Floating in Water: The Next Big Wellness Craze?
Although the use of sensory deprivation tanks was once the realm of New Age hippies, today the practice of hanging out quietly in a saltwater tank is beginning to appeal to the young and Instagram-happy.
Illustration by Jessica Olah
On a Sunday morning at 11, Jennifer Weintz is eating rice from a Tupperware container and manning the counter at Popeye's, a Canadian nutritional supplement store. While most people are just staggering into breakfast, for Jennifer the meal is a late lunch. She's been awake for six-and-a-half hours now, rising at 4:30 to fit in a workout and attend yoga teacher training before arriving for her shift at the store.
Aside from her job at Popeye's, Jennifer is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor, a personal trainer, a holistic nutritionist, a freelance makeup artist, and a yoga teacher. She competes in martial arts and bikini fitness competitions and has a Facebook page—with nearly 3,000 likes—where, for the sake of conciseness, she's simply described as an "Athlete"
"People ask me what I do and I'm like, 'What don't I do?'" she says.
Jennifer is part of a growing number of freelance workers who make a living by stitching together different contract gigs and creative projects, and to keep up with her schedule, she relies on a careful alchemy of wellness practices. She does yoga, tries her best to get enough sleep, takes vitamins, meditates, practices aromatherapy, and for the past few years, a couple of times a month, spends 90 minutes or so floating in a sensory deprivation tank.
For the uninitiated, "floating" involves lying in a one-person tank filled with ten to 12 inches of water and around 800 pounds of Epsom salt. The result is something akin to a tiny Dead Sea: The salt increases the density of the water, so you're able to float, effortlessly, without fear of sinking. The aim is to experience a feeling of nothingness that can purportedly cure almost anything, from chronic pain to stress and insomnia.
It sounds bonkers, or taken from science fiction, yet floating is increasingly mentioned in the same breath as yoga, spin class, and green juice. A quick Google search easily produces a range of float centers in most major North American cities, from Los Angeles to Toronto, and with the support of young urbanites and bikini fitness models bolstering its rise, there's something about floating that compels people to pick it up as a habit.
The flotation tank was invented in 1954 by the physician and neuroscientist Dr. John C. Lilly, whose work focused on consciousness; he basically developed the sensory deprivation tank because he wanted to see what would happen to the brain if...its senses were deprived. Research into sensory deprivation was mostly confined to academia for several years afterwards, but commercial floating experienced a surge of popularity in the late 70s. It was around this time that Dr. Lilly published The Deep Self: Profound Relaxation and the Tank Isolation Technique, which both explained his research and boasted a hodgepodge of celebrity endorsements from figures like the actor Burgess Meredith and the activist and "flashy 60s radical" Jerry Rubin.
"[Floating] became quite popular for a while; people thought it interesting and were saying it was very relaxing, and so on," says Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Columbia.
"It lasted for five, eight years, and then it started to decrease," Suedfeld says. "About five or six years ago, it suddenly blossomed again, and now the last I heard there are 210 facilities in the United States alone."
Dr. Suedfeld has been studying restricted environmental stimulation technique, REST (the term he coined for "sensory deprivation"), since he was a graduate student. Now 80 years old, he's pretty unsurprised by the recent uptick in interest.
You just go in there and lie down.
As for why floating fell out of vogue in the first place, there are several theories. In a broad sense, it seems like the inherent weirdness of the tank made it an easy target for people's anxieties; the reasons Suedfeld gave for the trend's Reagan-era nosedive could easily double as a list of everything that scared people in the 80s.
First, there was the onset of the AIDS crisis: With a lack of information available about the HIV virus, people panicked that enclosed, moist spaces like spas and other health facilities, which often involve proximity to other bodies, created a risk for transmission.
Then, there were the drugs. The tank's inventor, Dr. Lilly, had been known to float after taking hallucinogens, and eventually he may have endorsed the practice a bit too enthusiastically. Moving into the Just Say No era, being associated with "mind expansion" in any sense was not especially good for business.
"For the scientific side of things, it became connected with [a] touchy-feely New Age woo-woo baba kind of thing," Suedfeld says.
And perhaps most damningly, for the few thrill seekers who were undeterred by floating's countercultural aura—or maybe encouraged by it—the novelty eventually wore off.
"There were a set number of people that wanted to try it, either because they wanted to have this experience or they were just interested in adventures and wanted to see what it was like," Suedfeld said. "But once those people had floated, they'd floated. And once you used up the people in that community who had this open-minded, adventure-seeking attitude, you ran out of customers."
Yet despite the depleted fan base, floating—along with yoga, vegetarianism, and other trends beloved perhaps anticipated by aging art teachers—might be on its way back into fashion. And although the practice's appeal seems rooted in its purity, the escape it offers from hectic modern life, the renewed interest can largely be attributed to one thing:
In other words, people have gotten a lot better at selling woo-woo baba to the general public. The facilities are nicer, Dr. Suedfeld explains, and the marketing is much better. Rather than being sold as a one-time experience, floating—like juicing, eating raw foods, and having photogenic pets—is a full-fledged "lifestyle." Float centers offer membership passes, emphasizing the health benefits associated with regular sensory underload. It's framed as being sort of akin to yoga or meditation, but with a much gentler learning curve. As Dr. Suedfeld points out, you don't need to take the time to train beforehand; "you just go in there and lie down."
Perhaps more importantly, floating lends itself well to social media, hitting that precious sweet spot between tangible health benefits and calculated whimsy. As a word, it conjures buoyancy and happiness, rubber ducks and party balloons. In comparison, "jogging" and even "doing yoga" sound downright utilitarian. Floating looks good on a Facebook check-in, and makes for a much cooler, quirkier blog post than does informing your friends about a two-hour nap.
It became connected with [a] touchy-feely New Age woo-woo baba kind of thing.
"Trying to be as objective as we can with this, one thing we've that done with Float House [is] we've really, really took marketing of it to another level," says Mike Zaremba, who co-founded the Vancouver-based chain Float House with his brother Andy in 2013. They own four locations in British Columbia (where unlimited floats cost $59 per month) and have plans to expand into the rest of Canada and the United States. "No one has done the job we've done in terms of spreading the word and getting it out there in a mainstream light."
He's not wrong. Before the pair had even opened their first location—in a crisp white space interrupted only by plants, vertical garden fixtures, and dolphin videos projected on loop—they were offering under-the-table float sessions out of their condo in North Vancouver, and promoting the business using a website and Facebook page. By this point, they've left no social network unturned. They're on YouTube, LinkedIn, Google Plus, and, of course, Instagram; indeed, the cumulative effect of the downtown flagship location is of walking into your coolest friend's feed. They also have a newsletter; a blog; an in-house podcast studio; a cross-platform hashtag, #WhyWeFloat; and an offline fleet of "float ambassadors," or a troupe of creative, physically fit people (Weintz, for one) who've been tapped to preach the gospel of floating through "organic" community interactions.
Still, the thing about floating is that, branding aside, at the end of the day you're in the tank alone, and that's kind of the point. Although trendiness may be a path to entry, it's possible people are coming back because it's the only way they can justify taking time to lie down in the dark. People are overworked, over-stimulated, and they rarely have the opportunity to sit quietly without anyone asking something of them, usually via iPhone. Indeed, Jennifer says that one of the best things about floating is that it's a chunk of time when no one can contact her. Even better, the Internet on her phone doesn't work in the float center.