In college, a date took me to a float pod. We each got into a separate egg-shaped container full of warm saltwater and floated for an hour. Then we went to dinner. Talk about a memorable date!
So exactly what is a floatation pod and how can floating in one make you happier? Also called a sensory deprivation tank or floatation tank, the float pod is a chamber the size of a very large bathtub. The steep concentration of Epsom salt allows you to float without moving a muscle in a dark chamber free from sound. Scientifically proven benefits include decreased anxiety, improved sleep and increased sense of well being.
The euphoria I’d experienced after floating was curtailed the next day when I passed out and was removed from the college library in a stretcher. But more on that later.
First, let’s explore the history of the float pod and the science that increasingly proves the tremendous benefits of floating.
Who invented the float pod?
You could be forgiven for thinking a float pod is a hokey, psychedelic sort of invention for exploring the subconscious mind. After all, it’s origins kind of resemble that.
Doctors at the National Institute of Mental Health
It was the 1950s and Dr. John C. Lilly and Dr. Jay Shurley at the National Institute of Mental Health wanted to know what would happen if people were deprived of all external stimuli. Would they fall asleep? Hallucinate? Or what?
To their surprise, when immersed in the floatation tank, subjects remained fully conscious. With the trending interest in mindfulness and meditation, you might consider that the doctors were onto something big.
Early Days: Floating Under the Influence
However, Dr. Lilly then began to experiment with floating while under the influence of psychedelic drugs. (He had previously studied whether dolphins were superiors in intelligence to humans.) Because of this, some people discarded the floatation tank as fringe-y, Bohemian, and an unserious venture.
NASA Astronauts Experience Zero Gravity in a Float Tank
The first float pod was built vertically and used to help NASA astronauts get used to zero gravity. In the 1970s, the tank was turned horizontally. The water was saturated with Epsom salt and kept at body temperature so that the floater could not sense the border between their body and the waterline.
By 2016, a Million Floats in North America
By the 1990s, float spas were popping up across the US. Floaters began to enthusiastically swear that they are happier, more creative, less anxious, and are sleeping better as a result of their experiences.
In 2016, the North American Float Tank Association estimated that approximately one million floats took place in commercial float centers in North America.
Now more research has been done on the long and short-term benefits of floating. The results are exciting.
How to Enter a Float Pod
I’ve floated several times (even though I passed out the day after my first float). Each time I went to a float spa. I can tell you that just like any spa, these facilities will range in terms of cleanliness and overall swankiness.
Before You Float
Once you arrive, you can often relax on reclining chairs and sip fruit-infused water. The idea is hydrate before floating in saltwater, as it can be dehydrating.
You also want time to cast off the worries of your day and prepare yourself to enter a state of mindful meditation.
At your scheduled time, you’ll be escorted into a private room with a float tank inside. Usually there is a bathroom with a shower attached to the room as well. You may be given a bathrobe.
Clean Yourself Off
An attendant will provide you with instructions to shower off, put on your bathrobe, and then use a call button to let her know you are ready to float.
Once you call, the attendant will open the float pod. It might look like a futuristic pod about the size of a large bathtub with a cover that opens.
Ease In: Full Sensory Deprivation Is Not Required
Modern float pods have LED lights insight and MP3 players, so you don’t have to be completely deprived of your sight and sounds if you choose not to.
And it may be wise for a first experience in the floatation tank to run a little music or leave the light on until you feel comfortable. You’ll have full control of your experience.
When I float, sometimes my mind races before it finally calms. It’s weird. I want to make mental notes about what’s happening. But just like that in-between sleep and wake stage, I eventually settle into the awesomeness of sort of nothingness.
Call the Attendant If You Need Help
The attendant will show you the button inside the tank to press if you need any help. You will then remove your robe and get into the tank, completely nude. The water is no more than a foot deep and as you rest on your back, the attendant will close the cover.
So why do people like me love to float so much? What are the benefits other than a deeply restful experience that feels like an amazing nap?
What Are the Benefits of Float Therapy?
Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) is the scientific name for floating in a tank. Science shows that the benefits are numerous and long-lasting.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most significant benefits of spending time in the floatation tank.
Floatation Tank Sessions Can Decrease Anxiety
Anxiety and depression are undertreated health problems that impact one in four people. Researchers have conducted numerous studies to test whether Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) can provide a non-drug treatment.
One study tested the impact of floatation therapy on anxiety, depression, stress, muscle tension and pain. The results were statistically significant, and participants who displayed more anxiety and depression before entering the float pod experienced a greater positive change. As the researchers wrote:
“Floatation-REST provides the largest effect to those who bring the most stress into the float experience.”
The 30 subjects in the study reported increases in serenity, relaxation, happiness and overall well-being.
REST Shows Positive Effects on Physiology
A meta-study looked at the results of 27 studies, each of which examined the impact of floatation tank therapy on the physiology of the subjects. In total, across all studies, there were 449 subjects.
Researchers looked at the impact of floating in sensory deprivation tanks on blood pressure, cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and performance.
Overall, researchers found that floatation therapy provides a relatively strong impact on measures that reduce stress.
How a Floatation Tank Induces Mindfulness and Increases Happiness
I know I have a lot of trouble meditating on dry land. I can’t get comfortable in a sitting position because my back will hurt. That’s why I began meditating in the bathtub.
Floatation Therapy Induces the Relaxation Response
So it’s no surprise to me that researchers found that floatation tanks can induce the relaxation response. This is the state you learned about during seventh-grade science class, when your “fight or flight” response turns off along with your mind.
Your parasympathetic nervous system takes over, slowing the heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, and generally bathing your body in a sense of calm well-being.
Floating Can Lead to an Altered State of Consciousness
In one study of 65 subjects, researchers found that the floatation tank can induce an altered state of consciousness. This is more likely in people already receptive to experiencing an altered state, as well as more likely in individuals who report being mindful and present in their everyday lives.
After 12 floatation tank sessions, subjects in this study reported less stress, better sleep, and increased overall happiness.
What are the Benefits of Floating in Epsom Salt?
So to what extent are the positive benefits of floating due to the fact that you float in a huge amount of Epsom salt? And how much of it is just due to being able to totally, fully relax?
Let’s take a look at what Epsom salt is and what it can and cannot do.
What is Epsom Salt?
Epsom salt is a chemical compound called magnesium sulfate. If you ingest magnesium orally it will relax your muscles. It can even be used as a laxative and to promote sleep.
Epsom salt dissolved in water releases magnesium. But the jury on whether our skin can absorb the magnesium is still not resolved.
In fact, despite thousands who claim that bathing in magnesium relieves muscle soreness and increases sleep quality, there is no good medical research yet that confirms that magnesium is absorbed through the skin.
Still, many people with fibromyalgia and arthritis claim to feel relief. It is my personal opinion from years of living with chronic pain that often anecdotal evidence is ahead of the science. But eventually, science might catch up.
But let’s just say for a minute that the magnesium is not absorbed through the skin. What are the other benefits of floating in so much Epsom salt? It’s the salt that allows you to experience zero-gravity. It’s the salt that allows you to fully and totally let go.
In normal life, our brains expend a lot of energy trying to keep us upright and oriented in space and time. Suddenly, this is completely unnecessary. While lying on a bed, we actually fall asleep.
But in the float pod, perhaps the nature of the water, we are more apt to stay alert yet fully relaxed, so much so that we gain the ability to control our minds. Is that even possible in regular life? As I said, I’ve never been good at meditating on dry land, but perhaps that’s the closest thing to what it feels like to float.
So how much Epsom Salt is in a Flotation Tank?
The Dead Sea has a salt concentration ten times greater than regular ocean water. This is why you can easily float on your back and hardly have to move a muscle.
But I say hardly because I’ve been in the Dead Sea many times. And every few minutes you do need to adjust your body position—flail your arms, arch your back—to keep the very cool experience going.
No such adjustments are required in the floatation tank. And that’s because of the incredible density of the Epsom salts.
In your average float tank, you’ll find about 1,200 pounds (550 kilograms) of Epsom salt, dissolved in 265 gallons (1000 litres) of water.
How Much Does It Cost to Float?
Expect to pay $50-$100 per session. Some float spas have memberships that you join like a gym which will theoretically reduce the price, as long as you continue to use your membership and don’t forget you’re on auto-pay. Many float spas offer 60 or 90-minute floats.
I heard someone say that it’s hilarious that people these days will pay just to be left alone! But that’s what it’s come to, right? In our technology-saturated lives, all we want is a little peace of mind. Maybe floating is the way you can get it.
How to Choose a Float Spa
If you’re like me, you’re a bit concerned about this question. After all, how can you relax if you’re worried about who floated in the tank before you? (Then again, for some reason, I don’t think about this when I swim in a pool.)
Once, I went to a float spa that opened near my house. I didn’t do any research because I was so excited to try it out. Not only did lounge area not seem as sparkling clean as the others I’d visited, but once in the pod, I started to shiver. I couldn’t believe the water temperature was 93 degrees, so I called the attendant. She tried to warm up the water a bit but it wasn’t nearly enough. After about 20 minutes, I got out early.
Since then, I always get a tour of the float spa before I book an appointment, rather than booking cold over the phone or online.
Are Float Pods Sanitary?
The good news is that even if the lounge area of a float spa isn’t as swanky as you’d like, the floatation pods themselves are incredibly sanitary, mostly because the huge amount of Epsom salt kills bacteria and other pathogens.
A decent-quality float spa is going to adhere to the North American Float Tank Association standards. In doing so, they will filter water 4 to 5 times between each use. They will also use an ultraviolet light system and ozone filter.
In fact, according to the North American Float Tank Association:
“The minimal introduction of contaminants, the limited pathways for those contaminants to enter the user’s body, the high salt content, and the operational practice of floating a single user at a time all contribute to an environment that is clearly distinguishable from many of the safety and sanitation concerns that pools and spas are faced with. In the 40 years that float tanks have been commercially available, there have been no reported cases of illness, infection, or outbreak.”
That’s enough to put my mind fully at ease while I float.
So What Happened to Me after My First Float?
Like I said, it was a date. It was college. The guy was super sweet. He wanted to be a chef, and as if to prove his devotion, he regularly melted butter and drank it like water.
Separate Pods, Then a Shared Italian Dinner
In any case, after our float—in separate pods—we joined hands and walked across the street to an Italian restaurant, where we shared a bottle of wine. And in a half-drunken stupor, we discussed our separate but equally awesome float experiences.
Best. Date. Ever.
The problem was I forgot to drink lots of water before and after I floated. Drinking alcohol didn’t help. That night I got my period, which can compound dehydration.
Be Sure to Hydrate Before and After You Float
The next day, I’m studying for final exams on the fifth floor of my college library. I stand up to take a break and everything suddenly turns white.
I wake up on a sofa, my chef-wanna-be boyfriend at my side. Soon I’m on a stretcher bound for the university hospital, where I quickly rehydrate and recover.
So was that enough to stop me from floating? Heck, no! Now I just make sure to drink plenty of water before and after. And also, if I’m going to float, I won’t drink after. And I won’t study either. Then I’m sure to extend my post-float bliss.
What is Bathtub Meditation?
While many people like me have trouble meditating on dry land, a bathtub can facilitate the experience of mindfulness.
The warm water activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms us down and stops our monkey minds from swinging aimlessly between random thoughts.
A bathtub also provides an obvious escape from the hubbub of a busy home, as well as from the interruptions of technology. Find out here how to Enjoy Bathtub Mediation for the Ultimate Relaxation.
Can an Epsom Salt Bath Help You Lose Weight?
If you soak for 30 minutes in an Epsom salt bath heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, you’ll burn about one-third more calories than you would if you just sit on the couch and watch TV.
However, it’s not the calories burned by bathing in Epsom salt that have positive effects for weight loss. Instead, there are secondary benefits to bathing in Epsom salt such as reduced levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. When cortisol is reduced, you’re less likely to make a beeline for the potato chips. Science backs this up.
So yes, when taking into account secondary benefits, bathing in Epsom salt can help you lose weight. Check out our post on What Are the Best Baths for Weight Loss and find out which bath types work best.