Sensory Deprivation Chambers

Sensory deprivation chambers are used in science fiction as narrative tool to access the subconscious and to channel something other – something bigger than the individual. From the womb-like pods in The Matrix to the triplet tank of prophetic savants in Minority Report, sensory deprivation chambers are a sci-fi mainstay. Recently, Eleven from the Netflix sensation Stranger Things uses a both a laboratory tank and a homemade tank to access the Upside Down – the dark and unknown world that parallels our own world in another dimension.

Now, sensory deprivation chambers, often called isolation chambers, have come out of the realm of sci-fi and into the real world. They claim to help clear the mind, calm the nervous system and solve a myriad of health problems.

The activity of of using one of these chambers is called ‘floating,’ and as an activity it’s hard to categorize. Floating falls somewhere between bathing, physiotherapy, and meditation. Most float centres claim that floating will help to reduce stress, relax your muscles and help you to get better night’s sleep. But, it may be that somewhere along the line floating also crosses back into science fiction. I have heard stories of people who – after floating – have written books, had the clarity to make major life decisions, or had a chronic ailment disappear.  None of these were my experience, but after going, I can almost see how this could happen – almost.

There are no electrodes, there is no primordial ooze. There is just a tank loaded with dissolved epsom salts and myself. The water in the tank is only about a foot deep and is so thick with salt that you actually lay on top of the water as much as in it.

What I discovered during my 90 minute float, is that floating is an intensely personal thing. We are all bodies in a space – something that we are usually more or less aware of. But when you float, you are without space and (very nearly) without a body. While floating I felt myself drifting – I felt as though I had drifted so far that I would never be able to find the hatch to get out of the tank. The chamber is only about the size of a double, but bed my internal compass was without a direction and I may have well been in a different space, a different time, and perhaps even in another dimension.

Gentle music is supposed to rouse you out of your deep internal journey and signal the end of your float, and by some magic it did – barely. I was quite far away by the end of my float and the sound would have been easy to miss. I did not come out and write the next great Canadian novel, but emerging from the float centre I did feel more relaxed and like the world was in sharper focus.

With centres quickly popping up in just about every major urban centre, a float centre is easy to find and worth a try. The first time is a challenge, so go again and maybe, just maybe, I’ll catch you on the flip side.

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Steam of Life

Vancouver’s documentary film festival, DOXA, showed Steam of Life last night at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver. Steam of Life takes you inside saunas across Finland and into the hearts of the men who bare-all while taking part in this quintessentially Finnish experience. The documentary is a series of vignettes in which men share their most emotional stories from budding romance to the death of a child.

The camera shots are tight, without any zooming or panning, but they take in the spaces and faces of the men in a disarmingly intimate way. Watching, you get the feeling you are sitting on the bench with them and sharing their private (and often unusual) spaces.

In a Skype interview after the screening, director Mika Hotakainen said the success of the movie is due to timing. “Society [is] ready to accept the feelings of men,” he said.

The scenes from saunas all over Finland were completely unscripted and, although Hotakainen said he knew what the men might talk about, there were a lot of surprises.

During the filming the crew spent hours a day in the sauna and, like the men telling their stories, even the cameramen were naked. This was important to Hotakainen, who said they wanted to “create an atmosphere that we are all in this together.”

To overcome the technical challenges of shooting in extreme conditions, the cameras had to be put into the saunas 90 minutes before the filming began, to allow the equipment to adjust to the temperature and humidity.

Though Hotakainen said that making a sauna movie about woman would be a lot of fun, he has no plans to do a sequel. After all, the Finnish title for the movie is Men’s Turn — their turn to reveal themselves.

At its premiere in Helsinki, the film received a 15-minute standing ovation and is Finland’s official foreign-language candidate for the Oscars.

Watch the Trailer

JJ Family Spa

JJ Family Spa: Photo by Natasha Irvine

In the back parking lot of an athletics store surrounded by bigger big box stores, JJ Family Spa is an authentic jjimjilbang in greater Vancouver. A jjimjilbang is a Korean spa and is quite similar to a Japanese onsen or sento. It is a family atmosphere where people can relax in spacious heated rooms, bathe, socialize and get a variety of spa treatments.

Salt Room: Photo by Natasha Irvine

JJ Family Spa is a great place to relax, refresh, and enjoy a bit of Korea on this side of the Pacific. There are communal rooms for eating, chatting, and relaxing as well as a host of massage options. The male and female spa areas each have showers, a hot tub, a cold plunge, a steam room, and a sauna. However, the most unique feature is the Salt Room. A dimly lit room with a floor that looks like a giant sand box filled with salt and covered with white cotton sheets. Lying down I felt as if I was lying on a hot beach. The warm salt is said to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, treat acne, help allergies, purify the blood, and relax the muscles. Whatever the benefits it feels great and you can stay as long as you like.

JJ Family Spa Sign: Photo by Natasha IrvineThe website has been down for sometime now, so here are the details:

JJ Family Spa

(Sometimes called JG Spaplus Family Spa)

3000 Christmas Way

Coquitlam, BC V3C 2M2

(604) 552-1048

www.jjspa.ca

Extra Info:

  • Hours of operation: 9am until midnight daily. From May-August it is closed on Wednesdays.
  • $15 adult entry with discounted prices for children and seniors.
  • No bathing suits, sandals, food, dye, oils or lotions are allowed in the spa areas.
  • Pajamas for the Salt Room and two small towels (decency towels) are provided.
  • Your own shampoo, soap etc. is probably nicer than what they have on hand.
  • It is only a 5 minute walk from Coquitlam Central Station.

Scandinave

For centuries saunas were the cornerstone of Finnish health and healing. Today, it is said that there are two saunas in Finland for every five people and they are not considered a luxury, but necessary for health and well-being. The traditional procedure for taking a sauna is to use extreme temperatures to rid your body of toxins and refine your pores. This means: profuse sweating in a scorching, aromatic sauna while hitting yourself with bundles of birch switches to open your pores, followed buy jumping into a hole in the frozen lake or rolling in the snow to cool your body temperature and close your pores.

The Scandinave Spas are a Canadian spa group that brings the Finnish sauna traditions to Canadians and the hot/cold therapy to an accessible spa environment. There are three Scandinave spas in alpine locations: Mont-Tremblant, Blue Mountain, and Whistler, as well as one urban spa in Montreal.

Scandinave Spa Whistler: Photo by Natasha Irvine

This winter I experienced two of the spas, Scandinave Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ontario and the newly opened Scandinave Whistler in Whistler, British Columbia. Both prize their natural settings by creating views from the facilities to groves of trees and the surrounding mountains. The architecture is modern, but inspired by rustic Scandinavian tradition; the décor is warm, uncomplicated, and takes its cues from nature.

The main attraction of the spas is the thermal hydrotherapy treatment. Which uses the traditional Finnish hot and cold procedure to stimulate healing in your body, smooth your skin and relieve stress. The facilities for these include a Finish sauna, a eucalyptus steam room, hot baths and cold pools.  Spa staff will suggest partaking in one of the heat sources for ten to fifteen minutes then plunging into the cold water for a few seconds followed by a rest for ten or fifteen minutes. Ideally, you want to repeat this process three or four times for maximum health, healing and relaxation benefits. I recommend trying the three heat sources and then going back to your favorite. As a grand finale, or perhaps as an intermission, there is a massage pavilion on site offering various types of massage from registered massage therapists. The combination of thermal hydrotherapy and massage is not only relaxing, but also restorative.

Though I found the spas to be very similar, there were a few notable differences.

Blue Mountain: bigger “resting rooms” and more patio space with hammocks outside in the summertime. Outdoor fireplaces with chairs clustered around them to rest and warm yourself and a lovely campfire smell. The baths are on a comparatively flat surface, with far fewer stairs to climb and a very open view of the other baths. The shape of the spa complex is circular, so it focuses in on itself. There is easier access from the parking lot to the spa.

Whistler: deeper cold plunges—gravity pulls you down into the water instead of you persuading yourself to crouch down into the water. The cold pools seem to be more conveniently located with quicker access from the heat source to the cold. The baths have more private nooks. The shape of the spa facility is a rectangle so the focus is away from itself towards the mountains. The drive there is along the Sea to Sky Highway and with its mountains, ocean, and shifting light, it is spectacular.

My experiences at Scandinave Spas left my skin feeling soft, my body cared for, and my mind refreshed. The staff encourages a quiet environment and a leisurely pace. Bathing suits are mandatory and nothing else is necessary, though you may want to bring a pair of flip-flops, your own robe, and a friend to share the experience.

The Hamam and A Hammam

Cagaloglu Hamam, Istanbul: Built 1741

A hamam (can be spelled hammam)  is also known as a Turkish bath, or a steam bath.  The hamam is the place where people in Middle Eastern communities bathed for centuries. They reached their height of popularity in Istanbul in the 15th century, and are still frequented today. Hamams are famous for their grand architecture, marble steam rooms, and bath attendants that will scour, soap and massage you clean. More recently, there has been a growing interest in hamams in the west. There are hamams in such cities as Paris, London, New York, and Vancouver.

My mom and I went to Miraj Hammam Spa in Vancouver when she came to visit. We were looking and for a different kind of spa; and found that Miraj Hammam offered an authentic hamam experience, and an enchanted trip to the Middle East.

We arrived, checked in, and were assigned lockers in the small well-appointed change room. After a shower we wrapped ourselves in the provided sarongs and were guided to a candlelit, marble steam room, with a vaulted ceiling. Here we were able to relax on warm marble slabs and absorb the gentle steam as little dancing flames illuminated it.

Before long, our estheticians came to give us a gommage, meaning a soft body scrub using black Moroccan exfoliating soap. Then, we rinsed, robed and went to private rooms for a massage.

Detoxified, buffed, and kneaded; we were as light as the steam that had cleaned our pours and feeling just as evanescent. We moved to the Sultana Lounge where we had tea and sweet buns while reclining on palatial day beds and drifting into a catnap. Eventually we roused ourselves and wandered back to reality.

Miraj Hammam Spa described itself as; “An exotic oasis where you can indulge yourself in traditional Middle Eastern treatments while your imagination takes you on a mystical journey into the past.” What the website doesn’t say is that every need you have has been anticipated, all efforts are made to ensure peace and privacy, and you come away rejuvenated and with a great story.

I am looking forward to going to Istanbul someday to visit a historical hamam. However, Reading Cathedrals of the Flesh, Lonely Planet excerpts, and various other travel writing, I understand that in many countries the bath attendants are not licensed massage therapy professionals. There also seem to be various types of hamans that have different operating principles regarding mixing gender, services provided, and tolerance towards tourists. So, it is a good idea to do some research, make some local friends, and ask questions before you go.