by Veronica Meewes
The best way to start a new year is with a clean slate.
And there are many different ways we try to achieve that divine nothingness. With cleanses, we attempt to wash away those holiday pounds by drinking green juice or swearing off alcohol. We take on new physical challenges or rediscover lost ones, finding our way back onto the yoga mat or renewing that long lost gym membership. And sometimes we take on a digital cleanse, signing off social media and swearing off cell phones for a period of time.
This year, I discovered the most direct path to renewal while floating in pitch-black darkness, submerged in 11 inches of salty-thick water. Sometimes we just need to take everything away—not just indulgences and technology, but light, sound… and even gravity, to the best of our ability. I found this escape during my first experience at the Zero Gravity Institute. The unassuming storefront, slipped into a strip of businesses on Manchaca Road, specializes in float therapy, a process where subjects suspend on heavily salted water inside a dark, soundproof sensory deprivation tank. Though Zero Gravity was the first float center in Austin, it has since been joined by Zen Blend, AQUATonic Float Spa and Liquid Floats, which will open its doors soon.
The tanks were devised in 1954 by neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who created them to see what would happen to the human brain in an environment where sensory input was stripped away.
“Modern science is now theorizing that, at any given moment, we’re taking in four hundred million bits of information every second,” explains Zero Gravity Institute co-owner Kevin Johnson. “When you’re in the tank, we’re cutting out about 90 percent of the sensory input that you’re normally dealing with. So, it allows you to go into what we call a parasympathetic response…your system lets go of the need to deal with all that sensory input and it starts reallocating resources to doing background work, like digestion, production of enzymes, endorphins, and neurotransmitters.”
As someone who’s regretfully guilty of typing on my laptop with a movie blaring in the background, rotating between text and Instagram “breaks;” someone who’s often planning future meals while eating in real time; someone who has an absolutely sick amount of iPhone to-do lists and feels incapacitated without them; I knew I was a prime candidate for some sensory deprivation.
Entering Zero Gravity immediately feels like different dimension. The lobby is stark white and minimal with clean, sweeping lines and a tall ceiling with four low-hanging blue pendant lights. “We told the designer that what we wanted is what a spa would look like if it was on Battlestar Galactica,” says co-owner Carol Johnson. “That’s why our slogan is ‘like nothing on earth,’ too. Everything’s kind of futuristic here.”
An ultraviolet hallway with a glowing molecular light fixture leads the way to the changing room, where clients slip into lush robes, and a relaxation room separated into two parts with floor-to-ceiling bubble tanks. There, you will experience the most thorough chair massage conceivable from a masterfully engineered reclining Osaki. Those 15 minutes fly by as you stare, mesmerized, at the intergalactic projections dancing across the wall in front of you. Next, you will be led into a private room with an isolation tank and shower area.
“One issue that a lot of people have with flotation tanks is their fear of being too closed in and claustrophobic,” explains Kevin, who, with over 25 years of experience in the industry, also designs and manufactures tanks for other float centers across the country. “Traditionally, flotation tanks have been really small—about four feet wide, four feet high and eight feet long. So, tanks used to look like coffins originally. We designed and manufactured the tanks that we use here and they’re specifically designed to be really big and comfortable.” At six feet wide, eight feet long and seven feet tall, the tanks at Zero Gravity are actually more like walk-in closets.
One thousand two hundred pounds of Epsom salt are dissolved into each tank, making for a density not unlike the Dead Sea. Soaking for an hour in this much Epsom salt does wonders for achy muscles and joints, making float therapy popular with both athletes and those suffering from chronic pain.
“They can get relief in the tank mostly because of the benefits of zero gravity and then, of course, the Epsom salts,” says Kevin. These two things are very powerful in terms of helping people relax in a deeper way. Their muscular and skeletal system lets go and gets back into alignment and proper functionality…You’re producing a lot of extra endorphins when you’re in there, so people that have been suffering chronic pain will often leave here pain-free because of the combination of relaxation and the extra endorphins.”
After a quick shower and jewelry removal, I slip into the tank and lay back slowly as the lights dim to blackness and the last notes of music drift into the atmosphere. Just as Kevin had warned, I feel my muscles initially tense up in the unfamiliar setting, my neck working to hold itself up. I take some deep breaths and will each limb loose, let the warm water support me, ignore the itch on my nose and quiet my thoughts. Now it’s just me and the bass of my own heartbeat, making what feels like a very slow rotation in this dark, liquid oblivion. I become a human clock.
“Coming here and floating is kind of like meditation on training wheels because it takes all the work away from you,” describes Carol. “We’ve had people come in here who’ve been meditating for years and years and say, ‘It took me five years of meditation to get to the same spot I got in the tank just one time.’”
Kevin agrees, pointing out how physically taxing seated meditation can be, making it near impossible for beginners to reach higher states of consciousness. “What we find is that most people doing it on a long-term basis begin to come here not only to enjoy the physical effects but the mental effects. This mind expansion, the opening up of consciousness, the meditative states you can get into.”
Once people get out of their own way, adds Carol, they begin to see things differently. “You actually have a different perspective on yourself and where you are in your life. And you learn to make better decisions.”
Local psychologist Michael Donnell finds floating to be both physically relaxing and psychologically calming. “If you notice how we react to the myriad of interactions we have every day, you may notice that we have a tendency to lose ourselves in some way. By helping people remain grounded in themselves, which floating aids immensely, people are able to remain more calm and better process their emotional experiences, rather than merely acting them out.”
Personal trainer and holistic life coach Sumair Bhasin, who has been floating for the past two years, is also an enthusiast. He similarly describes the stripping away of his senses to access inner wisdom: “It’s like I can see myself outside of myself.”
My experience was not nearly as profound. I was fully conscious for probably the first 15 minutes before my inner chatter began to drift away, replaced by colors and shapes. Next, I started to experience dreamlike sequences with a cast of characters from real life. When the gentle lighting and soft music slowly seeped back into the tank, I sat up with a splashy start, as if woken from the deepest sleep.
“When you’re in that moment of not awake but not asleep, usually where you are is just into the theta state,” Kevin later explained. “It’s where you are in the morning when you’re not quite awake yet— you notice how visual that state is? That’s when you really remember your dreams and have lucid, colorful, dynamic dreams— that’s your brain in theta.”
I climbed out of the tank and took another shower to de-salt myself, then wrapped up in the robe and headed to the other side of the relaxation room for tea on one of the couches. I stared into my wrinkled, salt-cured palms, trying to process the past hour of my life. I can’t say I had any major revelations this first time, but I sure felt like I was vibrating from the inside out. I floated out of Zero Gravity and through the parking lot, my whole body feeling much like socked feet convinced they’re still in roller skates, not quite ready for solid ground.
Since that first float, my mind has been drifting back to the extraordinary stillness inside that tank and the pulsating energy sweeping my body afterward. I think it’s time I move silent buoyancy to the very top of my to-do list and float right through this year.
Written by: Veronica Meewes
Photography by: Chris Wiley
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Veronica Meewes is a freelance writer and photographer in Austin, TX.
Specializing in lifestyle, travel and food her work has appeared in several outlets including Forbes Travel Guide, Serious Eats, and The Today Show.
Veronica spent her childhood in New Jersey, and traveled around the country before deciding on the sunny capital of Texas.