When I would tell people that I was going to try this new place where you float in a tank in total darkness and complete silence for 90 minutes, I would get two reactions: That sounds blissful, or that sounds torturous.

F.LO.A.T. opened its doors and four float tanks to the public at the end of February in the Locust Business District, and I was one who couldn’t wait to indulge. With days filled with multitasking, juggling schedules, constantly analyzing information and relentless demands … the idea of doing nothing was welcoming.

That’s what floating is all about, the advertisements say — shutting the world out so your body can rest and heal and your mind can be free and wander.

A near zero-gravity state is achieved with 850 pounds of epsom salt that allow you to float effortlessly and relax every muscle. The water is 93.5 degrees, about the temperature of your skin, so you lose the sense you are even in water at all.

The tanks are also insulated against sound. You wear disposable ear plugs, and your ears stay just below the surface of the water.

“It’s a level of mindfulness,” said co-owner Kevin McCulloch when I dropped in to check it out. “You shut out all the stuff that doesn’t matter for a short period of time, and you become aware of little things that you weren’t before.”

Apparently, lots of people are also in need of doing nothing, because F.LO.A.T. is booked for a solid three weeks. When I dropped by, the place was busy with customers coming in and out and others seeking brochures — all demanding McCulloch’s attention with questions and testimonies.


McCulloch and the other two owners were apparently so busy (or so relaxed), they couldn’t even squeeze me in for an interview by my deadline.

I had never heard of floating, but an online directory shows about 250 locations in the U.S. In Chicago, SpaceTime Tanks has been providing floating since 1982 and claims to be the longest running such business in the country. Around that same time, floating researchers also formed the International REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation) Investigators Society as a way to share findings.

Studies have associated floating with improving creativity, stress, anxiety, chronic pain, athletic performance and test-taking.

Sounds like something you’d find in a doctor’s office, but F.LO.A.T. feels like a spa with a spacious lobby and modern rustic décor. Two floating rooms have a giant bathtub you enter through a small door in a floor-to-ceiling wall (I floated in one of these). Two other rooms have giant pods, like your own one-person hot tub with a lid.

Despite the soothing atmosphere, I can see how this might freak some people out, especially the claustrophobic types. But as you float in darkness, you lose awareness of the walls. You can pretty much imagine you are in the middle of the Milky Way.

And don’t worry, germophobes, each room has a shower and soap to use before and after, and the salt water is filtered three times between each float and sanitized with UV light.

When it came time for my group to get our pre-float instructions, McCulloch assured us that this was not like a ride at Six Flags. You are not strapped in until coming to a complete stop. Keep the light on or the tub door open if you want. Get out any time you need to.

Some of the seriously sleep-deprived worry about falling asleep and drowning, but the water is less than a foot deep and buoyant enough to keep you afloat. I was more concerned about not waking up when alerted the float was over. McCulloch said they can flicker the lights and make waves in the water. I also noticed a loud speaker on the ceiling.


Considering users have reported creative and personal insights during their floats — developing scientific theories and drafting portions of books — I was hoping for some sort of insight or grand idea that would save lives or earn millions. But my benefits were more physical.

As soon as I started floating, my upper back hurt so bad I thought I was going to have to get out. I tend to hold tension in my neck and shoulders, but geez, I was so uncomfortable. I experimented with different arm positions and found that I had to float with my arms over my head and allow my head to tilt back.

Eventually, the pain melted away. A shoulder injury I’ve been struggling with felt much better days afterward. Another fellow floater had a similar experience.

“It’s almost like learning how to relax,” said Matthew Antolick, 40, of St. Louis. “I saw areas of tension I didn’t even realize were there disappear. And it’s still happening, which is nice.”

After spending nearly half the time just trying to get comfortable, I drifted into that dream-like state between being asleep and awake. This is when the brain produces slower theta waves, which floating enthusiasts say is accompanied by vivid memories, sudden insights, creative inspiration and a feeling of serenity and oneness with the universe.

I have no doubt good stuff like that was happening. The problem is, I just can’t remember any of it.


Toward the end of my float, my brain waves picked up, because I was suddenly very alert and rejuvenated. The list of things I had to do that day crept into my head, and I started feeling antsy. I began to go through the choreography I needed to know for my dance class, thinking it could assure a flawless performance. The light began to come on before I was finished, and I was actually disappointed.

Something McCulloch pointed out during our instructions made more sense after I was done. He said floating takes practice, just like yoga or anything else you do for the first time. I can see how I could get better at relaxing, introspection and maybe remembering what’s happening in my theta state.

But I, like many others, struggle with giving myself permission to stop and do nothing. Savannah Lugge, 30, of Belleville, tried floating because her husband gave her a session as a gift, a break from her demanding life as a nurse and mother of a toddler.

“In the beginning, it was hard for me to refocus my mind,” Lugge said. “I literally had to tell myself, ‘Don’t worry about anybody else. Don’t worry about anything else. This is the time you get to yourself.’”

I have to convince myself that by doing nothing, I’m actually doing a lot.

While most studies have mainly relied on tools like questionnaires and blood pressure monitors, scientists can now use neuro-imaging and genomics to measure physiological changes that explain the benefits of mindfulness.

Harvard researchers found that eight weeks of daily meditating for 30 minutes showed measurable changes in the brain’s gray matter — regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. Other scientists found improvement in the brain’s white matter, associated with decision-making and problem-solving. Meditation has also been found to affect the expression of genes and enzymes linked to metabolism, inflammation and aging.

Maybe we can accomplish more in a float tank than at the gym, zooming around in a car, on the phone or in front of a computer screen. No, meditation doesn’t have to involve being buoyant in the dark for 90 minutes, but it sure does make it easier.