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What Is a Float Tank? A Beginner’s Guide to Flotation Therapy

I can see why stepping naked into a five-foot-high windowless box filled knee-high with water might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, the more offbeat an alternative health therapy is, the more eager I am to try it. I’ve meditated in the depths of a Himalayan salt cave. I’ve had brass bowls rubbed against the soles of my feet as a stream of sesame oil was poured into my third eye. I’ve lain supine on a table while a shaman danced around me sporadically beating a wooden drum.

flotation therapy pool
Peter Charlesworth/Getty Images

But even I hesitated when the attendant at the float tank spa gestured for me to enter the dark, windowless chamber. What got me over the threshold was remembering the claims I’d heard of what flotation therapy can do.

Benefits of Flotation Therapy

Flotation therapy was pioneered in the 1950s by neuroscientist and psychoanalyst John C. Lilly, who noted the effects of sensory deprivation on people suffering from anxiety disorders, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the decades since, studies have confirmed the beneficial brain activity that happens in a float tank results in hormone regulation, stress relief, pain relief, and improved sleep quality. Some of these benefits last for a few hours after a session, while others last for months.

Further Reading

How does all this happen through floating on your back in a windowless tank of water? Some of the benefits come from sensory deprivation. It’s a concept that might sound a little scary, but it’s actually proven to minimize stress. As addicted as we are in this modern era to stimulus, spending an hour without feeling, hearing, or seeing anything turns out to be an amazing reset for the body and brain.

Other benefits have to do with the water itself. The water in most flotation tanks is saturated with Epsom salt, also known as magnesium sulfate. Magnesium is a bit of a wonder chemical, especially because most of us don’t get enough of it. Absorbing magnesium through the skin inhibits the release of cortisol (the stress hormone) and coaxes the muscles to relax, which in turn allows for detoxification, healing, and pain relief.

Finally, the floating position also offers the benefit of promoting blood flow to the brain, organ,  and limbs, as well as the release of lactic acid from the muscles. Both these effects minimize pain, promote recovery, and improve focus along with flexibility.

What It’s Like Inside a Float Tank

A flotation tank is about 8 feet long and only 5 feet tall, which means you can’t stand up in it. (However, I have been in a tank that was essentially a walled-off, plastic-lined room within a bigger room, but just as dark.)

The thick silence has a curiously comforting effect. There’s nowhere to be but where you are.

Once inside, you lie back, lift up your feet, and let your belly rise. Achieving a back float is sort of a surprise in this small amount of water. You might find yourself trying to keep yourself above the waterline, but it’s not necessary — the body’s natural buoyancy and the density of the Epsom salt in the water ensure that you’ll float without effort.

The water is motionless and the walls are thick, so you hear nothing except perhaps the beat of your heart reverberating in your ears. (If water in your ears bothers you, spas usually supply ear plugs.) The thick silence has a curiously comforting effect. You aren’t cold or hot; you aren’t seeing or hearing or smelling anything. There’s nowhere to be but where you are.

Float On - A Float Tank Center in Portland, Oregon

In the absence of stimulus and sensation, you might find your body doing curious things. I found myself twisting and turning gently, the movement originating in my shoulders and lower spine. I would a position for a while, then release. It was as though I were being adjusted by an invisible and exceedingly gentle chiropractor. With each hold and release, I felt myself relax more deeply. Some deeply personal revelations accompanied these motions, as well, arising equally gently.

Theta brainwaves are the longest frequency waves (around 4-8 Hertz) and usually occur during REM sleep or moments of meditation and daydreaming.

Eventually, my body returned to stillness and a tingly euphoria washed over me. As it began to fade, my brain slipped into theta state. This, for me, is the cool part. Theta brainwaves are the longest frequency waves and happen only during sleep or, if you’re lucky, in moments of profound meditation. While in theta state, the senses are able to focus on signals originating from within. It often brings active, highly lucid dreams, long-lost memories, creative visions, and intuitive epiphanies.

It’s hard to describe what this state feels like — it’s like a place between sleep and wakefulness, where you can sort of feel things setting themselves right within your body and mind. Waking up out of it feels like being reborn.

It’s no mystery why people come back for more. The attendant at the location I visited told me that he sees the same people in and out. Business people come in during their lunch breaks or after work. Athletes drop in on their recovery days. Artists visit during creative dry spells. People suffering from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and other debilitating health conditions will come in multiple times per week.

They all leave much like I did that afternoon: hair wet, back straight, shoulders open, with a walk that others might describe as — wait for it — floating.

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