Float On: How Salty Water and Silence Are Changing Some St. Louisans' Lives

Dec 14, 2016 at 6:00 am
Businesses like FLOAT STL offer pods like this one, which include a lid for a womb-like experience.
Businesses like FLOAT STL offer pods like this one, which include a lid for a womb-like experience. PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK

Janice Kitrel would never have floated if it hadn't been an assignment for class. The idea of willingly spending more than an hour closed into a pod of salty water, left with nothing but water and darkness and her own thoughts — no thank you.

"I was a little apprehensive doing this at first because I am seriously claustrophobic," she says. "The description of what was going to happen — I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know if I can do this. This is very much outside my comfort zone.'"

But the 50-year-old executive assistant is in a master's program at Webster University, and an instructor assigned each student to float as a prompt for an essay about their sense of place. And once Kitrel gave it a chance, it proved to be a very moving experience.

It took some time to slow her mind down from 100 miles an hour, she says, but she realized it was like laying in the bathtub as a kid. She felt her mind and body synch. Then she had an epiphany.

"I really kind of saw myself in a different way," she says. "I'm not defined by my job title, the kind of car I drive or the things that I own. I'm defined by me as a person. What have I accomplished in my life other than my job, my status? I have a lot more that I can give back."

Proponents say that floating — spending 90 minutes or more in what amounts to an artificial womb, with external stimulus removed — comes with a host of benefits, including mental clarity, pain relief, improved athletic performance and creativity.

And thousands of St. Louisans have done it since February 2015, thanks to a crew of young entrepreneurs who've turned floating into their business. At FLOAT STL's centers in Midtown and now Maryland Heights, which opened last month, they're less spreading a gospel than presenting an experience.

If the womb metaphor seems too easy, that's because it's perfect. How else, really, to describe shutting yourself in a dark and silent pod filled with super-salted water that creates complete buoyancy? More than anything, it's a reversion to a fetal state.

At its core is reflection. You shut off all the noise, and what are you left with? It can be terrifying. A 2014 University of Virginia study found that when pried away from their smartphones and other distractors, 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to push a button to shock themselves electrically, rather than try quiet introspection. Looking inward is not in our modern nature.

Yet once floaters break past the fear, it can be a way to access inner peace or intellect, to solve problems and grow. Some recover from physical or mental taxation. Others change the way they see themselves in the world.

Kitrel is in the final group. Since her float, she's training to become a hospice volunteer and calling bingo at a senior center. "You can give monetary donations and that's good, but when you give of yourself, it means more," she says.