True Life: 60 Minutes in a Sensory Deprivation Tank

True Life: 60 Minutes in a Sensory Deprivation Tank

Photos by Frank Rocco

What’s your most relaxing memory? After last Tuesday, mine involves floating, naked, in a small pod filled with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts and water. If that sounds strange, it’s because it is — in the best way possible.

First, let’s back up. How did I find myself here? I blame Instagram. I first learned about sensory deprivation therapy when a trendy fitness instructor posted a picture of it, announcing she’d be floating for an hour in a dark and soundless orb (hence the ‘sensory deprivation’).

My first thought: That’s nuts. My second thought: How do I sign up?

Floating 101

That’s how I found myself in the spa-like lobby of Lift Floats, a four-month-old floatation center that sits above a beer garden in Brooklyn and sells 60-minute floats for $99 a pop. Though I’d eagerly planned my first session, my inner worrywart found it hard not to imagine meeting my demise trapped in a pod of rising water.

“Floating in a pool of warm water is only relaxing if it’s not a pool of your own pee.”

“I think it’s best to go in with no expectations,” said David Leventhal, co-owner of Lift Floats, who’s been floating since it first became popular in the U.S. in the 1980s. He extolled the benefits of the practice, including the soothing nature of Epsom salts, the stress-reducing perks associated with floating and the ease of meditating inside the pod. He even mentioned that the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots both use floating to aid recovery and practice visualization.

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“For people who don’t have a regular meditation practice they’re able to get the experience and benefits of meditation, without having to put in the legwork,” Leventhal said. He noted that many people enjoy easing into a zen state by listening to the sound of their heartbeat. Whether hearing the thump of my own heart would be relaxing (or panic-inducing) remained to be seen.

Sensory Deprivation Tank Etiquette, Explained

Before I began my float, guidelines were laid out. The first rule of floating: You should definitely go to the bathroom before you do it. (I assume floating in a pool of warm water is only relaxing if it’s not a pool of your own pee.) “We tell people to avoid drinking a bunch of caffeine right before. Also floating on an empty stomach is recommended,” Leventhal said. Noted.

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‘If a serial killer enters this room, I’m definitely dead,’ my mind speculated.

Customers are also advised against shaving that day (no problem there), and everyone must shower before they step in to the tank. Lift Floats offers two types of tanks: An open-air tank that feels more like a small pool for those who are claustrophobic, and another that is shaped like a legitimate pod with a lid that closes. (Don’t worry, there’s a handle on the inside if you need to make an emergency exit.)

Of the two options, Leventhal said the pod provides a more ‘old school’ floating experience. Never one to back down from a challenge, I opted to go all in, and float in the smaller orb (because…YOLO?).

Floating Free

After I’d learned the rules, things started to get real. It was time to stare down the pod and finally step in. I pressed a button indicating I was ready to begin. The lights turned off automatically and a recording told me to push one of two small knobs if I wanted to illuminate the space, and/or listen to music. After I got comfortable with the fact that it’s practically impossible to drown in the pod (the Epsom salts ensure that you stay buoyant…phew), I laid back into the water.

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A few minutes in, I realized that the New Age music was more likely to drive me insane than the sound of my own breath — and turned it off so I could settle into the dark, silent space.

Good lord, how tense was my neck before this, I thought, as I felt my muscles begin to relax. If a serial killer enters this room, I’m definitely dead, my mind speculated. Wow, my skin feels soft, as I stretched my arms and legs into different positions. This is the saltiest bath ever, as I accidentally got a drop of sting-inducing water in my eye, ouch.

But soon I settled in and began to enjoy myself. At one point, I think I even heard my own heartbeat, thumping along at a truly tranquil pace. I floated with my arms to my side, then folded over my chest, then propped behind my head — feeling like a true vacationer (sadly, no pina coladas on the premises). With nothing else to do, I even practiced a little meditation— something I find nearly impossible in my 400-square-foot Manhattan apartment.

Before I knew it, my hour was up. While it’s hard to say whether the experienced changed me, I suspect the effects were mostly intangible. The one thing I do know is this: It was the best bath ever.