When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut. How cool that would have been! I had this fantasy that floating around in zero gravity would be the supreme experience. Well, I never made it to being an astronaut, but I did get to experience zero gravity—or at least the next best thing to it: a floating tank.
It all started when I read the ad offered by a new spa opening in my town. “Being in a float tank is like relaxing in outer space” I was intrigued—could this be my childhood dream come true?
I was as excited as I was scared about trying it. One reason is that they weren’t always called flotation tanks. In the beginning they had the ominous term: “sensory deprivation tanks” and there were all kinds of fears and superstitions about what would happen if you jumped into a tank that stripped away your senses.
Part of the mystery came from the fact that the inventor was neuroscientist and psychoanalyst John Lily. In 1954 he began experimenting with these tanks as a way of locating and liberating the mind’s energy. He also conducted experiments using the tanks and LSD—a notoriously popular psychedelic drug back in the 1960s.
But the research and commercial uses for the tanks have been updated by researchers Peter Suedfeld and Roderick Borrie, and today their technique is called: “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy” (REST). Their methods show the experience has value in meditation, relaxation, and alternative medicine.
So how does it work?
Imagine a tank about the length and width of a compact car and about the depth up to where the windows begin. It is filled with water less than half that—perhaps no more than the top rim of the tires. Then it is filled with warm salt water that is extremely buoyant. So buoyant that you could completely fall asleep face up and not sink—so there is NO chance of drowning. You shower beforehand and ease yourself into a front-loading door that lets you go in lengthwise, feet first. You close the door behind you and can use a small battery-operated light to get yourself situated. Once you’re all cozy you shut the light off—and well, then you float.
The salt water is the key. In the tank I use more than 1,000 pounds of salt solution are dissolved in the water. It is odd the first time you let go of the gravity thing. There is nothing supporting you and it is dark. The first thing I noticed about this state is that I became hyper-aware of my body. This was a nuanced feeling. As gravity loses its effect the little annoyances that come with being a sack of skin holding 206 bones also slips away.
Weightless, my body was pain-free, or at least allowed to be unencumbered by the burden of being weighed down. There is nothing that grounds you except the occasional slight bump into the side of the tank. Your body is suspended and the little pressures that we become immune to until we feel an ache all disappear.
However, the biggest surprise was what happened to my brain. It slipped into what could be called a flow state. Almost immediately–I lost track of time and my body. Whatever the worries of the day were melted away, and I was so in the present moment that the only sound was my rhythmic, almost hypnotic breathing. The combination of weightlessness, my brain going on autopilot, and my body on vacation conjured up a deep-deep smile.
Houston, we have lift-off.
The list of ailments that it’s supposed to help is nearly endless. Muscular aches, soreness, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and inflammation are the big ones that it purports to help. (I can vouch for all but the fibromyalgia—but only because I don’t have it.) There are studies on its use to enhance athletic performance, improve mood and even some serious scientific studies on helping individuals with attention deficit disorder and autism.
The costs and times you can buy range from $50 to $150 depending on if you do 30- or 90-minute sessions. For the experienced user you could buy packages and longer times, but if this is your first venture I’d recommend an hour so you can get the benefit of the experience. Thirty minutes is a nice sampler, but just get your feet wet (pun intended)—but an hour will give you a taste of the full experience. You’ll know the experience is over because the filtration pump kicks back on and the water begins to swirl around you. Time for reentry and another shower.
In doing some research for this article I came across an interesting fact that piqued my interest—so I’m passing it on. In 1980 both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Phillies began using floating tanks on a regular basis for their teams. After years of lackluster performance the Eagles won the NFC championship that year. The same year the Phillies won the World Series.
Chance? Who knows? But I find that kind of coincidence simply out of this world.