Here in Nottingham, we’re lucky to have the only facility in the East Midlands, sitting Zen-like in the middle of West Bridgford. We went down to Calm Water for a float, and to chat to co-owner, Nick Parsons, about the unusual business endeavour…
Flotation tank. Sensory deprivation. Perceptual isolation. You what? Lying in a massive, spaceship-style tank of water and Epsom salts, plunged into darkness and silence. Still scratching your bonce? Restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST) has been used for years to practise meditation, relieve stress, and increase creative thinking.
The first time I ever came across a flotation tank was in that Simpsons episode; Homer is loaded into a van by mistake, and ends up bobbing away in the sea, while Lisa trips out good and proper. The second time I heard about them was reading up on the wonderfully eccentric physicist Richard Feynman, who took ketamine and floated so he could isolate his mind, and really ‘study’ altered states of consciousness.
My experience of the bogger was perhaps not as event-filled as these examples, but bleddy hell was it enjoyable. Epiphany inducing, even. After being greeted and given a rundown of what to expect, I was given a tour of the place, which feels somewhere between a spa, a Buddhist centre, and a very clean mam’s bathroom.
Having chosen from a selection of music tracks to ‘ease me in’, it was time to shower off, whack in a pair of earplugs, and put on the owd birthday suit; you don’t want any bathers distracting your mind from where it wants to go. The purple glow inside the tank invited me in, then I pulled the lid shut and the lights went out completely.
For starters, I was shocked at how powerful the Epsom salts were in holding up my body. The feeling of weightlessness was lovely, albeit a little difficult to get used to at first. Soon after the music faded into silence, my mind darted from one place to the next; I let the thoughts come and go until I was eventually slipping in and out of consciousness, staring into the blackness. I’ve always struggled to meditate, but the experience almost forced me to relax, to listen to whatever my mind wanted to tell me. At one point, I felt like I was floating through the stars in space.
“The brain slows down so much that you can enter REM sleep while you’re still conscious,” says co-owner, Nick. “Basically, you’re dreaming. You’re having the same level and freedom of creativity; you can have hallucinations, visually and audibly. It’s not like Trainspotting’s idea of hallucinating, more like a really deep daydream.
“It’s a trick; you haven’t received a natural signal from the world around you; the light went out with the push of a switch. If you can reach the theta rhythm [a brain pattern associated with REM sleep], you become incredibly suggestible, and it's allegedly the best few seconds for unconscious learning.”
In another life, owners Nick and Krysta were living busy lifestyles in London: Nick, as an audio director; Krysta, as the headteacher of a primary school. A friend of theirs had been on at them about the benefits of floating, convincing them to give it a try.
“I turned around and said ‘You want me to rock up at your mate’s house with 35 of my hard-earned pounds, for a bath? Not gonna happen.’” says Nick. “He kept getting in my ear about it, so I just booked myself in one Friday.” Skeptical as owt, Nick got himself down to Floatworks, by London Bridge, Vauxhall, chatted with founder Tim Strudwick, and tried out the pod.
“It threw me, how much I enjoyed it. People say it’s womb-like because you can hear your own heartbeat. There’s nothing like it, you can’t feel the ‘all’ any more,” says Nick. “When I got home, I slept like a log. The next day I played a DJ set really well, nothing was a struggle, and I thought it was down to that. I bought a membership to float once a month, and floated once a week occasionally.”
Although scientific evidence of health benefits could be more robust, the results of a 2005 meta-analysis of clinical trials, by Dirk van Dierendonck of the Department of Work and Organisational Psychology at the University of Amsterdam, suggests that REST ‘has positive effects on physiology (eg lower levels of cortisol, lower blood pressure), well-being, and performance [and] can be a useful stress management tool.’
You only have to try it yourself to feel the benefits. Although the brain is a complicated, mysterious thing, the process is really simple stuff, as Nick explains: “You’re reducing the workload on the brain, as there’s nothing to hear and nothing to see, so it begins to slow down and therefore relax. The dark and quiet bit, you can do that anywhere, but your sense of touch is something we cannot easily deceive.
“The water is a lot denser than you, so you float, and we heat the air and the water to body temperature, 35 degrees. There’s no pressure or temperature variation; you feel weightless and you can’t tell where you stop and the water begins. You start to come down from this stressed, on-edge existence and return to the default of a happy, little creature.”
In Thailand, four months into a round-the-world trip, Nick and Krysta decided that when they eventually returned to the UK, they’d set up shop in Nottingham; the city in which Nick developed his musical craft as a Confetti student. After forming a friendship with Floatworks’ Tim Strudwick, the couple bought two of his newly designed ‘i-sopods’, converted an old plumbing warehouse, and grew the business into what it is today.
Calm Water attracts everyone from professional sports people to university students researching mental projection. “Two guys came in with some cards and one tried to astrologically tell the other what was in the picture,” smiles Nick. “It didn’t work, but that’s not to say it couldn’t.” Nick has another friend and customer who floats in the morning before work: “He lies there and builds websites,” says Nick. “He’ll solve his coding problems in his head and order his day.”
Poor mental health is just one issue people address with sensory deprivation, but it’s a bloody big one. “We don’t beat ourselves up if we’ve got a snotty nose from a cold, but people are really down on themselves if they have mental health issues,” observes Nick. “I’d really like to help relieve that stigma. I work closely with people who are suffering with stress, or who’ve been diagnosed with depression by their GP.”
In this fast-paced era, overstimulation in our bonces is rife. “Even by how supermarket shelves are stacked, we’re being influenced constantly, subconsciously, left, right and centre,” says Nick. “We’ve become addicted to not looking after ourselves. This corporate version of the world has become quite twisted. In the west, some people align meditation with thinking about nothing; it’s not about that, but embracing what’s up there. We’re emotional people, we can’t just push it all back – that’s how mental health issues arise.”
Having had a few months of tightly wound brain matter myself, I can’t stress enough the extent the experience helped, with people close to me commenting on a noticeable difference. Being constantly plugged into the digital realm, seemingly unable to release the grip on that trusty black mirror, the flotation tank provides an opportunity to push the off button. Simply doing nothing, even just for an hour, is surprisingly blissful.
“Even if people aren’t into mindfulness, people still like to have an hour away from it all,” says Nick. “Digital detox or not. It’s awesome.”
Calm Water, 1A Mabel Grove, West Bridgford, NG2 5GT.
Mental Health Week runs from Monday 8 - Sunday 14 May.