An hour in limbo
A trial float at Renew, Chico’s only spa with a flotation chamber
As I lowered myself into the warm, salty water of the flotation chamber at Renew Float Spa, I thought of what owner Rick Bair told me directly before I entered the room:
In the complete darkness and silence of the chamber, nearly all first-time floaters are uncomfortable for a five- to 10-minute period as they adjust to the feeling of “being out in the middle of the universe.” When my hour was through, he told me, he would knock distinctly on the wall six times. I was to knock three times in response so he knew I wasn’t asleep.
After immersing myself in the foot-high water, which is heated to 95 degrees and infused with a thousand pounds of Epsom salt, I couldn’t help thinking that an hour in the chamber would feel like an eternity. Indeed, I was tense during what I presumed to be the first five minutes of my float (I lost accurate perception of time almost immediately).
Making matters worse, I had taken Bair’s advice to heart and put myself through a spin class at In Motion Fitness the night before my appointment to make sure I was as sore as possible. The discomfort in my lower back was considerable.
As I lay there with the water nearly up to my eyes (the Epsom salt keeps the body afloat), I put myself through some basic breathing exercises—sharp intake, a pause, and slow release. Soon, I was past the adjustment period Bair spoke of. With my anxiety eased, I was able to focus on the experience itself. The lack of sensation was remarkable; I couldn’t think of another time in my life so completely devoid of sights and sounds. Only my occasional bumping into the sides of the tank reminded me I wasn’t actually suspended in limbo.
Just as the mind tends to wander at night just before falling asleep, my thoughts turned to matters of apparent importance—immediate obligations that week, personal relationships, long-term goals, whether or not the float was going to make my skin all pruney. But unlike the vague thoughts that make one toss and turn at night, I was considering the issues at hand with a kind of singular focus that I’ve only rarely been granted.
About midway through my hour in the chamber, I discovered that my back no longer ached whatsoever. As far as I could tell, it wasn’t a gradual easing of discomfort; I was aware of the pain one moment and it was gone the next. At that point, able to completely relax, I worked through another quick series of breathing exercises and attempted to turn my mind off.
It must have worked, because Bair’s six knocks were a jarring dose of reality. I gave him three knocks in response and opened the chamber, feeling as if I had been inside for less than half an hour.
“My partner gave me a float for my birthday about three years ago,” Bair said during an interview immediately following my hour in the chamber. Bair is a soft-spoken retiree who worked for Budweiser as Chico’s operations manager for about 20 years before getting into the spa business. “I sure liked it—I came out of there and, like you, I was surprised when they told me my hour was up. That euphoric feeling stayed with me all day.”
Indeed, I felt like a million bucks after getting out of the chamber, and my high mood stayed with me until I fell asleep (quite easily, I might add) that night. Not only were my spirits running high, but I also felt like I could have easily done another spin class.
Bair’s initial impression of floating—which came at a “hippie commune” in Grass Valley—led him to seek the experience in other locations. As he spoke with the managers of various spas, he began to envision opening his own in Chico with his partner, Elizabeth Anastasi, a beautician and massage therapist. But unlike other spas in Chico, they would have a float tank.
Since opening Renew inside the In Motion Fitness facility last October, Bair has seen people use the tank for a wide range of issues—chronic pain, stress relief, insomnia, depression, anger management, rheumatism and even hangovers.
“There is a natural release of endorphins,” he noted. Floating also replenishes “magnesium, which is taken out of the body by stress and exercise. So, it’s really good for athletes in training.”
Endurance athletes in particular are able to recover from their workouts much faster after floating, Bair said. He has recently begun scheduling regular floating sessions for runners and cyclists, and experimenting with results both pre- and post-competition.
And while most floaters have related positive experiences, Bair has had three people exit the chamber before their hour was up. Two reported getting “seasick,” while the third was overcome with anxiety. He said many more worry they might feel claustrophobic, but argues that the concern is unwarranted because the chamber is tall enough to stand up in.
A handful of people (including Bair) have also reported closed-eye visualizations while in the darkened chamber.
“It’s not a common experience,” he said. “It happens to people who go into a deeper, restful place. It can be anything from faces—and I’d say those people have actually gone into a sleep—to just little ‘continents’ with a highlighted edge around them. I always get the visuals while still conscious.”
More than anything, Bair has been impressed by the range of responses from people coming out of the tank.
“It’s helping people who are in pain, it’s helping people with stress, it’s helping people solve problems,” he said. “It’s a broad spectrum, and I think I’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg of what it can do.”