1980 was more or less a magical year in sports for Philadelphia. Both the 76ers and Flyers went on play in their respective championships, the Eagles captured their first NFC title, and the Phillies took home their first World Series victory. Perhaps not coincidentally, the latter two teams had installed floatation tanks in their training facilities for players to "have a place to relax." The Eagles, in fact, were the first NFL team to use a floatation tank, with the Cowboys following a short time after.
Their use, however, came on the tail-end of a trend started by brain researcher and psychedelic evangelist John C. Lilly, snuffed out by sanitization and disease worries sparked by the AIDS epidemic. Philadelphia has long since been without a place for the regular Joe to relax similarly, the city's float facility located just off South Street having closed years ago.
The trend, however, is back, with floatation spas popping up in major cities around the country, spurred on in pop culture by isolation tank evangelist/comedian Joe Rogan's promotion of the subject and a general bent toward the more holistic side of medicine. Now, Philadelphia has gotten back in on the (in)action.
Halcyon Floats, Philly's only current floatation spa, opened in South Kensington back in March, offering us city-dwellers a shot at escaping our ever connected, sensory-overloading society to experience, well, nothing. And nothing is definitely something—Philadelphians, especially, should know this, considering that we are one of the most stressed-out cities in the country.
As one of those stressed-out Philadelphians, I couldn't resist the offer to head over to check it out for myself. So, earlier this week, I made my way to Halcyon's two-tank floatation tank spa on Girard for a 90-minute session.
I was met by owner Keri Rakickas, a Philly native who decided to open up shop after being introduced to floatation therapy in Portland OR in 2011. The shop is clean and bright, with a small area off to one side for tea and cookies to enjoy whilst you bask in that post-float glow that advocates rave about. A little further back in the shop sit the two float rooms, equipped with showers to be used pre- and post-float, all the necessary spa accouterment, and, of course, the tank.
At first glance, an isolation tank appears to be nothing more than a sound-proof locker filled with warm, salty water—mainly because that is essentially what it is. There's a filtration system attached, and a heater to keep the Epsom salt-saturated water at skin-temperature, but that's pretty much it. It is, to say the least, hardly an object that inspires the type of self-introspection Joe Rogan touts, or the physical benefits the studies suggest.
After stripping down and showering, I stepped in and laid down. Then, I waited—and, mainly, wondered—for about 30 minutes. Everything from the e-mails I had to send when I got back home to the weird itchy feeling I was starting to get crossed my mind, but eventually all that stuff faded away and got boring.
I could feel myself start to get anxious as that fade began, a pang of anxiety hitting just before I entered the area of consciousness right between wakefulness and sleep where we emit "theta brain waves." Advocates say are these are associated with everything from creativity and relaxation to a feeling of unity with the universe and a gate to the subconscious mind. Based on my experience, at least the first part is true.
Confronted with no sensory input, my information-addled brain quite literally began to make things up. Light closed-eye visuals best described as a dim tunnel of light appeared, along with mild auditory hallucinations that faded in and out. The final visual was akin to the shadow birds make when buzzing past a window, dark blobs streaking on a light surface.
After that, nothing—but in the best way. Akin to lucid dreaming without the dream, like my brain hadn't loaded a scenario in which to participate, leaving my ostensible self to hang out and explore essentially not existing physically for a while. It was, in that sense, psychedelic, allowing me to turn into myself and consider different aspects of my life and personality with an almost detached precision. It is not the pop culture psychedelia—though, long-term floaters do say that the visual aspect of their float does increase as their sessions continue.
As someone who is inundated with communication, content, and just general stuff, however, the more meditative aspect seems more attractive and, indeed, beneficial. We are all constantly connected and expected to respond, tweet, like, and consider anything and everything that passes in front of us, a problem compounded in Philly by aspects like our high population density and blue-collar, east coast lifestyle. To escape all of that in a roomy tub off Girard is an amazing concept, and increasingly, a necessary one.
As my session began to come to a close, soft music started to play in through the tank, bringing me out of whatever altered state I was in and into a more familiar one that erred closer to the side of wakefulness. Navigating out of the tank was interesting, my muscles loose and relaxed as if I'd had a full-body massage. Opening a float tank door and standing in slick salt water in that state is somewhat of a challenge, which Rakickas had instructed me about pre-float. After a quick shower and discussion, it was time to go.
I stepped outside onto Girard, utterly chilled out. The air seemed cooler, colors were brighter, and I understood why the Phillies won their 1980 title. And, ultimately, Philadelphia seemed like a great place to be in the universe.
For that reason alone, it was worth the try.