Floating: First Impressions
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
In November 1980, John Lennon had just turned 40, and was ready to start a new chapter in his already unbelievable life. “I’m happy to be 40 years old,” he explained to producer Jack Douglass. "I’m in the best shape I've ever been in my life and I feel the best I ever felt.”
He was fulfilled by his family life. He kicked a lingering heroin habit. His latest single, fittingly titled “(Just Like) Starting Over,” broke his 5-year musical hiatus, and was quickly followed by his newest album Double Fantasy. According to author Albert Goldman in “The Lives of John Lennon," the restart was due in no small part to the star’s new practice of “floating.”
With a cedarwood sensory deprivation tank tucked in the attic of his Long Island home, Lennon would float “for up to a half hour in the dark, buoyed by the warm saline solution.” The water’s tranquil, narcotic effect helped him center himself and stave off relapse, and as far as we know it was a regular practice.
But the former Beatle was just one of floating's many beneficiaries, so turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream while we explore the floating's history, research, and benefits, as well as my own early impressions.
The Epsom explosion
Floating has gained prominence as more evangelists emerge, preaching the Gospel of Epsom to anyone who'll listen. On his hugely popular podcast, Joe Rogan has consistently praised floating for its physical, cognitive, emotional, and self-developmental benefits, even installing a personal flotation tank in his basement.
NBA star Stephen Curry spends 60-90 minutes in the tanks, and praises that time for its ability to help him alleviate sore muscles, separate from life's stimuli and distractions, and think clearly about tough decisions.
“It's one of the only places where you can really get unplugged from all the noise and distractions that goes on with daily life… It helps you recharge and refresh and allows you to just be you and your thoughts for an hour.” - Stephen Curry
The list of endorsements goes on: Tom Brady, Jeff Bridges, Anthony Bourdain, Kristen Wiig, Russell Brand, Tim Ferriss, Carl Lewis, and many more.
Flotation therapy studios are appearing, riding the wave of renewed interest. But tell people you “floated” over the weekend and you’ll be met with dumbfounded stares. The float phenomenon might be rising, but it’s still widely unknown.
What is floating?
According to Serene Dreams, flotation therapy is an “immersive therapeutic experience” where you lie down in a specially-designed, lightproof, soundproof tank containing a solution of water and 800 - 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts. To keep the salt dissolved and match the body's temperature, the water is calibrated to 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Thanks to the extreme salinity, you effortlessly float on the surface (think the Dead Sea). The sensation is unlike anything you'll experience, unless you manage to climb into the womb of some robotic giant.
This exotic therapy bloomed from Dr. John C. Lilly's research on Restricted Environmental Stimulation Techniques (REST). The controversial neuroscientist originally used sensory deprivation tanks to explore the boundaries of human consciousness. In the 70s the tanks made their appearance on the commercial scene, and though they struggled to maintain a foothold, research on their therapeutic utility continued.
In recent years, public interest in flotation therapy was reborn thanks to the explosion of interest in health and wellness, lifestyle design, stress management, and biohacking. Proponents point to myriad benefits, including:
Anxiolytic, antidepressant, and anti-insomnia effects
Enhanced athletic performance, exercise recovery, flexibility, and perceptual-motor skills
Stress, burnout, and pain reduction
Improvement in creativity and general wellbeing
On an impulse, I visited a float center over this past weekend with my brother. Floating has been sitting vaguely on my list of experiments to try for a long time, so when he raised the idea, I jumped right in. It was scorching hot and I rode over on my motorcycle, so I was fairly dehydrated before even stepping foot in the extremely salinated, warm water. Nonetheless, expectations were high.
The instructions were simple: shower, put in earplugs, strip down to your birthday suit, and smear Vaseline on your eyebrows so no water drips into your face. In case you get the solution in your eyes or mouth, there was a spray bottle with tap water in the tank.
Finally, I was told to float. Relax, sleep, or just do nothing. And anyone who has tried meditating knows how misleadingly difficult it can be to "do nothing."
So I followed the instructions and entered the Dead Sea mini-me. The salt water instantly reminded me of any nick or cut I might have had on my body, including a bee sting I had gotten the night before...
In the chamber
I was told the session would start with 10 minutes of music, but I heard nothing aside from a faint, rhythmic hiss in the water, like someone breathing in the darkness alongside me. (When I shared this with the employees at the front desk, they explained that rather than selecting music or ocean sounds for my tank, they mistakenly chose breathing sounds...)
You spend the first minutes focused entirely on physical sensations — the sliminess of the water, the tiny rail of light poking where the tank meets the edge of the door, your body gently bouncing off the walls — before you settle into place.
I mostly lost track of time, and the chatter in my head quieted. I observed my mind as it meandered: it drifted to family and friends, and then to various little to-dos and worries, and then big to-dos and worries. I started practicing mindfulness, focusing on my breath, bringing my mind back to center every time it wandered away.
At a certain point, as I'm sure all beginners do, I got salt water in my eyes and mouth. I sprayed until the spray bottle coughed up dust but it did nothing to the slick, salinated water. I was forced to open the tank and get a towel.
But I noticed something changed, like my field of vision was wider and clearer. I peered into the same room, seen differently. I could tell it was working, whatever "it" was.
No rest for the wicked
On my back in that physically relaxed state, the angle of my chin and neck made it a bit difficult to breathe, especially in the humid, closed environment. The apnea-like feeling was alleviated somewhat by changing position, putting my arms above my head, but next time I'll experiment with some type of floating neck pillow for a more consistent head position - like this one on Amazon, or this float tank-specific pillow.
Because of the difficulty breathing, I had trouble fully relaxing and sleep was out of the question. Reports on sleeping in the isolation tanks vary - according to the girl working that day, one hour of sleep equates to four in a bed, whereas other estimates skew toward further exaggeration, claiming forty minutes equals up to five hours of regular sleep.
I’ve practiced meditation a sort of as-needed self-prescription. I’m no expert, so forgive my ignorance on the subject and its vernacular, but I’ve done it often and consistent enough to almost start to get it. Practicing in the tank is like hacking meditation - you don’t have to worry about physical discomfort - or almost any bodily sensations at all - so you skip those early rounds of nagging little pains, shifting, itching, and readjusting. You dive almost directly into stillness, introspection, and interoception. A deep state of calm.
In the absence of external stimuli, completely alone with your thoughts and physiology, you become hyper-conscious of your breathing, as well as any areas of the body where trouble might be brewing (knuckles, neck, lower back, etc.). Relaxation washes over your muscles and joints.
And for very brief moments, you experience a deep, intense state of presence and mindfulness. Floating effortlessly in the womb-like environment, the boundary between your body and the water blurs, and you become more like a weightless, formless stream of consciousness. But like meditating, the second you notice or chase it, it slips like water through your fingers.
Takeaways and recommendation
Floating is somewhat cost prohibitive, especially in the NY/NJ area where an hour session can easily be $70+. Nonetheless I plan on returning at least one more time to chase the fleeting state of deep presence, and see how long I can balance on that needlepoint. Most of the first session consisted of enjoying and becoming acquainted with the unique sensation. Now that I know what to expect, I can see the second session being much more meaningful.
Most float studios have coupons and first-timer's promotions. I would recommend floating for meditators and yogis, athletes and fitness enthusiasts, anyone trudging through a period of stress, and all those looking for a unique, new experience (and possibly a new hobby).
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