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Why a sensory deprivation tank might actually be the secret to de-stressing


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As a very wise friend once advised me, the key to staying sane in New York City is finding your “little pockets of zen.” For some, it’s the running paths in Central Park or the perfect corner table at a neighborhood coffee shop. For me, it’s always been my yoga studio (shout out to Laughing Lotus, possibly the most positive energy-filled spot ever)that is, until I found Q Flatiron, a wellness center tucked into a nondescript office building on Fifth Avenue, and added a grand number of two serene spots in my Manhattan life.

Q is the kind of place where those with a penchant for alternative healing treatments could spend a very long time (and a lot of money). Founded by husband and wife duo Noran Malouf and Jeanne Perkins, the center offers everything from acupuncture and nutrition counseling to crystal healing therapy and a SlimLine Sauna Pod to facilitate detoxification. But the reason I keep going back? To float.

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Photo: Pure Float
Photo: Pure Float

So what is exactly is floating?

You’ve probably read a thing or two about floating (aka sensory deprivation flotation therapy), including on this very site. It’s trending these days in a major way, with celebrities like Susan Sarandon apparently swearing by it and new flotation centers opening around the country every day.

So what exactly is it? Flotation tanks come in several shapes and sizes, but they all basically work the same way: The tanks are filled with warm water and a whole lot of Epsom salts (about 2.2 pounds per 1/3 gallon of water). The floateryup, that’s youenters the tank and, because of the salinity, is super-buoyant in the water. Think of it as a gravity-free sensation, only without the spacesuit. It’s also totally silent and dark in the tank; according to the science, this freedom from the effects of gravity and other sensory stimulation allows for rapid stress release and deep relaxation that triggers the body’s healing process.

“One hour of floating has the restorative effect of about four hours of sleep”

As Perkins describes it, “Research shows that floating measurably reduces blood pressure and heart rate, while also lowering the levels of stress-related chemicals in the body. One hour of floating has the restorative effect of about four hours of sleep.” And there’s fieldwork to back up those claims. A clinical study found that flotation does in fact reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, help relieve chronic pain, and improve sleep quality.

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What does floating actually feel like?

The first time I went to float at Q (on the recommendation of a holistic facialist), I was nervous. I’d seen pictures of little, pod-like flotation tanks that were eerily reminiscent of coffins. I don’t usually suffer from claustrophobia, but the idea of being trapped in a dark, watery casket was on my mind. But then I was led into their roomy flotation chamber and my entire outlook changed.

Photo: Q Flatiron
Photo: Q Flatiron

At Q,  the tank itself is a room big enough to stand up in and wide enough to fit at least two people in the pool (though I’ve never triedI’m more of a solo-healing type of girl). It also comes with an outer dressing room and shower. After rinsing off and stepping into the pool, I tentatively laid down in the water and immediately felt the salts at work keeping my body nice and buoyant.

It’s similar to floating in the Dead Sea, only without the sun and mountains and tourists.

The water is less than a foot deep, so drowning would be a real feat. I settled in and turned off the lights (note to claustrophobes: You can turn them back on from inside the tank at any point if you start to freak out). Music was playing at first but eventually stopped, the idea being that you’re eased into total sensory deprivation.

During my hour in the tank, I went in and out of ultra-deep relaxation. At first I was fidgety. I kept banging my arms against the sides of the tank and pushing off the edge with my foot only to find my head bonking against the other side several moments later. But eventually I settled down and, after a few moments of quiet mantras and deep breathing, I found myself floating into the meditative state of semi-consciousness, not unlike what you feel when you’re on the edge between being awake and asleep.

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Photo: Q Flatiron
Photo: Q Flatiron

Then comes the post-floating buzz

When the music returned and the gentle, star-like twinkling lights came up again, I was surprised. I won’t try to pretend like I chilled for the entire hour without some more fidgeting in between, but overall the time passed relatively quickly and I felt far more comfortable than I’d expected. I slowly stepped out of the tank, showered off the salt (I managed to leave some on my face, which rapidly crystallized on my eyelashes), and headed to the lobby where I sat in a calm, semi-dazed state while sipping some herbal tea.

I’m the kind of girl who has spent her fair share of time at ashrams and other yoga and meditation retreats, but never had any single meditation session left me feeling quite so utterly relaxed and physically stress-free. “We recommend that you wait at least 15 minutes after your float before going back out on the street,” explained the receptionist. “You know, to prepare yourself.” Um, yeah, I needed that.

I’m the kind of girl who has spent her fair share of time at ashrams and other yoga and meditation retreats, but never had any single meditation session left me feeling quite so utterly relaxed and physically stress-free.

Of course, as with all good things, the secret appears to be in consistency. Sure, a single session ($115 at Q) will provide benefits, but a regular float practice is how you really go deep. “We strongly recommend that first-timers do two or three sessions within a couple of weeks,” says Perkins. “Each time you come, your mind and body respond more easily and powerfully to the float, so relaxation is more immediate and much deeper. There’s a cumulative effect.” For that reason, Q offers packages of three sessions for $180.

As to whether I’m ready to commit to regular floating sessions? I’ll be able to answer that question once my inaugural floating bliss wears off. In the meantime, you can find me staring longingly at my apartment bathtub, wishing it was a little bigger and much saltier.

Q Flatiron, 224 Fifth Avenue, 3rd Floor, New York, NY, 10001, 212-213-8520, qflatiron.com

Another wellness ritual that some think you should turn into a habit? Sound baths. Here’s what you need to know about the (sonic) booming trend.