Imagine yourself floating in nearly 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt inside a lightproof and soundproof chamber. The scenario creates a zero-gravity environment in a shallow one-person pool. Because the air and water are the same temperature —93.5 degrees— the feeling of a body boundary fades.
This meditative journey into willful sensory deprivation is called “floatation therapy” and one only need visit Mountain Float Spa in the Village of New Paltz for the experience.
“You forget where your body ends and the water begins,” said Joseph La Penna ’94 (Theatre Arts), who with his wife, Grace, opened the spa in 2014.
Seeking a more peaceful lifestyle than they could find in New York City, Joey and Grace moved to New Paltz. Soon after, Grace’s parents introduced them to floatation therapy. The couple was moved by the experience and would frequently travel to New Jersey, Long Island and Rochester, N.Y. for the treatment. Grace floated all throughout her pregnancy since floating helps pregnant women escape the added weight of pregnancy, taking the strain off the body and spine.
“Our lives were transformed,” said Joey. “Having worked in film and television for years, floatation therapy was a revelatory discovery for me as a way to balance both hemispheres of the brain and find a more creative focus.”
Individually and as a couple, the La Pennas were so profoundly affected by the therapy that they made it their mission to bring it to their community, leading the couple to open the first floatation center in the Hudson Valley.
History of Floating
In 1954, neuropsychiatrist John Lilly started experimenting with isolation tanks to understand the effect of sensory deprivation on the brain. In the 1980s, the therapeutic benefits of floating were recognized and the tanks were made commercially available. Their popularity waned, but they made a comeback in the 2000s as the search for alternative therapies to age-old problems became a more mainstream pursuit.
In the last few years, floatation therapy has grown in popularity, with float centers springing up across the United States. Enthusiasts claim floating transports the mind and body, offering profound relaxation and a variety of other benefits, from pain reduction to enhanced creativity and better sleep. A one-hour float is equal to four hours of deep sleep, according to La Penna.
Research now indicates that floating is a form of sensory enhancement, not deprivation, because it allows people to tune in to their bodies—especially their heartbeat and breathing.
“It becomes an ideal environment for mindful meditation,” said La Penna. “For anyone who may have trouble focusing on their breath outside of the tank, floating makes it a lot easier to enter into a meditative state.”
The Spa Experience
Clients of Mountain Float Spa are greeted in the lobby, where they remove their shoes and sign a waiver before heading to a private float chamber. Each room houses a bench, stall shower and the tub, which holds about 10-12 inches of salted water.
After removing clothes, makeup and jewelry, clients shower and shampoo—an important step to keep the water completely clean. Earplugs are provided so salt doesn’t enter the ears, and clients can choose to have soft light and music, or not.
“Some clients may have some initial discomfort,” La Penna said. “The Epsom salt will move to the area of the body that needs the most work, or is in pain, and it might feel uncomfortable at first, but then your body releases and moves to a state of comfort.”
Mountain Float Spa complies with stringent health and safety regulations. The water in each cabin is far cleaner than the water in a swimming pool or hot tub, because the high concentration of salt creates a sterile environment in which microorganisms cannot survive. Floatation rooms also include several well-engineered sterilization systems that filter and sanitize the water between floats.
The combination of the near-zero gravity state of the body and the reduction in external sensory input to the brain—reduced light, reduced sound, reduced awareness of one’s body—results in mind-body restoration. Years of well-documented tests show that floatation therapy not only has an immediate effect on pain relief and elimination of stress, it also promotes “whole-brain” thinking. People suffering from injuries, illnesses, and back problems in particular have extensively praised the treatment.
“You’re gravity free, your spine can just stretch and do what it needs to do,” said La Penna. “Some of our clients with fibromyalgia come out crying because it’s the first time in their lives they are able to lie down pain free.”
The reasons people engage in flotation sessions vary. Some are looking for relief from injuries or chronic pain, while others are seeking a spiritual experience or a way to focus their mind on a creative project. Many are simply looking for relaxation without the need to fight gravity, take in external information, or become bombarded by general anxiety.
I kind of feels like, if you could imagine, I don't want to say Jello because I feel like Jello has too thick of a consistency. It still feels nice and soft like water... but you’re floating on top of it. Even if you try to sink, and you try to push yourself to the bottom, you just pop right back up. So, it’s definitely a unique feeling. I’ve never felt like this before.
“Among our most-loved clients are our veterans,” said La Penna. “Floating is really good for PTSD, and so many of them come to the spa in conjunction with the other therapies that they work on with their doctors.”
As a way of giving back, Mountain Float Spa joined Zephyr Float, a newly opened flotation spa in Kingston, last December by scheduling a day when veterans could float free of charge.
“A lot of our vets are coming back scarred,” said La Penna. “Usually our veterans will say the first time, or the only time, they’ve been able to quiet their brain is when they are floating.”
The spa also offers a student special during the week. Called the “Study Buddy,” the discount encourages students to schedule time with another student and float at the same time, splitting the cost of the service.
“As an alum, I love seeing current students come into the spa and experience this for themselves,” said La Penna. “But they’re not the only locals interested. The floats are especially popular with rock climbers and athletes since Epsom salt reduces lactic acid buildup after a workout.”