I love floating. I’ve been doing it forever. No, I don’t mean flying through the air, untethered by gravity—although that does sound nice, and it’s not far off! Sensory deprivation tanks, like the one at Lift Floats in Brooklyn, can help you meditate and self-reflect. Especially in the fall, a time of year when your energy goes inward, taking time for yourself and freeing yourself from all distractions—if only for an hour—is very important and can even be life-changing.
Neuroscientist John C. Lilly originally discovered floating and sensory deprivation in 1954, when he was doing research to see how the mind would react when deprived of all outside stimulation. Scientists had previously thought that in such conditions, the mind would just shut down. But Lilly discovered that in fact, the absence of as much external stimuli as possible allowed his mind to go to places it had never been before; he experienced intense introspection and even hallucination and described the tank as a “hole in the universe” that, after re-emerging from it, left him feeling more awake and alive.
The tanks that Lilly originally floated in and that he created at the National Institute of Health were very different from the ones we use today. At Lift Floats, a thousand pounds of Epsom salts are used to make the water extremely buoyant to allow your body to completely float and, as I mention in my post on detox baths, help cleanse your skin and detox your system of poisonous chemicals. The health benefits of floating are myriad and widely known. In Nightline’s 2014 segment, “Sensory Deprivation: An Altered State of Mind,” a woman is interviewed who, after her first session in a tank, quit smoking and drinking. In addition, another interviewee, Dr. Robert Schreier, a physical therapist, often uses floating to help patients with muscle pain. A study published in BioMed Central, a journal of alternative medicine, found that Flotation-REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) was linked to a significant decrease in stress, pain, anxiety and depression, as well an improvement in sleep quality and mood for the float-REST subjects compared to the control group subjects.
Before you dive in, however, you should prepare yourself for what to expect so that you can get the most out of your experience. The most shocking part of sensory deprivation for many people is the complete and utter darkness you are submerged in.
Some people experience claustrophobia and need to leave the session early. Richard Friedman, writing for The New York Times, got some salt water in his eye and spent most of the session focused on the stinging pain and irritation. Although this has never happened to me personally in all my years of floating, I highly recommend trying the float room vs. the float pod for first-time floaters. A floating room is very spacious with high ceilings. You step into it just as you would step into a bathtub. The float pod, on the other hand, is smaller and more confined, but can eventually be more intense and beneficial. That being said, Lift Floats really does cater to your needs, providing a little spray bottle of water for you inside the float room/tank that you can easily grab to spray away the salt water while floating if you happen to get salt water in your eye, as Friedman did. They also provide a floating neck cushion and ear plugs to make you as comfortable as possible.
At Lift Floats, as in most float tanks/rooms, you have full control over the lighting: inside the tank, at arm’s reach, you can press a button that will completely turn off the lights to total darkness, leave twinkling starlight on the ceiling, or turn the lights completely on. It’s up to you to choose your desired atmosphere for your comfort level.
If you are able to get past this stage of “stimulus action hunger,” as Lilly termed it, in which “hidden methods of self-stimulation develop”—a twitching muscle, an itch, etc.—then you will be able to reach a state of relaxation and rest that you likely have never experienced before. Remind yourself that this is a gift you are giving yourself, a special time you will not get in your everyday life, a time when you can be completely in yourself, by yourself, with yourself. Your body will surely thank you for it.