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

click to enlarge 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.

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.

click to enlarge From left, FLOAT STL co-owners Kevin McCulloch, Marcio Guzman and Jacob Resch. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • From left, FLOAT STL co-owners Kevin McCulloch, Marcio Guzman and Jacob Resch.

The origins of FLOAT STL lie in a St. Louis area residential treatment facility for people with eating disorders. Jacob Resch, 32, and Marcio Guzman, 41, were counselors there, and as their work relationship turned into friendship, they tried floating in other cities. (The South American-born Guzman recalled attempted something like a float in Lake Titicaca as a child.)

By the end of 2011, they'd bonded with another counselor, 37-year-old Kevin McCulloch, and realized floating was something all three had in common.

"Through conversation, we came to realize we each had floated," says McCulloch. "We were already passionate about helping with growth, mindfulness and stress and anxiety reduction. Introspection. Mind-body. All those things are so aligned with helping somebody heal themselves."

With no public float centers in St. Louis, none of the three was floating as often as he wanted. The friends would partake on trips to Chicago or visits to other big cities, but they couldn't find the consistency they craved.

By spring 2012, they were talking seriously about how they could accomplish it. They attended the international Float Conference together in Portland, Oregon, that summer, and left feeling enthusiastic and confident.

"We want as many people as possible to be able to float. When we thought about opening a center, we didn't really think beyond that," McCulloch says.

FLOAT STL was the first such service in the state, although others have since opened (including a few in the St. Louis area). The permitting process suggests just how out-on-a-limb the partners were in bringing it here. There wasn't even a regulatory framework for what they were trying to do: St. Louis classified FLOAT STL as a service business; Maryland Heights, as mental health specialists. Seeking financing, too, the group was met with a lot of confused faces and "we'll get back to you" from banks who didn't quite understand the business. Ultimately the trio found backing from private sources, mentors-turned-investors who went from helping with the business plan to buying into it.

And St. Louis had zero reservations: Locals responded to FLOAT STL's first location with major enthusiasm. The 90-minute, $65 sessions quickly became a hot ticket; waits to get in were as long as 23 days, McCulloch says.

"When we talk to someone on the phone, they have pain and stress and anxiety, and you tell them, 'Well, it's fifteen days,' it doesn't feel good," he says. Things have slowed down a little bit, but the center's four berths still book up very quickly. By the time the partners started an application to open a second center, on Weldon Parkway in Maryland Heights, patrons had already completed 11,000 floats at their flagship location. That number is now up to more than 13,000, with more than 7,000 unique visitors.

At first, everyone did everything, but as the business has grown, the co-founders have specialized. Resch mostly handles operations: training staff and keeping the tanks and the building in shape. Guzman manages HR and inventory — they go through a lot of salt. And McCulloch handles branding and business development.

McCulloch says that about 45 percent of their floaters are repeat customers, with plenty of regulars. (Monthly subscriptions cut the cost a little bit.) But that still leaves more than half of their customers who are first-time floaters.

"We take a lot of responsibility for introducing people to this practice," he says. "We obsess over how do we want to engage someone when they step through the door? How do we show up enough but not too much? If someone's going to let go of control, it's helpful to have structure."

click to enlarge FLOAT STL now has a Maryland Heights location in addition to the original one in Midtown. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • FLOAT STL now has a Maryland Heights location in addition to the original one in Midtown.

The Midtown location is heavy on the windows, with sunlight streaming in to nourish palms, bamboo and other living plants. Patrons arrive a few minutes before their scheduled float and leave their shoes at the door. An employee checks them in via iPad.

During booking, floaters choose between a pod or a tank resembling an oversized bath tub, a popular option for claustrophobes. There's a brief orientation, which can be a group session for as many as four people, and then it's off to the float.

Floating is pretty much idiot-proof. The pods and rooms are private, and each contains a shower. Suds up, rinse off and get in. Drowning or sinking, even if you fall asleep, is impossible thanks to the 850 pounds of salt. If you're in a room, you just climb into an oversized bath tub. If you've chosen a pod, get in and pull the clamshell top closed. Turn the lights off when you're ready, and ten minutes of spa music lull you into la-la land. The water is kept at a neutral 93.5 degrees, neither bracing nor toasty. When time's up, they cue the music back up and remotely turn on the lights.

Once their 90 minutes have elapsed, floaters reconvene in the front room for tea and debriefing, if they're so inclined. The three co-founders developed the space after finding themselves floating at less thought-out, stripped-down facilities in Chicago. They would leave directly from the pod into the bustling streets, and then search for a quiet place to talk it over.

To eliminate that, the St. Louis facilities offer couches and comfy pillows, and a few closed-off smaller spaces for those that might not want to talk with strangers.

"The post-experience, that's when you integrate what happens," says McCulloch. "If the space isn't created to receive that experience, it can feel uncomfortable, insecure. What you need to do is button that up."

Think about showing travel pictures, or telling someone what you dreamed. Unless the other person was there, it's rare they can match your enthusiasm. The low-key, tea-sharing hangout session with other floaters and a staffer — all of whom float regularly — bookends the experience neatly.

"We're passionate and obsessive about how do we create that 'Ooh, it feels good in here' experience," he says.

McCulloch knows that giving in to the experience isn't always easy. First timers, especially, can feel a lot of anxiety, from concerns about claustrophobia to intense introspective experiences.

"So much of what we do is working to create that safety, even in all [the anxiety] that's still there," McCulloch says. "It allows people to have deeper, more relaxing experiences. The aspect of letting go is key."

Floaters set their own parameters, with some choosing to leave the pod open or the light on. A few folks have left before the time elapsed, but no one has had a full-on freakout.

McCulloch understands that not everyone is ready for what follows. "It's the most intimate connected experience I've had with myself because there's nothing else there," he says. "That can be uncomfortable."

click to enlarge Movies like Altered States have given floating a bad rap, says Dr. Peter Suedfeld. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Movies like Altered States have given floating a bad rap, says Dr. Peter Suedfeld.

The first float tank was developed in 1954 by John C. Lilly, who was interested in the effects of stimulus on human brain capacity. The technique of removing external stimuli via the tank came to be known as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, or REST.

Now, things got weird for Lilly — he used psychedelic drugs in the tanks, and devoted a large part of his professional life to attempting to develop communication with dolphins. He was also keenly interested in extraterrestrials and malevolent systems of control over humans by greater beings. The 1980 film Altered States, fictional but based on his research, depicted a Lilly-esque doctor becoming a primitive apelike man after using drugs and floating. And this summer's synthy Netflix darling Stranger Things featured an adorable psychic who used floating to bring on visions of inter-dimensional monsters — deeply unpleasant for our heroine, but how else could she fight them and save the world?

So it's not too surprising that some folks think floating belongs in the same pop psychology bargain bin as primal scream therapy. Or they assume it's in the realm of trippy drug stuff.

Not so, says Dr. Peter Suedfeld. A professor emeritus of psychology at the University of British Colombia, the good doctor earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University and is one of the planet's leading researchers in REST.

"Among psychologists and medical professionals, there's a sense that it's New Age. People are concerned they'll have episodes of quasi insanity," he says. "That's a non-starter. Many people have seen the movie Altered States. They're afraid they'll emerge as a pre-human ape. As far as I know, no one has. Did you emerge and start hunting gazelles at the zoo?"

(For the record: Nope.)

Instead, removing stimulation is a pretty straightforward path to accessing deeper concentration and relaxation. And no matter what you've heard, though, don't call them "sensory deprivation" tanks. "That's inaccurate—you cannot deprive sensory input unless you cut the nerves. Most people would not volunteer for that."

Being in a tank, he says, induces deep relaxation and physiological change. Blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension are appreciably lower, he says.

"In the normal environment, we are always monitoring what's happening around us," he says. "That's a kind of evolutionary given. Animals—including humans—tend not to live very long if they ignore what's going on around them."

In the tank, though, there's nothing to monitor, Suedfeld says.

"You can concentrate on whatever you need to concentrate on: problem solving, decision making, recalling events from your past. There are fewer distractions."

His research has shown that floating can improve perception and motor coordination. He found that subjects improved in basketball overall and specifically in free throw accuracy, as well as in darts, ski racing, target shooting and tennis serving.

Those results can linger for a few days or more. Regular floaters can see lasting improvements from learning how to shut up some of life's noise.

"For the first major part of the human species' evolution, we were dealing with much lower levels of stimulation than we have now," he says. "Our system isn't evolved for that. Any time you can reduce the bombardment of stimuli, that's a good thing."

That's certainly been true for Jon Neuman. For him it's become critical.

If you didn't know him you might not realize that Neuman, an unassumingly handsome and quietly affable guy in his mid-fifties, is in the grips of a mental decline neither he nor his doctors can entirely understand. (Jon Neuman is a pseudonym, as many members of his family and circle of friends aren't yet aware of his condition.)

Neuman spent 25 years in commercial kitchens — fast-paced hothouses of perfectionism, complete with screaming, egos and ceaseless demands. He was the executive chef at a popular area hotspot when his wife and business partner noticed something was very wrong. He just couldn't handle all the action at once any more.

Doctors have been trying to figure out what is wrong with Neuman's brain for about three years now. He's seen psychiatrists and neurologists. Depression and sleep apnea were considered, but proved not responsible for his cognitive decline. He has trouble remembering things, and gets quickly overstimulated. A morning chat in a busy coffee shop becomes obviously taxing after a while.

"The worst thing I'm sensitive to is sound," he says. "Unless you are that sensitive you probably don't realize how noisy the world is. Trader Joe's is terrible; I have a hard time going to movies. I carry earplugs with me."

Medication helps him sleep and wake up, and he carries notebooks everywhere. Family and close friends are patient and understand his need for isolation and quiet.

His weekly sessions at FLOAT STL are the definition of isolation and quiet, and he says they are profoundly helpful.

"My brain has got so much information, and because of what's happened to me, it gets full awfully quickly. It gets full," he says. "I'm really very sensitive to stimulus. So I can only take so much, and it's like — I'm emptying the bag, and then it fills up again. Floating empties it for quite a bit. I go once a week, but it helps me all the time."

click to enlarge After experiencing post-float shock in Chicago, the founders aimed for a soothing experience. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • After experiencing post-float shock in Chicago, the founders aimed for a soothing experience.
click to enlarge Zack Smithey, artist and entrepreneur, floats regularly. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Zack Smithey, artist and entrepreneur, floats regularly.

Two years ago, Zack Smithey tried his first float in Venice, California. The artist and entrepreneur loved it. His wife Brie tried it once and didn't enjoy it, but she still saw the business potential.

But the couple aborted their plans to open a float center in St. Louis when they realized FLOAT STL was already underway. Instead, Zack Smithey has become a regular.

Smithey, 34, says he can feel his brain shifting between scientific, analytical thought (like building a house or running a business) and more creative, abstract thought (like design questions relating to his artwork). Floating can be a great help in moving between the two, he says.

"At any one time, I'm thinking about past memories, I'm talking, regulating my body temperature," Smithey says. "If you're standing up, you're balancing yourself. You're seeing, you're hearing, you're smelling things. Even when you're not doing much your brain is still doing a lot. So the idea of the float tank is to strip away all of those stimuli."

Ideally he floats every other week or so, he says.

"Sometimes I'll use it just to recharge my mental batteries, to strip away stresses that I've been exposed to," he says. "But when I'm not stressed out, I can use it for other things like increasing creativity or problem solving. It's like going into a quiet room and being able to think and write down your thoughts, but in there it's better."

For a big chunk of his first float, Smithey thought about not thinking. "So much time had gone by that I thought, 'Man, I'm gonna blow it, I've wasted too much time trying to get into the right state.' Then, all of the sudden, it happened. My body disappeared. I couldn't feel it anymore. I was all in my brain, I was like floating in space."

His perception of time had become completely unreliable. He says he remembered that he was the last float of the day, and wondered in passing if he'd been forgotten.

"I was so relaxed that I didn't even care," he says. "I just laid there and thought, 'I'll just lay here until I don't feel like laying here.' Then I heard some banging on the door and it was over."

click to enlarge Kelly Kennon looks to floating for peace of mind after constantly being on the go as an MMA fighter and firefighter. - PHOTO BY KELLY GLUECK
  • Kelly Kennon looks to floating for peace of mind after constantly being on the go as an MMA fighter and firefighter.

He's not the only regular who's come to depend on floating sessions. For Kelly Kennon, 29, floating is a crucial part of her physically demanding life. She's a full-time firefighter and paramedic, as well as a professional MMA fighter.

During fight camps, which are six to eight week periods of intense training leading up to a bout, she floats once or twice a week.

"Usually by the end of that fight camp, you're like 'I'm tired of punching people!'" Since integrating floating into her fight camps, she says, "I haven't had that." Since she added floating to her regimen, she adds, she's gotten through the camps injury-free.

"It's like an Epsom salt bath on steroids when I'm sore," she says. "It's amazing. I come out of there feeling better."

Because her career demands she leap out of bed ready for action, she's a very light sleeper. The intensity of the relaxation she feels in the tank — she sometimes falls asleep — is welcome, and leads to deeper sleep for the next three nights or so.

Floating, she says, seems to rewire her brain to new patterns — quieter patterns that let her breathe, and think and heal. And that, at its heart, is what all the stillness of a good hour-and-a-half-long float is about.

"I'm always like a go go go person," she says. "It makes me take a minute for myself, to let my body heal, to let my mind do what it needs to do — no phone calls, no distractions. It's only 90 minutes, but it's needed."

See also: I Tried Floating. Here's What Happened

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