Spa For The Mind
What can an hour of sensory isolation in a flotation tank do to your mind and body? This writer experienced her first floating session and returned with a compelling tale to tell.

It was a sweltering afternoon when I stepped into the obscurely located Palm Ave Float Club at Waringin Park. The peaceful neighbourhood is readymade for a place that provides therapy known to induce deep relaxation and promote mindfulness.
I was greeted by Sarah, who offered a glass of water to soothe my nerves. I was then brought into a private room that had a floating pod, standing shower, earplugs, fresh towels and toiletries.

As it was my maiden floating experience, Sarah gave a detailed briefing on what to do and what to expect. To ease my fear of sinking, she assured me that large amounts of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) had been dissolved in a shallow tank of water to simulate weightlessness. The high buoyancy meant that there was no way anyone could drown in the pod, no matter the person’s size or shape.

Then I had the next 60 minutes to myself. After a quick shower, I put on the earplugs, switched off the lights and stepped into the pod. A bottle of plain water and a towel were provided inside, in case salty water got into my eyes. It was pitch-black when I closed the lid and turned off the interior light — I tried putting my fingers close to my face, but all I could see was darkness.

True enough, I stayed afloat, but it took some getting used to. I reminded myself to relax and stretch out my body. The trick to prevent motion sickness, I remember from the briefing, is to lie still so that the water does not get choppy.

While I accustomed myself to the environment, soothing music programmed to last 10 minutes played in the background. When the melody ended, I could only hear my own breathing. With the water controlled to match body temperature, it was easy to get comfortable. Physically, it felt like I was lying on a pool of jelly. I imagined myself floating on the ocean and that the sound in my ears were waves. Perhaps this is how a foetus feels, I thought.

When the soothing music came on again, it was a sign to enjoy my last five minutes in the pod. By now, the muscles in my shoulders felt less tense and my busy mind seemed to have decluttered. I felt unusually rejuvenated. As my session drew to an end, I took another shower and prepared for my interview with Palm Ave founder and owner Derrick Foo in the cosy lounge.

What is flotation therapy?

Based on a scientific approach to deep relaxation called restricted environmental stimulation technique (REST), flotation therapy was pioneered by the late Dr John Lilly in the mid-1950s. The neuroscientist is best known for his work on interspecies communication and sensory deprivation tanks.

According to Anette Kjellgren, a psychology professor who has studied flotation at Karlstad University in Sweden since the 1990s, floating can help with conditions such as stress, muscular pain, addiction and disorders associated with whiplash. Featured in various international media outlets such as Los Angeles Times and The Telegraph, flotation therapy has also reportedly been used alongside conventional therapy to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although the therapy was invented in the United States, its popularity has skyrocketed over the past two decades in Europe — there are more than 120 float centres in Sweden alone. Numerous publications have also been written to discuss the effects of flotation, including The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea by Michael Hutchison and The Deep Self: Consciousness Exploration in the Isolation Tank by Dr John Lilly.

Tuning in to yourself

For Derrick, it all began from a personal need to attain clarity of mind. The 29-year-old first learned of flotation and its benefits when he was studying in California. After trying it, he noticed changes in himself, such as lower anxiety and increased optimism in facing challenges. After returning to Singapore in 2014, he saved up to buy a tank, which costs approximately US$25,000, for his own use, as there was no float centre available here at the time.

In this age of instant gratification and multitasking, our brains are busy processing and reacting to everything around us every day. As a result, stress levels rise and predispose us to health and mental issues, poor decision-making and even physical injury. “We are not just promoting flotation; it’s also about spending time tuning in to ourselves,” Derrick explains. “For an hour or so, your mind is free from distractions and your body is free from gravity. You enter a deep meditative state, and you feel lighter and clear-headed after each session. Reduced sensory input, weightlessness and Epsom salt work together to reverse the harmful effects of stress. Floating is recommended for people who are comfortable being alone with their thoughts.”

Three years after establishing Palm Ave, Derrick now has two Float Clubs, eight floating pods and six staff under his charge. The second branch at Kampong Bugis came about after Michelle Goh (of Mee Pok Man fame) sold him the machines from her former float centre. Today, his customer base comprises locals and foreigners, ranging from professionals in the creative and financial industries to athletes suffering from joint and muscle pain.

Speaking from his own experience and customer feedback, Derrick claims that our minds are trained to focus on the present moment in an uninterrupted space. As we gain greater access to our right hemisphere, new ideas may also surface more readily. “Flotation is a good way to boost problem-solving and creativity. It’s also popular among people in the martial arts scene. Some fighters and athletes use the tank to visualise their game. Other improvements experienced by my customers include better sleep and a sense of well-being.”

Like yoga and other mindfulness exercises, floating takes a bit of practice and works differently for everyone. It is important to keep an open mind and discover the benefits at your own pace.

FAQ

Derrick addresses the common concerns of first-timers to flotation.

What if I can’t swim?
Floating does not require any swimming skills. Even if you doze off and roll over, the salt water (that gets in your eyes) will wake you.

What if I am claustrophobic?
The pod is big enough for the average person to stretch out comfortably. You are always in full control of the environment - you can leave a light on and step out of the pod at any time as there are no door latches.

Is the water clean?
The water is fully filtered three times for at least 15 minutes between each float session, passing through a hot tub calibre filter, a UV light disinfection system and a chemical disinfection system. Epsom salt acts as a natural sanitiser, creating a sterile environment where bacteria cannot survive. The pod is operated like a swimming pool, except hydrogen peroxide is used instead of chlorine.

Will my skin turn prune-like if I stay in the water for so long?
No. In fact, it will leave your skin feeling soft and silky. Soaking in Epsom salt swiftly replenishes your magnesium and sulphate levels. This relaxes your muscles, reduces inflammation, flushes toxins and more.

Do I need a bathing suit?
Swimwear is optional, but you are recommended to float nude, as weightlessness is best experienced by bare skin. Floating is a deeply personal activity; only one person can float in each pod at a time. All rooms in the centre are equipped with a private shower and lock from the inside.

Is there anything I should prepare before floating?
Eat a light meal about an hour beforehand to prevent hunger pangs from distracting you during the session; refrain from caffeine three hours before floating as it may make you jittery. If you are prone to motion sickness, you may wish to bring anti-nausea pills. You may also like to bring along your personal grooming items.

Is it suitable for everyone?
People with a history of epilepsy and mental conditions, as well as pregnant women in their first trimester, should consult a physician before floating. If you have recently dyed or bleached your hair, you are advised to wait at least a week so that the colour does not run during the session. Avoid shaving or waxing on the same day, as the salt water may sting if you have an abrasion.