Does Flotation Therapy Work?

For the active, distracted, and routinely high-strung, it can offer a deeply healing experience. Believe me, I tried it.


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Photograph Courtesy of True Rest Float Spa

When I first sprawled out in the dark, silent pod of salt water, I felt weird. Naked, weightless, slimy, and weird. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed (weird). The only perceptible noise was my own breathing (weird). But eventually, the strangeness dissolved, and, there, in the plastic cocoon designed to strip all sensation away, I drifted into a state of deep relaxation. 

Weird, right?

Within the past decade, flotation therapy has emerged as the trend du jour in alternative health. It typically consists of a 60-minute float in a lightless, soundproof tank of skin-temperature water mixed with 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt. Over the years, it has been linked to a variety of benefits for conditions both physical (chronic back pain, muscle soreness, and poor athletic performance) and mental (stress, depression, and PTSD).

Like many, it was the athletic aspect that piqued my interest. About a year ago, I’d read that professional athletes from NBA All-Star Stephen Curry to endurance cyclists were turning to flotation therapy for psychological training and muscle recovery. As a mountain biker and hockey player (by all means an amateur in both), I thought it sounded up my alley — and it was, but more on my experience later. 

The origins of flotation therapy date to the 1950s when neuroscientist John C. Lilly, working at the National Institute of Mental Health, built an isolation tank to study the effects of sensory deprivation on the human brain. Ten years into his studies, Lilly devolved into pseudoscience as he began incorporating LSD.

In the ’70s, Peter Suedfeld, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, began studying the effects of isolation tanks more rigorously, and over the past several decades, he and his colleagues have published studies linking isolation tanks — wisely re-dubbed Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) — to boosts in creativity and concentration, along with reductions in stress, anxiety, and chronic pain. 

Anecdotally, over the years, subjects of flotation studies have also overwhelmingly reported feelings of relaxation, increased optimism, and improved sleep. Historically, most studies have been small, and questions about the far-reaching benefits of flotation therapy remain.

Regardless of the still somewhat fuzzy research, the floating trend is growing fast. According to a mid-2016 industry survey, nearly 150 float centers throughout the world have opened over the past five years, and over 100 more were expected to open by 2017. 

Personally, I can see why.

Over the course of three 60-minute sessions at True Rest Float Spa in Farmington Hills, I experienced a great deal of what flotation therapy purports to do, but not all at once. According to Jeff Krause, co-owner of True Rest’s Farmington Hills location, this isn’t unusual.

During my first session, I relaxed, but not without making some rookie mistakes. It took time to find the most comfortable posture for my arms and neck, but by the end of the float, I felt refreshed, less tense, and downright happier. I wanted more.

During my second session, which I’d hobbled into the day after a hockey game, I left feeling lighter, less sore, and again, remarkably happy. I still wanted more.

And during my third session, I experienced a profound relaxation that was — and as a journalist, I don’t use this word often — euphoric. Aside from a genuine release of tension and stress, I felt, dare I say, a sense of deep happiness and unity.

My experiences weren’t atypical. After my floats, I asked a few fellow True Rest patrons about their sessions for comparison.

“I am very on the go, and I have a very hard time relaxing,” says Francesca Noland, a new floater. “But the first float I ever had in that pod, I relaxed completely to the point where my muscles were twitching, and it was the most euphoric feeling probably I’ve ever had.”

Julianna Jaffe, a psychotherapist who’s floated at True Rest and has referred her patients to the spa, says her first float left her “comatose.”

“I was transfixed,” Jaffe says. “And I loved that it didn’t involve another human being. Therapy is very dependent on who your therapist is. This isn’t dependent on anybody else. It is completely and totally your solo experience.”

Personally, I think that’s what I enjoyed most about my floats. Despite a few initial worries about claustrophobia kicking in, I liked being enclosed in a tank left with nothing but my thoughts. No phone, no texts, no nothing — just me. The experience was entirely my own, and at the end of each session, I genuinely felt happier, like I’d done something unequivocally good for my physical and emotional well-being. 

And if that’s weird, then I definitely don’t want to be normal.

To schedule a float, visit truerest.com.

Float Spa FAQs

Is there really no light or sound in the pod?
Up to you. At True Rest Float Spa, lights and sound are in your hands. You can choose to turn them on or off for however long you wish.

I’m claustrophobic. Do I have to stay in the pod the whole time?
You can open or close the lid to your float pod at any time, but to grasp the full experience, it’s recommended to try the full 60 minutes.

Is the water clean?
After each float, a purification system filters the water. The salt water solution is also inherently sterile.

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