White, boxy and equipped with a futuristic exit hatch, the Samadhi sensory deprivation tank resembles a space pod. It's filled with 800 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in 150 gallons of body-temperature water — a solution so saline that you couldn't sink even if you tried. I'm scheduled to spend the next hour bobbing in the warm, slick saltwater, but as I peer into the Samadhi's pitch-black interior, few experiences seem less appealing.
"I don't want to say you're going to have a trip-out experience," says Spencer Fossier, owner of NOLA Float Tanks (3013 20th St., Suite A, 504-289-4630; www.nolafloattanks.com). "Even though that's exactly what it's designed to do."
Fossier prefers to focus on the therapeutic mental and physical aspects of float tanks — also known as sensory deprivation or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST). He visited a Houston float tank in 2013 as an alternate treatment for his attention deficit disorder and found the experience "life-changing." A year ago, Fossier opened NOLA Float Tanks. Located in a squat ranch house of white-painted brick, it is the only commercial float business in the greater New Orleans area.
"I notice better posture alignment, a calmer temperament, greater ease of thinking and increased productivity," says Fossier, who floats once or twice a week. "I use it as a form of physical therapy, and it's good for pain relief. ... I've been working hard not to put off that hallucinogenic vibe."
But the hallucinogenic vibe persists, thanks in part to neuroscientist (and avid psychedelic drug user) John C. Lilly, who developed the first isolation tank at the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1950s. It also persists because the float tank experience is, for lack of a better word, trippy. Or so I've read. But when I'm alone in the dark, humid tank, listening to my heartbeat and the occasional peristaltic squirt as my lunch is digested, the only thing I feel is bored.
This is a common reaction, according to Nichole Brining, a mental health nurse at the Magnolia Institute who has floated once before. "The first 15 minutes, I noticed an overwhelming sensation of I am bored, and I just can't stand it," she says. "You don't enjoy your own company. But that boredom needs to be the mechanics to get the process started."
Brining tried floating because she thought it might help her joint pain (it did). But her benefits went beyond the physical. She found the meditative aspect much more profound than she expected. Float tanks provide an atmosphere conducive to reflection, she says.
"That kind of introspection is very intimate and it [stays] with you for a while," she says. "It's just you and your demons. If you do have some issues to work out, if you're going through a sudden shift, a float tank is a safe zone, an hour of 'you' time that's very therapeutic."
"It's basically a therapy session with yourself," Fossier says.
Research bears out that point. A 2005 meta-analysis published in Psychology & Health by the University of Amsterdam and Leiden University shows REST is just as useful for stress relief as tools like relaxation exercises or biofeedback.
According to a study by the University of British Columbia, published in Psychology & Health in 1999, "cortisol, ... ephinephrine, heart rate and blood pressure, all directly associated with stress, consistently decrease" after REST. The therapy is used to treat people with chronic pain, depression, addiction, autism, Alzheimer's syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. Some health insurance flexible spending accounts reimburse their clients' float tank expenses.
Brandon Bergeron, a personal trainer and founder of Cypress Fitness, found out about float tanks from another trainer. He sometimes recommends them to clients because of their physical benefits.
"I was interested in how it might benefit exercise recovery or stress reduction in general," says Bergeron, who estimates he has floated six to eight times. "One thing we preach at the gym is if you can't recover from the exercise, you won't see the benefit. It's when you recover and adapt to the stressor that you get stronger. I wanted to see how the float tank fit into that."
Some research shows the body can absorb magnesium (a mineral that aids recovery and is found in the float tank's Epsom salts) through the skin. Many people are magnesium deficient. However, Bergeron says floating should be viewed as an adjunct to proper diet and sleep, not a replacement.
"I would put it in the same category as a massage," he says. "A lot of the studies back up a simple effect of relaxation, and I think that is key — advocating it as a general way to relax. I compare it to meditation."
There's a crucial difference between sensory deprivation and meditation, however: While deep relaxation occasionally can be part of meditation, with float tanks it's all but guaranteed. More than 90 percent of floaters find the experience "deeply relaxing," according to a 1997 analysis of more than 1,000 descriptions of sensory deprivation. According to the University of British Columbia study, the brain emits theta waves during REST — the same brain waves that are activated by meditation and REM sleep. Floating is like being asleep and awake at the same time.
At least that's how it felt to me. After 22 minutes (yes, I got out of the Samadhi and checked the clock) of bobbing around in the hot, stuffy water box, I opened the hatch. It wasn't total sensory deprivation, but it was enough to trigger those theta waves. I spent the remainder of my hour in a trancelike stupor, supported by the water's warm, amniotic grip. The float tank doesn't just mute your senses. It mutes your mind.
So that was my experience. But on the subject of float tank expectations, Fossier prefers to remain mute.
"I don't want to label any tanks," he says. "You go in there, do what you want to do and get out. Some people want to listen to music. Some take naps or reflect on their lives. It's all of that. It's not just one experience."