By: Cuyler Gibbons
Floating weightless in the silent dark, counting slowly backwards from 100 and concentrating on nothing but my breathing, I turned my nascent meditative skills toward emptying my mind. While I have some limited experience with meditation, it’s mostly conceptual rather than practiced, but I had heard stories of “sensory deprivation” tanks and the often powerful perceptual impact a session in one can provide. Now, as the boundary between my body and the surrounding environment disappeared, I began to disassociate with my physical self, and became all mind and breath.
I’d come to Pasadena’s Just Float, billed as the largest, and most technologically advanced “flotation therapy” facility in the world, to explore the reality of the sensory deprived, flotation experience. As prelude, I met Jim Hefner, who, along with his partner Mike Ruskow, launched Just Float in late 2015.
Only three and a half years removed from his first float himself, Hefner is a true convert to the cause. The founder of several previous unrelated but successful businesses, Hefner describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. But when it comes to Just Float, he says, “I’m done—this is the last career I’m going to have—floating people.” He’s clearly at the forefront of a concept that’s been around for a while, but is only now beginning to gain ready traction in the burgeoning health and wellness space—700 people attended this year’s annual float conference in Portland, where Hefner gave the opening remarks. While the commercial possibilities tickled Hefner’s well-tuned business sense, the source of his passion is not mercenary but arises from a true belief in the salubrious effects of flotation therapy. “People need to have access,” he says. “I knew from the first day I floated…this tool needed to be everywhere.”
Shortly, as I blinked into the pitch darkness, I began to see tiny dots of light, almost like an early night sky, and I got the distinct feeling that I had begun to spin slowly, in flat circles around my navel, though I knew this was not actually possible in the confines of the tank. The star lights soon faded, and after, the seeming rotation slowed until it was almost imperceptible. Then, through my breathing I began to hear the sounds of a Midwestern evening, just after sundown. The unmistakable rhythmic thrum and croak of crickets and frogs on a summer night. It was the sound of my childhood and I marveled at it for what seemed many long minutes.
One thing modern society produces in abundance is chronic stress. And modern medicine is only now starting to come to terms with the truly deleterious effects of repeated daily exposure to high stress situations. Chronic stress manifests itself in many ways—depression, anxiety, insomnia even physical pain. When under stress, the body produces a series of physiological changes, originating in the sympathetic nervous system, that are associated with the flight or fight response. Respiration and heart rate increase, circulation constricts, and muscles tighten, our pupils dilate, the immune system mobilizes and adrenalin, norepinephrine and other hormones begin to pump through our body putting us on mental and physical high alert. This hyper vigilant state had distinct advantages when facing the daily existential threats of prehistoric existence. Less so, with most threats we perceive today.
On the savannah, the physical act of facing down and mastering those threats also metabolized the stress hormones released and allowed the body to return to a comfortable resting state once the danger had passed. Today, however, modern existence provides plenty of opportunities to ratchet up the stress and initiate a flight or fight response, like heavy traffic or an angry boss, but few situations, like pursuing dinner across the plains or fighting off a predator, where such a response is appropriate. After taking down a wooly mammoth, our bodies were designed, via something called the relaxation response, to return to normal function. Given the chronic stress and lack of real release many experience today however, this return to normal often doesn’t happen, causing actual damage to the body. Hypertension, heart disease and inflammation among other afflictions, can all be brought on and exacerbated by stress.
This is where floating comes in. Our brains produce four types of brain waves, of differing frequencies, and generally associated with relative levels of consciousness. High frequency Beta waves are produced when you’re conscious and active. At progressively lower frequencies are Alpha, Theta and finally Delta waves, produced in deep sleep. For most of us theta wave states are difficult to achieve except when we are sleeping as well. And it is in theta wave states where true, therapeutic relaxation occurs. EEG studies have shown that certain monks routinely achieve theta brain-wave states while meditating. Those monks also often live in isolation and have spent many years in singularly dedicated meditative practice.
Hefner, Just Float’s founder, cites new EEG studies that have shown floating might be able to save you some time however. In a floatation tank the external stimuli that normally keeps our brain active is removed, and with nothing to process, we can more easily enter a kind of waking dream where theta brain waves are produced. And as Hefner elaborates, “What we’re seeing is that the brain wave signatures after just a few floats are on a par with those we see in people who have been mediating for years.” If not quite a monk’s serenity in a bottle, at least a potential short cut to the proven benefits of repeated meditation, without the years of practice.
When the lights, and soft music returned, signaling the end of my hour, I had no conception of time passed. I emerged from the tank a bit disoriented, as if I needed a few moments to reboot. As I showered it seemed as if all my systems were gradually blinking back on-line and sputtering to life, after a thorough cleaning and maintenance routine. Then, fully alert, I dressed and retired to the “recovery room” to reflect with a cup of tea. I was wrapped in a soothing endorphin embrace. I was tension free, and my personal idle had been turned way down low. Soon enough, however, reality beckoned. I was loath to return to “life speed,” but with a well-rested brain I felt more than up to the challenge. Besides, I knew I’d be back.
76 N. Hudson Ave., Ste. 120,
Pasadena, CA 91101
818.639.3572 or www.justfloat.com