Interview in Kenilworth Life Magazine
Tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Winnetka and attended NTHS. When I was 7 I started ballet classes and became dead-set on becoming a professional ballet dancer, after which I wanted to become a professor. When I was 15 I was hired by the First National Touring Company of The Phantom of The Opera as one of its original members. At 16 I went out on tour with the company and got to perform at some of the most beautiful theaters in the world—the Civic Opera House in Chicago, the Kennedy Center in D.C., the Pantages in Minneapolis, the Orpheum in Boston. At 17 I left the company briefly to dance with the Joffrey Ballet. At 18 I was asked to join the Broadway company of Phantom. I continued to perform with a number of companies and productions until I retired from ballet when I was 24 to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology. I received my Ph.D. from Indiana University, taught statistics for a number of years at University of Michigan, and have had my research, which focuses on the societal forces that impact health, published in journals such as American Journal of Psychiatry, American Journal of Public Health, American Journal of Sociology, and in edited volumes such as the Handbook of Sociology of Mental Health which are used to teach the topic to graduate students. I currently live in Wilmette with my husband Erik and our son who is a third grader at Harper.
Why did you start Oto Float?
While floating has been a profoundly important part of my life for over 20 years (my first float was when I was 16), it was actually a series of trends I noticed while teaching college students that pushed me into leaving my career in academia to start Oto Float. I started teaching in the early 2000s, which was pre-smartphone and pre-24/7 access to the internet. To be blunt, over the course of 15 years I watched students slowly lose their ability to focus. I watched attention spans shrink, creative problem solving diminish, and anxiety increase. Now it would be wrong of me, without a controlled study, to argue causation, but it is hard to deny the consequences of this new 24/7 hyper-connected world. The human brain is not wired to multi-task. We might think that we are multitasking when we are browsing Facebook, while answering emails, while listening to a podcast, while standing in the line at the grocery store, while answering our kids’ questions, but we aren’t. What we are doing is rapidly switching from one task to another, to another, and this takes much more effort than sustained attention. This rapid task switching is why we often feel fatigued, depleted, and foggy. I created Oto Float to serve as a counterbalance to this hyper-everything world. A place where you can engage in deep and sustained relaxation, learn the skill of mindfulness, and gain more autonomy over your everyday moments rather than living in a state of constant reactivity.
What is “floating,” exactly?
Floating is referred to as floatation reduced environmental stimulation technique (floatation-REST) in the academic literature and has been studied since the early 1980s. In short, it consists of floating on your back in about 10 inches of water that has been super-saturated with the mineral Epsom salt. It’s sort of like your own private Dead Sea in a beautiful super-modern environment right here on the North Shore. What I love most about floating is that it acts on multiple biological systems simultaneously—the cardiovascular, endocrine, musculoskeletal and nervous systems are all positively impacted during a float session. So in just an hour, you get supercharged physical and mental recovery. The research shows that floating can accelerate post-workout recovery, increase creativity and focus, reduce stress-related and inflammation-related pain, and improve sleep when practiced regularly. Floating is also being studied for its anti-anxiety effects. The Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, OK, which has a float research lab, is conducting a series of randomized clinical studies on the anxiolytic and antidepressant effect of floatation-REST among individuals with generalized anxiety disorder and PTSD and the first set of findings are very promising.
What sets Oto Float apart?
While floating has been available since the 1980s it has never really taken off within the mainstream. My goal with Oto Float was to elevate the experience. In building the space I was very cognizant about three pushbacks I had heard over the years: that floating sounds scary, boring and gross. Scary comes from the misconception that floating is done in a small coffin-like enclosure in the dark. Boring comes from the misconception that you are doing nothing for an hour. And gross comes from the misconception that you are floating in someone else’s water. Our float environments are about the size of a Volkswagen Bug, so if you are comfortable getting into a small vehicle you will be fine getting into our float pod. It is nothing like an MRI machine and nothing like a tanning bed. It is much more spacious, you can sit up fully when you are in it, and you are free to exit and enter whenever you’d like. You also don’t need to float in the dark. In regards to the water, our float pods have mini water treatment facilities built into them and the entire volume of Epsom salt water is put through a triple redundant filtration/disinfection system that is similar to what is used to treat our drinking water before it enters our taps. This process takes about 45 minutes and is done between each and every float and leaves the mineral water pristine. In regards to boring, I’d like to flip that on its head and argue, with the support of a ton of neuroscience research, that letting your mind daydream, zone out, and “be bored” is essential. Now that we have mini computers in our pockets, the second we feel bored we reach to check our email or the latest breaking news story or scroll through Instagram or Facebook. If you want to increase your well-being, focus, and creativity, you need to learn to lean into that boredom and not shut it down at the slightest bit of discomfort. Just like lifting weights in the gym, each time you lean into “boredom” you build your attention muscle. Oto Float is your training ground for how to lean into boredom, and floating is your boot-camp. If you see folks around the North Shore sitting on park benches simply breathing and being without a phone in their hand, it’s because they have been floating and have learned the power that comes with intentional downtime.