Photo by Sam Fathallah

It’s dark. I’m lying in a tub of salt water with only my thoughts for company. But soon, even they drift off. There are no distractions. No traces of the outside world. This is floatation therapy.

Floatation tanks, also called sensory deprivation tanks, are large chambers filled with about a foot of water and more than 700 pounds of Epsom salts that make it impossible not to float. The dark, quiet environment temporarily removes the senses and makes it easier to meditate.

My session required little preparation. I was told not to come too hungry or too full to prevent my stomach from “doing its thing” while trying to relax. I was also advised to avoid caffeine for a few hours beforehand, so my morning latte had to wait.

When I arrived, I was shown to a private room with a shower, floatation tank, and basic amenities like towels, a robe, and earplugs. After I showered and climbed in, it took a few minutes to adjust to the feeling of being weightless. I didn’t know what to do with my arms, and my feet kept bumping the sides. I had a stuffy nose that day, so with the earplugs in, all I could hear was my ragged breathing.

Eventually, the initial confusion wore off, and I drifted into what I think was the meditative state strived for. It also might have just been a nap—I’m not quite sure.

But floating is more than lying in salty water. It can help with arthritis, back or neck pain, and various stress-related ailments. The Epsom salts are wonderful for hair, skin, and even aching muscles. However, the greatest benefits aren’t tangible.

“When you cut off all of your sensory information, you get this disembodying feeling,” says Joseph Gauthier, meditation teacher at Lamrim Kadampa Buddhist Center in Davenport, Iowa. “I can imagine that kind of meditation is good for recognizing your mind.”

Most experts recommend floating at least two or three times to get the full effect. The first time is largely getting used to the experience rather than reaping the meditative benefits. Floating regularly can reduce stress levels, heighten the senses, and improve creativity.

While my first float included a small bout of panic during which I sat up and wondered what in the world I was doing, my second float was more successful. I knew what to expect, making it more of a meditation session rather than a floating nap.

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