A guide to floating. Sensory deprivation to reduce stress and calm the mind

Floating is a way to get away from the sense-inducing and often chaotic modern world to get in tune with your thoughts. Find out how in this guide.

float tank

Have you’ve heard about floating?

You’ve heard about the benefits of floating on top of salty water in complete darkness and silence and you want to know more?

You may have heard people talk about floating as an experience like no other.

As if it’s like floating in space with no sight, sound or sense of gravity and with nothing more than your thoughts.

That, to me at least, sums up what floating is.

Floating allows you to get away from the sense-inducing, bright light and often chaotic modern world, and puts you in total isolation.

Lying in a floatation tank (also known as an isolation tank or sensory deprivation tank) deprives you of your key senses and suspends your body in water so you can completely relax both physically and mentally.

Many people float on a regular basis because it brings them a sense of calm and clarity while reducing physical tension and pain.

It has been around for the last 50 or 60 years but it has yet to hit the mainstream. That’s beginning to change as floatation centres increasingly open up around the world.

This is a guide to floating. What it is, the key benefits of it, how to do it, how much it costs and much more.

It’s a guide on how sensory deprivation through floating can reduce stress, calm your mind and bring clarity to your often chaotic world.

If you’re interested in floating but have never done it before then read on.

What is floating?

Floating is a practice in which you enter into a sensory reduced environment created by either a float tank, float pod or float cabin. All which serve the same purpose. To reduce any external stimuli as much as possible.

The tank holds ten inches of water that is supersaturated with a 1,000lbs of epsom salts. This creates a very dense solution that allows your body to float with zero effort while minimising the forces of gravity.

The water has the same temperature of the surface of the skin, eliminating temperature variations so it’s difficult for the person floating to perceive where the body ends and water begins.

The tank is also light proof and sound insulated creating a very quiet and dark space. With external sensory input at a minimum, your body has a profound and intense relaxation response which carries a lot of benefits.

The history of floating

The first floatation tank was invented in the 1954 by John C Lilly, while working for the National Institute for Mental Health. Lilly was a scientist and experimenter of hallucinogens, who wanted to test the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain.

Lilly was an eccentric and like to push the boundaries of sensory deprivation. He experimented with psychedelic drugs like LSD and also ketamine while in the float tank.

Lilly’s most outrageous experiment was in 1965 when he had a woman and a dolphin live together for ten weeks. He hypothesised that the dolphin would learn human speech by being in close contact with one for a set period of time.

Though Lilly deserves full credit for inventing the sensory deprivation tank, floating has come along way since those early experimentative days.

Over the years the floating experience has been refined. Scientific research continues to show the benefits of floating while the float tank technology continues to improve.

What are the benefits of floating?

The floating experience varies from person to person. One thing is clear though, the more you do it the more you get out of it. These are the key health benefits of floating.

Stress elimination

The main benefit of floating therapy is the elimination of stress.

In the US, 77 percent of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress while 73 percent experience psychological symptoms.

Stress is linked to many diseases and disorders, some of which include:

  • Arthritis
  • Heart problems
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Cancer

In a sensory reduced environment, floating generates the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system while suppressing the sympathetic nervous system (also knows as the stress response).

The activation of the parasympathetic system causes a decrease in harmful hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol while beneficial hormones such as dopamine and endorphins increase.

The relaxation response your body has from floating also causes a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension. If you suffer from high stress then floating can help alleviate it.

Meditation benefits 

The benefits of meditation are becoming more widely known. The floatation tank and its sensory reduced environment help stimulate deep forms of meditation.

The body becomes very relaxed while floating on salted water with little to no sensory input from the outside world.

Many people, despite having little experience of meditation, have reported going into a meditative during a float. Their attention is brought to the present moment and their mind in a calm state, free from worry and anxiety.

Total muscle relaxation 

Remember, thanks to the epsom salt, you’re floating on water so you may as well be floating in space. It allows you to completely relax every muscle because there are no pressure points unlike there are on a physical surface including a mattress.

People who have muscle injuries report pain relief during and up to 48 hours after a float. This is thought to be because of the release of endorphins which are also known as the body’s natural painkillers.

Joe Rogan is a big proponent of floating and claims he does it every night for two hours (often while stoned). He has the luxury of his own float tank at home in his basement. In the video below he explains the benefits he personally gets from regular floating.

Rogan says, “It removes the mind from the body. All the stimuli of the world evaporate. It’s the mind untethered from the body in a very weird way.

“You will experience quiet in a way that you’ll never get. There’s no input and in the absence of that input, your brain becomes supercharged.

“It makes it so easier for me to understand influences and objectives. All the things that I’ve been pushing to the side of my brain and avoiding come to light instantaneously. All issues and stumbling blocks that you need to address come to the forefront.”

Joe Rogan explaining the benefits he gets from floating

Who is floating for?

Anyone can float in theory but floatation centres usually have certain requirements.

If you have a heart condition, asthma, allergies (particularly to salt, bromine or magnesium), or low blood pressure you should seek approval from a medical practitioner before floating.

If you have epilepsy or schizophrenia then you will be considered too high-risk and not allowed.

People with a disability are advised to consult with their doctor before they consider floating and depending on the condition the float centre may not allow them.

Some float centres don’t allow people under the age of 16 to float though this varies from place to place.

Pregnant women can float as it removes the gravitational strain the baby places on their bodies. Some floatation centres actively promote that they should do it.

How to float

First, you need to find a floatation centre. Depending on where you are, a quick google search of ‘float tank locations’ will help you. Remember to make sure you’re eligible to float before going.

While still niche, floating and sensory deprivation, in general, is growing.

According to Time magazine, in 2011 there were 85 float centres in the United States and now there are more than 250.

A dedicated floatation centre will usually have three or four float tanks, float pods or float cabins for customer use.

Float pods are the most popular as they’re small and are better at providing a sensory deprivation experience.

They look like spaceships and have a design to block out all sight and sound (though they have a light if you need it).

float tank
Modern-day float tank (or spaceship?)

The high concentration of salt allows you to float on top of the water without any physical exertion meaning you can fully relax. The water in a float tank is denser than the Dead Sea so even if you wanted to drown yourself it would be impossible.

You can fall asleep – and many people do – safe in the knowledge that there is no way you can drown. The water level isn’t that high anyway.

The water is at the same temperature as the body so once you’re in it you soon begin not to feel it on your skin.

A good floatation centre will ensure that the room you’re floating in is insulated from both light and sound as much as possible.

What equipment do I need to float?

All you have to bring is yourself. While you do need a few items, a good floatation centre will provide them for you.

  • Earplugs to stop the salty water getting in your ears
  • Toiletries and towels so you can shower and clean afterwards
  • Flipflops

If you have a preference for your own toiletries then bring them but if not you don’t need to bring anything with you.

Floating is done naked (sensory deprivation remember) so you don’t have to bring shorts or a swimsuit either.

In case you’re worried about hygiene, be safe in the knowledge that the water contains saline so nothing harmful survives and the tank is heavily filtered after each session. You’ll see for yourself how clean the water is when you get in.

How often should I float?

There’s no rule of thumb to how often or how little you can float. Float centres generally encourage you to float as much as possible for the best effects. And while you might say “they would say that” it makes sense that the more you do it, the easier you’ll find it to get deeply relaxed.

Joe Rogan, mentioned above, says he does for two hours each evening. Bearing in mind he has his own float tank in his basement and not everyone can spend two hours of their day floating, despite all the benefits.

Through my own experience, I did find the more I did it the better I felt afterwards. Floating takes a little getting used to, especially when you first start.

My first time floating and thus my first time at sensory deprivation, my mind ran wild. Floating is a novel experience which requires you to get used to it somewhat. The second time around I was completely relaxed and times after I would either go deep in thought or doze off and snooze.

In short, go as much as you can if you enjoy it.

How much does it cost to float?

Floating is expensive for three reasons.

  1. It costs a lot of money to run a floatation centre
  2. Floatation centres are limited to one person per room so, unlike a swimming pool for example, it works on a person-by-person basis
  3. Floating is still niche and therefore there is not a lot of competition to drive prices down

I expect this to change as floating becomes more popular.

In London where I live it costs around £50 for a one hour float. Outside of the capital, it’ll likely be slightly cheaper. Float centres usually offer a bulk discount so my advice is to try it first and if you like it book multiple sessions at a discount rate.

My experience of floating

Joe Rogan (mentioned above) got me interested in floating after hearing him talk about it on his podcast.

Rogan is a huge advocate of floating so I wanted to see for myself what all the fuss is about.

I searched for my local floatation centre and struck luck as there is one a couple of miles away from where I live. The benefits of living in a big city like London is there is never anything that’s not too far away.

My first experience was enjoyable and I felt great afterwards. Your first time is always a novel experience so I wasn’t fully able to immerse myself in the experience. My mind was very conscious of me floating so I was thinking a lot.

Also, I initially thought that floating should be a meditative experience where you calm the mind into having no thoughts. I was completely wrong on this one and found out later that if you allow your thoughts to run wild you can get real clarity on things you’ve put to the back of your mind.

I’m ten floats in now and the benefits I’ve found are;

  • Total relaxation. Floating on water allows me to completely relax my body in a way I’ve never experienced before. Physically I am relaxed in a way that I can’t experience lying on a surface like my bed. So much so when the float is finished and I begin to move I can hear my bones cracking. I usually sleep deeply the night I’ve floated.
  • Clarity. When I float I just let my mind go and pretty soon it’s focusing on things I’ve got going on my life at the moment. Work, relationships, projects, plans, that kind of thing. I’ll then think about what I need to do to move forward in any of these events.
  • Deep sleep. Maybe it’s a combination of the relaxation, mental clarity or the epsom salts but if I float on an evening I will get a very deep sleep that night. Sometimes I feel lethargic from waking until lunch the following day. You might view this lethargy as bad but to me, it means that my body has gone through complete restoration and revitalisation. The tiredness is merely a byproduct of this.

For me, floating is not something I’ll do every day or even every week but more on an occasional basis, during times when I need to think deeply or relax more.

If you’ve never tried it but are considering giving it a go, my advice is to do it. And perhaps try it a few times before you make your final decision.

Written by Ste Davies

Ste ‘Stephen’ Davies is a freelance digital consultant, traveller, writer, podcaster and speaker based in London, UK. You can reach him here or follow him on Twitter below.

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