Altered States?

Big On Oakland Floats


     If you’re a person of a certain age, you probably remember the 1980 movie Altered States, in which a young William Hurt takes hallucinogenic drugs, floats in a “sensory deprivation tank” and finds himself devolving along the evolutionary chain into a proto-human monkey. Drugs and monkeys not withstanding, I’ve always been curious about flotation tanks. Thirty years later, I finally got the chance to try one at the recently-opened Oakland Floats in the Temescal neighborhood, one of two flotation centers in the East Bay.
    What happens in a flotation tank? “Floating is about everything you won’t be doing,” says the Oakland Floats flyer. And that’s comforting in this always-connected world. Though I’m the claustrophobic sort and was nervous about spending 75 minutes enclosed in total darkness, floating in a plastic tank in 10 inches of Epsom-salted water, I was told that most people relax and lose their fears.
    Flotation tanks were first invented in 1954 by John C. Lilly, a neuropsychiatrist who wondered if people’s brains would shut down if deprived of all sensory stimuli. Today people float to relax, meditate, reduce stress, heal from chronic pain, cure insomnia, fight addiction, lower blood pressure, increase creativity or recover from sports stress and injury. Though large-scale research has yet to be done, and some of the claims outpace the research, in my own unscientific account, I can say that some of these claims are true.
    I’d spent the weekend of the float painting my living room. When I arrived at the pleasant and not-at-all New-Agey Oakland Floats, I was in quite a bit of pain: my back hurt; my neck felt permanently crooked; my hand was blistered and cramped. After showering and putting on a fluffy robe, I was led to one of two flotation tank rooms. I didn’t have any blinding flashes of insight or creativity, but I enjoyed the complete feeling of weightlessness as I floated, not knowing where my body ended and the water began. I was also completely free
of pain and that night slept more soundly than I had in months. I was not in any pain the next day.
    I asked the owner of Oakland Floats, John Balquist, why he started the business, and he said that with two young children, he probably hadn’t slept one continuous night in five years. The morning after his first float — a gift from his wife — he says, “I woke up more refreshed than I can remember. I couldn’t believe how awake I felt.” He decided to open his own flotation tank so he could share the experience with others and float on a regular basis. “Floating refreshes me and clears my head,” says Balquist. And most people who write about the benefits note that the effects are cumulative. The more you float, the more benefits you receive. Doing nothing and getting benefits? Sign me up.

Oakland Floats, 344 40th St., Oakland, (510) 423-8772,; a 75-minute float costs $75 but Oakland Floats offers many specials and packages.

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