A compulsion to relax
At the Bodymind Float Center, guests pay to lie in 800 pounds of salt dissolved in ten inches of water. They say it changes their lives.
A sign at the door asks me to take off my shoes. “You don’t have to,” says David Brickman, the owner of Bodymind Float Center. “Whatever you’re comfortable with.” My shoes are off before he could finish his sentence.
Brickman, sporting a very comfy-looking pair of socks himself, then offers me a cup of tea and introduces me to two of their own blends, one a green tea base and the other an herbal rooibos. I opt for the latter, and he leads me to a breakout lounge for our tea-sipping, sock-donned chat.
Brickman and his wife opened Bodymind Float Center in 2013, its Park Ave location directly across the street from Tru On Park hair salon and in the center of one of Rochester’s most active cultural districts. My first exposure to the idea of a sensory deprivation tank was Netflix’s Stranger Things, which made it look terrifying. But the therapy has amassed a huge following in recent years—Joe Rogan references his floating practice on a regular basis; ESPN has featured Steph Curry’s and Harrison Barnes’s use of float tanks; it was at the center of a Simpsons episode; and last year the winning teams of the World Series, the NBA Championships, and the NFL Championships all incorporated floating into their training regimes.
Brickman’s first exposure was during a trip to Portland, Oregon, when a friend convinced him to float while he was in town.
“I had no idea what it was,” he says, “but I was game, and I was just blown away by how I felt after my first experience.” With a background in meditation and having gone on several retreats himself, Brickman was no stranger to a quiet mind. The closest he’d gotten to true peacefulness, he said, was after long meditation retreats—seven-plus days of just him and his mind. “They were the most frightening things I’ve ever done,” he tells me, “because you’re really facing yourself. For seven days you’re just meditating. And I’m as mentally healthy as anyone, but we all have our things we do to distract us from our fears, our pains, our dark thoughts. But with meditation it’s only your mind, and there’s nothing to distract you.” And then, of course, there’s the physical stress on one’s body—the back and knees especially.
Floating was something else entirely. “To do a ninety minute float that was effortless and blissful, and to come out of it with a taste of that quiet mind,” Brickman emphasizes, “was shocking to me. And even though I knew nothing about it other than my own firsthand experience at that moment, I had a strong instinct that it could help a lot of people.” He immediately knew that there was a need for floating back home in Rochester—even before he knew about its life-changing benefits.
In the following year, Brickman and his wife built a pilot tank in their basement. The current center’s three employees started as floaters in that “mini Bodymind,” as Brickman calls it. “Back in those days we were literally inviting people into our home to float,” Brickman says. “I would make tea for people, sit down with them, chat with them—and that really set the tone of the business. We still call our customers guests, and we strive to make people feel like guests when they come here.” Today Bodymind has six float tanks—including two pools that accommodate couples floats—and in early 2017 the Brickmans opened a second location in Syracuse.
When I ask what part of the world floating came from, Brickman picked up a book from the table. “Floating was invented by this fellow,” he says. “John Lilly.” The inspiration for the William Hurt character in the 1980 horror film Altered States, Lilly was a California scientist examining the nature of human consciousness in the 1950s. His research led him to question what happens when all sensory stimulation is withdrawn. “The prevailing thought was that you would just kind of lose consciousness, or your mind would go blank,” Brickman explains. “But in fact, your senses become heightened, and there are all different medical benefits to it that John Lilly was never seeking at all.”
Research continues to this day. The Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is heading the science, focusing primarily on its stress-relieving effects for individuals with mental health disorders. One experiment showed that forty-five out of forty-five people with PTSD and other anxiety disorders reported significant and measurable decreases in their stress after one sixty-minute session. “The research coming out doesn’t surprise us,” Brickman says, “because we see it day in and day out.”
While floating can heal the mind, it also offers marked relief for chronic physical pain. “I’ve seen people who could barely move they’re in so much pain,” Brickman said, “and they come out of a float moving freely. So we live for that.” Floating is so helpful for people living with fibromyalgia that the Bodymind Center offers one free float and a fifty percent discount thereafter to people with the disease. The Brickmans’ service to the community doesn’t stop there—discounts and memberships for veterans, students, and athletes are all detailed on their website. “We’re used to seeing happy outcomes, but sometimes it’s just near-miraculous,” he said.
The Bodymind Float Center also features a salt room, where guests sit to breathe air infused with miniscule particles of sodium chloride. “It’s table salt,” Brickman explains, “and table salt has three properties that would make an ill person want to breathe it in.” First, salt is anti-inflammatory, meaning it will benefit any person suffering from allergies, hay fever, asthma, or other autoimmune respiratory problems. Second, it’s antimicrobial—which means it kills harmful bacteria and fungi in our bodies that might be making us sick. “Finally, and probably most importantly, is that salt is hydrophilic,” Brickman explained. “It draws water to it. The particles of salt basically land where you have congestion, in the lungs and sinuses, and draws moisture to itself, which thins secretions.” This quality can even help people with conditions like bronchitis and cystic fibrosis.
If the very thought of lying in a dark tank of aqueous solution for ninety minutes fills you with claustrophobia, you’re not alone. “It’s quite common for people to be very worried about feeling claustrophobic,” Brickman explains. Bodymind built one extremely large tank and two completely open pools in an effort to preempt any feeling of claustrophobia. “But even so, I would say almost everyone floating their first time has a degree of worry that it will be scary for them or something like that. But as common as it is to anticipate fright, it’s extremely rare for anyone to actually experience it,” Brickman says. “It almost compels one to relax. It’s like it induces a relaxed state, which is something that, for people who haven’t tried floating, is hard to imagine.” Bodymindfloatcenter.com
John Ernst is a freelance writer and graphic designer based in Rochester. You can view more of his work at johnmwrites.com.