by Luke Stoddard Nathan
Village Voice reporter Michael Hutchison entered Tranquility Tanks, a small float center within the East-West Center for Holistic Health, in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. Staff led him to a private room, where “soft lights played through prisms casting rainbows along the walls” and an air ionizer discharged purportedly-salubrious electrons. He showered, then stood naked before the 4 x 8 tank. Topped with lilacs, it looked “like a giant wooden coffin.” The gravity of the pending situation, or the lack thereof, made him question his mental fitness. What if the immersion permanently buoyed his doubts and disorders, and he “emerged from the tank drooling and wild-eyed, babbling of aliens who had communicated a special message to me that would save the world?”
Hutchison climbed into the tank. Overwhelmed by the total blackness, he soon lost awareness of the skin-temperature water. “The absence of external stimuli turned my awareness inward,” he wrote, “and I quickly realized there is no such thing as sensory deprivation: I was creating my own sensory stimulation.” He tuned into his body’s peristaltic activities and enjoyed a light show on the undersides of his eyelids. He saw, among “40 or 50” other such events, “Proust in his cork-lined room” and “Freud with a patient reclining on a couch in sightless reverie as the doctor sat behind him saying nothing.”
In spite of encounters with two key explorers of the involuntary and unconscious, respectively, Hutchison felt slighted when music signaled the end of his float. “Nice, relaxing, some good sensations,” he thought — but was it worth the money? He stood to shower and found he couldn’t stop laughing. He looked in the mirror: “10 years younger and a lot happier than when I went in.” He sang as he strutted down Fifth Avenue. He enjoyed a remarkable sense of smell: “[A]s women pass by after work I smell each of them for yards away, scents wafting off them and hanging in the air long after they’ve passed.”
Over the next two days, these effects abated. Hutchison talked to other floaters and found that they reaped similar enlivening benefits from the tank. If flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy was so unequivocally great — assuming these transient benefits amounted to something more permanent with consistent practice — why didn’t more people float? How was this not more popular? “I wondered,” Hutchison wrote, “are these effects real, or do I only feel they’re real?”
Sometime in the early seventies, Dr. John C. Lilly, the inventor of the isolation tank, invited theoretical physicist Richard Feynman to float at his Malibu home. Feynman had long coveted hallucinatory experiences but feared the requisite drugs would “screw up the machine” — his Nobel Prize-winning mind. Floating seemed a safer way of inducing reverie.
Lilly gave his pre-float spiel. From the outset, according to his 1985 memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Feynman disliked the holistic trappings and pseudo-scientific jargon:
[Lilly] showed me the Periodic Table and made up a lot of mystic hokey-poke about different kinds of light that have different kinds of influences. He told me how you get ready to go into the tank by looking at yourself in the mirrors with your nose up against it — all kinds of wicky-wack things, all kinds of gorp. I didn’t pay attention to the gorp, but I did everything because I wanted to get into the tanks, and I also thought that perhaps such preparations might make it easier to have hallucinations.
After his first float, Feynman was introduced by Lilly and his wife to “a man billed as a medical doctor,” who gave him ketamine. By his third float, Feynman was hallucinating and seeing his body from outside himself. His ego, he discovered, was off-center “by about an inch.” With considerable effort he moved it from this slightly askew position behind his eyes down to his penis and eventually out of his body. He imagined his hands were mechanical. He saw the sky between his fingers and thumb. He left the room, his body still in the tank, to visit “locations where things happened that I had seen earlier another day.”
The physicist always maintained his hallucinations were nothing more than hallucinations. He was only “playing games with [himself].” He argued with Dr. Lilly about the realness of hypnagogic visions. “I believe there’s nothing in hallucinations that has anything to do with anything external to the internal psychological state of the person who’s got the hallucinations,” Feynman wrote. “But there are nevertheless a lot of experiences by a lot of people who believe there’s reality in hallucinations,” he added. Secure in his ability to incite hallucinations quickly, especially with the help of marijuana, Feynman stopped going to Lilly’s after about a dozen floats. If “all you have to do is sit quietly,” Feynman wondered, “why was it necessary that you had to have everything absolutely super duper?”
So when I’d come home I’d turn out the lights and sit in the living room in a comfortable chair, and try and try — it never worked. I’ve never been able to have a hallucination outside of the tanks. Of course I would like to have done it at home, and I don’t doubt that you could meditate and do it if you practice, but I didn’t practice.
Hutchison’s Village Voice article was published in 19821. Aside from the price ($25 — less than half the going rate in 2015), a few telling lines (“floating has become the hottest mass entertainment since cruising for burgers”), and the number of centers in America (over fifty then, then, more than two hundred and fifty now), it’s the same magazine piece about float tanks that’s written and published today.
The writer — almost always male, except when not — has heard a lot about floating lately. Been meaning to try it! He’s heard Joe Rogan’s endorsements. He likes feelings, likes pot, likes thinking, has meditated. He has a Burning Man-type friend who swears by the practice, and though the writer does not fall for all that wicky-wack, hokey-poke gorp, he says what the hell, why not float, why not write the next great discursive magazine piece?
He arrives at the float center. He discourses on fear, his fear — of small spaces, of the dark, of himself, of becoming protohuman, of new-age music. He meets the owner/manager, who is nice — not wack at all. The facilities are impeccable. The center has been open for six months and is doing great. The music is sub-par. The writer enters the tank. Not feeling much! Has this been a big waste of time? Joe Rogan was wrong? Should have blazed before this? Unbidden, an image from early childhood floats by. Oh, so it’s that kind of experience? He reviews, in succession, all the times he’s wronged another person. It’s working — he submits to what researchers call the Relaxation Response, lists relevant studies about endorphins and stress, quotes a doctor. From the mid-eighties into the nineties, float centers declined in popularity due to unfounded fears about AIDS.
The music comes on. Who knows where the time goes? He leaves the tank no more simian than he entered it. Everything feels a little stiller. He’s in that theta-wave state. Colors, scents, sounds — they’re so vivid, delicious. He bounds out the door into the sunlight. He skips down the sidewalk, eavesdropping, smelling women. Life! He pauses on the subway platform to think about what we do to each other. The writer is convinced that he and we would benefit from regular appointments at a float center. The article is prescriptive, though he does not say if he will return. Somehow, we suspect he will not.
“I started out a skeptic myself,” wrote Hutchison in the introduction to The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea, published two years after his article caused a flurry of interest in float centers. “The whole thing,” continued Hutchison, “seemed so California, so of a piece with hot tubs, Baba Free Rubadub, and psychobabble.” When he found a float center in New York, he pitched a story on “the whole phenomenon” to his editor at The Village Voice. The editor liked the idea, though she insisted the piece be written with “an edge to it.”
After his strange and invigorating experience in the tank, Hutchison interviewed researchers and people in the float tank industry. He was surprised by their pragmatism and lack of pretense.
From these conversations, as well as hundreds of hours of floats at the same New York center, Hutchison produced The Book of Floating, a collation of everything anyone could possibly want to know about flotation REST in 1984 and perhaps in 2015. Hutchison devoted the majority of the book to different explanations of how and why floating affects people, some tenable (“The Anti-Gravity Explanation,” “The ‘Benefits of Boredom’ Explanation”) and some tenuous (“The Aquatic Ape Explanation”). While I would not characterize Hutchison’s effusions as ethereal, they do grate after a while — as an ebook it’s three hundred and thirty-six pages, many chapters built from flotsam of non-flotation-REST-specific psych studies — and though his enthusiasm seems genuine and the anecdotal evidence alone is compelling, it’s difficult to imagine the book being read in its entirety by anyone other than float center operators, float tank vendors, and diehard floaters.
Gateways Books and Tapes, a small press in Nevada City, California, republished The Book of Floating in 2003. The first printing of fifteen hundred books took several years to sell out. But for the last two years, editor Ivan Lourie told me, Gateways has regularly shipped “carton quantities” — up to forty — of Hutchison’s book to “between thirty and fifty” float centers worldwide. Gateways, which carries a selection of books on spirituality, may soon have to hire someone part-time “just to ship tank books.” A new two-thousand-book printing of The Book of Floating “may not even last a year,” Lourie said.
For the 2003 reissue, Hutchison wrote a new section, “The Enlightenment Explanation: Floatation as a Gateway to Pure Awareness,” that details a series of grave personal misfortunes. In February 1999, Hutchison’s house burned down. Firefighters found him unconscious amid the black smoke. He spent time in intensive care with tubes in his throat. All his writing — on hard-drives or diskettes and in manuscripts — was lost to the blaze. One night, not long after his release from the hospital, he went for a jog. As he crossed the Santa Fe River on a footbridge, he slipped on ice and fell onto rocks below. He landed on his neck. Fading out of consciousness, half-immersed in the freezing river, short of breath and unable to speak, he awaited death.
Instead, he awoke prone on an operating table. Surgeons fused his five shattered vertebrae. He would be a quadriplegic, doctors told him, for the rest of his life. He lay in a body cast for three months. Twice he caught pneumonia and nearly died. Still in intensive care, terribly depressed and confused as to the “cosmic meaning,” if any, of these near-death experiences, Hutchison regained movement in his fingers, later his feet. Hospital staff moved him to the rehab ward, where he further improved his mobility. He believed his condition would continue to improve. Then he ran out of money.
Hutchison moved to La Residencia Nursing Home in downtown Santa Fe. “It was a dim, dark, dingy, and depressing old place,” he wrote,
essentially a warehouse for terminal Alzheimer’s patients and old people waiting to die. Many of them just lined the hallways sitting all day like vegetables in wheelchairs. Many others were constantly screaming and wandering up-and-down the hallways and sometimes would even wander into my room and climb in bed with me and at times urinate and defecate in my bed. This was frustrating to me since I couldn’t move enough to get them out of my bed or room.
La Residencia closed in 2003 and became a Drury Plaza Hotel. Internet searches for the nursing home lead to ghost-hunting websites, which seem to have sourced their stories from the popular manual Haunted Places: The National Directory (2002). The book claims a long-dead little boy cried in room 311, and that a basement wall oozed blood.
The dismal quarters caused Hutchison to consider his near-death experiences with newfound urgency. He realized he needed to stop trying to control his life, an insight he credited to meditation, which he studied for many years before his accident. He sought a state of “no mind,” where he could exist without any awareness of his environment or his physical condition. Every day, all day at La Residencia, Hutchison practiced meditating and achieving no mind.
He recognized the sensation. In the thousands of hours he had spent floating — he acquired his own tank after the publication of The Book of Floating — he often accessed this same “state of total blankness.” Now, in the nursing home, Hutchison imagined himself ensconced in a float tank and found he could enter the state of no mind with almost no effort. His depression diminished and his vitality increased. By the next year he was climbing stairs with a walker. His doctor called him “The Miracle Man.”
After two years at La Residencia, Hutchison was ambulatory enough to switch to a small, one-bedroom apartment in a public housing complex. An assistant visited in the mornings and evenings to cook meals and help the writer change his clothes. He used a Nautilus machine to strengthen his body. “I am living in poverty,” he wrote, “but it is blissful poverty.”
But in the decade after this postscript was published, according to his son Galen, Hutchison’s condition deteriorated. He couldn’t walk without assistance. When, on occasion, he’d summon the strength to walk on his own, against his doctor’s orders, he’d fall and re-break his back. His condition would worsen — until it improved, and he’d try to walk again, and fall. The cycle continued for years.
One morning in late 2013, Galen Hutchison received an email from the Santa Fe Coroner’s Office: his father’s assistant had found Michael’s body. According to his son, Michael Hutchison had recently started drinking again and was taking pain medication for his back. The toxicology report proved inconclusive. “I presume he probably just decided it was time,” said Galen.
In an episode of The Simpsons that aired in late February, 1999, Homer and Lisa Simpson walk into a spiritual knickknack store
, “KARMA-CEUTICALS,” to find a remedy for Lisa’s stomachache. After a shot of wheatgrass juice proved ineffective, the saleswoman leads the Simpsons to a backroom with two float tanks.
These tanks, she explains, block out “all the external distractions that bombard our souls.”
“Can you pee in it?” asks Homer. Both promptly sign up for two-hour floats.
Before the saleswoman closed the doors to the tanks, she delivers a final disclaimer. “You’re about to take a journey into the mind. You may see and experience things that are strange and frightening. But remember, they can’t physically harm you, though they may destroy you mentally.”
Homer finds the experience boring. At first, Lisa struggles to stop thinking, but soon enters the body of her cat. “Wow, my mind just created that out of nothing,” she says. “This tank is releasing the full potential of my brain.” She later becomes a tree, political journalist Cokie Roberts, and her father (who, meanwhile, sings the chorus to “Witch Doctor”). She realizes how often she forces Homer to take her to events and places, like KARMA-CEUTICALS, that he hates.
“Boy, I can really be a pain in the butt,” she says, emerging from the tank. “I should cut dad some slack.”
Homer emerges unchanged.
“Floating can be very uncomfortable for people,” David Conneely, owner of iFloat in Westport, Connecticut, told me. “When all the external noise gets dialed down, a person then sees a lot of things about themselves. And I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have things that they could change, that they could work on.”
Conneely characterized people on the East Coast as more skeptical than those on the West Coast, where float centers are more popular. When he re-opened iFloat in early 2012 — the first owner closed the business after a year and a half — Conneely found the small city’s “financial, kind of Wall Street, very practical” residents somewhat resistant to floating. Westport’s median household income is $119,872; the cost ($100 per float, cheaper with a monthly membership) wasn’t a hitch, but convincing people that floating wasn’t some new age fad, that it could be “practical” — encouraging them, in other words, to disregard the same preconceptions Hutchison and, to a lesser extent, Richard Feynman disregarded over thirty years ago — that took time.
“Westport is becoming a financial hub, and if businesses want to have a meeting, they can come here, float and have meetings in a slower space with more depth,” Conneely’s business partner told a local paper in 2012. This notion that floating puts people people in a slower, more suggestible brain state is found on many float center websites. iFloat offers classes in John C. Lilly’s concepts of programming and metaprogramming, based on Lilly’s model of the mind as a “biocomputer.” Students are taught to identify “beliefs-in-real” — ideas about how life works, acquired in their first three to four years of life. If students find certain beliefs-in-real harmful, they are encouraged to “rewrite” them. Such training, according to Conneely, is essential for people who work at float centers.
Here is part of the course description for iFloat’s “Float Center Operator’s Program”:
In a float center, a person who has just floated is operating in a slow brain wave state. That’s a wonderful thing. However, this slow, hypnotic state affects the people working in the float center. Many unconscious thought patterns are transferred from the float workers to the float clients and vice versa. Most importantly, the thought patterns are transferred at a slow brain wave frequency, which means the ideas can get planted at a deeper region of the mind and be helpful but also, possibly, detrimental.
“I think generally most people in the float community are of this kind of like hands-off approach where they don’t want to — they think that it’s just about the float tank,” Conneely said. “My view is that the people in the float center are influencing people’s experience whether they want to or not. And so it makes a lot more sense for them to be a lot more aware of that.”
I Googled “float center profitable” and landed on a blog post called “Float Tanks Have a Natural Limit to Their Profits.” No matter the number of hours a center is open or the number of tanks it operates, the author argued, “there are only so many floats you can run in a day.” How, then, do you scale — or, at least, increase the profit margins of — a float center? The author listed five ways: (1) open more physical locations, (2) start a franchise, (3) design/build/sell tanks, (4) “open a neighboring, complimentary business,” like an acupuncture studio, or (5) advise other float centers.
Float On, a six-tank float center in Portland, Oregon, pursues the fifth option with their consulting service, Float Tank Solutions — “a complete resource for members of the float tank industry,” where interested parties can “[l]earn best practices for starting and running a float center.” Along with business-oriented posts like the one cited above, the service’s blog contains guides to common construction challenges, like heating and soundproofing, and tips on dealing with customers. The FTS website also offers four free downloads — a guide to Health Department regulations, a customizable brochure for new floaters, a twenty-page float primer, and a list of relevant scientific research — in exchange for your email address. The day after I downloaded the brochure and primer, Pat Barrett from Float Tank Solutions emailed me to say that he was “available if you just want to chat about float tanks and the industry.”
On the phone, Barrett — a twenty-four-year-old “stoner kid who knows a lot about floating” — was upbeat and chatty. He has partly owned and worked for Float On, which opened in 2010, for about a year. Among other administrative and custodial duties — “we all have different masks at different times,” he said, speaking of fellow staff — Barrett runs sales for Float Tank Solutions, which “has been really supporting our shop [Float On] for the past couple years.” But, he added, “it’s not really sales,” since he only contacts people who have downloaded FTS’ free materials. Through this channel he ends up talking to most people who are considering opening a float center — “probably ten or fifteen new people a day.”
In addition to consulting services, Float Tank Solutions sells a marketing package for $370 and a business plan package for $1350. They host monthly, three-day-long “apprenticeships,” wherein up to six students learn how to build and run a float center. (Understanding water chemistry and mitigating Epsom salt’s corrosiveness are particular challenges for new owners.) These apprenticeships, which costs $2395*, have sold out every month for the past year. FTS also sells cloud-based software for float center management — Float Helm — priced at $50 per tank per month.
According to the FTS website, Float On has had over five hundred unpaid interns since opening. Interns, who might start by learning to clean tanks and balance water levels, are entitled to “one float for every four hours of education.” Barrett, like all other employees, he told me, makes $12 an hour. He’s a fan of the Mixergy podcast, which features interviews with entrepreneurs, and suggested I check out a book by Brazillian businessman and TED talker Ricardo Semler, The Seven-Day Weekend, in which the author argues that when companies extend more freedoms to their employees, they reap greater profits. Barrett emphasized that he is not solely focused on selling products and services though. “We don’t make a lot of money — I’ll be really honest with you,” he said. “We really just want more float tanks out there.”
FTS offers a free, white-label brochure for float centers: The Beginner’s Guide to Floating. As of last year, the company has distributed “over 40,000” of them. The guide features cartoony stick figures, bright colors, and non-spiritual copy. Under “why float?”, there are three subheadings: Health & Wellness (“People float to relieve stress, recover from injuries, fight addiction, eliminate chronic pain, and much more”), Meditation (“Float tanks can also be thought of as training wheels for meditation”), and Self-Improvement (“With nothing to distract you, your level of concentration and knowledge absorption is astonishing”). An illustrated section details the process of floating at a center — from arriving to floating to basking “in your post-float glow.” The FAQ section addresses fears about claustrophobia and Altered States (“only a small percentage of floaters turn into proto-human monkeys”), as well as concerns about hygiene, a perennial objection for would-be floaters.
To the last question — “Is this new-agey mumbo jumbo?” — the answer is curt. “Floating has been around for over sixty years, and has oodles of published research to back it up. No mumbo or jumbo here.”
Onstage at the 2013 Float Conference — Float On’s annual gathering of float tank researchers, manufacturers, owners, and enthusiasts — next to a humongous pile of salt, a man asked the audience a simple question: “What do you think of Justin Bieber floating?”
“I think that’d be great — that’d be absolutely marvelous, in fact,” he said. “Do you think that sounds silly? Is there judgment? And I think that could be the biggest impediment to the grow of the industry as a whole. And so, do we really want more people floating? Are we taking concrete and actionable steps towards that goal?”
The man onstage was Nick Janicki, founder of True REST Float Spa, the first company to franchise float centers, and CEO of Float Pod Technologies, a manufacturer of float tanks. Today, with at least eight centers open or slated to open — and with twenty more queued up for 2016 — True REST seems like the center most likely to host Bieber’s first float.
The stage darkened and a video advertising the Float Pod — a tank that resembles a giant toilet or computer mouse — was shown. Amid Janicki’s own effusions (“everything’s self-contained — and that’s genius”; “there’s no scum line — it’s remarkable”), a narrative emerged: This industry is about to get really big. Get in now. “Ideally I see floating going into not only commercial spas but also into residential homes, into hospitals. This is something that can be used across a variety of different markets,” said Janicki. “This is literally the tool of the future for wellness.”
At the next year’s conference, Janicki pitched True REST Franchising, which launched in July of last year. “The way I see franchising,” he said to the crowd, “is as if you’re a lumber worker and you’re using a piece of floss to cut down a tree and the franchising system is a big shiny axe. And so it just gives you the tools to be able to get through the stumbling parts of the industry at first.” Forecasts on the industry in his speech’s attendant video were more explicit. “I think in the next four years we’re gonna see floating be just as popular as yoga, massage, any other modality of holistic wellness,” one employee said.
When I spoke with him on the phone, Janicki echoed this prognosis. “Massage fifteen years ago was literally like in people’s basements, happy-ending kind of stuff,” he said. (A former CEO of Massage Envy — a chain of massage centers that now has over a thousand locations and, according to Janicki, was instrumental in popularizing massage in the United States — is on True REST’s advisory board.) Four or five years ago, Janicki told me, there were only thirty to forty float centers in America — fewer than the number Hutchison reported in 1982. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal in May, there are two hundred and sixty-seven. Though only one other float franchise, Float House, is registered with the Federal Trade Commission, “a couple others [are] on the horizon,” Janicki said.
Janicki mentioned the fifty thousand chiropractic centers in the United States and two thousand massage centers in Arizona. If more athletes spoke publicly about floating — during the week of the Super Bowl, members of the Seahawks and Patriots floated at a True REST in Arizona — “floating would literally triple or quadruple again in another year.” Perhaps Patriots quarterback Tom Brady would supplant comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan, who Janicki credited with singlehandedly revitalizing the industry half a decade ago, as the world’s most famous floater.
Janicki attributed mainstream skepticism of floating to centers’ use of “high level spiritual precepts” and “psychedelic culture” in their messaging, “which doesn’t necessarily appeal to probably eighty percent of the general public.” Although Janicki is a practitioner of Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual discipline, True REST, like Float On, doesn’t tout metaphysical benefits of floating on its website.
Nick Janicki’s vision of the industry — something as big as yoga or massage — twins the vision Michael Hutchison outlined in his 1982 Village Voice article. Most of the people Hutchison talked to “believe[d] that the tank boom [had] only begun.” They envisioned float tanks in “hospitals, clinics, schools, offices, hotels, prisons.” Hutchison went further. “Some have even confided to me,” Hutchison wrote, “that they think the tank will have a transforming effect on all aspects of society, like television, except bigger.”
And soon, perhaps, each family member will have his or her own tank, and in the evenings the towns and cities will be strangely dark and quiet, and in the darkened houses and apartments, the only sound will be the muffled, gentle splashing, the slow peaceful breathing of the profoundly relaxed, the tranquil masses.
It’s hard to say whether the industry remains on the or in a bubble. It seems to have floated along in this nascent state for thirty-plus years. More substantiating research, I’m told, is forthcoming. New centers are opening. Skeptical journos are publishing fulsome pieces. It might yet happen, this flotation revolution! Is it obvious to say that the fate of the industry hinges upon how American consumers allocate their health/wellness/fitness budgets? One cannot commit to every life-giving modality. Exercise or acupuncture? Massage or flotation? Maybe all these methods in my bodywork queue, if implemented, would alchemize into something fantastic. Many are privileged enough to fuss over somatic salves for discontent — but not privileged enough to do them all.
1. One year later, as Hutchison notes in The Book of Floating, “it was with a sense of urgency, excitement, and a widely shared belief that floating had reached a ‘critical mass’ that more than one hundred scientists and researchers with a special interest in the use of float tanks — clinical and experimental psychologists, educators, neuroscientists, endocrinologists, biofeedback operators, tank manufacturers — gathered in Denver for the First International Conference on REST and Self-Regulation.”
Top photo by Jon Roig
*Correction: We previously listed a lower, outdated price for the apprenticeship. We regret the error.