Photo: c/o Lift Floats, Brooklyn
If you’ve ever wondered what it might feel like to cease to exist, this would likely be the closest thing. Sensory deprivation therapy, a new trend in wellness, entails enclosing yourself in a pod or chamber filled with approximately a foot of lukewarm epsom-salt water. There is no light. There is no sound. There is only you and your thoughts—or lack thereof, according to many floaters who hail the practice as a fast track to meditation.
According to Brooklyn-based studio Lift Floats, “Floating has been shown to help even novice participants experience extended periods of Theta brainwave activity, normally available only to advanced students of meditation.” Having tested nearly every meditation technique in existence and given up every time, I was intrigued by the concept of simply floating my way to the elusive realm of calm. So, I made the trek to the Brooklyn float studio, which featured blue walls, a warm staff, and even a cozy cluster of couches designed for hanging out post-float, sans phone.
While floating is touted as an excellent getaway from our smartphone-riddled, social-media-driven world, it actually preceded the tech boom by decades. Neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly pioneered the sensory deprivation tank in 1954 as a way to create a “socially accepted place[s] where we don’t answer the telephone, we don’t have to answer questions or agree with anyone on anything.” Since its genesis, alternative medicine practitioners and experimental-types have sworn by floating’s mind-clearing and anxiety-quelling effects, and perhaps for good reason: A 2014 study conducted by psychologists at the Karlstad University in Sweden found subjects experienced “significantly decreased” stress, depression, and anxiety, and “significantly increased” optimism and sleep quality after only one session.
Most float studios offer a float “pod,” which resembles a futuristic lima-bean-shaped coffin filled halfway with saltwater. In addition to the traditional structure, Lift offers a float “chamber,” which is about the size of a walk-in closet and offers the same (albeit less potentially-claustrophobic) experience. As a first-time floater, I opted for the latter. To prep for the float, I was instructed to shower, so as not to contaminate the water with any oils or lotions. I was provided with earplugs and Band-Aids (to keep saltwater from stinging fresh cuts) and allowed to step into the chamber at my leisure.
Most modern-day float tanks—be it pods or chambers—feature soothing, colored lights that can be left on during the float. To say darkness makes me uncomfortable is an understatement, but for the purpose of going the whole hog, I turned off the lights and floated into the warm, dark oblivion. It’s one thing to try to mentally prepare yourself for impenetrable darkness, but to experience it is a whole different ballgame. Within seconds, my heart began to race, my stomach somersaulted, and I began to wonder whether I’d be able to handle an entire hour of sightlessness. I can’t confirm exactly how long it took for me to finally ease into the experience (grappling with the passage of time is another effect of floating), but I think it was about ten minutes. Soon, I found myself in a decently relaxed state of semi-consciousness, where I eventually lost feeling in my limbs. After a while, my thoughts quieted significantly. Not quite the meditative bliss I was expecting, but hey, it was my first go.
After 45 minutes, I unlocked the chamber door and stood woozily outside of the room to reorient myself (incidentally, I immediately noticed that my skin felt softer than it had in months). After a quick post-float rinse, I shuffled out to the reflection area and took a seat on one of the plushy couches. Although I didn’t feel as if I had much to “reflect” on, I did feel as if I’d just left a particularly calming yoga class. When I left the studio, the outdoors felt sharper, and everything was crisper-sounding—as if I had just switched on some sort of internal HD mode. While I can’t say I reaped all of the benefits that so many floaters claim to feel, I would definitely—unlike so many failed meditation apps—try it again.