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Taking The Body Off The Mind With Immersion Therapy

There’s no need for Wi-Fi when you do immersion therapy in a float tank. No chirping notifications or multitasking. And sometimes there’s not even a you.

What initially began in the 1950s as scientific research examining the benefits of sensory deprivation, floatation therapy has been re-conceptualized around the therapeutic rewards of stillness and intense relaxation while supported on salt-saturated water. Also called restricted environmental stimulation technique (REST), the use of soundproof, lightproof, and temperature-controlled floatation pods are providing users with calm and rejuvenation that’s hard to match anywhere else.

Floatation enthusiasts describe experiences lying in the solitude and darkness surrounded by water and air dialed closely to the temperature of the body — referred to as “skin-receptor neutral” — as having a range of positive effects from encouraging better sleep to reducing muscle tension and general anxiety.

“You can just fully let go in there,” says Christine Chankin, who floats frequently in her hometown of San Francisco. “The relaxation I feel when floating in the quiet is so completely immersive, it strips away everything — my arms, legs, mind everything drifts off. You kind of lose track of your body and any tension you had. There’s nowhere else I can get that weightless sensation.”

Beatrice Society - Woman laying in a float tank

From Research To Relaxation

The practice of effortlessly floating on Epsom salt water has its origins in 1954 invented by groundbreaking scientist and physician John C. Lilly, who created the first immersion device as an isolation tank to study altered states of human consciousness. An American psychoanalyst and neuroscientist, Lilly’s efforts researching the effects of sensory deprivation inspired the classic 1980’s film Altered States, a hallucinatory plunge into the use of isolative floating combined with mind-altering drugs to explore the inner world of the mind. Lilly conducted similar lab experiments, which he participated in himself, in some cases taking LSD while suspended upright in a device that looked more like a carnival dunk tank than the sleek immersion therapy tubs of today. His invention required operators to monitor air supply and the use of a bulky breathing helmet. Among other thought-provoking data he collected, which Lilly documented in the work Center of the Cyclone, Lilly found his time in the tank to be physically rejuvenating and relaxing.

Lilly’s invention caught on as a commercial product two decades later in 1972 when computer programmer Glenn Perry attended a workshop given by Lilly and was inspired to create a modernized consumer version of the isolation tank. Perry’s spin on the device upped the salt content by three times to the current standard of 10 percent Epsom salt — or roughly 900 to 1,000 pounds of salt in a foot of water — allowing users to float with ease on the surface without the need for air supply or a breathing helmet.

Floating As Therapy

Current immersion therapy tanks are a far cry from Lilly’s 1954 lab invention. Today, REST therapy is a luxurious and spa-like experience compared to those early tanks. Widely available in many cities across the world, places like Float Toronto are providing immersive experiences that present a whole host of therapeutic advantages, from deep relaxation to pain reduction.  

Beatrice Society - An open float tank with glowing green light

“Modern society has created a situation where the human nervous system lives in a world of near-constant stimulation,” say the specialists at Float Toronto. “Rarely does our brain and body have the opportunity to relax and disconnect from all this stimulation. As a result, chronic physical and mental health conditions have become ubiquitous, with over a quarter of the population suffering from pain, anxiety, depression, and other ailments exacerbated by stress.”

Celebrities from Joe Rogan to Steph Curry have espoused the advantages of immersion therapy. Visiting the immersion center Reboot Float & Cryo Spa in San Francisco, NBA player Curry was interviewed by SportsCenter and discussed the benefits of his frequent floating.

“It’s an opportunity to relax and get away from all the stresses on the court and in life,” says Curry, noting the release of muscle tension aided by a high magnesium content in the water. “When I first get in, I see where my mind goes, a decision I might need to make in my life. Then you just process and take it in.”

One study also suggests that REST floatation therapy has potential as a modality for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder (alongside current traditional therapies), citing randomized pilot trial results that showed 37% of the treatment group reaching full remission at post-treatment.

A common refrain from fans of immersion therapy is the out-of-body sensation of floating in space. There’s a removal of all outside noise that allows people to fully relax and experience boundlessness, as avid immersion therapy promoter Joe Rogan aptly describes:

“You’re experiencing your brain detached from all the input of your body,” says Rogan. “You feel like you’re flying through infinity.”

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