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Float - Flotation Center and Art Gallery

Undiscovered Terrain for Spa Babies

Personally, I’m so over overstimulation of the senses. I attribute that to relentless marketing and, of course, the advent of the holiday “gimmes”. Everywhere I go, I can count more iPods, Blackberries, and other fun gadgets with completely useless vestigial features than I can count people. Even my preferred form of therapy -- the spa -- would be hard-pressed to calm nerves ruffled by Christmas crowds swimming in the froth of consumer detritus. Facials and massages, as nice as they are, can’t completely do away with my desire to escape the season. That’s why I thank the deities of beauty and health for Oakland’s FLOAT – Flotation Center and Art Gallery, for offering some respite from all the madness.

If you’ve never floated before, your only point of reference is probably Ken Russell’s 1980 counterculture stoner classic Altered States, in which a doctor conducts sensory deprivation research in isolation tanks -- usually with the aid of LSD and other substances. While the film has probably turned on a fair share of people to the practice, floating doesn’t, to my knowledge, involve ingesting hallucinogens with shamanic elders or de-evolving into lower primate life forms. But there is definitely something primal about it.

The typical flotation tank is something of an enclosed spa (approximately 8.5 feet long by 4 feet wide); it is soundproof and lightproof, and allows a person to float like a cork on the surface of 10.5 inches of water saturated with a thousand pounds of medical-grade Epsom salt solution. The benefits of flotation therapy are based on Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, developed by scientists at the National Institute of Mental Health in Washington in 1954.

The scientists found that being in a flotation tank triggers a deep relaxation response, and enables a person to drift into the enigmatic “theta” waves that delineate the brain states of sleep, hypnosis, and lucid dreaming. The health benefits, predictably, are numerous. A single hour of floating, which is typical at most flotation centers, invokes the release of endorphins and has also been proven to alleviate back pain, migraines, and arthritis -- while lowering blood pressure, reducing anxiety, and leading to better concentration. Oh yeah, as far as safety goes, anyone can do it (and no, you won’t drown) -- even pregnant women into their second and third trimesters have been known to kick back and float.

While you’re more likely to see a flotation tank hanging out in someone’s spare room than you are to find a flotation center in the United States, FLOAT intends to share the good stuff. The center opened eight months ago and is the brainchild of Bay Area artists Filomena Serpa and Allison Walton. Allison, who discovered flotation tanks as a teenager in Palo Alto, remembers experiencing her first float at the now-defunct San Francisco Flotation Center, where she became an immediate convert. She has been floating on and off for years now, for both relaxation and stress management, and describes the experience of a single one-hour float as “extremely calming” and something that “stays with you for weeks.”

Allison and Filomena decided to open FLOAT after frequent visits to Europe, where they noticed you’re much more likely to walk down the street and see a flotation center than you are here in the States. Now, FLOAT is the only flotation center open to the public (there are others fashioned around strictly medical purposes) in the entire Bay Area, with two tanks in the space.

FLOAT’s chic urban digs, hidden away in the industrial morass of Oakland’s Fruitvale district, have earned more than a gaggle of health-conscious hippie followers. While Allison and Filomena are besieged by tons of phone calls from curious floating newbies, their chic gallery setting also offers rotating exhibitions by local and national artists, and free monthly parties that are open to the public.

Given the fact that sensory deprivation in a flotation tank actually increases a person’s awareness of their environment when he or she emerges, “the gallery was a given,” explains Allison. “As artists, what better way to promote other local artists and create a comfortable space for floaters to experience artwork…when flotation therapy has heightened their senses?” In fact, on my first visit to FLOAT, Allison informs me that the current artist on exhibition, Sally Rodriguez -- whose massive mixed-media works dot the walls in a brilliant burst of myth and color -- created most of her pieces for the show in a mere 30 days, after experiencing floating. The idea of feeling more relaxed than I’m apt to feel in my life while also gleaning inspiration for my next (er, first) novel is news that’s almost enough to make me a convert too.

FLOAT offers a variety of packages to both new and seasoned floaters -- including a one-hour massage and one-hour float combination, which as Allison describes best, “will turn you into mush.” For new floaters, the center recommends three one-hour sessions to help them become acclimated to the sensation of floating in a tank. “Usually, the first time is the most difficult, and can be claustrophobic for some people -- but you really get the feel of the entire experience by being patient with it, trying it more than once,” says Allison.

After leaving me with a bottle of water and letting me know that she’ll knock on the tank after the hour is over, Allison leaves me to my very first float. For sanitation purposes, FLOAT requires clients to shower and wash their hair thoroughly before entering a tank. The bathroom, on the upper loft level of the center, is practical but cozy , filled with fluffy towels, beauty products, and earplugs, which are not to be forgotten when you enter the tank.

Since I meditate regularly, I’m initially unaware that a single hour of floating will change my entire perspective of spa therapy. All the same, my first moments in the tank are more discomfiting than transformative. I’m tempted to leave the tank door slightly ajar, since I’m mildly claustrophobic, but after ensuring that I’ll be able to find my way back to reality, I settle in. (“Some people are certain they do several 180-degree rotations during their floating,” Walton had told me earlier. “But you’d have to be really short for that to be possible, considering the width of the tank.”)

After getting accustomed to the slight buzz in my ears and the humidity (the water is at body temperature), I start to relax. It’s difficult not to, given that I’m bobbing like a message in a bottle atop a completely placid ocean. In fact, the idea that I’m floating on the ocean -- albeit, a very dark one -- begins to feel more and more plausible. As my body relaxes and sensation escapes my limbs, the confines of the tank seem to fade away until it really does feel like I’m soaring through limitless space, kind of like the embryo in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I am mildly reminded of Filomena’s enigmatic comment to me earlier that day, that floating can sometimes feel like you’re “just a giant mind.” Now I’m starting to understand. As the elusive theta waves wash over me, something in the back of my head non-verbally registers that this is probably what people might call a “mystical experience.”

My own little altered state seems to end just moments after it began when, an hour later, I hear Allison’s tap on the door. Afterwards, I hop into the shower, guzzle down another bottle of water (it can get dehydrating in there), and go off into my day, buoyed by the kind of euphoric rush I’m usually accustomed to after an hour and a half of yoga.

The effects are long-lasting after my first float, following me well into a stressful work week, but true to Allison’s words, each experience is unique and can sometimes even depend on the time of day. After my third float, I find that I’m more likely to be clear-headed in the mornings, while evenings trigger imaginary expeditions into tomorrow’s workload rather than a focused meditative experience.

A relaxing deep-tissue massage adds a little extra indulgence to the flotation experience, but no matter how incredible the masseuse, FLOAT’s loft configuration and the fact that it doubles as a gallery and workspace make getting your muscles kneaded more distracting than satisfying. But that’s more than balanced out by unbeatable customer service and the fact that a tank offers you the most sublime reprieve from all the iPods, Blackberries, and annoying holiday shoppers in the world.