I was first drawn to float tanks by stories I’d heard that sounded like mind-altering drug trips except the people telling them were completely sober. They were, quite simply, just floating on water. I had to try it and figure out for myself what made it a life-changing experience for so many.
Why were float tanks invented?
The flotation tanks, which are also called isolation or sensory deprivation tanks, were created in the 1950s by Dr. John C. Lilly. He was a neuroscientist and psychoanalyst with interests in philosophy and invention. He was deeply passionate about exploring human consciousness, particularly regarding what we could access within ourselves when we completely tune out outside stimuli.
He wanted to know who we are when we are completely free of the noise, sensations, and impositions of the outside world. Who are we when all we are aware of is our inner self?
This might sound like something you could answer through meditation, and I am a big proponent of meditation. However, as someone who meditates daily, I believe the isolation tank takes us on a journey far different from any meditation.
What is sensory deprivation, exactly?
It is a form of meditation but in a way more akin to yoga in that it is as much physical as it is mental. Float tanks interact directly with your body, and some even feel as if they become one with the water, which can create a feeling of being infinite. The water is warmed to 98 degrees, which is the same as body temperature. Each tank has around 1,000 pounds of salt in it, which ensures all people, of all shapes and sizes, will float on this buoyant water.
I feel completely held and taken care of. This mental release is a large part of what makes the isolation tank so powerful.
Floating on a cushion of saltwater for an hour counteracts the pressure of gravity. Your joints, tissues, and muscles will feel as if you’ve just received a superb massage, your spine will thank you, and the Epsom salt will do wonders for your skin and circulation.
The physical sensation of floating connects us right into the mental feelings of surrender and release. It’s one of the most comforting sensations I’ve ever felt. It’s as if I am being held in my own little cushion of support, and whatever it is that bothers me can safely be let go. I feel completely held and taken care of. This mental release is a large part of what makes the isolation tank so powerful.
Here's what happened when I developed a regular sensory deprivation practice.
Once you are comfortable with the sensation of floating (you may not reach this on your first time), you will gently ease into deeper and deeper levels of surrender and letting go. At some point, you will naturally lose track of time. You will slowly forget where you are, maybe even who you are. You will fall into your subconscious, but you will still be awake, allowing you to forge a connection with all of the power that resides there. The more times you go to the tank, the more you build and strengthen that bridge between your subconscious and conscious.
As a result, you may suddenly start being able to recall your dreams. You may have bursts of insight while in the tank. You may find your creativity at work heightens to new levels. You might also find yourself becoming more aware of how you react to life, what triggers you, and feel yourself taking greater control over what used to feel like out-of-control emotions.
Are there any downsides to float tanks?
Now that I’ve described a few of the possible benefits, you might be wondering why everyone isn't running out to try it. I suspect it's because all of this is done in an enclosed tank, in complete darkness. Simply envisioning closing the lid of a pod and sealing yourself in can trigger claustrophobia for some.
In my experience, after I’ve suggested someone go, they find that the anticipation was far bigger than the actual experience. Once inside it’s easier to understand how safe and serene it is. Each tank is in its own room, giving each person space to take things at their own speed. Most float spas have a shower in the room, so that you can shower before and after in privacy. The whole experience is designed to induce relaxation.
What can I expect on my first time?
Professional float spas have speakers built into the tank, and they will play soothing music for the first 10 minutes. They also have a light inside, and you can keep it on as long as you like—even the whole time. You don’t even have to close the door—it’s your experience and all up to you. If you keep the light on and the door open, you will not go as deep into that space of letting go. But that’s OK because this type of therapy is still new, and the fact that you are brave enough to be one of its first explorers is worth celebrating.
Most people say that once they close the door and the light goes off the feeling of the pod goes away. They no longer feel closed in but instead feel as if everything has opened up wider than ever before. Some even feel as if they then expand and connect with the whole Universe.
After dozens of trips to the float spa, I have found I can surrender and let go of things that used to hold me in an iron grip. I have gotten clarity on problems I was so deeply entangled in I couldn’t see any possible solution. And on one particularly wild trip, I had an out-of-body experience and a vision like I’ve never had before.
If this intrigues you, I hope you consider trying it out yourself. Float spas are opening with more frequency now, and it’s possible there’s one near you, waiting to take you on an adventure to your deepest resources of love, healing, and cosmic connection.
This article originally appeared on mindbodygreen.com and was written by Melissa Field,