Floating in Manhattan

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Earlier this week I celebrated the winter solstice with my first session in a floatation tank. In all likelihood this is not something I would have pursued on my own initiative. In fact, the only reason I found myself sipping peppermint tea in the waiting room of LaCasa Day Spa on East 20th street just before lunchtime on Monday is that my son Danny had proposed it as a holiday present – a bit of father son bonding in a New Age setting where we went to be suspended in an Epson salt solution. It seems Stephen Curry put the idea in my son’s head, inasmuch as Steph is a big floater and my son is a big Steph Curry fan. Apparently Steph floats, not only on the court when he goes up for his patented long-range jumper, but before every game as part of his warm-up routine, when he semi-submerges himself in a tepid salt-bath.

The use of these floatation tanks has an interesting history, going back to the 1950’s, which you can read about here. The tanks were developed by a neuroscientist named John Lilly, who first marketed them under the rather off-putting name of isolation tank or sensory deprivation tank. There you lie, in 6 inches of warm, brackish bath water, in total darkness, your ears plugged up too. As a relaxation technique it caught on big time in the late 1960’s, surged in popularity in the 1970’s and then quickly fell out of fashion in the 1980’s, presumably over the heightened concerns over public bathing in the age of HIV. Thanks to Steph Curry and some other recent favorable news coverage, floatation tanks are now enjoying a resurgence in popularity, and the tanks themselves seem to be getting a makeover, as you can see from the picture alongside, with fabricators adopting high-tech design and even incorporating cobalt blue lighting to help create a mood more typically associated with a cloud computing data center.

The floatation tank at LaCasa is more old school – no fancy blue lighting, no-space age looking tub. But I recommend it all the same, given the fact that sensory deprivation (as a relaxation technique) really doesn’t seem to depend so much on incorporating the latest in styling or design to achieve the desired effect. The floatation tank is truly a place for understatement, where less is more and still less is even better yet.

Setting aside all such questions of tank design, my initial adventure floating in brine was a wonderful experience. Other than a tumble in bed with a loved one, it’s hard to imagine a more pleasurable way to spend an hour – you will be liberated from the laws of gravity and cut adrift in the void right here in midtown Manhattan, all for the reasonable price of just $80 an hour. It’s an incredible deal — to be able to expand the range of your sense perception so far so fast and for such a reasonable hourly rate. Not only that but it’s completely legal.

Greg, who is the manager/caretaker of the tank at LaCasa, explained to me that floatation is particularly well suited for those of us who meditate, because an hour of lying suspended in brine, deprived of sight and sound, opens up access to our interiority in ways that otherwise might take years to accomplish sitting cross-legged on the mat. Put it this way: by the end of my first hour, I had already sloughed off my skin and was just getting ready to ascend a shimmering column of light. Unfortunately before I could begin the ascent, there was a light tap on the door announcing that my hour was up.

I realize the better practice among spiritually minded folks is to be discrete when it comes to discussing personal Enlightenment. It can be irksome, to say the least, to hear some social media savvy sadhu blather on and on about their voyage of inner discovery. But please remember, this is floatation I’m talking about, not samadhi – It’s a straight up commercial transaction that’s open to any of us with sufficient cash or credit. So I hope you won’t mind if I provide a slightly more detailed description of what I saw and felt lying there in the murk.

As it turns out, one of the most striking aspects of floatation is the panorama it provides of darkness itself. Simply being in a blackout chamber ushers us into this landscape of vast tranquility – presenting a vista of emptiness that is as majestic and sweeping as an Ansel Adams photograph. Opening and closing your eyes makes no difference. Between the inner and outer landscape there appears not a hair’s breadth of difference as you find yourself relaxing into near perfect equilibrium. For those of us who often struggle to find balance when we meditate, this gift of darkness is a powerful discovery and a boon in itself.

And floatation supercharges the experience. There is really no physical sensation quite like it that I know of. It’s more peaceful and relaxing than sleep as I soon found myself breathing with extraordinary depth. You are awake and yet liberated from gravity and suspended from the conventions of every day existence in Cartesian space. But for the fact of my steady deep breathing, it reminded me of my earliest days, that is of life in the womb, except a floatation tank is not nearly so cramped or confining as the last few months in utero, when, at least to the best of my recollection, one always ended up feeling like a contortionist. Instead, floating makes you feel loose limbed, so much so your limbs drift apart and begin to detach from your torso. As you lie there suspended in darkness, it feels far too spacious to be womb like; or rather it’s more like entering the womb of space-time itself.

Of course, all too soon the tap comes on the door announcing bath time is over. Yet as you emerge from the tank and gradually re-acclimate yourself to everyday reality, this wonderful sense of deep relaxation persists. I can’t promise that you will have attained the vertical lift of Steph Curry but in the case of someone far less nimble (such as myself) I nonetheless found myself continuing to float as I reclaimed the streets of midtown. Not unlike a figure in a Chagall painting, there I was buoyant and aloft, if not soaring, through the canyons of Manhattan, my limbs only tenuously attached. This is what it means to float. I hope you can find a tank nearby and discover the pleasures for yourself.