Sensory-deprivation tanks enjoyed a brief heyday in the United States following the 1972 publication of The Center of the Cyclone: An Autobiography of Inner Space, a book about Dr John Lilly’s hallucinatory experiments inside a dark tank filled with skin-temperature water. The book inspired playwright and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky to write his first and only novel, Altered States (1978), which two years later he turned into a screenplay for director Ken Russell’s over-the-top sciencefiction film of the same name starring William Hurt.
Often called “samadhi tanks” back then, they mostly appealed to those interested in experiencing “higher” states of consciousness, with or without the use of psychedelic drugs.
Or at least that was the background info I carried in my head when I arrived for my first session at Theta State Float Center. I was met by one of Theta’s three owners, amiable American Annile Alexander, who smiled faintly when I mentioned John Lilly.
“The original popularity of flotation tanks, along with that of Jacuzzis, saunas, and so on, hit a stumbling block in the early 1980s,” says Alexander, “after HIV appeared on the scene and for a short while there was a fear of catching it from water.”
Such irrational fears quickly subsided, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that flotation tanks regained popularity, notes Alexander.
“Professional athletes, Olympic competitors, and physiologists in America have been experimenting with flotation therapy over the last decade or so, and discovered that it was immensely useful for recovery from physical trauma and for promoting deep relaxation.”
Flotation therapy is huge again, but this time around it’s not so much about reaching altered states as it is about combating physical and emotional stress in daily life. In
Los Angeles, tank time at float centers is so coveted that customers often need to reserve 30 days in advance.
When Alexander promises that “Floating is the deepest level of relaxation you will likely ever have,” this appears to be backed up with solid scientific evidence and new technology to match. Theta’s four flotation tanks, which cost over US$25,000 each, provide soundproof, lightproof, and gravity-free environments in tanks filled with purified water blended with 600 kilograms of medicalgrade magnesium sulfate. Computers maintain the dense water mixture at skin temperature so that once you’re lying on your back on the surface of the water – floating is effortless because of the high salt concentration – and the lights are off, most people soon find themselves in a womb-like state.
Each flotation room comes equipped with a private shower and dressing area so that you can leave your clothes behind and wash away oils and Bangkok street grit before entering the tank.
As I carefully slide into the water and close the lid (on the pod-style tank; larger room-like tanks with doors rather than lids are also available), I fall into a relaxed state immediately. At the beginning of my session (one hour to 90 minutes depending on your preference), the tank interior is subtly illuminated and soft, ambient music plays. Both fade into black silence after about five minutes, and my body marvels at feeling almost completely free from the downward forces of gravity. When the soft lights and music come up again, I can’t believe an entire hour has already passed.
“That’s very common,” says Alexander. “A lot of people find that even an hour and a half collapses because of time spent in theta state.”
Theta state refers to brain wave activity associated with deep relaxation or meditation. Such a state is said to synchronize the right- and left-brain hemispheres, which in turn may lead to heightened states of creativity, logic and empathy.
Alexander explains how flotation promotes what scientists called the Relaxation Response, a physical state of deep rest that changes a person’s physical and emotional responses to stress.
“Long periods of Relaxation Response physiology lowers heart rates, blood pressure and oxygen consumption,” says Alexander, “and alleviates the symptoms associated with a vast array of conditions including hypertension, arthritis, insomnia, depression, anxiety, infertility, cancer, and even aging.”
Although the concentration of magnesium sulfate in the water is highly anti-bacterial, the water is filtered three times, passed under two UV lamps and treated with hydrogen peroxide between customers to ensure hygiene.
I found floating for an hour or two in the soundproof, lightproof, temperature-controlled chamber to be the perfect antidote to frenetic Bangkok. Prices start at B1550 per hour with a minimum three-float purchase.
Theta State Float Center
88/1 24th Avenue Mall, Sukhumvit Soi 24 | 0 2261 7943 | thetastatefloat.com