This top-of-the-line tank is built for a new generation of floaters. (Photo: LIFT/Frank Rocco)
Float tanks are having a moment.
Also known as sensory deprivation chambers, they were once reserved for serious bio-hackers and sci-fi enthusiasts. But today, tank centers are popping up around the country, promising relaxation and mindfulness with minimal effort. All you need to do is show up and soak.
And float tanks sure have a lot of fans. Comedian Joe Rogan has sung their praises for years (he’s said the tanks help him understand himself and the world); both the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks used them before last year’s Super Bowl; UFC fighters loosen up in them; and their popularity is rising in Hollywood, where actors and actresses use them to stave off exhaustion. There’s even a float tank convention, held annually in Portland, Oregon.
While many athletes and public figures use the tanks for visualization — a technique that research shows drives success — I was more interested in its potential quotidian benefits: Could it give me the peace and quiet I so craved?
I hightailed it over to LIFT Next Level Floats, a newly opened center in Brooklyn, New York, that offers by-the-hour floats to the curious. The experience is perfect for stressed-out New Yorkers, co-founder and float enthusiast David Leventhal explains. After all: By floating in a sensory-deprivation chamber, I’ll be alone with my thoughts, without any of the lights, sounds, stimulation of my daily life.
Who Came Up With This?
This kind of floating was developed in 1954 by John C. Lilly, a neuropsychiatrist who’d first experimented with LSD to induce sensory deprivation. He turned from drugs to water, inventing the first sensory deprivation tank. While floating was originally called isolation tank therapy, it’s now known by a less-threatening acronym, REST, which stands for Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.
Leventhal explains that REST can induce “theta” brainwaves — that half-awake, half-dreaming state of mind you experience just before falling asleep and right after waking up. Many floaters, he tells me, believe this can boost creativity, reduce stress, and even help with pain management. While there hasn’t been a lot of research on the benefits (participants in this small Swedish study back up what Leventhal tells me), it’s clear that people are experiencing something as they float. I wanted to find out what it was.
What Does It Feel Like?
While LIFT has larger float rooms available for the particularly claustrophobic, I floated in a 7-foot-by-5-foot tank — essentially a large pod with a hinged cover that shuts over an oval-shaped pool of salt water. The pod is big enough to float comfortably without knocking into the sides, and contains water infused with enough Epsom salt to keep your body from sinking.
I can’t lie — I was seriously spooked during the first few minutes in the tank. There’s something ominous about climbing into what looks like a super-sized coffin and shutting the lid. To be fair, there were large enough gaps between the lid and the body of the pod to allow for some air circulation, and I did have the option of keeping the lid propped up or having a blue light turned on (though I opted against these options, since they felt like a cop-out). And while I applaud LIFT’s efforts to chic up a float tank center — with modern showers and steel-gray décor — I still felt like I was in a scene from Minority Report. (I half-expected Tom Cruise to be waiting for me when I emerged from the tank.)
But the fear didn’t last long, and turned into curiosity as I adjusted to the water. The high levels of salt meant I floated on the water with ease, my ears submerged but my nose and mouth comfortably above the surface. I dragged my fingertips along the water’s velvety surface and fluttered my toes. The water was thick and heated to exact body temperature, which made it feel — even as I heard my hands splash into the water — as though I wasn’t actually touching anything. I couldn’t see anything once I closed the lid and the lights went out, and after a minute I closed my eyes and kept them closed. I got some of the water in my mouth exactly once (it was aggressively salty and tasted a little like chlorine) and kept my lips clamped shut for the remainder of the soak. My nose felt a little raw by the end, as though I’d been outside in a blizzard, but the tank didn’t smell like anything in particular.
As for sound, at first I heard nothing — just the lightly buzzy sound of water moving around me as I breathed, and subtle waves when I shifted. After about 30 minutes, I was lulled into what I’m guessing is theta, when a sudden thump jolts me awake. It sounded like someone had parked a car outside the pod, with the bass turned way up. I lifted my head out of the water and heard nothing. No sound. I lowered my head back in, and there it was again, thumping away. It took me a good 15 or 20 minutes until I realized: The sound I was hearing was my heart. It was both comforting and a little sad — I was glad to know I wasn’t losing my mind, but it made me realize that my mind, going a million miles a minute, was more out of touch with my body than I’d like to admit.
I lay there for the last stint, just listening to my heart beat. I got it, then, why people get addicted to floating. Nestled inside the pod, I felt … contained — supported, yet devoid of any stimulation.
After floating for an hour (Leventhan suggests an hour for newbies, but is toying with the idea of hosting an overnight session for die-hards), the pod’s lights came on and a voice rang through the water to say my session had ended. I was ready to stay in forever — it felt good, and the outside world just seemed so loud in comparison.
What Are The After-Effects?
I left feeling a little less rested than I had hoped (goodbye, dreams of total reboot), but more in touch with myself than I’d been in weeks. I was Sahara-level thirsty and could’ve used a nap after exiting the float tank, but co-founder Gina Antioco assured me it wasn’t because of the tank itself. Rather, an hour without all the stimuli of daily life had made me more aware of what my body really needed: sleep and hydration.
I didn’t feel looser in the same way as after a massage, but I did feel lighter on my feet — springier, like the float reversed all the pressure I’d held in my body. It wasn’t the cure-all I had secretly hoped it would be, but I did feel better for floating.
What Should You Know Before You Float?
Most float nude, but if a bathing suit makes you more comfortable, go for it. Don’t shave immediately before you float — a day before should be fine, but freshly shaved skin plus salt is a recipe for disaster. Have any cuts? If they’re deep, you might want to put off floating until they heal (same goes for new piercings and tattoos!). If they’re run-of-the-mill scrapes, cover with a petroleum lotion and a bandage. If you’re prone to swimmer’s ear, or just don’t like getting water in your ears, bring a pair of earplugs (or ask if the facility provides them). Avoid touching your eyes at all costs. Make sure your face is dry before entering the tank, so you’re not tempted to rub water out of your eyes — trust me on this.
As with any spa-like activity, cleanliness is key. Double-check that tanks are drained after each float and treated with a germicide, and that facilities are clean and free of mold or mildew. It’s also not wise to chug any drinks before hitting the tanks — peeing in the pod isn’t all that bad, as long as the location is diligent about cleaning the pods between clients, but you will have to float in your own urine.
Are you a fan of floating? Tweet us @yahoohealth to let us know.