Initially terrifying but ultimately profound, it was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.
It is pitch black, and eerily quiet. I am floating in a foot of salt water, inside a light-proof, sound-proof tank. The air and the water are about the same temperature as my skin, and I realize I’m not sure where my body ends and my surroundings begin. I suddenly feel dizzy, and a wave of nausea washes over me.
Two minutes down, 58 to go.
I am here, belly up in this pod, to see what floatation therapy is all about. In the last five years or so, the practice has grown wildly in popularity, with float centers springing up across the country. Devotees claim floating transports the mind and body, offering profound relaxation, and a variety of other benefits, from pain reduction to enhanced creativity and better sleep.
A few more minutes into my session, I start to get why people do this: As I focus on my breath—in and out—my tension melts away. I close my eyes and imagine myself drifting on a cloud.
When I hear the signal that the session is over, I can’t believe an hour has passed. I know I didn’t nod off. But my brain had somehow slipped out of its regular rhythm into an altogether different state where I lost track of time.
As I climb out of the pod, I feel a deep sense of calm, and incredibly refreshed—like I just woke up from the best nap of my life.
“The majority of people that achieve that restful state, they report the same type of effect,” says physical therapist Robert Schreyer when I tell him about my float. He is co-owner of the Aspire Center for Health and Wellness in New York City, which allowed me to float for free as a journalist in one of their two pods. (The usual price is $90.)
Schreyer and his staff often recommend that their physical therapy patients float before an appointment. “When they get out, their muscles are more relaxed, and our interventions can be much more effective,” he explains. That benefit may have something to do with the 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts—or magnesium sulfate—dissolved in the bath to make the water denser, and thus floaters more buoyant. “There’s a lot of theories that magnesium provides muscle relaxation,” he says.
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“But floating seems to be beneficial for everyone," he adds. “It’s the ultimate way to detach.”
Out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, clinical neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, PhD, is trying to understand that mental piece of the float phenomenon. Feinstein is the director of the only float lab in the U.S.—the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. His team has been using wireless, waterproof sensors and fMRI scans to collect data on what happens in the brain while people float.
“Our preliminary analyses are showing that the stress circuits of the brain are shutting off post-float,” Feinstein tells me over the phone. Once he finishes this current study, he plans to explore the therapeutic potential of floating for people who suffer from anxiety, especially PTSD. (To avoid triggering claustrophobia in subjects, the lab has a specially designed open tank in a light-proof, sound-proof room.)
“So what is it about floating that makes it so restorative?” I ask him.
“It’s most likely a combination of a lot of variables,” he explains. For one, you’re in a near-zero gravity state, he says, which gives your body a chance to relax. “You’re also reducing external sensory input to the brain—reduced light, reduced sound, reduced proprioception, or how you feel your body in space.”
This is why people refer to floating as a form of sensory deprivation. But Feinstein says that’s actually a misnomer.
“What we’re finding in our research is that floating is a form of sensory enhancement,” he says, because it allows you to tune into your own body—especially your heartbeat and your breathing.
“It becomes an ideal environment for mindful meditation,” Feinstein points out. “For anyone who may have trouble focusing on their breath outside of the tank, floating makes it lot easier to enter into a meditative state.”
What he says explains so much about my experience: I must have reached a meditative state during my float without even trying. I have never been able to meditate before. It had always seemed impossible to quiet the incessant chatter in my head. But inside the pod, it seemed to happen automatically.
Feinstein believes floating can help many other people like me—which could be a powerful thing, considering the proven health benefits of meditation.
As for me, my float has inspired me to try again to meditate the traditional way. Now that I know what’s possible, I’m determined to learn. If I could start every day with that same calm and centered feeling of zen that I had when I climbed out of the tank, it would be life-changing.