Can You Really ‘Float’ Your Way to Bliss?
We investigate the truth behind floating meditation.
Published Oct 15, 2017 7:00 AM
Imagine floating, weightless, in your own private, soundproof, epsom salt-filled bath with the lights off. Sensory deprivation is arguably the fastest way to block out the world and get intimate with your thoughts. This type of floating meditation practice is gaining hold across the country, due to its encouragement of complete and utter relaxation, as well as contemplative energy.
“Floating changed my life,” says Joel Granik, founder of NYC-based meditation and acupuncture studio Floating Lotus. “It was something that introduced me to different kinds of meditative states by exposing me to them firsthand. What I found with floating was a fast track, bringing me into a deep state without knowing what I was doing.”
While the floating craze is gaining in popularity, it’s not new to the seasoned yogi—floating meditation was designed as a contemplative practice in the 1950s by neurophysicist Dr. John Lilly, as he performed studies to discover streams of consciousness and altered states of mind. Now, with a new age-y twist and current technologies, the floating meditation game has been elevated to a whole new level.
“Floating allows people to just pay attention to their mind. And it calms your mind,” says Granik. “It slows down your thinking and allows thoughts to come at a slower pace.” The floating meditation sweet spot—between consciousness and sleeping—is called the hypnagogic state, and Granik describes it as the moment when your thinking stops. You often “come to” with a start.
Along with the traditional benefits of mediation, floating mediation also offers nonconventional perks—thanks, in part, to physics. “Being in zero gravity relaxes all of your muscles,” says Granik. “You’re always fighting against gravity, even lying in your bed, but floating alleviates all of the joints that are sticky or painful.”
Don’t believe it? Granik counts major athletes as clients, who use floating as a visualization tool to improve their game. Tom Brady is a major fan of floating meditation, and even has a pod in his Boston home to help elevate his football prowess. But while floating is undoubtedly helpful for relaxation, does it actually qualify as meditation? Not quite, according to world-renowned meditation guru and New York Times best-selling author Sharon Salzberg.
“One of my main hopes is that meditation is something people can do anywhere, using breath as an anchor,” says Salzberg. “As tempers are flaring around you, you can settle your attention on the breath. It’s a totally portable resource for you. You can’t count on the tank.”
Meditation, by definition, is the discipline of harnessing and retraining thought patterns, and is meant to be a little uncomfortable. So, is a warm, relaxing bathtub cheating in a sense?
“I think there are two aspects of traditional meditation practice that are compromised with float therapy,” says Brooklyn-based meditation teacher Adina Saperstein. “One is the posture. Most traditional meditation is practiced seated, and taught with a very disciplined alignment of the posture. It’s the first component usually taught in meditation, as a state of being both upright and erect and alert and engaged—and at the same time, relaxed and at ease.” This is an important element missed in floating mediation, due to the fact that you’re trying to mirror this principle in your thoughts—engaged, alert, and yet, at ease.
The second, according to Saperstein, is the absence of distractions in a floating meditation room. Half the meditation battle is dealing with—and overcoming—daily annoyances that are outside of your control. “They help us cultivate a level of concentration and broader awareness and mindfulness that we can take with us and maintain out in the world,” she says. “There are stories of yogis who practice in a cave and achieve advanced states of enlightenment, but as soon as they leave and come into town, they are snapping at people and behaving badly. So the tank is the cave, in this case. What are the chances that you’ll be able to keep that state out in the world?”
All of the meditation experts agree that it is helpful to be alone with your thoughts, whether in a seated position, taking a walk, or within an isolated room. The only question is the level of consciousness and number of distractions—or lack thereof—that the environment affords that offers the most benefits. A true test of meditation, according to guru Salzberg, is how you behave outside of your practice.
“I think it’s great if people find ways to facilitate their meditation in order to make it easier,” she says. “The concern, though, is you then get dependent on that very thing, so you can’t bring it out so readily into your everyday life.”