understanding when I struggled to string sentences together. I was loopy, almost high in a way, yet wide awake and acutely aware of my surroundings.

Upon arriving home I immediately dove back into work mode, which, unfortunately, may have impeded some of the post-float glow I’d been basking in. Beavers said floating is all about what happens afterward, not necessarily what happens in the tank. Maybe next time I’ll give it a try on a weekend, when I don’t have another four hours of work waiting for me.