Dusk is settling in across southwest Champaign as I enter 217 Float at the Village at the Crossing complex. It’s a pleasantly cool Saturday evening, and I’m wearing my Underwerewolves t-shirt, khaki shorts, and well-worn flip-flops on my feet.
20-year-old Madison O’Donnell greets me from behind the desk in the lobby. It’s just her second day on the job. We chat and I discover she’s a former pitcher on the softball team at North Central College in Naperville and wasn’t happy there. Madison now attends the University of Illinois and might try out for the Illini softball team in three weeks, though she isn’t totally sure. Classes are tough and she has anxiety. She likes to be in control of situations and feels off if she can’t maintain a steady, planned-out schedule every day.
Given those issues, Madison might work at the perfect place in town.
I’m about to experience an hour-long floating session for the third time in my life. I’ll climb into and zonk out in an oval-shaped “dream-pod,” which to me resembles a large white egg with shallow saltwater. The liquid in the pod contains 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt that allows a person to float, which in turn leads to relaxation. The supposed benefits gained from floating in ultra-salty water include improved blood pressure, increased endorphin levels, enhanced creativity, and toxic cleansing. When I’ve climbed out of that egg in the past, I’m as mellow as I imagine a person can be.
Madison, who’s floated four times, also feels her stress melt away in the pod.
“I’m on the go, go, go all the time,” she says, snapping her fingers each time she says the word “go.” “So when I do have this hour to just, like, unwind and not think about anything, I think that it really honestly helps me. I look at it like therapy.”
For three years, Madison has been dating the 19-year-old son of the manager of 217 Float, Michelle Namoff. His name is Mike, and he’s a catcher for the North Central baseball team. Sometimes she’ll pitch to Mike, and after grueling pitching workouts, Madison says floating puts her tired muscles at ease.
Amie Toews of Champaign walks toward the front desk as Madison and I talk. She’s just finished her float.
“How’d you like it?” Madison asks Amie.
“Oh, my gosh.”
“Wasn’t it great?”
“That was so refreshing. It was amazing. It felt so good.”
Amie’s hair is still wet and she’s not wearing makeup. She jokes that she doesn’t want her picture taken because of how she looks, but she indeed has a rejuvenated, happy aura. Her friend and hairdresser who works at Rod Sickler Salon & Spa, which adjoins 217 Float, was the person who recommended she try floating. Amie’s friend said floating in the pod leads to feeling like you’re falling asleep but not fully snoozing. Other people who’ve floated undoubtedly have other opinions. My experience is that floating can lead to a deep meditative state.
Floaters are asked to use the bathroom and rinse off in the shower prior to their session. If you wear contacts, take them out before floating. I request to have the music in the pod turned off, and I don’t want the white-noise air filter next to the pod turned on—I want total silence tonight. I leave the light on in the pod, which gives the water and interior various color tones, and then I ease myself in.
The saltwater is just this side of warm and has a milky feel but is clear. My skin feels super slick in it. I stretch out in the water … and float.
The previous night I’d attended a Bruno Mars concert with my wife and stepson at the United Center in Chicago. It was a fun show, but it also made me feel like I’m not as young as I used to be. There were — I’m guessing — 18,000 fans, many of them singing, dancing, and drinking. They were living it up on a Friday night like I used to do. We sat on the second level of the arena, just behind the stage on the left side, not far from ear-splitting fireworks that must have gone off at least 10 times. I wore foam ear plugs the whole time. By the end of the night, my wife and stepson wanted to use the extra pairs I’d brought.
Now worlds away from the loud, cavernous arena, I’m wearing the waxy ear plugs that floaters in the pod are required to put in. It’s completely silent, and my limbs feel a bit heavy in the water. I decide I want to meditate and begin breathing slowly and deeply. My breath is loud in my ears, but that’s OK. It helps me concentrate on nothing but breathing.
My eyes seem to want to stay open just slightly, so through slits I can vaguely formulate those hues of color. At first I see a yellowish tinge that reminds me of sunbathing without the intense heat. Later I observe blue, and still later white. As I become more relaxed, my breathing eases and it’s quieter.
Time slips away in the pod if you become relaxed enough. All at once I reach the edge of a meditative state, and I know I’m going to fully get there. When I do, my arms and legs feel as if they’re nonexistent. I have an out-of-body experience and envision just my head poking out of the water. From here, there’s not much to say. I’m simply gone, and it’s hard to get up and out of the water when the recorded female voice tells me the session is over.
The low-lit area where the pod is located is spacious and luxurious — floaters can spoil themselves at 217 Float. I shower again and dress slowly, feeling numbed-out but very good. I put in my contacts and forego using the provided hair gel by the sink. It’s almost 9 p.m. — who cares how my hair looks at this point in the day.
Michelle, the manager, is standing by the front counter with Madison as I’m leaving, helping close up shop. She knows I was in Chicago and asks how the trip went. I tell her about the Bruno Mars concert, and it turns out Madison was there also. She watched the show on the floor, just twenty rows back from the stage on the left side. I doubt the fireworks at the concert bothered a 20-year-old as much as they did me.
My ultra-relaxed state lasted through the rest of the night and into Sunday morning, when I thought of the song “Perm” by Bruno Mars, from his latest album. There’s a line in the tune in which Mars tells listeners — doing his best James Brown impression — “Ya gotta relax.” I wonder if the energetic entertainer has ever floated. It accomplishes what he recommends.