CLAREMONT — The newest business to open in Claremont could be described as “meditation on steroids,” said Joanne Knowlton. It’s a float center: three float pods, or isolation tanks, where patrons can float in utter quiet and privacy for about the same price as a massage.
Of course, unlike massage, no one is touching you. Invented in 1954 by neuroscientist John Lilly, the isolation tanks are used to achieve deep relaxation in a seemingly weightless environment.
The water is saturated with Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) so that if you lay flat in it, you float. The pod looks like a giant egg, with a lid that can be left open or shut depending on the experience you want, and once in you have a choice of colored light (or darkness) and music (or silence). Each tank is in its own room with a shower, so you can go in, disrobe and shower, float for an hour, and reassemble your look before going back into the world.
The float center is the dream of Joanne Knowlton, who discovered floating helped her severe anxiety and debilitating panic attacks.
The Knowltons moved to Claremont nine years ago. They have five children, and both work full time jobs, and they had some trauma.
Joanne’s panic attacks had gotten so bad she couldn’t drive. She was visiting family in Spokane, where floating is gaining popularity, and she decided to try it.
“I was desperate,” she said. “Every time I went to the doctor I left with more medication. So, I was like, all in, I’m going to try this — no lights, no sound, nothing.
“For the first time in my life I felt, like, nothing. I spent a long time going, are my eyes open or are they closed? The water is 93 degrees, so you can spend your whole first session playing: are my fingers in the water or in the air? Because your brain is trying to grasp onto something sensory. Once your brain relaxes enough to realize there’s nothing here for me, you can relax into a theta state.”
Theta brain waves are low frequency, a state of alert relaxation lower than alpha waves — say, the state of mind of walking in a garden — which is lower than beta waves — your mind when you’re engaged in an intense debate. They’ve been described as the state of mind you have driving on a freeway, when you’re alert enough to drive but relaxed enough to think about other things. “A lot of people when it comes to meditation it takes years to attain a theta state, but these tanks with the atmosphere and the right mindsight you can hit that state in 20 minutes,” said Knowlton.
Knowlton felt so much better after trying the float that she started to read up on it. She found a way to get a float tank for their house in Claremont. Since she got into floating, she’s been able to cut out 80 percent of her medications. “I feel like I’m coming back to life,” she said. “Coming off the medication without suffering the consequences of coming off the medication.”
Not long after she got into it, her husband injured his back and had to be in a wheelchair for three months. “I said, ‘You need to float,’” said Joanne, and another convert was made.
“I can float and the effect takes about 24 hours,” said Chris Knowlton. “And I’m good for six weeks.”
As physical therapy, the floating experience takes the weight off the joints, allowing the spine to decompress and synovial fluid to circulate. Migraine sufferers find it relieves pain and tension in the neck and shoulders. The magnesium and sulfate, absorbed through the skin, helps calm the nervous system as well. Because floating has been around over 50 years, there are studies of its efficacy: one showed it lowered cortisol (the stress hormone) by 21 percent in people who did eight floats over two weeks.
The Knowltons bought the old mill managers’ building on Crescent Street and started work last winter. To hold the pods, which can weigh several thousand pounds once the water and salts are added, floor structures needed serious reinforcing. They also soundproofed all the walls; a truck going by on Water Street can’t be heard in any of the float rooms.
“For a lot of people, it’s not just about physical wellness but mental wellness as well, and creativity,” said Joanne. “So, you have people that go float and come out with the next three chapters of their book. Because all the external factors are gone. Your brain has nothing else to focus on.”
On Friday, the family and the carpenters were working like crazy to get the center ready for its Saturday morning opening. Joanne’s Mom was there to help, and four-year-old Natalie was getting under her big brothers’ feet.
The nearest float centers are around two hours away, but there is a single float tank in Newport at the All About the Body spa on Main Street. Joanne is looking forward to providing this therapeutic environment for people in Claremont. “I love Claremont,” she said. “We live here; I wouldn’t want to do it any other place.”
“My back went out on Mother’s Day, and I took a float and Monday I was here lugging 50-pound bags of salt. That would not be possible without floating,” she said.