Floatation Therapy: I Tried Floating in a Soundproof, Lightproof Tank To Relax

Initially terrifying but ultimately profound, floatation therapy was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before.

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It is pitch black and eerily quiet. I am floating in a foot of salt water, inside a light-proof, soundproof 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.

What Is Floatation Therapy?

I am here, belly up in this pod, to see what floatation therapy is all about. 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. In the last five years or so, the practice has grown wildly in popularity, with float centers springing up across the country and around the world, according to a map of locations on the website Floatation Locations.

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," said physical therapist Robert Schreyer when I told him about my float. Schreyer is co-owner of the Aspire Physical Therapy and Fitness Center in New York City.

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," Schreyer explained. 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," Schreyer said.

"But floating seems to be beneficial for everyone," Schreyer added. "It's the ultimate way to detach."

How Does Floatation Therapy Work?

Out in Tulsa, Oklahoma, clinical neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, PhD, is trying to understand that mental piece of the floating phenomenon. Feinstein is president and director of the Float Research Collective and the former director of the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. His team has used wireless, waterproof sensors and fMRI scans to collect data on what happens in the brain while people float. They use the term Floatation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) in a scientific context.

"Our preliminary analyses are showing that the stress circuits of the brain are shutting off post-float," Feinstein told me. In one study, published in a 2018 issue of Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging, Feinstein and his co-authors found that Floatation-REST reduced anxiety, muscle tension, and blood pressure in people with high levels of anxiety while increasing their feelings of relaxation and serenity.

"So what is it about floating that makes it so restorative?" I asked him.

"It's most likely a combination of a lot of variables," Feinstein explained. 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," Feinstein said. It allows you to tune into your own body—especially your heartbeat and your breathing.

Floatation for Meditation

Floatation "becomes an ideal environment for mindful meditation," Feinstein said. "For anyone who may have trouble focusing on their breath outside of the tank, floating makes it a lot easier to enter into a meditative state."

What Feinstein said explained 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.

Floating may help many other people like me, according to Feinstein—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.

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