Flotation tank, sensory deprivation tank, isolation tank — all names for a very unique device that has been around since 1954 but has since seen a sudden surge of popularity. They were originally developed by John C. Lilly, an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, psychonaut, writer, and philosopher. He created these weird contraptions to help him study the nature of consciousness, psychedelic drugs, and dolphin communication — sometimes in conjunction with one another. Seriously…dude knew how to party.

However, for some strange reason they didn’t exactly take off…

altered states sensory deprivation tank

What could possibly go wrong? Scene from the movie Altered States.

Perhaps the idea of being shut inside a water-filled coffin served as a deterrent to some people. It also didn’t help that many people were first exposed to the idea in the hilarious/ridiculous 1980 Sci-Fi film, Altered States.

In the basement of a university medical school Dr . Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control…and the subject is himself. When he heard his cry for help it wasn’t human.

Seems legit.

Anyway…

Not only is genetically regressing into an ape while floating impossible (trust me…I’ve tried), it doesn’t appeal to most people. Not surprisingly it took awhile for float tanks to build credibility outside the psychonaut world. Oddly enough it was UFC commentator and comedian, Joe Rogan, who turned myself and many others on to the practice of floating. Rogan, himself an experienced psychedelic user, has also become something of a flotation tank evangelist. He enjoys the very real benefits of floating so much that he had a high end custom chamber built in his own home. Here are his thoughts on the practice (warning: he uses a bit of profanity, but there’s a link to a censored version once the video starts):

His analysis of the experience is pretty spot on, particularly the process of “letting go.” I echo his sentiments in regard to the benefits of floating, and thus have spent the last few years partaking in the practice whenever I’ve had the opportunity. What follows is my guide to getting the most out of your sensory deprivation experience.

How do flotation tanks work?

A float tank is a giant tank filled with about 10 inches of water that is usually large enough for one person to float comfortably. I’ve seen custom setups that allowed for multiple people in case you ever wanted to float with a partner, although I can’t imagine why that would be better than going solo. Floating isn’t exactly designed to be a group activity, as the whole point is to deprive you of as many external stimuli as possible.

And no, you won’t drown in there. The water is very salty, containing anywhere from 750-1000 lbs of Epsom salts. This is what causes such extreme buoyancy. You would basically have to try to drown yourself because you are so buoyant that it’s actually quite difficult to roll over. Instead you just float weightlessly, as though on a watery cloud, your face and other various body parts exposed above the water. Also…don’t worry, you’re not locked in there. The door opens easily in case the experience starts to be too much and you need to take a break.

man in float tank

The experience of floating

Sanitation is also paramount, and all tanks come equipped with very effective filtration systems that are usually run between clients. There aren’t any harmful chemicals in the water, like chlorine, and you won’t have to worry about floating in some gross bath water in which another random person was just wallowing about.

In order to deprive you of your senses the water and ambient air temperature inside the tank are calibrated to match the temperature of your skin. Upon entering the tank you are met with a very warm, humid environment. Your body adjusts quickly and pretty soon you’ll have a hard time sensing where the air and water meet, as they both approximate your body’s external temperature. The addition of ear plugs and total darkness completes the experience so that it feels like you’re floating through a void of nothingness. You can keep your eyes open or closed, but it doesn’t really matter because a good tank will eliminate any traces of intruding light.

Now realistically you can still feel some external elements, as it’s next to impossible to completely deprive you of your senses. Your sense of smell is still intact, and if you move around you’ll feel the water as it gently caresses your skin. If you stay completely still and relax, however, you can easily lose yourself in the experience. On one of my floats I actually fell asleep (which is quite common) and woke up completely disoriented and unsure of what was going on or where I was! It took a moment for me to remember what kind of crazy environment I had immersed myself in.

Why sensory deprivation is a good thing

You might be thinking to yourself, “That sounds awful. Why would I want to do something so bizarre?”

Most of us don’t realize how hard our body is working just to deal with the forces of gravity. Our muscles and skeletal system are in a constant state of tension just supporting us. Floating is the only environment that completely takes this stress away without applying some sort of external force, which often causes stress in other areas. It allows you to become aware of tension in places you didn’t know you had, and to relax in ways you never knew were possible. Your spine decompresses, your muscles begin to unwind, and chronic pain slowly begins to dissipate.

Our brains are also working incredibly hard to process our surroundings, even when it doesn’t seem like anything is really happening. When you eliminate all external stimuli that constant state of awareness toward your environment starts to diminish. Your brain starts to relax, stress hormones decrease, and you basically become nothing more than your mind.

I like to think of it as my consciousness coming out to play. Normally my mind is so wrapped up in processing a million different things, and this is the only environment that truly allows my brain to chill out and just be. The result is a sudden increase in awareness toward various elements of my life. Suddenly I’m aware of areas that I’m carrying tension, physically and mentally, that I was totally blind toward. It allows me to slowly unwind physically, mentally, and emotionally. The more I unwind, the deeper I seem to fall into this alternate state of consciousness. It’s almost like being in a dream state, but you’re fully awake and intimately aware of everything that’s going on in your body and mind.

pure consciousness

Pure, unbridled consciousness

Without any external stimuli you begin to become acutely aware of all your internal processes — your inner tension, thoughts, and emotions are thrust into the spotlight, which can actually be scary for some people if they don’t practice any sort of regular introspection. Suddenly your state of mind takes center stage and you become aware of emotions that you normally internalize — anger, fear, sadness, peace, love. It provides an opportunity to address these elements of yourself in a healthy way.

We’ve all heard that change starts from within. This is a golden opportunity to address your inner turmoil, and to begin building a stronger, healthier, inner state that you can bring back into the real world with you. Very rarely do we get the opportunity to analyze ourselves in this way, and it’s one of the many reasons why the sensory deprivation experience is so profound for many people.

Additionally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the psychedelic or hallucinatory states that people sometimes report. I have only experienced anything remotely close to this on two occasions, though I wouldn’t exactly categorize it as “tripping” in the conventional sense. For me to get to that place I have to be so relaxed, and go so deep within myself that I essentially lose my perception of who and where I am. I become unbridled consciousness with few external or internal restrictions.

When you’ve sufficiently addressed all physical and emotional tension your brain is free to just kind of run wild. In the absence of any external stimuli I’ve found that my brain actually tries to fill the void by manifesting things that aren’t there. This is when the brain starts emitting elusive theta waves that we typically only experience right before falling asleep, or as we’re waking up. You know that half-awake, half-asleep state where things can get a little goofy and sometimes you “see” things that aren’t there? That’s what’s going on. It’s incredibly difficult to replicate that state unless you’re a very advanced meditator.

During my most profound experience I can recall seeing some sort of light in the general area of where the “third eye” allegedly resides (right above your eyes in the middle of your forehead, near the pineal gland). It seemed to be this pulsing light that gradually changed colors and shapes. However, it was not an extreme experience by any means, and I found it difficult to remain in such a deeply meditative state. Thus, it gradually dissipated, leaving me alone with my thoughts once again.

Why you should do it

If you’re not already sold on the idea, here are some of the many benefits to floating:

  • Helps your body recover from injuries or lack of sleep
  • Decreases stress hormones
  • Relieves arthritis and chronic pain conditions
  • Enhances the immune system
  • Increases endorphins and your overall sense of well being
  • Reduces lactate in the blood
  • Promotes muscular relaxation
  • Helps balance adrenal hormones
  • Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
  • Improves digestion
  • Eases depression and chronic anxiety
  • Produces alpha or theta brain waves, which helps foster deeper meditation, creativity, and insight

For further insight into its many benefits check out some of the research here. It is quite possibly one of the best broad forms of treatment for many ailments, as well as a potent mental and physical performance aid. Floating is also a fantastic compliment to many other treatment modalities as it can only enhance their effectiveness.

The catch? Like most good things you must do it fairly regularly if you want to really see the results. Hopping in the tank once isn’t going to cure you of anything (though you’ll still probably see some benefits). Unfortunately that’s the biggest downside for most people, as regular sessions can be prohibitively expensive. Still, it’s worth giving it a try just to see how you like it. Almost all float centers will also offer package deals that lower the cost per float if you sign up for multiple sessions.

What kind of tank is best?

I’ve personally used three different types of tanks, all of which have their pros and cons. These three are the types that you’re mostly likely to encounter on your floating journey, so here’s the rundown:

The “coffin”

Samadhi Flotation Tank

Image courtesy of Bodymind Float Center

These were originally made by the Samadhi Tank Co. and they claim to be the first commercial manufacturer of isolation tanks. They’ve been cranking these bad boys out since 1972, so their model has been an industry (and home) standard for quite some time. They are tried and tested, and they do the job. However, these are by far my least favorite tanks to use for various reasons.

These things feel the most claustrophobic out of all the tanks that I’ve used. I’m a tall guy at 6’3″ with broad shoulders and long arms, so I consistently find myself banging around in there. It’s not the end of the world, but if you’re trying to really lose yourself in the experience then knocking into the sides every so often can disrupt your vibe. The other main issue I have with these is the poor oxygenation. Out of all the tanks I’ve tried these seem to have the worst air flow, and I’ve actually found myself short of breath on multiple occasions. Hyperventilating in a pitch black box filled with water is not the most relaxing experience.

(Note: After talking to others who have used similar tanks of this style, it seems as though some do not suffer from the air flow issue. The problem could have been with the specific tank setup that I used, not a flaw with the general design.)

Still, they aren’t the worst contraptions ever. I would gladly float in one of these versus not floating at all. Also, if you’re looking to do a setup for your home these are some of the cheapest options and they take up the least amount of space.

The “pod”

pod style flotation tank

i-sopod® float tank

These types of tanks come in various shapes and sizes, and are made by many different manufacturers. Not only do they look cool with their sleek, futuristic designs, but they are usually more ergonomic. Some of them tend to flair out on one end, almost like a tear drop, which allows you to spread your arms out a bit more without bumping into the sides. Many of them do come with lighting options, which is a nice feature when you want to get in and out of the tank without fumbling around in the dark. You can also leave the lights on while you float if total darkness isn’t your thing. I’ve also found that they tend to have slightly better air circulation than the coffin style.

Thus, I prefer the pod design over the coffin in just about every way. They are much more expensive though, usually starting somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20k and going up from there. They also take up a lot more space rendering them far less conducive to setups where space is limited.

The “walk-in”

custom flotation tank

Image courtesy of Tom Mylan

These babies are my favorite. They typically take up most of the room and have a large door that you step through. They are almost like a gigantic enclosed bathtub, and are usually custom made. You’ll sometimes find these in high end float centers or spas.

What makes them so awesome? For starters, they are very easy to enter and exit, unlike the coffin style. Due to their high ceilings they also seem to have the best air circulation out of any design. I’ve even seen some custom units that are capable of pumping extra oxygen in for even more relaxation benefits. They feel the least claustrophobic to me, although I’ve found that they can be somewhat narrow depending on the specific design. Many of them are also outfitted with all the trimmings and trappings of the other designs (different types of lighting, music, adjustable temperature, etc.)

As you might imagine they can get rather pricey to buy, and that cost is sometimes passed on to us, the end users. You can’t go wrong with any of these three types of tanks, but I prefer the pod and walk-in styles. The coffin style will do just fine though, and it may be your only option depending on what kind of float center is closest to you.

What you can expect on your first float

The following is a walkthrough of what you can expect, more or less, for your first time.

I first started floating about five years ago, and there weren’t many options by me at the time. Thus, I found myself driving out into the middle of the desert to float at the house of some random person who had a tank, and was running a little home business with it on the side. It seemed pretty sketchy to say the least, and I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t very nervous going into it. I had a brief vision of a horror movie scenario where I was taken captive and then hacked apart so that my body parts could be buried all across the desert…my poor family never knowing what had happened to their beloved son.

Fortunately that silly scenario couldn’t have been further from the reality of what happened. I pulled up, knocked on the door, and was greeted by a sweet lady who instantly gave me a good feeling and began to put my mind at ease. She showed me to the float room, which was actually a separate room from the rest of the house in their basement (though it had its own door to the outside). It was very nicely appointed, with soft lighting and some sort of faint, yet pleasing aromatherapy smells. It had its own shower, bathroom, plenty of clean towels, and fresh ear plugs to help minimize any external sounds while in the tank, and to keep saltwater out of my ears. She explained the whole process from start to finish and answered all of my questions so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Then she left me to my own devices so that I could prepare and get into my session.

First I used the bathroom to ensure that I wouldn’t have to interrupt my float to use the potty. Then I disrobed and rinsed off in the shower that was attached to the main float room. The key is to rinse all of the chemicals, lotions, and dirt from your skin before entering the tank to help maintain an environment of cleanliness. I exited the shower, dried out my ear canals, popped my earplugs in, and gingerly entered the tank.

man entering float tank

Image courtesy of Float Pod® Therapies

I’ll spare you all of the floating details, as I’ve already sort of covered what happens during the process. Just know that it will be a very alien environment to you at first. You’ll settle into it rather quickly though, and pretty soon you’ll be well on your way to watery bliss.

My first session lasted an hour and a half. Initially I was concerned that it might be too long, but ultimately I was glad I opted for the extra half hour. It seemed like it took me a good 45 minutes to sufficiently unwind to the point where I was actually relaxed. However, I was not disappointed when the gentle music was piped in via speakers inside the tank to let me know that my time was up. At that point I felt incredibly peaceful, rejuvenated, and ready to reconnect with the world.

I carefully exited the tank, dried off to avoid traipsing salty water all over the floor, and headed into one of the most relaxed showers I’ve ever taken. Then I dried off again, dressed, and enjoyed the complimentary green tea and energy bar that they had provided.

As I exited their basement and stepped forth into the beautiful desert surroundings I felt a sense of harmony with the world around me. Gone were the worries, stress, and much of the physical tension that I had unknowingly carried with me into the tank. I breathed in the fresh air, smiled, had a quick chat about my experience with the owner, then went on my merry way. The drive home was sublime and I felt like I was more connected to the world than I had been in a long time.

I can’t guarantee that your experience will be exactly the same, but most of my subsequent sessions (including those at commercial float centers) have followed that basic template.

Pro tips

  • Don’t drink anything caffeinated within a 3-4 hour window of your float. Some people like doing so for the cognitive benefits while they’re in there, but for me caffeine makes it too difficult to get into that relaxed, meditative state. I’m trying to calm my mind and body down, not rev it up.
  • Don’t partake in any other mind altering substances before your first float. Probably common sense to most people, but some folks like to push the limits. I suggest that, for your first time at least, you do it sober just to get a feel for the experience. It can be very disorienting at first, so you’re better off navigating these waters with a clear mind.
  • Try to time your meal so that you aren’t hungry during your float. A grumbling tummy can distract you and will be all you hear during your session. Also, don’t eat or drink anything right before floating. Eating a big meal or drinking a lot of fluids beforehand might make the experience uncomfortable, especially if you have to hop out to use the bathroom.
  • Along with that last one, go to the bathroom right before floating. Every place I’ve ever been to had a bathroom in the float room, and I like to make sure that I’m “good to go” so that I may completely relax during my session.
  • Wear your birthday suit. Some people prefer to wear a bathing suit, which is fine. However, I prefer going sans clothes as it’s far less restrictive. It definitely feels weird at first, but once you settle in you can go a lot deeper when you don’t feel any sort of distractions from your garments.
  • Don’t touch your eyes. As you now know, the water is very, very salty. You do not want to inadvertently rub your eyeballs only to feel the burning sensation of salt all up in your peepers. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid doing this, but I would imagine that it would put a real damper on the experience. The good news is that it won’t kill you — you’ll just have to get out and wipe your eyes with a clean towel, or perhaps rinse them out.
  • Along with avoiding unnecessary eyeball pain, don’t float if you have any open cuts, sores, or even if you just shaved recently. The salt will sting your raw skin, turning the whole experience more torturous than relaxing.
  • Don’t forget to put in your earplugs. Every float center that I’ve been to provided fresh earplugs for each client. The reason for using these is twofold; they help block out any external noise, further helping to deprive you of your physical senses, and they also help keep saltwater out of your ears. Unlike the salt in the eyes thing, I HAVE forgotten to put my plugs in before entering the water. It’s not a big deal — I just hopped out and popped them in — but I was still finding little grains of salt in my ears days later.
  • Bring a bottle of water and a light snack for after your float. Floating is rejuvenating and also helps your body detox. I like to bring some water and a protein bar to give my body helpful nutrients, especially after a long float session.
  • Set your intention for what you want to accomplish during your float. I consider floating to be a crash course in meditation and really getting to know your mind and body. Some people don’t necessarily like what they find out, but it’s enlightening no matter how you slice it. I always try to set a positive intention for the experience beforehand. It helps me to go deeper within myself and often makes the experience more profound. It’s okay if you don’t do this, but you may end up having a more superficial experience.
  • Relax! A lot of people (myself included) tend to be anxious before their first float. It’s understandable, given the nature of the experience, but trust me when I say that it’s not nearly as intense as you’re probably imagining it to be. You probably won’t start hallucinating, and nothing crazy will happen. If it does (which it probably won’t) just remember that you’re in complete control of the experience. If you feel uncomfortable at any time you’re free to get out. You can also sit up, maybe poke your head out the door just to come back to reality, and then get back into it once you feel comfortable again.

I know that’s an awful lot to remember, but fear not! It won’t kill you if you forget half of those things. Most of those are just personal preferences that I’ve realized after doing it many times. Just try to remember the important ones: no salt in your eyes/open wounds, no caffeine or other “drugs”, go to the bathroom right before, remember your earplugs, and most importantly…relax and enjoy yourself! Also, if it’s your first time at a new place the staff will go over everything with you and will likely reiterate most of this stuff. Remember…it’s in their best interest to make sure that you have an amazing experience, seeing as how they’d like to keep you coming back for more.

How much does it cost and how long are the sessions?

This depends on your location, as some areas seem to charge a lot more than others. I’ve personally seen places as low as $40/hour, and as high as $100/hour (which is a total ripoff in my opinion). $40-50/hour seems like a fair price to me, but I’m not exactly Mr. Money Bags so take my opinion for what it’s worth. Almost all places offer package deals that reduce the cost significantly should you decide to sign up for multiple sessions.

I suggest floating for 1-1.5 hours your first session. Any less and you probably won’t have enough time to fully relax into the experience (takes me 30-45 minutes to unwind depending on how stressed I am). Any more than that and you may find yourself getting antsy in there, which can be agitating and ruins the experience. If you’d like to float for longer in future sessions most places will allow you to add extra time for a nominal fee.

Where to find a flotation tank center

Check out this map for locations all over the globe. Float centers are popping up like weeds (seriously, there were hardly any just a handful of years ago) and there’s probably something by where you live. Just zoom in on your location to find the nearest center, or else type your location into the search bar near the bottom of the page.

Final thoughts

I’ll be honest in saying that what you get out of floating is contingent on many personal factors. To listen to some people talk about it you’d think it’s a guaranteed way to blast off into a whole new dimension. I’ve had a couple of experiences that were borderline hallucinatory, but I’ve also had some that were simply relaxing and nothing more. It all depended on my state of mind at the time and how prepared I was mentally and physically.

Is it possible to have some sort of psychedelic experience, naturally, within the tank? Sure, especially once you’re good at letting go and really giving in to the process. After all, our brains are pretty wacky and can do some amazing things when we turn off all the external stimuli. However, it’s a “trip” that you have complete control over, unlike most mind-altering substances. Not only that, but it’s far more likely that you’ll simply enjoy floating as a bizarre, yet supremely relaxing experience that leaves you feeling refreshed and peaceful when you’re done. Heck, you may even end up napping through most of it.

If you meditate on a regular basis then I almost guarantee that you will be able to go deeper into the experience than someone who doesn’t. My best floats occurred when meditation was an important part of my daily routine. Conversely, I often find myself struggling to let go and relax in the tank when I haven’t been meditating consistently. I suggest that you incorporate some form of meditation into your life anyway because it’s one of the most beneficial things you can do. However, it will make the floating experience much easier and more profound.

Flotation tanks seem to be all the rage these days, what with everyone trying to “hack” their lives by hopping on the latest health/fitness/productivity craze. For some people floating might just be an expensive way to chill out for an hour or so. If you’re simply looking to relax for a bit I might actually suggest that you spend the money on a nice massage, as it will probably do the job even better and you won’t have to get wet.

However, I do encourage you to at least give floating a try, particularly if you want to explore your consciousness or you have some sort of ailment that it could help. Just know that you probably won’t see massive results the first time, or maybe even the second or third. It can take a few sessions to really get used to the experience of letting go. For that reason I suggest that you try it once just to see what you think, and then buy a package deal if you decide to continue with it. You won’t attain enlightenment after one meditation session, nor will you change your physique after one workout. Likewise, you need to be somewhat consistent with floating to really reap the rewards. The good news is that you should start to see some very real benefits within the first few sessions. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to experience one of the most unique physical environments in the world.

Float on, friend.

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