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Eugene's Float Om observes a decade of offering visitors tranquility and refuge

Woman floating.
Camila Cordeiro
Woman floating.

For ten years, a Eugene business has invited clients to let their troubles float away, by literally floating themselves. KLCC’s Brian Bull visited Float Om Healing Center, and tried out one of their sensory deprivation tanks.

The first float tank was invented in 1954 by neuroscientist John Lilly. But for many people, sensory deprivation tanks became mainstream with the 1980 movie, “Altered States.” It starred William Hurt as a Harvard professor experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs while undergoing sensory deprivation. This leads to apocalyptic religious visions, and later Hurt’s character regressing into a vicious caveman, among other things.

Altered States Trailer (1980) Ken Russell Movie

Float Om’s website assures visitors that only a small percentage of people revert to apes (that’s a joke, by the way.) Owner Ankush Vimawala is serious though about providing a disconnect from all stimuli.

“The goal is to feel neutral,” Vimawala explained. “So that in a float tank with perfect parameters you would start losing perception of where the body begins and where it ends, and merge into the oneness, of the fabric of existence.”

Brian Bull
Float Om's founder and manager, Ankush Vimawala, outside the "cabin" tranquility tank. He's a former software engineer who tired of the cubicle scene, and founded his business after trying a float in Portland over a decade ago. He figures 8,000 people have come through Float Om since it opened in 2012.

To help achieve this, roughly a thousand pounds of Epsom salts are dissolved in water heated to about 94 degrees Fahrenheit. The buoyancy, calibrated water and room temperature, darkness, and ear plugs all help remove the barrage of everyday noise and distractions.

Vimawala told KLCC that clients include soldiers with PTSD, athletes looking to set their game, and people who are just plain curious.

“It could be as simple as pain relief or recovery, to a spiritual experience or a psychedelic experience, or a release of some sort.”

And sometimes sessions have become paths to healing and resolution, added Vimawala.

“There was a lady that floated and afterwards told me how she talked with her son while she was in the tank and resolved some things that they had going on.

“And he had passed away two years ago.”

Brian Bull
A meditation altar provides a contemplative space for Float Om's customers. Vimawala's photography and essential oils add to the ambiance.

Moni Marrs has worked at Float Om for over six years, in many roles since coming to Eugene from Dallas, Texas. She herself uses the sensory deprivation chambers, or as Float Om operators prefer to call them, “tranquility tanks.”

“Floating is great because it allows people who also don’t like to be touched like from massage therapy and stuff like that, to go in and get that relaxation and that peace of mind,” said Marrs.

To see what it’s like, I tried a 90-minute session. Inside Float Om’s high-ceilinged tank called the “cabin”, I lowered myself into the water. I was advised to keep my expectations open, and shower after my session. I was also warned not to rub my eyes as the Epsom salts can really sting, which is not conducive to a relaxing float.

That last bit of advice came from Tyger Gruber of Eugene. He’s done a couple “mega floats”; sessions that last three-and-a-half hours.

“That hypnagogic state always interested me and I really enjoyed it, so I wanted a place where I could experience it more fully.”

Gruber says he heard podcasts with people describing other-wordly and quasi-psychedelic experiences during floats, so he wanted to try it. He’s been so impressed with his experiences at Float Om that he’d love to have his own personal float tank at home one day.

Brian Bull
A smaller tank or "pod" provides another option for Float Om's customers. Vimawala says some liken the experience to being back in the womb.

"If meditating is a rake, a float tank is a leaf blower for cleaning up the front lawn of your mind," said Gruber. "A lot of people don’t want to meditate because they feel like they’re not doing anything. When you’re float-tanking, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m healing my body because all the salt’s kinda getting in there.’ It makes meditating more enjoyable, it feels more productive, and if I could do it every day, I think I would.”

Other float tank centers exist in Portland and Salem, as well as all over the U.S. Some estimates put the number as high as 300, with much of that growth seen in the past decade.

There’s also float conferences where speakers like neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, director of the Float Research Collective, promote the benefits of sensory deprivation.

Brian Bull
Ankush Vimawala, at the front desk and reception area for Float Om in Eugene. He advises people to keep an open mind and not have set expectations when doing a float. Clients have included veterans, athletes, and just people who are curious.

There are skeptics who aren’t so buoyant over floating.

“Take it with a grain of salt. No pun intended,” said Christina Karns, a research assistant professor at the University of Oregon’s Psychology Department.

Karns said research into many areas has exploded, but not so much with the purported health benefits of floating. Part of that may be the individuality of each person as they experience sensory deprivation.

“So for some people it might be very relaxing. It could be a way to get into a meditative state," said Karns. "For someone else, it could even be stressful. You can end up with a psychotic experience. It’s going to depend on the person.

Float Om’s owner, Ankush Vimawala, says while most customers have calm and positive experiences, there was one woman who panicked while floating.

“Five minutes into the float, she started banging on the roof of the tank,” recalled Vimawala. “Later on, we found that when her mother was pregnant with her, she had a tumor in her stomach, and she was getting squooshed by the tumor. So that’s what she felt like in the tank, just kinda that claustrophobia.”

So, how did my own float experience go?

Not too shabby, though I did fall asleep briefly. I didn’t regress back to the womb, nor turn into a caveman. But I did have a calming escape from the daily barrage of phone calls, text messages, emails, and other daily stimuli erupting from my laptop and phone.

That in itself is an altered state I can appreciate.

©2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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