Here’s a trend you may have missed the memo on—flotation tanks. It entails lying in a large tub (think the length of a walk in closet) filled with warm, very salty water, in a soundproofed and pitch black room.
Designed to treat everything from anxiety, chronic pain, insomnia, depression and stress, or to simply intensify mindfulness, the benefits of floating are still largely anecdotal. What floating lacks in research it makes up for in passion: For those who are hooked on it, floating is unequivocally a life changing, transformative experience nothing short of epiphany.
I had to find out for myself what hoopla was about, so I booked a session in one of Boulder’s two flotation tank centers. Here’s what happened.
I enter the room. Ben, the owner of Isolate Flotation Center in Boulder, Colorado, greets me and tells me what to expect. He suggests earplugs. He tells me to shower and wash my hair, to remove the oils. He says if I feel claustrophobic—everyone’s most pressing fear regarding “floats”—I can leave the hatch open. He tells me his own experience of the tank: how it changed his life, how he lost 100 lbs, gave up his addiction, found his bliss. I listen simultaneously hopeful and skeptical. When he wraps up his spiel, he tells me music piped through the tank will alert me to when my time is up.
I have no idea what to expect. Will a dark futuristic pod filled with filtered water and 900 lbs. of Epsom salts be my new happy place?
I shower, scrunch in the ear plugs, open the hatch. It’s dark but Ben showed me where the light button is. I get in slowly, position my body, turn off the light. The water temperature is almost perfectly matched to skin temperature, in order to blur where your body ends and the water begins. The water feels liquid and firm at the same time. I am totally supported, floating: loud in my ears the sound of my own breathing. My brain relinquishes its stream of thoughts, emptying its pockets of both the prosaic and profound. It surf my breath, listen as it elongates and unravels. I could stay here long and longer. I am small, almost invisible, and a huge blimp suspended by sky. Then the music rises through the tank, pulling me out of sleep. So much safer to be in the belly of a whale then spit back out.
I unhatch, needing to be retaught upright and gravity and light as soon as my feet touch the bathmat. My mind is an untethered balloon—I wait for it to deflate, squeeze back in to the confines of my skull. It was meditation, spoon-fed, and with none of the slog.
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Flotation tanks, originally developed in the 1950s are experiencing something of resurgence these days. They’ve come a long way from the glass-enclosed tanks in which you basically had to hold yourself vertically in. Nowadays they are dark, soundproof pods filled with a few inches of warm water and almost a ton of salt. The salt makes the water dense and buoyant, softening the boundary of the body to the point you almost forget it’s there. Relegated to the new age fringe for decades, float tanks are stepping into the mainstream as a modality conducive to relaxation, pain management, and even increased creativity. Float tanks are based on the idea that sensory deprivation can be inherently helpful to the nervous system, helping it recalibrate its equilibrium in the absence of overload.
Because sensory deprivation can sound negative, the concept got a makeover in the 1970s, when the term Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) came into the vogue. Early studies found that REST could be useful in treating stress and anxiety-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. According to a 2016 article published in the BBC, “In Sweden, where patients can be referred to a float tank centre by their GP or employer, there are more tanks per person than anywhere else in the world.”
Float Tank Solutions, one of the leaders in the industry, estimates that at the end of 2010 there were roughly 80 flotation tanks in the U.S. Currently there are more than 300, with 2016 poised to be the biggest year yet.
If you are at all intrigued, try it out and see for yourself. It’s a great reminder of the unbearable lightness of being, if nothing else.