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Is sensory deprivation the key to relaxation? My test in a float tank

Fans of sensory deprivation tanks say floating can bring you peace and soothe physical ailments. I tested one to see what it feels like.
/ Source: TODAY

A few months ago, a mysterious new business opened in my neighborhood: a “flotation therapy center” offering one-hour sessions in sensory deprivation tanks.

“Aren’t you curious?” beckoned the sandwich board from the sidewalk, as did the eerie blue light that glowed from the second-story windows.

“Sensory deprivation” didn’t exactly sound appealing — isn’t that, um, a very classic torture technique? — but these isolation chambers were being advertised as portals to calm and relaxation. “The guy told me it’s like meditating for years,” one friend said after taking a tour. “It’s wild!” texted another, sending me a picture of a space-age looking pod.

A shortcut to meditation that looked straight out of the Matrix? Obviously, I booked a visit.

WATCH: Here's what it's like to float in a sensory deprivation tank

I didn’t know what to expect when I climbed the flight of stairs above a rowdy German beer hall and opened the door into Brooklyn’s LIFT/Next Level Floats, but I was immediately struck by how good everything smelled. “This place smells really good,” I said, at least three times.

The atmosphere was very Zen and spa-like — I was welcomed into a neutral-toned relaxation lounge with tea and comfortable couches, and shown the various float tank options. There’s the classic “Evolution Float Pod” with a clamshell lid and the “Ocean Float Room,” a more spacious chamber with a ceiling full of “stars” (a classy version of the glow-in-the-dark stickers I plastered above my childhood bed) for those worried about feeling shut in.

Floatation tank
A float tank at LIFT/Next Level Floats in Brooklyn, New York.Rebecca Davis / TODAY

Most people I’ve talked to about floating worry they’ll feel claustrophobic — and I get it; I mean, I remember “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer,” where that girl goes for a tanning session and the serial killer zip-ties her into a pod and she roasts alive. But, the minuscule odds of that happening aside, I found nothing claustrophobic about being in a float tank.

In fact, almost everything I thought about floating turned out to be wrong.

First, a gentle-voiced staffer walked me through the basics: The tank is only filled with about 10 inches of water, which is kept at the temperature of your skin so you don’t feel the difference between yourself and the water. It's saturated with 1000 pounds of Epsom salt to make you buoyant, like an artificial version of the Dead Sea. While you can listen to music in the tank (they pipe in a very New Age soundtrack), they recommend you go full sensory deprivation, turning the lights off, closing your eyes, and donning ear plugs to block out any noise (and keep the salt out of your ears).

Floatation tank
Nervous before trying out the tank.Rebecca Davis / TODAY

I was a little nervous, but once I climbed in the pod felt surprisingly big. Even when I pulled the lid closed, there was plenty of room above me and to my sides. Lying on my back, I could stretch out completely and not touch the tank.

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The water, lukewarm to the touch, was very comfortable — it felt like sitting in a bathtub for a long time where you stop noticing the temperature. A large button inside the tank controlled the lights, so when I hit it, the tank dimmed to complete darkness. This wasn’t creepy at all, it was more like that moment on an airplane when they dim the lights so everyone can go to sleep. Then, a very wise-sounding woman came over the speaker inside the pod, telling me to enjoy my float.

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I lay back and tried to relax. At first, even my body resisted — I felt myself keeping my back arched and stiff as I instinctively held myself above the water. When I realized this was totally unnecessary, since the salt in the water makes you weightless, I was thrilled by how it felt to really let go and just float.

But then, I couldn’t turn my mind off. You’re supposed to be relaxing, I thought. Relax! Why aren’t you relaxed? I couldn’t stop worrying about wasting my precious time in the tank, imagining how it would be over and how I would have spent the whole time stressing out about how much time I had left.

“It’s really common for most of us to think we should or shouldn’t feel a certain way in certain circumstances, and things that could be seen as inherently relaxing are actually not relaxing at all for some people,” therapist and mindfulness expert Adrienne Glasser later told me. “The way to work with that is to try to accept whatever you’re noticing.”

Floatation tank
Water in the tanks at LIFT is saturated with 1000 pounds of Epsom salt, so you float on the surface.Rebecca Davis / TODAY

I must have embraced my swirling thoughts, because before I knew it, my session was over. Whether I’d fallen asleep or just totally zoned out, I had the distinct feeling that I’d been out of it for a huge chunk of time. I left the tank feeling calm and a little spacey, like I’d woken up from a long nap. I even had a hard time putting sentences together.

Float tanks aren’t a new phenomenon — they were invented back in the ‘50s for research around the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain, and later studies have focused on their therapeutic benefits. Recent research suggests that floating may help relieve symptoms in people with chronic pain, anxiety and fibromyalgia, among other conditions.

Then there are all the not-so-scientific benefits, like how floating makes you feel.

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“I had one guy say that he tapped into frequencies while he was floating — I don’t even fully understand what that means, but that’s something that he experienced,” LIFT co-owner Gina Antioco told me. “I actually had an out-of-body experience when I did a two-hour session.” When we talked, Antioco had been floating every day and was planning to spend an overnight session in the tank.

These days, float therapy is enjoying a surge in popularity, and the number of centers in North America has nearly tripled over the last few years. “Now we are on target to hit about 300,” LIFT co-owner David Leventhal told me. “New float centers are opening up everywhere.”

Sports teams like the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks have brought float tanks in for their athletes, and there’s even a de facto celebrity spokesperson for the movement — comedian Joe Rogan, perhaps best known for his role on “Fear Factor” chaperoning adults eating bugs on television — who has proudly endorsed sensory deprivation. When I got off a flight from Portland, Oregon, this summer, I even stood in line behind a woman sporting a tote bag from the annual float conference held there.

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You might be able to chalk up a chunk of this interest to the fact that more and more people are seeking mindfulness, and that floating is so appealing because it offers such an extreme way to unplug.

But time in the tank isn’t cheap — a single float at LIFT is $99, though you can buy packages for more like $65 per session, depending on how often you want to go. Price-wise, it’s on par with a massage, and in my limited experience, the benefit was about the same: very relaxing in the moment, but it wore off by the morning. Float regulars say you have to keep up the practice, like meditation, to enjoy long-lasting effects, but if you don’t have the cash or the access to sustain the habit, you can channel some of the benefits at home, for free.

“There is easy access to experiences like this by practicing mindfulness and even meditation, and doing that in your own home,” Glasser says. “It is just taking a pause in your day to day…That’s much cheaper and really easily accessible.”