“We’re going to a spa.”
This is the half-lie I tell my 17-year-old sister, Gabbie, on our way to Just Float, a flotation therapy center in Los Angeles. If I had told her we were going to be in a sensory-deprivation tank with 250 gallons of water and 1,300 pounds of Epsom salt to do nothing but be alone with our thoughts for an hour in complete darkness, she probably wouldn’t have come. Floating is a sensory-deprivation practice meant to enhance mindfulness by removing pesky, distracting things like sound and gravity. The idea is you’ll emerge with a deeper awareness than you would with traditional meditation. It also promises relaxation and stress reduction. Intrigued, I decided to try it. Gabbie and I walk into Just Float, and it feels a bit like a doctor’s office — which makes some sense, since the focus here is on wellness. Gabbie and I fill out a couple of forms, and then I sit down with Just Float’s founder Jim Hefner. Hefner, 50, is a self-described serial entrepreneur. He’s done everything from manufacturing to owning a bicycle company to private equity consulting. “I haven’t worked for anyone else since I was 21,” he tells me proudly. But he left all that behind after he experienced his first float in 2013 in Laguna Beach, CA. “I emerged from the float tank on that particular day and was completely blown away by the experience,” Hefner says. “I literally decided I was going to have a career change that day.” He says floating is where he found the blank space between his thoughts. “Call it god. Call it consciousness. Call it the universe. Call it love. Call it whatever you want. I was never able to find that anywhere else.” Today, he’s logged nearly 200 floats. “And I am still completely blown away every time I have the experience.” Hefner opened Just Float in September 2015 — with 11 float tanks, it’s the largest float center in the world. Because I’m a bit wary of floating, I first ask about any dangers associated with it. “It’s incredibly safe,” he assures me. “The water is 11 inches deep. People occasionally fall asleep. If it does happen, it’s no big deal. It’s virtually impossible to flip over while you’re in there.” Okay, but what if I do manage to fall over or something? “If you did go face down in the solution, the saltiness of the water would wake you up very quickly. The concentration of Epsom salt in the water is 10 times that of the ocean, which is why you float," Hefner says. Then I ask him what kind of benefits floating can offer me over things like meditation and mindfulness practice. “There’s no distractions,” he says. “The way that floating works, with the water being 94.58° [Fahrenheit], it’s the same temperature as your skin. After 15, 20 minutes you begin to lose the perception of where your body ends and the water begins.” Hefner says that your brain is usually focused on the tactile nature of what your skin is touching. “In the float tank, that part of your brain doesn’t have anything to do, so the brain slows down and becomes very quiet. No visual input. And being soundproof as well, there’s no audible input.” So that means your brain can kind of take a break. “Traditional meditation cannot do that. The states at which you can achieve are, in my opinion, similar to what a very high-level yogi would experience after decades of meditation.” I know what you’re thinking. And trust me, Hefner’s thinking it as well. “It’s a little bit difficult to make claims like that because I don’t really know what’s going on in yogis’ brains, but having been a yoga practitioner for two decades and a high-level athlete and very body aware, mind aware — my first float tank I found my own consciousness.” That’s a huge promise, one that Hefner truly believes in. “The claims that we’re turning off large parts of your brain and that it’s a high-level meditative state generally unattainable elsewhere — all true,” he says. “I know that based off of my own and my friends’ experiences in the float tank. The anecdotal evidence is immense.” It’s true that, at Just Float, there are many leather-bound journals in which floaters document the life-changing experiences they had inside the tank. Still, there’s the issue that there’s no actual, non-anecdotal evidence or proven science. Hefner says in April he’s conducting an experiment in conjunction with Neuroverse, a company that builds wireless brain stations, in which they’ll perform brain scans on first-time and experienced floaters. “We’re actually the only commercial float center in the world that’s licensed to do human subject research.”
But, the purpose of my visit is to see for myself. “Getting people in the float tank is the best way I can possibly communicate what the heck we do here,” he tells me. Gabbie and I head into our respective tanks. (Not before she gives me a "I can’t believe you’re making me do this" face, of course. Teens!) Before you can get in the water, you have to take a pretty thorough shower. You must wash your hair and body to remove any oils that could upset the delicate balance of the float-tank water. And really, I don’t want to mess around with that, because I definitely have already signed a paper that says I’m responsible for any damages. I step into the water and close the float-tank door. When Hefner said the water was 94.5°F, it certainly sounded warm. But when I get in, it feels more like the temperature of bath water that’s lingered for too long. It’s the temperature at which you and your pruney fingers would finally get out of the bathtub after a long soak, yet this is the starting point of your hour float. I wanted it to be like a hot tub. Still, I emerged myself in the water and started floating instantly. It’s kind of crazy how my body cannot help but float right to the top. (No, I’ve never been to the Dead Sea. Must be nice.) But here’s the hard truth about putting your body in a bath full of Epsom salt: It burns your lady parts. I’m talking anything your underwear touches. It subsided after a few minutes, but then any drastic movements I made rekindled the flame. At first, soft ambient music plays, but only for the first few minutes. You can float in total darkness, if you choose, or keep a few low lights on. I opted for the latter, because the former felt too much like a scene from a horror movie. You can also choose to keep the door to your tank open, but I found I was too afraid of having a big, empty, completely dark space ahead of me. Ghosts! I try closing my eyes for a few minutes, but all I can think about is what I was supposed to be doing. That inevitably brought me to thoughts of things I could be doing. Why spend an hour just floating around when I could be, say, going to the gym? So I started to do little workouts. I sat up on my arms and tried to do tricep dips. After that didn’t seem to be doing anything effective, I decided to play a little game in which I pushed myself from wall to wall like Atari tennis. That, too, became boring. I even thought I’d check in with myself and see if I needed a good cry. What better time and place to do it than a completely private and soundproof tank? But no matter how many sad things I could think about — everything from my seemingly infinite student loan debt to the fact that I will one day die — I didn’t need to. So then I just sat up and looked around at the walls. I was relieved when, finally, the lights and music slowly came back on to signify the end of my float. Then it was time for shower number two. You can tell this place was designed by a man, because none of the bath products smelled nice. Not that they smelled bad, just that they didn’t smell like anything, really. I was disappointed. If I’m going to shower twice, I’d like to smell like some kind of flower or fruit afterward. Plus, the hairdryers are in a separate room at the back of the building. I meet Gabbie in the meditation room, where you can go for post-float decompressing. You wind down, have a cup of water or tea. You can draw or journal about your experience. There’s a video testimonial room, too, but it was out of order during my visit. I had a cup of water and flipped through some of the journals. It seemed like many other people really do have life-changing experiences in those tanks, but sitting there with my drippy hair, I wasn’t feeling any kind of zen. My sister and I get a car back to Sherman Oaks to have dinner with my mom. And this is where I experienced my biggest problem with floating. About 10 minutes after sitting down at the restaurant, I began to feel dehydrated and sick. It was like when you spend the day running around the beach and swimming in the ocean, and then you get home and you’re totally wiped. I could only manage a few bites of my meal before I ultimately left dinner early to go to bed, telling my family to take my leftovers home. I was asleep by 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. It wasn’t all bad. I really enjoyed the way my hair did mermaid-type things behind my head when I was floating. I also have a history of not being able to access my zen, so I can’t totally blame the technique for not working for me. And clearly I’m missing something, because Just Float has had thousands of customers in the few months it’s been open. The place has a five-star rating on Yelp, for crying out loud. Plus, it’s been convincing enough for Hefner, arguably the king of odd jobs, to finally settle down. “A year from now this thing is going to blow wide open,” he tells me. And maybe, like many fads, it will. But even if the masses make their way to the float tanks, you're more likely to find me picking up Gabbie to come over for a movie night at my place. And by "movie night," I of course mean "making her help me with my laundry."