An Immersive Experience: Getting Away Through Flotation Pods

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — The water was warm, but not hot.

Float Effects owners, Jeremy and Rachel Jarrell, explained the water in their sensory deprivation, flotation pods was kept at a stable 93.5 degrees.

“About the surface temperature of skin,” Rachel explained. “We keep the room about the same temperatures, so there’s little difference between the air and the water.”

The pod I was floating inside was small, about the size of an economy car, but not cramped. Neither my feet nor my head touched the sides, but I could reach out for the wall, if I wanted.

“Most people put their hands over their torso or leave their hands by their side,” Jeremy said.

Once settled in the water, I was still.

When the blue light dimmed and the faint, new age music faded away, all that was left was sightless darkness and the slow thudding of my heart.

I tried to relax.

A DIFFERENT WAY TO GET AWAY FROM IT ALL

Float Effects, in Huntington, offers Flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique (REST), a zero-gravity environment that reduces auditory, visual and tactile stimulation.

A generation or two ago, these were called sensory deprivation tanks, though the term has fallen out of favor, both for negative connotations and because the term is inaccurate.

Originally developed by neuroscientist, physician and counterculture figure John C. Lilly, the first tanks were first used for psychological experiments with sensory deprivation and altered consciousness.

Others experimented with them, but the use of the tanks didn’t really catch on with the public until the early 1970s.

Over the years, the tanks or pods have been used to help treat anxiety, ease some physical injuries and also aid in recovery for athletes.

Float therapy has been touted by everyone from comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, who uses it for meditation, and musician John Lennon, who credited it with getting him off drugs, to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who felt it opened him up to inspiration.

Float Effects opened in October 2018.

Originally, it was a side business meant to take the place of Rachel’s former office.

Rachel is a psychologist. After several years in the same building, her practice had grown and she’d moved to a different office.

While looking for something new to put in the old office, the couple heard about float therapy centers in Florida.

“There was nothing like it here in West Virginia,” Rachel said.

That float therapy was used as alternate therapy for pain management and it intrigued them.

Jeremy said, “That’s not too surprising, right? People have been soaking in Epsom salts for sports injuries for decades.”

“We thought it was something people needed,” Rachel said.

WHO USES THIS AND WHY?

Jeremy said their clinic sees injured athletes, as well as people with occupational injuries and/or chronic pain, which are common in West Virginia.

It’s not a one-and-done sort of therapy, however.

Teri Cole, one of the company’s regulars, comes to soak in a pod about once a week.

“I used to come two or three times a week,” she said.

A retiree, Cole said she’s had migraines and arthritis for decades, and has pain from a 15-year-old snowboarding injury.

“It takes all the pain away from me,” she said. “It helps me sleep.”

Floating is also good for stress relief, the Jarrells say.

The weightlessness and warmth relax muscles. It’s not unusual for users to fall asleep a couple of minutes after beginning to float.

Drowning, while not impossible, is at least highly unlikely.

The water pooled in the bottom of each pod contains 850 pounds of Epsom salt. The salinity is higher than what’s found in the Dead Sea, which is 280 parts per million. The Dead Sea contains roughly eight times as much salt as what’s found in ordinary seawater.

The human body is more buoyant in seawater than in fresh water. People naturally float better in the ocean and can hardly sink at all in the Dead Sea.

Rachel said, “Sometimes, when people first try the pod, they’ll strain their necks because they think they have to hold their heads up.”

Once they realize that the water will hold you up without any effort, people relax. Between the weightlessness and the warmth, dozing off in the darkness is common.

Rachel said she does it all the time.

“I float a couple of times a week,” she said.

Jeremy doesn’t fall asleep as much, but he said he only gets in a pod about once a week.

Others come to Float Effects to unplug and recharge — sort of.

Texts, TikTok and Twitter and the rest of social media gets left outside the pod. Customers can control what sort of input they want.

“People bring music,” Jeremy said. “You can sync up the pod to music on your phone.”

Some like classical music. Others bring pop or rock. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” record is popular, Jeremy said.

But lots of people choose to completely disconnect for an hour or so.

“We had a Buddhist monk come and try a session,” Rachel said.

Traditional meditation works to eliminate distractions and try to tame the flow of thoughts.

Floating within the pod, while not eliminating all stimulation, reduces it sharply.

PREPARING TO FLOAT

Before they can get in the pod, participants have to remove makeup and shower.

Each pod has its own private room, which includes a bathroom and a shower, along with a ready supply of shampoo and body wash, as well as clean towels and washcloths.

“We take care of all of that,” Jeremy said. “You don’t need to bring anything.”

The shampoo and body wash is unscented and chemically neutral.

Jeremy also recommended not shaving or waxing right before coming to float.

“The salt water can sting,” he said.

Participants are also warned not to touch their eyes after they get in the water.

Once a customer begins a session, the door to the room is closed and staff leaves them alone to shower and get in the pod on their own.

The doors to the floating pod rooms lock. Staff monitors audio to ensure safety and customers can communicate through an intercom, but the room is private. No one can see in.

If a problem arises, the doors can be unlocked from the outside.

Customers float naked.

Fabric touching the skin creates sensation for the participant and chemicals in the swimsuit, including color additives, laundry detergents and fabric softeners can pollute the water.

People who dye their hair should check with staff before they book an appointment. If someone shows up with blue or purple hair, the session will be canceled.

“The salt will pull non-permanent dye out of your hair,” Rachel said.

It would also be expensive.

Jeremy said the pods rely on a three-fold filtration system. Water is pumped through these filters many times a day, but some hair dyes can pollute the water past what can be filtered clean.

When the water becomes polluted, the pods must be drained, scrubbed clean and refilled with new solution.

“That would cost you about $1,000,” Rachel said.

After participants are ready to enter the pod, they put in ear plugs and then carefully step into the 10-inch-deep bath inside the softly lit pod. Once in, they close the hatch, lay back in the saltwater solution, turn off the interior lights (there is still some light coming through the bottom edge of the pod hatch) and signal to the staff by intercom that they’re ready.

The session begins when the music stops and the lights beyond the pod disappear.

TRYING IT OUT

Lying on my back and floating high in the pool, my body gradually relaxed and the regular chatter in my head became a bit more manageable.

The feeling in the water was strange. There came a point where I wasn’t sure where all of me was anymore. I could feel air on the dry tops of my thighs, my knuckles and my face, but my legs and arms underneath the surface seemed distant unless I tried to notice them.

After it was all over, I felt rested, clear-headed and relaxed. The tightness in my joints was gone. The effect lasted for about two days, and I also slept very well that night.

Floating sessions at Float Effects run either an hour or 90 minutes, but Jeremy said most customers schedule an hour.

Soft music returns to signify the end, and light outside the pod returns and seeps in through the bottom of the hatch.

Customers can turn on the light in the pod and then carefully exit to shower off the salt and dry. It’s not unusual for salt crystals to form on air-exposed skin.

“We lose about half-a-cup of salt after every session,” Jeremy explained.

It’s not a lot, but he said they check the solution every day and adjust to keep the balance correct.

Rachel added the salt was beneficial to the skin.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Float Effects closed its doors briefly, but reopened as an essential business. The staff adheres to hygiene protocols. There are masks and hand sanitizer. Everything gets cleaned repeatedly.

So far, it’s been a safe therapy. There’s no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through water and virtually nothing can live in heavily saline water.

Float Effects began as a side project, but the Jarrells said they’ve become passionate about floating.

“I see those ‘Salt Life’ stickers on cars and I just giggle,” Rachel said. “They don’t know.”