The restorative practice of "flotation therapy" is growing in popularity in the wellness world, but what's it all really about?
"No shirt, no shoes, no problem" is a motto that probably stirs up feelings of out-of-office automatic replies and beach vacations. Well, the latest wellness practice is taking that R&R attitude up a notch. Flotation therapy, or simply floating, lives by this motto: no gravity, no sensory input, no stress.
For the uninitiated, floating is being hailed as the easiest way to supercharge your creativity and relieve stress. The practice involves stepping into a soundproof one-person tank usually filled with about 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in less than a foot of water. The density keeps your body effortlessly buoyant, and it's as close to being in a zero-gravity environment as you could expect to experience without actually being in outer space.
The restorative art of floating is simple: You don't actually have to do anything to reap the deep meditative effects. The tank takes care of all the distractions that arise in meditation, such as outside noise, visuals, and supposedly even awareness of your physical body—the water is heated to body temperature to create a feeling of nothingness.
As soon as I heard floating described as "the best Savasana ever," I knew I had to try it. But before I get into my own experience, here's a little more on the practice of floating, including what people are saying about its purported benefits.
Photo: kzenon/Getty Images
The Benefits of "Floating" or Flotation Therapy
The flotation tank was born in 1954 out of an American neuroscientist's quest to find out what would happen if the mind were freed from external stimuli. Deep relaxation turned out to be the answer, and the practice enjoyed a surge in popularity in the '70s and early '80s before fizzling out. Fast-forward to today's tech-obsessed climate, and there's never been a greater need to unplug. So it makes sense that "chill out" therapies like floating are seeing a reemergence. With high-profile devotees including Susan Sarandon, Steph Curry, and Tom Brady, you can find some 500 spaces across the country where you can go float in a salt bath.
Psychologist Roderick Borrie, Ph.D., who practices in Long Island, NY, is a long-time floater and describes how floating redirects your awareness.
"When you take away external stimuli, your mind searches for something else, so the body and mind become the focus," says Borrie. "You first focus on how you feel physically when you enter the tank, and then that calms down, and you focus on what's going on in your head. Gradually that calms down, so you're not focusing on either, which is where the unique conditions of floating let you attain a mental state that can take meditators months, without the work."
My own floating experience started when I arrived at Lift: Next Level Floats in Brooklyn, NY, to meet with cofounder David Leventhal, who told me about the stress-relieving powers of the tank.
"Our brains are literally being rewired by our addiction to technology," says Leventhal. "We need to decompress, and in the [floating] tank, you are really able to reduce stress, which has a deleterious effect on our minds and bodies."
Enclosed in a light- and sound-proof environment, mental clarity and concentration come easily, he says. In fact, I learned that Navy SEALs pump audio into floating tanks to increase how quickly they can learn foreign languages. Aside from the deep relaxation, floating is said to help manage symptoms for a wide range of conditions, including fibromyalgia, PTSD, chronic pain, anxiety and depression, insomnia, psoriasis, and eczema.
Perhaps the most intriguing (albeit, mysterious) aspect of floating is this concept of finding the "theta state" of mind, which is something you might normally only experience in those fleeting moments between wakefulness and sleep. It's here that slowed-down theta brain waves are produced, encouraging vivid imagery and a free flow of ideas. The theta state is optimal for visionary inspiration and visualization and allows you to tap into a typically inaccessible part of the subconscious.
"It's here [in the theta state] where you experience greater cognition as well as bursts of exceptional insight and creativity," says Lift cofounder Gina Antioco. "This is the state that Buddhist monks are in while engaging in extended meditation, and one that is difficult for most to achieve without years of practice."
An Out-of-Body Experience for the Books
I was ready to experience this sense of bliss myself, and Leventhal assured me that, quite literally, anyone can float. Floating in the nude is encouraged, as anything touching the skin will take away from the experience of getting rid of all sensory input.
Thre are two options at Lift: a pod-style that looks like a giant egg with a clam lid, or a cabin-style with seven-foot high ceilings and a door on the side. Those who are on the claustrophobic side tend to go for the latter, which is similar to a walk-in closet, but I opted for the futuristic-looking egg. Once Leventhal left, I quickly rinsed off in the shower and then popped into the pod—my own personal Dead Sea.
My float officially began with a Siri-esque voice welcoming me, along with soft purple light and relaxing music (two buttons on the side allow you to control them). Eager to test gravity, I initially tried to lift my arms and head, which felt heavy, but it felt much better to surrender and allow the salty water to take the weight off my shoulders and back. Once I settled into my inner-mermaid, I turned the lights and music off as Leventhal recommended.
I immediately realized I couldn't tell up from down, but once I adjusted to the odd sensation of having nothing to focus on, I reveled in the pitch-darkness. I luxuriated in the nothingness and felt myself sinking into the experience. With no external stimulations to contemplate, a stream-of-consciousness that was totally unlike my inner daily dialogue crept in. It was a far cry from my usual meditation practice, where I strive to empty my mind of thoughts entirely. (Related: I Took a Sound Bath and It Changed the Way I Meditate)
I had no concept of time, no to-do list, and no buzzing phone stealing my attention. I just was. And as I lay there floating, I understood the toll that being constantly bombarded by digital distractions had taken on my mental state. Going into the experience, I didn't even realize that I was stressed (I live in NYC, who am I kidding?) but the calmness I felt inside the tank was unparalleled. It was a level of chill I'd assumed was reserved for yogi masters and mountaintop meditators, and in the darkness, I thanked my lucky stars for finding this blissed-out little nook in Brooklyn.
The Post-Float Glow
I'll admit, I was initially hesitant to exit my safe little cocoon. But alas, the Siri-voice gently informed me the float was over. As the as the lights came back on, I slowly climbed out, adjusting to the strangely foreign feeling of my body, and took a hot shower. (Related: How Self-Care Is Carving a Place In the Fitness Industry)
I couldn't deny I was in an altered state. I emerged bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, somewhat astonished by how much my senses were honed. The world seemed so crisp and clear as I adjusted my eyes, and I was filled with peace. I made my way home, realizing that leaving the float is an experience in itself.