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Times reporter 'chills' in sensory deprivation chamber at Float Sixty in Schererville
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Times reporter 'chills' in sensory deprivation chamber at Float Sixty in Schererville

SCHERERVILLE — I was admittedly nervous the day before I was supposed to go into a sensory deprivation tank.

The thought of floating in salt water, inside an enclosed chamber, pitch black with no sound, was a scary one.

But as The Times' health-and-fitness guinea pig, I knew there was no backing down.

I arrived at Float Sixty, a new float therapy studio in Schererville — Northwest Indiana's first — with an open mind. I didn't drink caffeine beforehand, as the instructions suggested. I was ready to let go (or at least try to).

I was greeted by Gloria Morris, the studio's owner and St. John resident who gives off the spirited-yet-carefree vibe of someone who has done her fair share of floating. The place, which opened March 11, has a spa feel, with waves carved in the walls and TVs playing whales and seals swimming in the ocean.

She told me we were starting with cryotherapy.

With cryotherapy, you stand inside a canister chilled to 220 degrees below zero, for two minutes, with only your head sticking out. It looks like, as The Economist aptly described it, "a galactic witch’s cauldron," with icy vapor pouring out the top.

"Think of this machine as an ice pack on steroids," Morris said.

I disrobed and put on a robe, then donned ski gloves, knee-high socks and Crocs to protect my extremities. My photographer wondered if I would end up like Han Solo in "The Empire Strikes Back," frozen in carbonite.

I entered the chamber, anxiously anticipating what 220 degrees below would feel like.

"Does it hurt?" I asked Morris.

She assured me it didn't.

I handed her my robe and she turned the machine on, pumping freezing liquid nitrogen into the chamber. It felt like gentle pin pricks against my skin.

It got colder and colder. Moving helps lessen the cold, Morris told me. To withstand it, I danced around like a kid who had to pee.

Morris said cryotherapy benefits people with chronic pain and athletes recovering from workout, as it reduces inflammation and lactic acid. (The Food and Drug Administration, however, has not cleared cryotherapy devices as having any health benefits.)

"And it will give you a little bit of an endorphin rush," Morris said.

It wasn't as cold as I thought it would be. It felt like the opposite of being in a hot tub, intense yet tolerable for a brief period of time. Still, I counted down the seconds till my session ended.

When I exited the compartment, I was glad to be out. All in all, though, it was kinda cool, to forgive the pun.

Next it was time to float.

Morris showed me the traditional tank, an 8-by-5-foot capsule that had a door that looked like the hatch to a submarine. I was claustrophobic just looking at it.

Then she took me to my float room. Instead of a tank, this space was the size of a whirlpool, with a sloping ceiling and a shower door.

I showered, put in ear plugs as Morris recommended, and got into the tank. It was filled, 10 inches deep, with 200 gallons of water, heated to 93 degrees, plus 1,500 pounds of Epsom salt. The salt not only buoys you but the magnesium in it is said to help with muscle relaxation and joint stiffness. (It's why doctors often recommend soaking body parts in Epsom salt).

I lay there, nude, for a few moments before the lights went out, putting me in the most complete darkness I've ever experienced. It was completely silent.

It was eerie at first. I had to turn the lights on a couple of times to get my bearings.

A colleague asked if the tanks were meant to mimic a coffin. I'll admit: I did think about my own mortality when I was in there. It made me contemplate what happens when the lights go out forever.

And that's what I spent my time in there doing: thinking. Being alone with my thoughts is not the most pleasant place to be. Plus, I was anxious at first, so my mind was racing.

I also kept wanting to strain my neck to keep my head up. Morris, however, assured me it would just float. I eventually let go, and my ears sunk below the surface of the water while my face stayed above.

After about 15 or 20 minutes, I got comfortable and started feeling, oddly, calm. I was released from all the distractions of daily life: traffic, answering emails, the constant buzzing of my smartphone.

I just sat with myself, for better or worse.

My senses were mostly inactive: I couldn't see, could hardly smell anything, there was nothing to hear or taste. Eventually, I melded with the water and wasn't feeling anything either.

"It's a great relaxation experience," Morris said. "It helps suppress your nervous system so you're not in that fight-or-flight mode. I describe it as feeling more high definition once you get out." Some studies have found that sensory deprivation can help relieve pain, stress and depression.

As the time wore on, I didn't want the experience to end. While I never fully stilled my mind, I was calmer by the finish. Morris said people often fall asleep in the chamber; I never got close to that but I could see it happening if I tried it again.

A light turned on when the 60-minute session was over. I got out, showered and got dressed. I felt relaxed, like I had just got out of a sauna or woke up from a nap.

"How do you feel? Weird? Chill?" Morris asked, as she handed me my post-float tea.

"Chill is a good word," I said.

Morris first tried floating in April 2015. She was amazed the effect it had on her sleep. She opened her first studio, in Chicago's River North neighborhood, nine months later ("It was like having a child," she said).

I slept well that night. I was overall less anxious. For the rest of the day, I felt ... chill.

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

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