It’s shaping up to be a beautiful day outside the quiet house on the sleepy suburban street where I’m now floating, stark naked in a pitch-dark tank, devoid of my senses and completely alone, waiting for something to happen.
My ears are filled with blue clay plugs, cancelling out just enough noise but not the soft sound of the tank’s briny water lapping against its unseeable walls, and, most importantly, the downtempo electronic music that signals when it’s time for me to climb out of the tank.
What am I waiting for? Hallucinations, maybe, or an out-of-body experience? Perhaps even the face of some divine being to appear offering enlightenment? These are all by-products of the rumours I’ve encountered relating to sensory deprivation tanks from psychedelic proselytizer Joe Rogan, or seen in Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fi horror film Altered States.
However, Treeka Drake, the owner of the tank I’m in, refers to them mostly as “misconceptions.”
“One of the biggest things about going into the tank is the story you’ve created around it,” Drake explained to me in the foyer of One Love Float roughly half an hour earlier. “Some people just fall asleep in there, because that’s what they need.”
Drake has been “floating” for eight years, and has owned One Love Float for four. Her float centre holds two tanks and a new infrared sauna, all located in the converted basement of her Silver Springs home in northwest Calgary. Since its creation, One Love Float has seen 5,000 unique visitors walk through its unassuming teal front door.
“What I’ve noticed is that there’s a group of people that go in the tank and are disappointed,” says Drake. “They have this huge expectation that they’re going to have this epiphany in there, and nothing happens, so they fall asleep, or they’re just in their head.”
“Then there’s this other group that just have these insanely cool first experiences — which was me — and then we spend years chasing that first experience, like, ‘Ugh, I didn’t get it.’ We call them ‘float-chasers.’”
Entering the tank, that was what I had hoped to be — one of those small but special few who, deprived of their main senses, then unlocks a hidden one, and witnesses the unravelling of the universe. Unfortunately, though, right now it seems I’m just another regular Joe, nude in a tank on a sprightly Wednesday morning, trying not to get salty water in my eyes or mouth.
Completely buoyant thanks to the thousand-pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in the tank (which is named “Sam,” short for “Samadhi” — both the tank’s brand name, and a yogic Hindu term for the state of intense meditation that immediately precedes death), it’s what I imagine anti-gravity feels like, or, for a more earthly comparison, spending an afternoon languishing on the salt-filled waters of the Dead Sea which borders Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
Drake had explained to me beforehand that the belief of float tanks as being “anti-gravity” is another common misconception, one of the many she comes across in her line of work.
“Everybody says it’s anti-gravity,” says Drake. “That’s really fun, but you’re not on the moon. What’s actually happening is we’re dispersing the gravity over the body equally, instead of it being straight down.”
She described the entire process as quite straightforward.
“I know people want it to be really sexy and shiny, but it’s really simple: We reduce sensory input to the body — so that’s no lights, no sound and we heat the tank to our body temperature.”
Thermal regulation, especially, noted Drake, is key to sensory deprivation, and by removing sensory input the body can enter a “therapeutic” state of healing. Similarly, it allows the brain reprieve to slow down and take a break from “digesting all the stuff that we’re throwing at it all the time.”
But if it’s so simple and straightforward, I wondered, why the mythological status? What draws people — the die-hards, the psychonauts and, perhaps later, myself — back into the abyssal tank again and again? I asked Drake to describe her first experience with the hope of gleaning more information.
DIY Tanks and A Pilgrimage to Portland
“[At the time] Calgary had an underground float tank that was homemade,” Drake begins. “You would call and leave these messages, and then, months later, I got this phone call at work: ‘Hey, it’s the float place, do you want to come float?’”
“I was like: ‘Yes! I left so many messages with you guys,’ and they were like: ‘Yeah, the tank was down, we were travelling … so, can you come in at 2 today?’ I said: ‘Today? For sure, I’ll be there,’ and bailed out of work.”
“I got there, it was in a communal home … I go downstairs, and all of my fears are coming up,” Drake remembers. “We’re going into the basement, and you’ve got to walk through this other space, in a towel, and go into this closet where they’d built the tank inside. They said: ‘You just float, and we’ll come knock on the top of the tank after 90 minutes.’”
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I didn’t know much about it — this was before Joe Rogan — but I’m in there and I’m like: ‘This is so dumb, what am I doing?’”
“All of a sudden it just started to go for me — visions, like it was a journey. It was showing me stuff, and I was not ready to get out of that tank. I couldn’t leave because I was like: ‘I don’t think I’m in my body.’”
After that first transformative float, Drake set out on a pilgrimage to experience the phenomenon further. Her goal was to hit 10 float centres in 10 days, starting in Abbotsford and ending up in Portland, which she still refers to as the float “Mecca.”
“They were home studios in parents’ basements, where we’d stay up talking late into the night,” says Drake. “Some were very spiritual, some were more physical, [run by] psychologists or yoga masters.”
“A lot of places we’d show up to were out of business. We’d go to a coffee shop, talk to the people there like: What happened to the tank? They’d say … Ben [or whoever] bought the tanks, and we’re like: ‘Do you have Ben’s number?’”
Coincidentally, Drake also ran into others making their own float pilgrimage while heading through the States, where the documentary Float Nation was then being filmed.
After getting to know the community even further by curating a dinner with all of the float centre owners in Portland, Drake knew that heading back to Calgary would mean a change in her own life-path.
“That was the turning point,” says Drake. “This industry, this whole community, is super cool. They work together with the goal of getting people floating. It’s not about getting the biggest piece of the pie, the pie just gets bigger.”
“By the time we got home, I needed a float tank, that was for sure. So, I was like: I’m going to sell my house, I’m going to get some capital — because these tanks cost $20,000-$30,000 each — and … move in [with my parents] until I can figure out my next move.”
It was ultimately her father who pushed her to make it a full-time business. Drake, who worked for WinSport at Canada Olympic Park, faced incredulity from her friends when she announced she was quitting to float full-time.
“People were like, ‘You’re going to quit your job, with super good benefits, and you’re a single mom, to do this float thing that nobody knows about?’ I was like, I know, but there’s no other option. It just felt like that was it — when you know, you know, I think.”
With that new-business uncertainty, One Love Float opened its doors in 2014. And then the phone started ringing.
Fear and Intimacy in the “Cosmic Container”
My float is scheduled for only 60 minutes, a typical stint for first-timers, but without a watch or cell phone to check, there’s no way to tell just how far in I am.
The first float session costs $69 for the hour and includes orientation, but subsequent visits are booked by session rather than time.
Drake explained earlier that most regulars float for an hour and a half, yet there’s a small-but-dedicated few who hang out in the tank for upwards of three to four hours at a time, and an even more wild bunch that’ll book a tank for an entire day.
“Yeah, you’re in this container, but it feels limitless,” says Drake. “It just feels like you’re in the middle of this universe. It’s just like this cosmic container.”
People are drawn to floating for a few reasons, she says, be it as a means of healing physical injuries or emotional trauma, or even for spiritual discovery. Drake describes “floaters” as a very curious people, and brave, because once in the tank “you can’t escape it, there’s just truth in there.”
“It’s kind of wild that we have this whole practice around things that are primal fears for people,” Drake says. “People are afraid of water, people are afraid of the dark, and the number one reason I hear from people is ’I’m afraid of being alone with myself,’ which is the biggest message, especially with social media and stuff, that whole false sense of being connected when we’re really not.”
“Floating to me is very intimate,” Drake explains. “It’s a place where you get to connect on a [deeper] level. To me, as humans, we’re starving for true connection. Here, it’s just like, the veil is lifted.”
“You’ll never have the same float. Floating is like a friendship — whatever you invest in, that’s what you’ll get out.”
A psychedelic start and a move underground
Floating as a practice began in 1954 when American doctor and LSD pioneer John C. Lilly, known for his work exploring the states of human consciousness, constructed the first vertical isolation tank.
“They had this whole experiment, with human test subjects, for this theory that the only thing keeping people alive was that their brains were processing information,” explains Drake. “So, they were like, ‘Let’s get some people, take away their sensory input, and see if they die.’”
“What they found was the exact opposite. People felt so great.”
As both an alternative health method and recreational activity, floating first peaked in the Eighties, with celebrities like the late John Lennon allegedly using float tanks to cure his heroin addiction. However, Drake explains, following the AIDS epidemic, there was a fear of anything communal, leading to the industry “tanking” overnight.
“Then they popped up in these underground places,” Drake says. “People kept it alive on their farms, in their houses, in their basements, and didn't tell anyone about it.”
Then came Joe Rogan, comedian and former host of NBC’s Fear Factor, who reignited interest in float tanks via his wildly popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience where he explores tools of mind-expansion ranging from DMT to other psychedelic drugs.
In Calgary, Drake says, there are currently five float centres, with another two in Cochrane and Airdrie. Her clientele includes people from all ages and walks of life.
“When I first started it was a lot of these psychonauts,” says Drake, referring to a subculture of people obsessed with exploring the limits of human consciousness. “Now, it’s gotten a little bit closer, like, ‘Oh, my friend did it,’ or ‘My mom floats,’ or ‘My grandma floats.’”
The oldest customer Drake’s had was 91, but says the majority of floaters are between 25 and 45. She says many of the float clientele begin as users, but end up as friends, and contrasts the “homey” feel of One Love Float to the more “corporate” spa culture, though different sides of the same coin.
A Floater’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths to Healing
“Ninety minutes in the tank will mean 90 minutes without pain, potentially,” says Drake, who views floating as more a therapeutic practice than a recreational one.
This is in part due to the effects the Epsom salts in the tank have on the body, and also because of the voluntarily-forced solitude. An alternative name for floating is the acronym R.E.S.T., or Restrictive Environmental Stimulation Therapy.
Now consisting of a 35 per cent salt solution and hydrogen peroxide, float tanks used to contain high amounts of chlorine, a potential explanation for the extra-stimulatory or hallucinogenic effects on patrons, Drake noted, laughing.
“I ended up on a panel [with Alberta Health Services] working on standardizations, because the rules that existed [around float tanks] were from 1984, and were terrible,” says Drake. “We’re so lucky here that we can use hydrogen peroxide. Other places when we first started used chlorine … so, great, please come sit in a toxic pool.”
I, for one, am glad to not be floating in a pool of chlorine, though the lack of extra-sensory perception feels slightly disheartening. However, I can understand why so many people make return visits. Something about floating in the dark feels soothing, peaceful. I wonder how long I could stay in one of these — wait, the music? Already?
It snuck up on me, the slow fade-in of that calming, pulsating beat working its way into the tank. Before I met Treeka Drake in person, she had joked that One Love Float was a “time vortex,” and I’d admittedly shrugged it off as pre-interview banter. Now I believe it.
Told to budget time for the post-float high, a calming feeling that Drake said could last for days, I push open the heavy door and wriggle my nude self out of the tank. Honestly, my first thoughts are of the coffee I’m going to have (being told to avoid caffeine beforehand), but not much else. An hour in the tank yielded nothing epiphanic, but still, I don’t feel duped, and it was not unpleasant.
I take my first few steps, the room post-deprivation now brighter and sharp, and once again prepare to enter the bustling world.
- By Alec Warkentin