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Float On

Arts & Culture | December 7, 2015

Two summers ago, Tufts senior Conor Ward floated naked in a 7×8 foot soundproof tank filled with water and nine hundred pounds of Epsom salt, enveloped in total darkness. After an hour, he emerged feeling more refreshed than he had ever been before. Ward had just experienced “floating” for the first time—a form of sensory deprivation therapy that immerses a person in an environment completely devoid of any visual, auditory, or proprioceptive stimuli.

The cerebral and corporal effects that accompany flotation have been touted as cures for everything from fatigue to fibro myalgia. While some turn to floating in the hopes of managing chronic pain, others seek to deepen a spiritual practice or maintain mental health. In an era of ever-increasing sensory overload, many also float to take a break from the world, relieve stress, and unwind from the day to day.

Ward tried floating two years ago at a center called “Conscious Drift” in Fairfax, California, after getting a Groupon deal with two of his friends. He describes the space inside the tub as infinitely large, due to a lack of reference points. Because the water is heated to body temperature, he had no sense of the relative position of his body parts. “I went to scratch my shoulder and I just missed completely because my proprioception was completely broken down,” Ward said.

During his hour-long session in the tank, Ward initially attempted to focus on his breathing and engage in self-reflection, but accidentally dozed off. “Those forty minutes of sleep were not normal at all. I woke up feeling so refreshed, like I’ve never really experienced before.” When he saw his friends emerge from the flotation pods, Ward recalled, “They seemed really out of it, in a good way. We were all in total ecstasy. Our bodies felt great. Our minds were clean swept. It felt like I had nothing clouding my brain.”

Though popular in other areas, floating has only recently been introduced to the Boston area. This year, Sara Garvin and her husband Colin founded Boston’s only flotation center, FLOAT: Flotation Therapy, in Somerville’s Magoun Square. Since opening FLOAT in February, the Garvins have seen a steady rise in demand with reservations booked out weeks in advance, enough to prompt the construction of two additional flotation tanks in the coming year.

According to Sara, the environment inside the flotation tank automatically triggers a relaxation response that is otherwise difficult to achieve: “Anxiety is a huge problem these days. Our culture is nonstop stress and input, and we aren’t very good at relaxing and de-stressing.”

John Consilvio, facilities operator at FLOAT, used to experience anxiety, but after floating regularly for a year, he says, “My anxiety is the lowest [it’s] ever been by far. It’s like night and day.”

For Consilvio, floating provides an environment free from the mental chatter that he experiences every day. “It gives you a time to be with your own thoughts…and separate yourself with the rest of the world. When you come back [from floating], it’s a lot easier to participate in everything else,” he said. Consilvio describes floating as being the opposite of meditation. “In meditation you use your mind to calm your body. When floating, your body relaxes, which translates into a relaxed mental state.”

While some people float to treat anxiety by reducing stress levels, others turn to floating for its physical benefits. Colby Bostain, float facilitator at iFloat in Westport, Connecticut, has been floating for five to 12 hours a week for the past four years. After several motocross injuries, he developed a large, painful bubble on his knee that he had to continuously get drained. “During the first three or four floats, I didn’t have any physical pain [in my knee]. At this point now, after three or four years of floating regularly, it doesn’t bother me at all,” Bostain said.

According to Bostain, flotation can help to heal tissue and strained muscles from sports injuries. “The Epsom salt pulls lactic acid out of muscles and helps your body to detox. [It’s] actually magnesium sulfate so the magnesium is absorbed into the skin and it helps to repair cartilage,” Bostain said.

As of now, the boundaries of what flotation can accomplish on a regular and consistent basis still remain widely unknown. Its effects vary considerably from individual to individual, with some encountering entirely new states of consciousness and others seeing little to no change at all.

Floating has seen the most success in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles –areas with a high volume of over-stressed and over-paid individuals eager and able to shell out $60 for an hour of repose sans stimuli. For a college student, the high entrance fee can be pretty cost-prohibitive. “I would go back in a heartbeat if it was just 5 bucks,” said Ward.

The first iteration of the immersion tank traces back to the National Institute of Mental Health, where renowned neuroscientist John C. Lilly developed a lightless, soundproof tank to simulate an environment free from any form of external stimulation.

While sensory deprivation was a hot field of study in the 50s, it was not until the late 60s that isolation tanks began being used for purposes other than research. Their adoption as a method of alternative medicine began with a comprehensive rebranding effort: sensory deprivation was renamed Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST), and Lilly’s isolation chambers were redesigned into futuristic “flotation tanks.”

Flotation tanks have seen a surge in popularity as a method of alternative medicine after Lilly’s death in 2001. “Certain trends like yoga and meditation are at their most popular right now because they really work for people. I think flotation fits along with those practices,” Consilvio said.

Perhaps flotation has reemerged because of the ever-increasing inundation of sensory stimuli that we experience on an everyday basis. “Floating lets you rediscover who you are without everything that’s competing for your attention,” Sara says. “If nothing else, floating is a short vacation from your phone.”