An Aerobic Workout Between The Ears

I'm adrift. Shut in a dark, warm box to float naked in eight inches of salt water, I ponder the perils of excessive curiosity. That's what landed me in the soup, so to speak. Driving to my health club (how very Californian), I kept noticing the banners next door heralding the imminent arrival of the MindGym (how very, very Californian). Was I missing out on the latest trend? Id aerobics? Perhaps my psyche should be pumping iron. Lest I fall behind the cutting edge, I phoned club manager Tobi Armstrong and arranged a tour.

The club's reception area and hallwaysdim, cool, and swathed in neutral shadesimpart the sense of being under water. One lounge even features a large aquarium. It's fitting, since the club got its start 10 years ago in a nearby apartment as a mecca for sensory-deprivation-tank floaters.

TEMPLE BELLS. Back then, gym owner Larry Hughes began renting float time to friends to help pay for a new $3,000 tank. The concept was so popular that by the time the club relocated last fall, it had five tanks and an array of machines for altering brain waves. Some 500 members pay $30 a month in dues and $35 an hour (nonmembers pay $60 hourly) to float or use the newer machines.

In the Sensarium, lights flicker across a dimly lit space divided by swooping partitions. One wall is lined with futuristic recliners equipped with gleaming black hoods-what Darth Vader's hair salon might look like. Tobi says most of these contraptions emit light flashes timed to the accompanying New Age strains of Vangelis or Tangerine Dream: "You're stimulating all your senses to the same vibration." Across the room, white lights strobe from octagonal cabinets lined with mirrors. Meditation-minded members sit inside these boxes to contemplate an infinite number of images of themselvesperhaps giving narcissists a sense of community?

I start with the Vibrasound, which turns out to be my favorite. It's a thin mattress filled with warm gel that vibrates to such soothing sounds as a babbling brook or temple bells. I feel the sounds up and down my spine and around my ears in the mattress. Goggles blink lights to supply an ever-changing display of abstract patterns against my closed eyelids. Half an hour of this, and I'm beginning to unwindor at least to relinquish some qualms about having my brain waves altered.

Next, Tobi suggests the Potentializer, a mattress on a motorized table that slides from side to side. I feel like Frankenstein's bride as I'm wired up, via visor and headphones, to a bank of blinking doodads. "It stimulates the cerebellum and synchronizes the hemispheres of the brain," he says. With eyes and ears distracted, you lose all sense of the table's direction of movement, he adds. "It's like you're flying."

Well, actually, I have the sensation I'm riding a padded conveyor belt while the goggles flash a kaleidoscopic art show. Then, alternating beeps in my right and left ears are added to the space music pouring through the headset, and the light switches to alternating flashes on each side. All this is carefully calculated, Tobi explains. "The machine can tune you to specific brain-wave patterns." One program, the Schumann resonance, he says, tunes you to the same magnetic frequency as the earth.

I stagger off the Potentializer 20 minutes later feeling refreshed but unsure of whether I'm cured of my customary state of cognitive confusion: Does my brain's right lobe know what the left lobe is doing? And how would I know if it did?

Tobi leads me to the BodySonic, a recliner that vibrates to the music I'm hearing. "It's like a sonic massage," he says. It reminds me more of the way my floor shakes when the bass on my downstairs neighbor's stereo is turned up too high. I choose the blue-glow goggles this time, for variety. It's like gazing into a cloudless wild blue yonder. I'm told my brain will respond by going into a creative "theta state," good for breaking writer's block, for instance.

After achieving the desired altered state, blissed-out clients can retreat to the "inner-self lounge" to draw, write, or meditate. Some make it a social experience. One woman is throwing a surprise party for her husband at the club. Guests will space out on the machines, then gather for cake in the lounge.

A prosecutor floats for four hours before every big case, Tobi says. Athletes float so they can use visualization to improve technique; actors relax to conquer stage fright. All in all, the members are a congenial bunch, Tobi says. "If you're into this, you tend to be pretty mellow." I can't swear to it: All I see are inert bodies plugged into machines.

Finally, Tobi ushers me to my own room with a changing area, shower, and an eight-by-four-by-four-foot box, filled with 800 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in a shallow pool of body-temperature water. The doorwhich doesn't lock, Tobi assures meis angled, so a panicky floater can find it quickly in the dark. I'm dubious about being left there for an hour. "Most people tell us it seems like 15 minutes," Tobi tells me. He leaves me to undress, shower, and climb into the tank. An attendant will knock when the hour is up.

I slip into the tank, but quickly re- emerge to smear Vaseline on a few cutsin the heavily salinized water, every hangnail smarts. Back in the pitch dark again, I fidget for a bit, wondering how quicklyor slowlyan hour will pass. Is this what it felt like to be a bit of protozoa in the primordial ooze?

BUNNY LAND. In the total silence, I can hear only my breathingand then, my heartbeat. I discover that blinking or swallowing breaks the hush. So does splashing with my fingers. I try to remember why I thought depriving my senses would be fun. AfterI don't know, 15 minutesI'm waiting for the knock. A lot more time passes. Surely now it's been an hour, I think. Finally, probably three-quarters of an hour into my float, I stop wondering as I slip into what feels like the relaxed state that comes right before falling asleep. The knock startles me when it comes. I emerge feeling relaxed, but alert.

This, Larry informs me, is what floating is all about. A practiced floater slips readily into this "hypnogogic state," where stress and tension are released. Until then, my mind was "sort of mentally twiddling its thumbs," he says. It usually takes about three floats to get the hang of it. Then the mind can work on what is troubling it, and, as he puts it, "things fall into place."

Whatever the scientific principlesif anybehind them, the machines seem to work. And Tobi promises me that the benefits will last: "You carry around this euphoria for about two days." He's right: The defeat of my beloved Notre Dame the next day didn't depress me, and even a truck that cuts me off on the drive home fails to shatter my laid-back mood. How truly Californian.