Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream

The body is weightless. Inside the soundproof, pitch black void, buoyed by 10 inches of 98° water pregnant with over 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts, concepts like “time” and “self” begin to melt away. Deprived of stimulation, the mind enters a meditative state. Thoughts become amplified. Some experience visual and auditory hallucinations.

Needless to say, things get strange inside a sensory deprivation tank.

“It is a little wonky, right?” says David Rapach, owner of Squirrel Hill’s Levity. “You’re going in this 8×4 box, and there’s a lid on it, and you can close it and you’re in the dark, and—oh my god!—you’re in the water but you can’t feel the water and you float too?”

Rapach, a former school counselor, first floated three years ago while living in Washington, D.C. His wife had heard entertainer Joe Rogan espouse the benefits of sensory deprivation on his popular Joe Rogan Experience podcast. He was skeptical, but just one session changed his views; not long after, he and his wife moved back to Pittsburgh and brought the idea to open a float studio along with them.

“Being in Pittsburgh, we ran into a lot of traditional thinking,” says Rapach, “people saying, ‘that’s crazy,’ but it just took a handful of people believing in it and talking about it to spread the word.”

Levity owner David Rapach inspects one of his tanks. BC photo.
Levity owner David Rapach and one of his tanks. BC photo.

A typical float session runs 60 minutes and costs about a dollar a minute. Those who float typically do so in the nude, as bathing suits can interfere with the feeling of weightlessness. Rapach, who owns two tanks, shows off a three-tier filtration system that cleans the water with filters and UV light after each session.

Luke Raymer, owner of Pittsburgh Float, says that he too first learned of isolation tanks through the Joe Rogan podcast. He ended up buying a tank for himself before opening his business inside Capristo Spa, in Shadyside.

Isolation tanks were first developed in the mid-1950s by American physician and psychoanalyst, John C. Lilly. Raymer attributes the current popularity of isolation tanks to a move toward holistic medicine as well as word of mouth.

“I get all walks of life,” he says. “Young people, old people, people with sleep issues, bad backs, bad necks.”

One of the more famous proponents of floating is NBA superstar, Steph Curry. In a recent interview with Business Insider, Curry says that he finds sessions to be helpful with muscle recovery as well as a form of digital detox. “It’s one of the only places where you can really get unplugged from all the noise and distractions that go on with daily life,” he says.

Rapach says that a person’s first float should be seen as an exploratory session. “It’s really a unique sensation,” he says, “even just for the body. The first one, just work on letting go. Usually, what we notice is that around the third time, people come out like, ‘What happened in there?! I wasn’t expecting that.’”

Allentown resident, Ashley Corts, says that she floats at Levity at least once a month. “I usually go toward the end of the month,” she says. “I go to clear my mind. My body relaxes, and I feel completely refreshed when I leave. It sets me up for another month of working and grinding.”

After my single experience in an isolation tank, the world was softened around the edges. My heart rate and breathing were slowed — I felt centered, serene.

“It’s a little hack into the universe of your mind,” says Rapach. “We really believe that everybody can benefit from it, so long as you’re ready to be alone with your thoughts.”

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.