Washingtonians are an edgy, compulsive bunch.
Take myself, a 62-year-old nail-biter. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to beat the auto-cannibalism curse, as my wife, Polly, refers to my habit.
Why am I telling you this? Well, Pedramin Vaziri had been inviting me for months to try her Soulex flotation therapy spa.
Vaziri, 42, sees Soulex as part of her mission of delivering health and wellness to Washingtonians. People need to kick back, heal and take some of the stress out of their lives — if even for an hour a week.
“Healing the body and reducing stress is a key to having a balanced life,” said the mother of three, who refers to herself as a “health coach.”
I saw Soulex as an opportunity to de-stress.
Polly agreed to join me.
I am not a big spa guy. The closest I get to spa treatment is sitting in the steam room at my Equinox gym. And I didn’t want to be promotional here, but Soulex sounded so unusual that I thought it was worth exploring.
I didn’t know what to expect.
“The concept is unique, a little intimidating,” Vaziri said.
It sure is.
I had an idea that floating was going to be something like sensory deprivation. My only brush with sensory deprivation had been a Tom Clancy novel in which a spy blurts out secrets or something.
Soulex is on 11th Street NW in the first floor of an office building and just a short walk from my office at The Washington Post.
The spa is made up of a reception area, which then leads to four quiet, dimly lit, nicely turned-out Soulex rooms.
Each room has a shower and towels. An egg-shaped pod about twice the size of a bathtub dominates the space. You open the pod by lifting the top “hatch.” Once in, you can pull it down to create an enclosed space, or you can leave it open a few inches — or even a few feet.
Before you dip in, Vaziri’s team flicks a switch. The pod fills with a foot or so of heavily Epsom-salted (60 percent), warm water. That takes about six or seven minutes. Once you immerse yourself — in a swimsuit or in your state of nature — you float on your back under soft sounds that made me think I was in a jungle. (Even though I have never been in a jungle, that’s what I thought of.) There is also soft lighting.
Our complimentary sessions in separate pods and rooms lasted about an hour. The first 30 minutes or so was an adjustment. Getting in, I felt a bit like I was entering a science fiction movie.
You really do float. I was so buoyant I felt like a bobbing duck. Any movement of my head or motion with my arms or hands sent my whole body tipping left or right.
I found the experience kind of eerie, but in a good way. I never quite fell asleep, but after half an hour, I zoned out. The experience is similar to those few moments just before you fall asleep.
That is the effect Vaziri is shooting for.
“It’s a zero-gravity environment,” she said. “There is no pressure on the body. All your senses are taken away from you when you are floating in the dark and you feel relaxed. It’s the way you feel before you sleep and you are aware of your surroundings and sort of conscious. That is the most relaxed state.”
Soulex opened in August. Vaziri is the sole owner. She operates it with two full-time employees and one part-timer.
She has been at this for years, researching sensory deprivation, writing a business plan, getting a bank loan (after six banks turned her down), scouting out potential locations, hiring commercial real estate agents, taking small-business classes, traveling to Budapest in search of the perfect pod.
Vaziri is a woman on a mission. She has sunk a lot into Soulex: more than $500,000 in investments, bank loans and family loans.
Soulex is filling only about half of its 90 weekly sessions and is cash-flow positive.
“Right now, I’m not making anything,” Vaziri said. “Whatever comes out of the project, I am paying off equipment,” such as the pods, which cost $125,000 in total. “Technically, I am profitable. The money is not going in my pocket.”
Vaziri came up with the Soulex name herself. “It’s a made-up word, short for ‘soul experience,’ ” she said.
The company grossed $34,000 in December. Vaziri is projecting $45,000 for January. The biggest expenses are rent, payroll and a $2,500 monthly payment on a 7 percent bank loan. Insurance, utilities and other expenses round out the costs.
Her occupancy license with the District of Columbia government took several months longer than expected. That ate up more than $100,000 before a single client was in the door.
“That was a huge setback,” said Vaziri, who sold online subscriptions ahead of the opening to help tide over the business. “All the operating money for expenses was just gone. Most I paid out of my own pocket.”
She is nothing if not gutsy. She is smart and impressive, and I hope this works. Vaziri and her husband, an artist, even sold their home in Georgetown to help make this work. She did it all while raising three children.
Soulex isn’t cheap. An introductory, one-hour session (most sessions are an hour) is $79. An introductory package of three floats is $225 (or $75 apiece).
About 60 percent of Vaziri’s clients are men, including some professional athletes. Male and female attorneys, businesspeople and nearby residents are also “floaters.” Soulex’s location is within walking distance of a big chunk of downtown D.C., including CityCenterDC, Capital One Arena, Penn Quarter, Logan Circle and the 14th Street retail and residential corridor.
“Since it’s a new concept, we need visibility and foot traffic,” Vaziri said. “Downtown D.C. is health-conscious, people have disposable income, they are gym-goers. It is a mixed demographic of businesses, residential and hotels.”
Vaziri and her parents moved here from Iran in 1993. Her father runs his own certified public accounting business.
Vaziri graduated with an architecture degree from the University of Maryland in 2000 and worked for some private firms, but her passion has always been health and wellness.
“Finding an alternative way to heal the body, help myself, help the kids” has been her obsession in life. Balance is the key to happiness.
She married in 2003, quit her architecture job in 2006 and began having a family. Taking care of her children — now ages 11, 9 and 6 — inspired her to pursue nutrition and health full time. It took over her life.
She went back to school, taking business courses through Score, which stands for Service Corps of Retired Executives. Score is a nonprofit that provides business mentoring to entrepreneurs.
“My idea was to open a center for alternative therapies, meditation and yoga,” she said. “It gradually evolved into this idea of flotation therapy.”
Her husband had heard about flotation therapy. The couple jumped in the car and drove to Virginia Beach to try floating. Vaziri was smitten. She went back a month later and tried it again.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “I got into a meditative state. It helped me with my shoulders and lower back pain.”
As for me, I’m not sure my future is in floating. I will probably try it again and would consider giving floating sessions as gifts.
The only drawback for me was my poor fingernails, which I have gnawed to the quick. I wasn’t biting them while I was floating, but the saltwater sure did sting.