I am not the kind of person who likes to get wet. I’ve said it before: Water sports are not my thing; I hate showering (but don’t worry, I still do it); and I am not the most advanced swimmer. So, what urged me to call Russ Stewart, owner of Fishtown’s Flotation Philly, and tell him that I really, really wanted to try floating — where you float in a pod or tank filled with salt water for anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes in order to relax or recover from a brutal workout (Hey, marathoners!) — is honestly beyond me. But this past Thursday, that’s exactly where I found myself — and surprisingly, I kind of loved it. But I also kind of hated it, too.
The pod, pictured above, is filled with about 10 inches of water that’s packed with about 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt, making it significantly saltier than the Dead Sea. After putting in earplugs provided by the folks at Flotation Philly and showering beforehand in the lovely shower that’s in the float suite, I stepped into the pod that I’d be hanging out in for the next 90 minutes, closed the door-type thing above my head, and laid flat. My entire body simply lifted to the top of the water. It was exactly as cool as it sounds. The water was heated to around 94 degrees, the average skin temperature of humans, so I truly didn’t even feel it on my body. This made my water-hating self very pleased.
The pod, which has more bells and whistles than the float spa’s tank — fancy colored lights; a rounded, not coffin-like shape; and more — allows you to keep the lights on or turn them off, but I decided to turn them off to get the full sensory deprivation “brain vacation” experience that Stewart had described to me earlier. The pod was soon pitch black but my brain was definitely not on a vacation. First off, for the first 10 minutes or so, I just could not figure out what to do with my head. Stewart — who has floated at over 20 float spots in both the U.S. and overseas — had told me to just let my head fall back in between my shoulders, similar to how it falls in camel pose. But the thing is, I hate camel pose, and after about one minute in this position, I shook my head in the water and said “Nope.” And to make the head situation worse, I, being an ear-plug novice, put one of them in plain wrong. So I had to figure out what to do with my head while also keeping that ear, which quickly became un-plugged, out of the water. There was a noodle in the shower, perfect for resting one’s head on, but I didn’t want to get out of the pod to get it. (Go ahead, call me lazy.) In the end, I ended up just putting my hands behind my head, “beach-style” as Stewart later told me his wife calls it. Finally, I was comfortable.
With my eyes closed, I let myself just float. My muscles started to twitch, which Stewart later told me is common and is simply them relaxing, something they really never get to do while you’re conscious. I tried to stop my mind from wandering to thoughts of emails I needed to return and the other mundane-but-important things I think about when I am not in a pitch-black pod. It was nice — really nice, like floating in the ocean off the coast of Italy with nowhere to be but there. But then I made the mistake of opening my eyes, and a rush of anxiety took over my body. I was not in Italy. It was so dark in the pod that it looked like there was a black wall hanging an inch above my face. I’m not generally a claustrophobic person, but that sure made me feel like one. I squeezed my shut my eyes again, and I was soon back to that Italian beach, but not long after I returned to that happy place, some water clogged my un-ear-plugged ear and I snapped out of it again. Then I wondered, How long have I been in here?
Maybe I’m just not used to shutting my brain off. I mean, I do watch a lot of The Real Housewives which I’m sure some would say counts, but I found that trying to let my mind just be still was very difficult. Eventually, about two-thirds of the way through my 90 minutes in the pod, I turned the pinkish-purple, relaxation-colored light back on, mostly so I could have something to look at. I was just tired of being alone with just me and my brain. Not long after I turned the light on, my shoulders began to get sore from the beach-style position I was in, so I sat up, which kind of felt like giving up.
Then the strangest thing happened: A few minutes after sitting up, music started to play in the pod and a voice came through the speaker telling me that my float session was over — and I was sad. After wondering for ninety minutes, How much longerrrrr? I didn’t want to leave. And then I realized, I can’t remember another time when I was both awake and completely shut off — literally — from technology and all the distractions of everyday life. And while at times it was difficult to get used to, it was also incredibly relieving.
I got out of the pod, took another shower — not a very good one because minutes later, I felt salt crusting all around my face and ears — got dressed and walked out of the float suite. Then I immediately responded to my best friend’s text asking “How was the float pod?!?!?!” with “It was crazy and weird but cool. Anxiety-inducing and relaxing at the same time.” And I really can’t describe the experience any better than that.
As Stewart told me, the claustrophobia feeling is common for first-time floaters, and I personally feel like if I were to float again, I would have fewer How much longer? thoughts, now that I know what 90 minutes in a pod feels like. Stewart, who started floating as a form of stress relief while working as a commodities broker, says most of his clients — who range from athletes floating for recovery (he counts a couple of Phillies players as regulars) to 9-to-5ers just trying to chill out — float once a month. So who knows? Maybe I’ll challenge myself to try again come mid-December and see if I just love it then.
If you’re curious about floating, you can learn more about all the offerings at Flotation Philly here. Right now, they’ve got a float tank and float pod to choose from, but come January, Stewart tells me they’ll also have a float lodge, which he describes as a “float kiddie pool” — yep, a float kiddie pool — that will be a bit larger (and maybe less claustrophobic) than the other options. If you can’t remember the last time you were alone with your brain, I say check it out. Just be warned: Being alone with your brain is hard.
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