At Dans le Noir in London, I was led to my table through the pitch black by a blind waiter. The restaurant engulfed in total darkness. Diners remained oblivious to dishes served – the mystery designed to spark a rediscovery of how we appreciate gastronomy. My lasting impression of the experience (other than how difficult it is to eat without knowing where the knife and fork are) was heightened awareness: my tastebuds were awakened to exquisite flavours and textures detonating on my palate, my ears delicate to the disorientating crosstalk of the dining room.

Since my visit to Dans le Noir, I have been fascinated with sensory deprivation: how when one faculty is restricted, the sensitivity of the others is amplified. This is something that Sara Gilbert-Smith understands. Not only is she a mother to a visually impaired child and a volunteer at Vision Norfolk, she is the co-owner of a remarkable wellness experience in the city centre.

Established in 2016, Float Norwich is an independent business located on Ber Street under new management. Sara and her business partner Melissa Steward took the reins in March 2022 and have since refurbished the premises, which currently houses two floatation tanks, two massage chairs, a cryogenic chamber and an infrared sauna.

Eastern Daily Press: Sara Gilbert-Smith is co-owner at Norwich FloatSara Gilbert-Smith is co-owner at Norwich Float (Image: Melissa Steward / Float Norwich)

Sara, who manages a chronic pain condition called fibromyalgia, swears by the sensory deprivation tanks, in which the body floats weightless in a solution of water and Epsom salts. The tanks induce deep relaxation and have positive health effects for those living with stress or pains associated with muscle tension.

“As soon as I stepped into the pod and laid back on the water, I knew I was going to love it,” she said. “I felt so good afterwards. So relaxed, so refreshed.”

Melissa first tried floating during a period of post-natal depression and insomnia.

“I got the best night's sleep I’d had since my daughter was born,” she said. Melissa left the tank feeling happier and stress-free, with an increased ability to cope, which lasted for days – the so-called ‘maintenance effect’.

“Finally, I felt like I was me again.”

After watching an instructional video and signing a health waiver, I sank into a massage chair and closed my eyes as mechanic pressure rippled through my body. Next, I was led into a room filled with gas canisters and an alien contraption – the likes of which I had never seen before.

Eastern Daily Press: A three-minute cryotherapy session costs £40A three-minute cryotherapy session costs £40 (Image: Melissa Steward / Float Norwich)

Float Norwich is home to the only full body cryotherapy cabin in Norfolk. Wearing only my underwear, socks and a pair of gloves, I was blasted with liquid nitrogen for three minutes – a dry cold that plummets to -130°C.

“The benefits for your body are immense,” Sara said.

Triathletes, cyclists, boxers, rowers, footballers, rugby players and personal trainers visit Float Norwich to use the cryogenic chamber for recovery. The process flushes lactic acid from the musculature, boosts the immune system and provides a hormonal reset that may be beneficial for women going through the menopause. It is also effective for pain relief, including for conditions that affect the joints such as arthritis. Sara can be totally pain-free for days after a cryo session – even without painkillers.

“For me, that is unheard of.”

Eastern Daily Press: Float Norwich offers memberships for discounted rates on floating and cryotherapyFloat Norwich offers memberships for discounted rates on floating and cryotherapy (Image: Charles Bliss / Archant)

I emerged from the nitrogen smoke invigorated and eager for the headline act: the tank.

I entered a private room with a shower in the corner and a futuristic white capsule dominating the space. Float Norwich’s isolation chambers are state-of-the-art machines called I-sopods which are more than 8ft long, 5ft wide and weigh 1,350kg when filled with water and magnesium sulphate. The concept was invented in 1954 by American neuroscientist John C. Lilly, but his original model has nothing on the modern technology. It is an imposing and impressive piece of kit. Like a liquid spaceship.

“Some people get anxious when they see the pod,” said Sara. “But for those feeling claustrophobic, the lid can be left open.”

After rinsing in the shower, I stepped into the belly of the whale. It is recommended to float naked with ear plugs in and care must be taken not to get the water in your eyes. Cool blue lights danced on the pool as a rainforest soundscape played. Bluetooth connection enables guests to listen to their favourite meditation or ambient music.

I shut the lid, extinguished the lights and the soundscape faded. Black silence. Horizonless euphoria. Zero gravity. It has been estimated that 90pc of all the activity affecting our central nervous system is related to gravity – and, feeling weightless, my skeleton revolved as if in harmony with the Earth spinning on its axis.

Body afloat, my mind capsized. In the absence of external stimuli, my awareness was directed inward. Scientists call this ‘stimulus hunger’: when the mind experiences boredom through a lack of external sensory stimulation, it begins to search for something to pay attention to. I didn’t hallucinate, but I did drift in and out of hypnagogia – the dreamy borderland of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. It was like a psychological free fall – a delicious disassociation in which I dissolved into a cloud of pure sensation. It felt very good.

Eastern Daily Press: The infrared sauna is a recent additionThe infrared sauna is a recent addition (Image: Melissa Steward / Float Norwich)

Research shows that a single one-hour session can induce deep relaxation and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. Floating lowers levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. It also decreases blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen consumption, blood lactate and muscular tension, while increasing circulation to the extremities and gastrointestinal system. Floating has even been used in studies to explore the beneficial effects of sensory deprivation with regard to quitting smoking, overcoming phobias, losing weight and treating alcoholism.

The hour passed in a minute. I was decanted from the pod as if hatched from an egg, my skin silken and mood glowing with a sense of wellbeing and pleasure.

After the float, guests are treated to sorbet and tea. I flicked through a copy of The Book of Floating by Michael Hutchison lying on the coffee table: “At the heart of what happens in the tank, then, is a paradox: by restricting sensory input, we increase sensory awareness; by becoming blind, we learn to see in a new and more powerful way; by giving up, letting go, we gain greater control and power over ourselves and, ultimately, over the external world.”

As I exited the building on Ber Street, I stopped before a mural of Mother Julian – the 14th century Christian mystic and “recluse atte Norwyche” who committed to a life of solitude, sacrifice and prayer as an anchorite. (The word anchorite comes from the Greek anachorea meaning ‘I withdraw'.) As she survived the Black Plague and then spent many decades alone in seclusion in her church cell on St Julian’s Alley, she became something of a talisman for the people of Norwich during the collective trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Eastern Daily Press: The mural of Julian of Norwich off Ber StreetThe mural of Julian of Norwich off Ber Street (Image: Charles Bliss / Archant)

I meditated for a moment on the positive aspects of isolation experienced during lockdown – more time to simply exist, to reflect, to bask in simple joys like time in nature. I thought about how carelessly and automatically we fall headlong into busyness and routine. I resolved to carve out more time by myself to just be. Then I continued down the road towards the office, towards deadlines, responsibilities and stresses – gravity-bound but lighter on my feet.

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