ISO Float Center uses weightlessness and sensory deprivation to calm the mind and body

By Molly Priddy

Upon entering the ISO Float Center, one is immediately struck with an all-encompassing feeling of warmth.

The air is heated and humid, comfortable for short sleeves and bare feet, and it smells of calming essential oils and dried flowers. It is quiet, despite its location in Whitefish’s bustling downtown, and the light is ambient and unobtrusive.

It’s comfortable and pleasant, and that’s all before meeting the equally tranquil Keith Gardner, the founder and owner of ISO Float, the Flathead’s only business offering an isolation flotation pod.

Gardner’s business offers floaters a sensory deprivation experience coupled with the rare opportunity to feel weightless. Clients use the pod to unwind, treat maladies like fibromyalgia and multiple sclerosis, focus their minds, soothe aches, and more.

Clean cut and wearing sandals in February, Gardner is frank about his journey from chronic pain to owning an iso-pod. His lower back was in constant pain for nearly 15 years, and traditional means of mitigating his distress weren’t working.

“Three years ago, I sort of was at my wit’s end,” Gardner said, settling into the wall-length, pillow-covered bench in the waiting room. “I tried everything out there. I was completely dependent and almost addicted to painkillers.”

Understanding he was on the edge of a dangerous, slippery slope, Gardner struck out searching for alternative therapies, and stumbled upon a flotation tank in Bozeman.

One experience floating in the tank was all he needed to be convinced.

“It was like night and day for me,” he said. “I immediately saw reductions in my pain levels.”

Finding a solution to his chronic pain was an immense relief – “relief is absolutely what it is,” he said – and Gardner started making regular visits to Bozeman.

His own business ventures brought him to the Southwest Montana city on a consistent basis, but soon Gardner realized that his willingness to travel six hours, one way, for a float session was an entrepreneurial opportunity.

If he needed the pod, Gardner surmised, others would, too.

ISO Float Center opened in Whitefish in January 2014, and it has been so successful that Gardner has now hired an employee and has started having regular hours, instead of the by-appointment-only schedule he used for his first year in business.

Located in the storefronts on Railway Street across from the Whitefish Public Library, ISO Float Center houses one flotation pod and now a massage therapist to add to the aura of calmness and relaxation.

The white pod sits in its own room, with an attached shower, and looks like a cross between a spaceship and a hippo’s head. The pod’s door closes to shut out light, but isn’t lockable or airtight. There is also a light inside the pod, with various colors available and controllable by the floater via a small control panel, which also has a call button and a port to connect personal audio.

Only about 10 inches of water sit in the bottom of the pod, equaling about 200 gallons, but its magnesium sulfate content is so high that it has six times the buoyancy of the Dead Sea. Gardner said clients weighing more than 300 pounds and stretching more than six feet, three inches have floated comfortably.

The water inside is kept at 94 degrees Fahrenheit, giving it near-body temperature warmth. This is important, Gardner said, because after about 15 minutes of floating still, a client’s skin starts to forget it is contacting the water, giving a feeling of anti-gravity.

Being still and having no pressure anywhere on the body is especially restorative, according to the national Flotation Tank Association. FTA board members Thomas Fine and John Turner, both of whom study Restricted Environmental Stress Therapy (REST) at the University of Toledo College of Medicine, have found that floating in buoyant liquid kept at skin temperature without light or sound leads to deep relaxation, and many patients with chronic pain use relaxation to cope with their circumstances.

The source of the relaxation wasn’t clear in the research, they reported, but they posited it could be due to allowing complete relaxation in muscles or removing distractions so patients could focus on relaxing their bodies.

Gardner believes the decrease in his back pain came from free floating, without even his body weight pressure on his back, like he would have if he were lying on a bed.

“When you’re in the tank, you don’t get any of that,” Gardner said. “Your body, every muscle, is able to completely shut off.”

In such a state, the body can make easier repairs, he said, speeding up recovery time. Now, Gardner spends 90 minutes each week in the pod, and his back pain doesn’t come back to full force for about four days after a session.

Along with the physical relaxation comes a mental rest as well. Meditation is a popular use for the pod, because a person can choose to be completely deprived of distractions, with earplugs, no light, and no movement.

“You’re sort of forced to go into meditation when you’re in there,” he said.

Clients can bring in music to accompany their float, or guided meditations, but many, like Gardner, prefer the silence. Quieting the mind, being truly still, and experiencing weightlessness can be transformative.

“It can be an extremely emotional experience,” Gardner said.

Gardner is now considering adding a second pod to his Whitefish location, but he is also considering branching out to add a Missoula location. Already, flotation enthusiasts from Missoula drive up in groups to use his tank, he said.

Floating for an hour costs less than a typical hour-long massage, clocking in at $45; 90 minutes costs $55, and two hours is $65.

His current client base consists of floaters ranging in age from 12 to 84, and most of them schedule appointments online. Now that he has a new employee and regular hours, Gardner hopes to introduce more people to the power of truly letting go of life’s distractions and focusing on themselves.

“That’s why I’m here,” he said. “It’s been a life-changer for me.”

For more information, visit www.isofloatcenter.com or call 406-871-2370.