If you’ve been to an upscale spa lately – or maybe even just if you’ve seen Stranger Things or the movie Altered States – then you’ve probably heard of sensory deprivation tanks, or “float tanks.” These tanks, which can be as small as coffins (eek) or large as walk-in showers (that’s more like it), contain a foot or two of water heated to skin temperature (around 96 degrees Fahrenheit) and about 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt. They’re also completely lightproof and soundproof – and they may or may not set you up for a pretty transformative experience.
Before we dive – no pun intended – into the benefits of submerging yourself into this womb-like (no, but seriously, it’s like being in the womb) contraption, here’s a little history lesson for you: sensory deprivation tanks aren’t really new. After a spike in popularity in the 1980s, the reign of the float tanks fell sharply during the public paranoia of the AIDS epidemic. Now, as a result of popular culture, increased awareness of holistic health, or some combination of the two, they are experiencing another boom.
So, why exactly are people attracted to spending an hour or more in a tank of warm salt water? “I mean, it’s multiple layers of benefits that people get from doing this,” says Sam Zeiger, the owner and operator of New York’s longest-running float tank. “It’s not just a simple relaxation, or just physical. People often want to know what the benefits are, but it works on many different levels.”
For starters, there’s the skin. The skin benefits of float tanks begin the moment a user enters the tank. The Epsom salts are extremely cleansing and the solution has detoxifying and anti-aging effects, drawing toxins out of the skin while a bit of magnesium and sulfur absorption takes place.
“Epsom salt baths have been used for thousands of years, for pain relief and arthritic conditions, everything from hemorrhoids to all other kinds of cures,” Zeiger says.
The next thing to go is all of the tension that we normally don’t even notice. The suspension of the float tank is as close as most non-astronauts will ever come to zero-gravity, which makes us notice just which parts of our bodies are holding tension. As many people tend to arch their necks over computer screens during the day, a lot of this tension is typically held in and around the neck and trapezius muscles. Many people will unintentionally intensify this tension upon laying down in the tank by trying to hold their heads up, as one would while floating in any other body of water. However, the Epsom salts allow you to be completely buoyant without any muscular intervention whatsoever.
To help you relax in the tank, Zeiger suggests either one of two things. First, you could try floating with the hands bobbing above the head, as opposed to at your sides. Another option is to actually make the discomfort the object of your focus.
“What’s necessary is to actually enter into the tension, and this is the opposite of what is instinctual for all of us,” he said. “As you breathe in, imagine you’re breathing directly into the part of you that is holding tension, and when you exhale, just imagine all of that is draining from your body into the water.” He said that this technique also helps to increase the blood flow to the tense area.
While many people choose to float to address the stress in their lives or health issues such as arthritis, many people go in with the intention of entering an altered state of consciousness. After all, without sensation, the mind is removed from all physical limitations. For those with experience in meditation, this is nothing new. In fact, the theta waves that your brain emits when you enter the tank are the same as the ones emitted during deep meditation. However, even if you’ve never meditated or even thought about it before, there is no “wrong” way to float.
“Another thing that I emphasize to people is that there’s no right or wrong here,” Zeiger says. “People often think that meditation means that when you go in there, you’re supposed to just clear your mind. But that’s not really possible for most of us to do, so it’s not a matter of clearing the mind, it’s just a matter of being with whatever comes up.”
For some, a single float can be life-changing. Though extremely rare, Zeiger has seen numerous people face fears that were untouchable in their regular consciousness.
“Our body holds all the trauma of our lives, and all of us have trauma,” he says. “And the trauma can be caused by stressful events that happen on a daily basis, or it can be more deep-seated serious things.” Though sensory deprivation isn’t necessarily a cure-all for life’s problems, floating can help people reach the things they fear most deeply, sit with them for a bit, and, hopefully, to let them go and ditch that extra weight.
The best part, though, is that even after the “honeymoon period” of floating is over, after the floater has initiated this period of self-exploration, there is no discernible end in sight.
“It’s more of an adventure going in there for me now than it ever has been,” says Zeiger. “You really get to explore your inner depths. That means a lot of things. Every float is different. If it were predictable, I would have gotten bored a few decades ago.”