How Matt Smith and Jamie Phillips are taking float therapy mainstream

The trick, I realize a few minutes into my hour in the tank, is to surrender to the salt. It has your back – and your legs, arms and head. Trust it.

I’m lying naked in profound darkness and silence in one of the six float rooms at Modern Gravity, a business started in January by Matt Smith (Personal Fitness Trainer ’11) and Jamie Phillips (Millwright ’12) in a central Edmonton industrial park. Their service is known technically as restrictive environmental stimulation therapy, which they provide through soundproofed privacy and a 34 C bath containing 453 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of dissolved Epsom salts.

The water is about twice as dense as the Dead Sea. If you relax every muscle, it will cradle you almost maternally.

Giving in, however, isn’t easy, which might indicate the value of floating. The tank – about two-and-a-half metres long, a metre-and-a-half wide and two metres tall (and filled about 30 centimetres deep) – forces its occupants to consider whether they ever really disengage from the stress of life.

The water is about twice as dense as the Dead Sea.

When finally I loosen the last of my neck muscles and rest my head on a pillow of water, letting thoughts swim in and out of my mind like schools of fish, I realize that those evenings of Netflix aren’t cutting it. Not like this meditation by deprivation. 

That, essentially, is the benefit upon which Smith and Phillips have based their business. Since starting Modern Gravity, the duo has spearheaded a movement to take floating from what they jokingly call “hippie woo-woo science” to a physiological therapy worthy of insurance coverage and therefore widespread public access. “I don’t think people realize the premium they’re paying for not taking the time to do nothing,” says Smith, a 29-year-old entrepreneur. “It’s crucial, just to stay sane.”

Writer Scott Messenger enjoys a float at Modern Gravity.A business born in a basement

How he and Phillips, both laid-back but upbeat, stayed sane over the hectic, labour-intensive months leading to opening Modern Gravity is a mystery (floating played a role, they say).

The idea came to Smith in late 2013. He wanted to open a business related to his experience in the fitness industry but was unsure for two reasons.

One was the saturation he saw in the local market for gyms and fitness studios. The other was whether opening a gym would give him the kind of outlet for community involvement he was interested in. A float, he believed, might give him clarity. It always had before.

Since 2008, Smith had travelled regularly around Alberta, visiting several float enthusiasts and using coffin-like tanks they kept in their basements. There was nothing like them in Edmonton. But at the time he found himself at his crossroads, Smith’s life made a road trip an inconvenience, leaving him frustrated – and then, suddenly, with the clarity he’d been seeking anyway. What Edmonton lacked he could provide. He rejigged his business plan and, finding that the numbers fit, prepared to dive in.

Phillips, his roommate and best friend, was open to the idea of a basement startup in their house in the middle of the city. A millwright at the time, his budding interest in climate change was fuelling disenchantment with his job at an Alberta coal plant. “The clash is real,” he remembers thinking. “I can’t do this anymore.”

They invested in a tank, talked it up on Facebook and, between July 2014 and July 2015, learned the business by floating 1,200 people.

“The clash is real,” he remembers thinking. “I can’t do this anymore.”

The plan was always to scale up, says Smith. After gathering feedback from their basement clients, they invested in spacious float tanks from England and, because they needed things done just so, built most of their shop themselves over roughly six months. All-night construction bees and regular 18-hour days produced 60-cm thick walls. They even built the 100-kilogram, light- and soundproof doors that open onto Modern Gravity’s calming, blue-lit bathing rooms.

“That is definitely the hardest work I have ever done in my life, mentally and physically,” says Phillips. “You’d wake up in the morning and your bones are sore.”

But Smith knows it was the only way for them to succeed. The facility had to be flawless so it could contribute to their strategy to deal with the bigger challenge: convincing the public of floating’s benefits.

The salt water in the tanks at Modern Gravity is roughly twice as that of the Dead Sea.The fast track to meditation

Treeka Drake, owner of Calgary’s One Love Float, sees Smith and Phillips as industry leaders in countering the perception of floating as a quasi-spiritual experience for new-agers. (Its origins go back to a researcher in the ’50s who was using the technology to study human consciousness.)

“It’s still fringe,” admits Drake, the president of the Float Collective, co-founded with Smith, its vice-president. “People connect it back to the ’70s and altered states.”

The group’s goal is to see floating covered by health-care insurers, which will improve access for users and help the industry grow. For this, Drake sees work needing to be done on two fronts.

One involves setting standards of practice and regulations for operators, essentially mentoring startups on matters including everything from being professional to keeping a bath clean.

“We’re only as strong as our weakest person, so we’re trying to bring everybody up. They’re trying to raise the baseline,” Drake says about Modern Gravity.

On the other front is the battle for hearts and minds. In some ways, it’s already being won. Over the four years she has been attending Portland’s Float Conference, the largest event of its kind, Drake has watched attendance grow from 165 to more than 750.

Making similar progress locally, however, requires efforts she is pleased to see Smith and Phillips making, including building relationships with Edmonton-based health-care officials and insurers, and collecting and sharing research about float therapy and its benefits. While Drake says much research remains to be done on the latter, early studies point to relief from anxiety, depression, sleeping problems and physical pain.

“I zonked out after about 15 minutes.”

Ultimately, the experience might speak for itself, as it did for Personal Fitness Trainer instructor Kate Andrews. She tried Modern Gravity for the first time in February as a way to support Smith, her former student, and relieve the stress of a busy semester – something she usually attempted through self-directed meditation. Impressed, she went back the next month, and the month after.

“I prefer the tank as a modality of meditation rather than sitting in a building because it is complete solitude,” says Andrews. The lack of awareness of physical surroundings and even, in a way, the body itself, “makes that meditative state easier,” she adds.

She means there’s nothing else to do and no one to bug you, which led to a level of relaxation she’d not experienced before. “I zonked out after about 15 minutes,” says Andrews. When she awoke in the water (still face up due to the buoyancy), “I loved how my body felt.”

Given the chance, she feels others might too. “There are a number of health and wellness avenues that aren’t covered enough,” says Andrews, referring to insurance. “For some people, it could be a gateway to better health but they just don’t quite have the financial means to go.”

Better health for a better world

Smith has a broad definition of “better health.” Partly, it would be a possible result of his and Phillips’s hopes to one day expand across Canada.

Talking about it, Smith reveals the idealist behind the practical, realistic entrepreneur who says their float centre has yet to lose money.

He doesn’t lapse into the vagaries of pseudoscience but he does get excited about a less tangible benefit of floating – the efficiency with which he thinks it, as a fast track to meditation, has the power and potential to help unify the human race.

Being alone with one’s thoughts, totally relaxed and “living more presently, once a week, even for an hour, I think it’s just crucial,” he says, suggesting that stress is an obstacle to achieving enlightenment of a kind. Once a critical mass of people takes up the practice, he wonders, “What does that society look like?”

Who knows? But when I finally climb out of the bath I notice how incredibly heavy I feel, my muscles reluctant to awaken, like I’m being burdened once again with the weight of the world. For an hour, I’d forgotten all about it. 

The secrets to a great first float

Your first float is meant to be de-stressing, not distressing. Here’s how to go with the flow.

•     Leave it all behind. Meaning your stuff. A good float centre has almost everything you need: towel, robe, soap, shampoo.

•     Cut the caffeine. Avoid coffee and tea a few hours before the float so you can fully relax. (No alcohol or other substances, either – you’ll get mellow enough in the tub.)

•     Wait to shave. You’re going to be lying in a pool of salt water. Enough said.

•     Don’t worry about contracting anything icky. Yes, you’re sharing a bath. But, at a good float centre, it was disinfected with hydrogen peroxide and tested weekly in co-operation with Alberta Health Services.

•     Don’t push yourself. If you’re not ready for an hour of oblivion, keep the ambient light on while you float and let your eyelids do the work. This is meant to be a rest, not a test.





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