Like many other fascinating and revolutionary ideas, float tanks were pioneered by an academic asking a question. In 1954, John C. Lilly began experimenting with the mind’s response to “sensory deprivation,” a subject that had grasped the interest of the contemporary fields of neurology and psychology. There was debate about what would happen if the brain, the center of consciousness, was deprived of all sensory information. Would we fall into a dreamless, comatose state? Would our thoughts continue going even without any new incoming information?
Lilly wanted to find out. He built a large floatation chamber, which he filled with water. With the use of a diving suit (the facemask painted black to block out all light), he submerged his study participants into the floatation chamber. His results showed that there was no comatose state, and, once his participants came out of the chamber, they reported feelings of intense relaxation and calm, with some even reporting epiphanies of personal discovery and self-realization.
Lilly’s interest was sparked, and he continued his research over the next two decades, refining his laboratory’s chamber and building other similar floatation chambers to perform more experiments, and his new research showed similar results. The next real step in the evolution of float tanks came in the early 1970s, when the floatation chamber changed from an intimidating laboratory behemoth into the modern-sleek more welcoming pods we know and love today.
Lilly wanted to bring floating to the general public, and he partnered with Glen and Lee Perry to design a float tank that would allow people to bring home the benefits he had found reported in his studies. It was to be called “Samadhi,” a Sanskrit word which refers to a profound state of meditation.
Glen and Lee Perry designed the tank to free the person in the float from a restricting diving suit, uncomfortable face mask, and an ominous floatation chamber. They created a light-proof enclosure, and opted for floatation instead of submersion. In order to make the floatation easier for people, they added one important addition to the mix. The addition? Salt. Not just any old table salt (though they tried that, and were displeased with the sting), Epsom salt, a much more skin-friendly salt that has long been recognized for its health benefits.
This salt water, filled nearly to the point of saturation, created an extremely buoyant environment, making the act of floating entirely automatic, essentially counteracting the “sense” of gravity and letting the body relax more than ever before. This basic recipe of Epsom salt and water is still used in float tanks today, though now they come in all shapes and sizes. They all focus on creating a soundproof, lightproof, ultra-buoyant environment where people can enter and experience a complete blackout of their external senses.
The first float tank center was opened in 1973 in Beverly Hills, California. It spawned a surge in interest in floatation therapy, and paved the way for new centers to open all around the world. Over the next decade, centers saw steady growth and many news and media outlets ran featured stories about the therapy, the tanks, and the medical benefits.
The Float Tank Association was formed in 1981, the first of its kind, and led to increased research into the therapy. By 1983, well known researchers Peter Suedfeld and Roderick Borrie had coined the term REST (Restricted Enviornmental Stimulation Therapy) to replace the outdated and somewhat ominous “sensory deprivation” and they formed IRIS (The International REST Investigators Society) to further research into the medical and psychological benefits of the therapy.
During the mid-1980s, the growth trajectory of floatation therapy came to a near standstill. There are a lot of theories as to what led to the lull in public interest, but the most common theory involves the AIDS epidemic.
By the mid-1980s, as the AIDS scare was coming to a head, there was wariness in the general public about using shared water facilities such as pools and spas. Many floatation centers lost a large amount of their client base, and new clients were rare during this period. This fear has been argued to be the cause that created a drop in interest among the general public, leading to harsh times for the industry.
Regardless of the cause or causes, there was a definite lull in the industry. Unfortunately, many established centers had to close their doors due to lack of customers, and almost no new centers opened through the remainder of the 1980s and this freeze on growth continued through to the end of the 1990s.
By the early 2000s, float tanks had begun to make a comeback, both among the general public and the spa community. Research had continued through the industry’s lull, and as interest in the therapy grew, new and positive results were proven, leading to a second boom for the industry.
Centers began to open or reopen around the world, and the float tank community began to strengthen and grow. By 2010, events and conferences dedicated to celebrating and promoting floatation therapy were organized in major cities all around the world.
Annual Float Summits were organized and being held, including; the London Float Summit of 2010 (the first), followed by the San Francisco Float Summit of 2011, and the Swedish Float Summit in 2012. Also in 2012, the first annual Portland, Oregon Float Conference was organized and became the largest event of its kind. These conferences brought together industry professionals, researchers, and enthusiasts from the floatation community to share ideas about the practice and benefits of floatation therapy.
If the present growth of the industry is any indication, the future of floating is bright. The community of supporters is growing steadily, the industry is advancing, and the practice of floatation therapy is becoming more available to the general public. Float Tank centers from around the world are reporting increased interest and dedication among float tank users, and there is a surge in first-time floaters pursuing the experience.
The floating industry has the floatation experience itself to thank for the recent dramatic growth. The intense relaxation and the many other positive benefits that our customers experience, has led to a grass-roots marketing campaign that is spreading across the globe. Additionally, as alternative well-ness practices become more available and more acceptable, a variety of practitioners in the health and well-ness industries are recommending floating to their patients, family, and friends.
Those of us currently involved in this dramatically expanding movement look forward to the acceptance of floating as a part of well-ness practices and therapeutic treatment regimens. As the knowledge and use of floating expands, our vision includes the eventual acceptance of floating by health insurance companies. It is our desire that everyone who wants to will have access to floatation therapy’s ability to heal and strengthen the body and mind.
Welcome to the Float Pod revolution!