Sensory-Deprivation Tanks are the Cadillac of Relaxation

For all intents and purposes, I could be spiraling through the inky silence of outer space. The only sound I can hear is my own breath, glacially slow, regular, and deep. Whether my eyes are open or closed doesn’t matter; I’m in total darkness, and I’m scarcely aware even of my own body, whether I’m upright or on my back, moving or still. My mind is in a deep mode of relaxation yet feels focused—it’s a state I know from meditation, though one that usually emerges only during long, sometimes arduous sessions.

In fact, I’m floating in a sensory-deprivation tank in the basement of the Wellness Center in Minneapolis. Upstairs, clients are getting massages and sauna treatments. After entering a two-room private suite, I scrubbed down and climbed, naked, into a contraption that looks like a giant clothes dryer with a hatch at one end. Inside, a foot of water is heated to the precise temperature of human skin and loaded with 800 pounds of Epsom salts, enough to make a human effortlessly float.

St. Paul–born John Lilly, who would have been a century old at the beginning of this year, developed the first flotation tank. He was a renowned brain-science researcher (who also delved into the possibilities of human-dolphin communication and was a hallucinogenic peer of Timothy Leary, the psychologist and renowned advocate of LSD in psychotherapy) who was fascinated by the prospect of where human consciousness would go when deprived of all the senses. While Lilly went very far out there indeed (the 1980 film Altered States was inspired by his cosmic journeys), he also set off interest in float tanks as tools for relaxation and meditative states that has moved consistently deeper into the mainstream.

In research dating back to the early 1980s, flotation has been found to lower both blood pressure and hormones related to stress—with the effects lasting even after the session was finished. Other studies have showed positive results in treating ailments ranging from hypertension to headaches and chronic pain. More than 90 percent of floaters in one 1990s study described the experience as deeply relaxing, and in one small trial participants posted higher scores on a creativity test after tank sessions.     

Minneapolis’ Richard Bonk first floated more than three decades ago—he calls it “the most profoundly relaxing experience I’ve ever had.” He originated the tank at the Wellness Center and now is a partner in St. Paul’s Awaken For Wellness. That center has newly installed a “float room” that offers the experience in a 7-foot-tall space both easier to access than traditional tanks and less daunting for those with claustrophobia (they also have a conventional tank that I’ve floated in as well).

While some dedicated meditators might balk at the notion, to me, flotation represents a sort of shortcut to a slowed-down, deeply restful yet aware state that is pretty much the antithesis of our usual information-drenched daily existence. During my floats, about 10 minutes in the tank was equivalent to a half hour of sitting meditation. Bonk also notes that the flotation industry is moving toward instituting national safety and sanitization standards similar to those for swimming pools and spas to further mainstream the practice.

When soft music finally filters into my room at the Wellness Center to signal the end of my flotation session, I’m mildly shocked. If I had to guess, I would have said that an hour had passed. In reality, it was 90 minutes (Bonk refers to this effect as “time dilation”). I climb out and shower away the streaks of salt that cover my body, unhurried, with a deep sense of calm and serenity. That night, I have the best sleep that I can ever remember, as though part of me was still floating in that enveloping and worry-free void.

Want to learn more about sensory-deprivation tanks? Watch the documentary Float Nation, which explores this history behind floating and its recent resurgence in popularity.