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Float Your Body

By Haley Gray

Imagine yourself in the throes of a particularly grueling week. Craving rest and replenishment, you steal a moment to close your eyes and spread out. Noise fades into silence, light into darkness. You begin to drift, weightless in space, not sure if you’re facing up or down, moving or still. Moment by moment your neck- and backaches dissolve. There is no gravity, nothing, no smell or touch or taste. Without a world around you to process, every worry, thought and story bouncing around your head can run its course, unfurling completely and settling to rest.

Sound spiritual? Meditative? Maybe just relaxing? The experience described above is typical of a 90-minute session in a sensory-deprivation chamber, also called a float tank. In the last five years, “floating” has seen a resurgence in popularity. Centers housing sensory-deprivation chambers have flowered along the Front Range, with several now in Denver, a cluster in Colorado Springs and two in Boulder.

The chambers are essentially enclosed baths sealed from light and sound. They’re filled with 10 inches of water as salty as the Dead Sea, giving floaters cork-like buoyancy. The temperature of the water and air is kept at a balmy 94 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly skin temperature. Floaters find themselves in a zero-gravity–like state of total silence and profound darkness, resting naked atop the water.

Ben Gleason, owner of Isolate Flotation Center in Boulder, stands by one of his center’s two Samadhi float tanks. He swears by his own weekly float sessions to counterbalance our society’s sensory overload. (photo by Haley Gray)
Ben Gleason, owner of Isolate Flotation Center in Boulder, stands by one of his center’s two Samadhi float tanks. He swears by his own weekly float sessions to counterbalance our society’s sensory overload. (photo by Haley Gray)

In Boulder, Isolate Flotation Center at 47th and Valmont provides a traditional float experience in soundproofed, fully darkened tanks. Cloud Nine Float Center, at 5290 Arapahoe Ave., has tanks that can play clients’ playlists or house-provided relaxing sound and music options, as well as colored in-tank lights. The cost per session hovers around $30-$60, depending on package deals.

Ben Gleason, owner of Isolate Flotation Center, swears by his weekly floats. “There’s so much sensory input in our culture and there’s so much action,” he says. “We need something that’s equally the opposite [of all that sensory input].” Gleason, 28, is also the manager and front man of his band, Source. Time in the tank, he says, allows him to maintain the mental balance to perform on all cylinders–creatively and otherwise–under the stress of running a business, coordinating the band’s impending album release and organizing a national tour.

Whatever Floats Your Boat

Floaters come to the practice for various reasons. Strung-out students float to reclaim the calm necessary to tackle finals; adventurous meditators quest for new levels of introspection; fibromyalgia patients seek elusive relief from pain. Even individuals hoping to mitigate hypertension have found benefit, according to a study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy in 1982. Dedicated athletes, too, are starting to use isolation flotation to enhance their performance under immense pressure.

Evelyn Stevens, an American professional cyclist, recently broke the women’s Union Cyclist International record for distance traveled in one hour on a velodrome track. She reportedly used 60-minute float sessions to mentally prepare for the excruciating test of athleticism.

Robert Pickels, M.S., lead physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder Sports Medicine and Performance Center, says he occasionally recommends floating to patients. “The interesting side [of isolation float tanks] is that people seem to reach a profound level of relaxation and mindfulness that they’ve never been able to achieve anywhere else, ever,” Pickels says. “Something like that could be the big benefit.”

Pickels says he can’t be sure it is indeed floating that has benefited his patients who have tried it, because exactly how floating affects the brain hasn’t been scientifically proved. That floating has some effect, though, seems clear. Studies published in Applied Psychology and Biofeedback (1983), Psychology & Health (2005), Journal of Applied Psychology (2001) and elsewhere have found float sessions to yield reduced cortisol levels. Cortisol is the hormone that helps the body manage stress and prepare for fight or flight reactions, among other functions. A host of other studies have found that floating improves performance in sports like basketball, archery and darts, where maintaining composure and focus is crucial.

You probably won’t find yourself desperately needing to keep your cool under intense pressure at the free-throw line anytime soon, but what if you could enhance your calm and focus at the office, or even at home? Would you float away from your body and the world as you know it, just for 90 minutes?

How Float Tanks Got Their Start

John C. Lilly, M.D., created the first sensory-deprivation tank at the National Institutes of Mental Health Lab (NIMHL) in 1954 to see what would happen if the brain had no sensory input. Lilly, who had a background in medicine, psychoanalysis and biophysics, tested the tank on himself. He found he was able to relax deeply, but remained conscious and in control (back then, some scientists believed the brain would simply slip into a coma without sensory input).  He reported that as he floated, his mind would create “experience out of stored impressions and memories.”

 

This Polaroid photo, taken Easter Sunday 1991, shows (from left) Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and John C. Lilly, M.D. (Photo By Philip H. Bailey, via Wikimedia Commons)
This Polaroid photo, taken Easter Sunday 1991, shows (from left) Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and John C. Lilly, M.D. (Photo By Philip H. Bailey, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lilly was deeply interested in exploring the self. While he was researching dolphin communication at NIMHL, colleagues introduced him to LSD, which he took a liking to using for experimental explorations of his own psyche. He hoped to find a way to enhance dolphin-human communication.
In 1972, Lilly helped create Samadhi Tank Co., a commercial producer of sensory-deprivation tanks. The floating fad caught on in the ’70s and its popularity peaked with the 1980 sci-fi/horror movie Altered States, starring William Hurt as a mad scientist who accidentally turns himself into an ape-like being. Serious scientific research on sensory deprivation had been gathering momentum, and some believe the goofy blockbuster undermined floating’s credibility, stymieing research.
Around 2010, comedian, martial arts personality and former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan began discussing and praising float tanks on his popular podcast. Some credit Rogan’s evangelizing with restarting the craze. By 2012, new float centers were cropping up all over the country, and in 2013, two opened in Boulder.