Floating Stress Away
Sometimes I feel less like a human and more like anxiety personified, as if my existence is merely a three-dimensional expression of stress and neurosis. If there’s something to worry about, I’m on it. When I call someone and they don’t pick up, for example, I naturally assume it’s because they have died. So when I found out there was a place called Metta Relaxation Co. in the Lehigh Valley that all but promised to whisk my stress away and all I had to do was float in a bathtub for an hour and a half, I was literally there the next day.
Floating, also known as floatation therapy and also known as sensory deprivation (but that doesn’t sound as relaxing), was initially developed in 1954 by American physician and neuroscientist John C. Lilly. Here’s the concept: you float in a tank alongside one thousand pounds of salt. The tank is lightless and soundproof with water heated to skin temperature. External stimuli cease to exist, and you get to just be. In the ’70s, floating was studied further, with research asserting that it caused a reduction of pain and stress. Some people use it to shut their minds off; some use it to completely focus on one task, like creative problem-solving; and others use it for visualization or spiritual purposes.
When I arrive at Metta Relaxation, I’m first a little shocked that I’ve driven by so many times and never noticed the distinct exterior, kind of like discovering that you’ve been skipping by Platform 9¾ your entire life and the gate to Hogwarts was right there all this time. I’m also suddenly overcome with an urge to go all HGTV shopping spree up in Pier 1 Imports and redecorate my entire house because everything inside Metta Relaxation is perfect and obviously what’s missing from my life. There’s exposed brick and hardwood floors and up-cycled tables proffering adult coloring books and I instantly feel totally relaxed inside.
I meet the owner, Stephanie Bealer, who is a reflexologist. She opened Metta Relaxation on September 1, 2015, after becoming obsessed with floating five years ago. “My very first float was transformative,” Stephanie says. Now she tries to float once per week. She tells me that many floaters say it helps with digestion, sore muscles, headaches, migraines, arthritic conditions, and even PTSD. “This isn’t a pampering, indulgent space. This is critical for people’s health,” she says.
Then she shows me to my room and I try very hard not to think about how I just binge watched Stranger Things days prior and this tub better not be a portal to another world ruled by some faceless gremlin. I consider bringing it up, but decide not to jinx myself.
Stephanie walks me through what to do, which seems very simple. You put earplugs in to create a seal while your ears are still dry, you shower with shampoo and body wash, and you get in the float tank. Unlike more claustrophobic float tanks, this is a 4-foot by 8-foot open tub. I pretend for a moment that I’m Demi Moore casually preparing for my luxurious nightly soak. I once read that Demi Moore only washes her hair in Evian water, and I wonder if she would only float in handpicked granules from the Dead Sea. Since I am not Ms. Moore, I am content with wherever this salt has been sourced.
After Stephanie leaves me to it, relaxing music fades in while I undress and shower accordingly. I’m halfway through lathering my hair when I realize I forgot to put the ear plugs in. Idiot! That was step one. It’s like forgetting the first rule of Fight Club. I quickly stuff them into my ears and hope I didn’t already ruin everything.
Then I get into the tub, where the water is body temperature, or like a cup of coffee you forgot about. Initially I think my hands are going to feel best down by my sides, but I quickly realize that elbows bent with my hands up by my head is the way to go. I flip the lights off with a switch inside the tub. Naturally, I instantly think of the last horror movie I saw. Very calmly and politely, I tell my brain to kindly shut up.
Bubbles come up from my left ear where the plug didn’t seal properly. They stop after a moment, so I start to relax. Bubbles. Pause. Bubbles. Pause. Not knowing what else to do, I take my finger and wedge the plug as far into my ear as it will go. Somehow, this works. I relax again and pretend that I’m floating in the middle of the ocean. No one to bother me, just me and the ocean. The deep, creepy ocean. Wait, am I in the ocean? I flail around for a moment until my hand brushes against the side of the tub. No. Okay. Still in a basement in Bethlehem. My mind shifts to something dumb I said three weeks ago at a party, a memory that now follows me everywhere I go, like Golden Retriever hair. Awesome.
I decide to try a simple meditative breathing exercise in which you start at the number 50 with an inhale, exhale 49, inhale 48, all the way down to 20, after which you just count your exhales. My breaths are long and slow, and by the time I get to my last breath, I feel incredible, kind of like I’m on low-grade narcotics.
Now what? I have no idea how long it’s been. Also, I have things to do. I have to do my laundry, respond to e-mails, cash a check, go to the grocery store, figure out which bills I have to pay now and which ones can sit pretty until next week, go to the gym, make an incredibly fancy dinner in lieu of figuring out my life, call my mother back.
Maybe call my mother back.
I go back to counting my breaths, but eventually lose count. I’m not sure which parts of my body are submerged and which are above water because everything is the same temperature. I feel as blissful and indifferent as you feel right before you fall asleep, but without feeling sleepy. I have no problems. Maybe I will be the first person whose bills will pay themselves. I love floating. I love myself. I love salt.
Then the music fades back in, signaling my 90 minutes are up. Already?
“How was it?” Stephanie asks when I come out, knowingly, the way a Michelin star chef might ask someone how their dessert was. Unsure of how else to describe it, I tell her that it was “the best bath ever,” which is practically true.
I reemerge into the world equally delighted by both the vibrancy of the trash on the curb and the cerulean sky. I am brought abruptly back to reality by a man—or, more accurately, the muffler on his Subaru—who speeds past me, indifferent to my newfound tranquility. I guess I’ll have to go float again.
To learn more about floating, visit Metta Relaxation Co. at mettarelax.com.