I've been lying in a pod with a shallow filling of salty warm water, naked, floating like a cork, for 60 minutes. It's totally dark, totally silent and totally relaxing.
After the hour (which flies by surprisingly fast) I slowly rise from my isolation tank, take a shower to rinse the salty brine off my body and out of my hair and feel very calm.
I've had three "floats" now at Float Culture, ironically positioned on Water Street, in Auckland. I'm not yet a pro, I've not reached next level bliss like the long haired man I meet post-float in the reception. The smiling silver haired gent, celebrating the morning of his birthday with a float, describes his experience as "exciting", with particles vibrating, chakras totally in alignment and a deep, deep meditative state.
The idea of float therapy sounds a bit wacky: lying naked in an enclosed pod of shallow salty water. Most people I mention the concept to think of "that episode of The Simpsons where Lisa and Homer do float therapy and Homer gets carried out."
The concept of floatation therapy came about back in the 1950s, when American neuroscientist John Lilly was playing around with the concept and nature of consciousness. (Along with exploring sensory deprivation, Lilly was also known for his interest in humans communicating with dolphins - fun fact). He crafted the first isolation tank, which provided the basis for the more modern pods people like me and the happy long-hair hippy are floating in today. The idea was that by cutting out all outside stimuli the brain would go to sleep.
There are four float centers operating in New Zealand as of June, 2015 - a new one in Whangarei, one in Christchurch, the new Float Culture I visited in Auckland and the oldest in the country, running for nearly 20 years in New Plymouth, The Floatation Sanctuary by pro-floater Joy Hodson.
For a virgin floater, the first time can be a confronting/confusing/exciting experience. The slick Auckland pods are positioned in a big beautiful bathroom. Before hopping in the pod you take a quick shower, using no products to prevent anything tainting your time in the tub. There are about 1000 litres of water in the tank, which is about 30cm deep. It's heated to 35 degrees Celsius and filled with 500kg of high quality Epsom salts shipped in from Germany - only the best will do. It's essentially a "brine" as New Plymouth pod owner Joy describes it.
Photo / Anton Panteleev, Float Culture
Because of this super-salty solution any cuts must be covered in Vaseline (I rubbed the jelly around my cuticles just in case that nasty quick started to sting) and earplugs are essential. You hop in the pod, pull down the lid and lie back. Your face is above the water but your ears sinking just beneath the surface. Calming music will lull you in to relaxation for the first 10 minutes; for the following 50-odd you will lay there, in dark silence, with nothing but your thoughts.
"It's the only place on Earth where our body, mind and spirit can simultaneously get this kind of rest which is called restricted environmental stimuli technique," Joy explains.
Even when you're at rest your eyes are still filtering the light in the room, your ears are hearing the background noises, the bed is under you and the blanket on top, she says. In the tank you're at "full rest".
"You cannot get this anywhere else.
"It creates the optimum place for our own bodies to self heal, re-correct, regulate, rejuvenate.
"It's like it creates this buffer between you and stress, it just makes everything seem okay, do-able. It makes life easy because you just seem to have this buffer. You're releasing so many natural endorphins, for me it never wears off."
Not only are there the obvious stress-buster benefits (and the health consequences of that). Floating in the salt water also takes the pressure off joints and muscles (hoorah especially for arthritis sufferers and pregnant ladies). Plus, the magnesium in the brine is absorbed through the skin, boosting calcium absorption and cutting out cramping.
What was a wacky sounding floating caper starts to sound too good to be true.
Medical researcher Professor Shaun Holt has spent the last five years dedicated to researching natural therapies and admits he's a natural skeptic.
"(Floatation therapy) sounds like a bit of a gimmick, it sounds a bit odd, but I've been pleasantly surprised by the strength of the research behind it," he says.
"It sounds quite wonderful I have to say ... I would love to have a float myself.
"There are no safety issues, I think there's actually a lot of positive medical reasons to (float)."
My first float was after work, mid-week. I was feeling pretty sleepy and sore from a morning workout. After all the first-timer admin and curiosity of feeling my way around the dark pod I drifted off to sleep - I think. I was in some sort of dream state, but I can't remember what was in my brain. I had heard about the benefits of floatation therapy for creativity (Yoko Ono is a fan) so pushed really hard to recall the images - maybe there were some mastermind visions I'd missed. No such luck. Afterwards, I felt more relaxed than I can ever remember. I believe it was what you would call a 'natural high'. I was cruising around on a cloud that night and slept like a baby.
With second and third sessions, the experience improved as I understood it better. My most recent float was on Monday morning, ahead of the action-packed working week. This time I knew the ropes. I hopped in the tank and chilled out, coming in to work feeling pretty zen.
My first time floating
I'm still getting to know the practice, enjoying the benefits, but don't think I'm a fully fledged floater just yet. I spoke to regular floater, Angela Palmer, for more insight, she tells me that calm buzz remains with her for days.
"I find that the first 10 or maybe 15 minutes in the tank is quite busy - my brain is flooded with thoughts and ideas," she says.
All of the problems I'm trying to solve, lists I've made, jobs I have to do kind of rush through my mind, really quickly, over and over again, all at once. I can't stop them.
"Then, gradually, it slows down, and I begin to focus on one thought after another, with clarity and total calm. Because of the stillness and the tranquility there is nothing to do except think. I just take one thought at a time and work through it.
"Everything seems manageable and doable, nothing seems to worry me, and sometimes I get to the point where I'm done thinking and my mind actually goes blank.
"I think of nothing. I don't know whether I fall asleep or not but I'm usually surprised when the music softly begins to play signalling that my time is almost up and the lights are going to come back on.
"Afterwards I feel very calm - serene I suppose, and very well rested. The feeling stays with me for quite some time afterwards, sometimes a few days."
I can't wait to get there.