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Touching the Void: Sensory deprivation tank entrepreneurs find there's plenty of interest in nothing 

Neuro Float and Float On join together to make Oregon one of the largest areas for people to use deprivation floating in the West Coast.

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After the door closes, it's not the darkness, but the quiet that strikes me - that and the fact that I'm totally naked, floating on a bed of Epsom salt in a contraption that looks like what would emerge if my bathtub impregnated my washing machine.

I'd rather be in a slope-side hot tub - that's my idea of relaxation. Instead, I'm in a windowless, seven-and-a-half by four-foot, fiberglass sensory deprivation tank. As such, I'm part of one of the newest trends in wellness and relaxation, dubbed "floating" by its proponents.


It takes a minute to get accustomed to the darkness and the absence of sound. But I'm assured that if I stick with it, I'll experience a state of meditative relaxation that's virtually unattainable in everyday life - what floaters refer to as the "theta" state when the creative "left" brain takes over.

After a few moments of gently bouncing off the walls of the fiberglass tank, I'm still mentally balancing my checkbook and wondering what I had for lunch yesterday. I guess this relaxation thing takes practice.

Like most folks, I learned about sensory deprivation tanks from the old school psychedelic thriller Altered States. While that story about a Harvard professor's chilling drug-enhanced extrasensory exploration was pure fantasy, the growing popularity of sensory deprivation tanks is a firm reality.

Float tanks are nothing new, but the cottage industry has enjoyed a quiet resurgence as of late. In the process, floating has evolved from a remnant of '60s psychedillia that was practiced by a few long-time devotees, sometimes in their own bedrooms and basements using homemade tanks, to a mainstream therapy that advocates see as on par with other non-traditional practices like chiropractic care and acupuncture.

The phenomenon arrived in Bend this past fall when Neuro Float, a combined sensory deprivation float business and yoga studio opened on Colorado Avenue in the upscale Mill Quarter building, a mixed-use development with a modern brownstone design perched between downtown and the Old Mill, on Bond Street. Since then, scores of others have taken the sublime plunge into nothing, according to Neuro Float studio manager Sarah Krahn. The entire floating process takes about an hour and a half. For the experience, customers pay $79. Many customers opt to do a monthly membership that starts at $69 and includes two floats with a three-month commitment required.

In Portland, the Float On studio is now booked solid from open to close, six days a week. Guests who want to book a float should call at least a week in advance, said co-owner Christopher Messer, who opened the studio with three other floating devotees less than two years ago. Together, Neuro Float and Float On have a combined eight tanks, making Oregon the epicenter of sensory deprivation floating on the West Coast.

Both businesses are already looking at the possibility of expanding into other markets, including Seattle and Los Angeles.

"It's growing hugely, dramatically, quickly and suddenly," said David Wasserman, a 58-year-old floating devotee who manufactures one of the most popular commercial models, Oasis float tanks, in Southern California.

Wasserman declined to provide specific figures, but said his business doubled last year. And business in the first two months of this year is up by close to 100 percent over 2011. The biggest challenge right now is keeping up with orders, he said.

"I'm a little shocked, pleased and bewildered by it all," Wasserman said.

Like many others in the industry Wasserman's business grew out of his own interest in floating. Wasserman, whose last name means "water man" in his family's native German tongue, said he's been drawn to activities such as steam baths and saunas since he was a young boy and his father and grandfather would take him to the mineral baths near his grandfather's home in Kansas City.

"Those were primal experiences," he recalled.

Later, Wasserman discovered the writings of John Lilly, a doctor, researcher and intellectual maverick who experimented with, and then championed, sensory deprivation floats in the middle of the last century. Lilly's research and writings centered largely on his experiments that combined sensory deprivation floats with hallucinogenic and other mind-altering drugs. Lilly's attempts to tap into higher levels of consciousness and his seminal work, The Deep Self, inspired a generation of early floaters like Wasserman and Messer.

"I had such a wonderful experience. I thought this is something everyone should try," Wasserman said of his first float, which he took in 1977.

That was around the same time that Messer, of Float On, was making his first foray into floating. Like Wasserman, Messer was introduced to the idea through Lilly's writings. Messer, who was interested in meditation at a young age and volunteered to lock himself in a pitch-black bedroom as part of a high school psychology class experiment, constructed his own makeshift flotation chamber from hardware store parts and plywood. He didn't have enough money for the Epsom salts that provide the tanks with the necessary buoyancy, so he filled his tank with water scooped from the beaches of Kaneohe Bay on the island of Oahu where he was living.

It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with floating. Like Wasserman, Messer found a way to turn his affinity for floating into a career of sorts. Before coming to Portland, he operated a single tank studio out of his San Diego area home. While there has been consistent interest within a small community of devotees, the recent resurgence in interest is largely unprecedented.

"It just never went mainstream. And I wouldn't say it's mainstream yet, but its getting there," Messer said.

While customers come from all walks of life, floating devotees seem to have one thing in common - a belief that the physical and psychological benefits of floating cannot be overstated. Those in the business share an almost Messianic passion.

"I could clean out hospitals with these things," Messer said. "It's total prevention."

While there has been scant peer-reviewed research on the health benefits of sensory deprivation floating, Messer said some European countries, like Sweden, are already acknowledging the value and incorporating floating into their health care systems.

For customer Cherie Auman, the results speak for themselves. A Central Oregon-area loan officer who has struggled with stress-related ailments, Auman tried all manner of traditional and holistic approaches to managing her discomfort before she discovered Neuro Float. Since her first float in December, Auman has been sold on the benefits. By mid-February she had completed a dozen 90-minute floats at Neuro Float.

"I will be a member for life. I will do this every single week," said Auman.

In addition to managing her stress and anxiety, the floats also relieve pain that she suffers in her knees after a pair of surgeries, Auman said.

It's customers like Auman, everyday professionals who are seeking health and relaxation benefits that appear to be taking flotation tanks from society's fringe to the center of the discussion about health care and wellness. They're also driving the growth of studios like Bend's Neuro Float that have taken the business out of basements and garages and onto main street. Krahn said in February that Neuro Float has seen a combined 600 yoga and float customers over the past few months, about half of which were floaters. Krahn said the vast majority of those customers become repeat visitors. In Portland, Float On has extended its hours, operating tanks until midnight to accommodate the demand.

It's no coincidence that "float" businesses are becoming savvier about reaching customers. Today, studios like Neuro Float provide an environment and an experience that compliments the actual float. In much the same way that Starbucks turned a simple cup of coffee into a lifestyle, studios like Neuro Float and Float On are providing more than just a salt-filled tank.

At Neuro Float, guests check in at the front desk and are escorted down a sparingly lit hallway to one of several rooms that house the flotation tanks. The rooms, which resemble what you might expect to find in an upscale day spa, include a shower where guests can rinse before and after their immersion session. Krahn also recommends that guests begin their session by spending half an hour on an inversion table, which looks like a much friendlier version of the device that Jodie Foster and company strapped Anthony Hopkins to in Silence of the Lambs. Here the devices are used for relaxation rather than restraint. Guests choose from several different auditory meditative themes with names like "clarity," "mastery" and "relaxation" that are pumped through a pair of earphones as customers lay on the table, feet pointing toward the ceiling.

Pressed for time during my visit, I skipped the inversion table appetizer and got right to the entrée. I ignored my hosts' pleas that I commit to a full 60-minute float. Instead, I opted to get a feel for the float in a relatively brief 20 minutes. After a quick shower, I plugged my ears, pulled the handle on the side of the tank and stepped awkwardly and nakedly through an opening the size of a commercial clothes dryer door. Inside the tank, it's humid, but not stifling.

It takes some time to figure out whether or not I need to hold my feet off the bottom - I don't - and whether I can get used to the feeling of half of my naked self bobbing above surface - I can't. I wonder about theta, if it exists. But mostly I just lay there quietly. I can't help but think it would be nice to have some music to enjoy, maybe some Dark Side of the Moon, a notion that when later shared with my hosts is received as a kind of heresy. Still the time passes remarkably quickly. At the end of the session, a soothing tone marking the end of my float emanates from an invisible speaker within the tank.

After showering quickly and dressing, my hosts are eager to hear about my experience, which is positive but not life altering. But, then again, relaxation isn't my strong suit. On the other side of the equation is Messer who has come over from Portland to visit the new studio in Bend and had just finished a marathon float. With his hair still wet and a smile on his face, he seems more at peace than Buddha.

It's the smile of a man who's been preaching the gospel for 25 years and has finally found a congregation.

"There's nothing better than nothing," he informs me cryptically.

That might be true, but it seems as though Messer and his fellow floating entrepreneurs appear to be onto something.

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