Body suspension is something that looks horrendously painful- there are hooks, chains and maybe some blood. Who would choose to go out of their way to join a group of sadists to put themselves in danger and suffer voluntarily? There is surely more to it than that. I know several people who engage in body suspension and they are all truly lovely people and it doesn’t appear that suffering is part of the equation at all. I felt that people often respond with shock or disapproval to things like this is because it can be difficult to conceptualise inflicting pain on oneself, but what transforms you more effectively than pain? I spoke to James Hill who practices suspension about the psychological states involved, the skills required and what he feels when he hangs from hooks pierced through his flesh.
I practice body suspension. This is the act of suspending from hooks pierced through the skin. It is an ancient tribal rite of passage, in its “modern form” it is generally credited to people like Fakir Musafa, Stelarc and Allen Faulkner for creating a ‘scene’ surrounding the practice.
Around 6 or 7 years ago I got in touch with the Constant Elevation body suspension team after becoming intrigued with it after reading about it in a magazine and have done 2 or 3 suspensions a year since then. Essentially, I am a guest/punter. I wish to become more active in facilitating events but time and geography have limited my ability so far in becoming an apprentice.
Suspension teams and individuals have different ways of working, but for me, I follow a formula of preparation, marking & piercing, rigging, lifting then the suspension and aftercare.
I detox my body for around a week before the suspension, others recommend fasting but I haven’t tried. I make sure I get a big meal before I suspend and I prefer to suspend mid to late afternoon. I also decide which position to hang in. I find some positions relatively painless to suspend in, like superman (horizontal, hanging from the back) or suicide (vertically, hanging from the back) and others excruciating (hanging from the chest). Different people prefer different positions but there is also the desire to try something new. It would be boring to always do the same suspension and I personally like to continually challenge myself and desire to discover my body’s limits. Some suspension positions are more “fun”, others are more comfortable/relaxing. Others provide a greater challenge, a more intense buzz or even a different aesthetic. My favourite is Superman, which was also my first suspension (I don’t know if it’s a coincidence) and I enjoy knee suspension a lot.
For me the piercings hurt a lot, I don’t enjoy this but it is worth it for the reward that comes afterward. In essence, the crew marks the positions for the hooks so your weight is distributed evenly across them, then you breathe in and receive the piercings when you breathe out. To get this over with as quickly as possible, I will often have multiple people piercing at once. I’ve had everything from 4 at a time to one person putting in 10 hooks. I’ve tried many different types of hooks and so far, they all suck.
Before approaching the rigging area, I take some time to drink water and compose myself. I already have an endorphin buzz from the piercings and the reality of the situation begins to dawn on me. A separate team member is often preparing the suspension rig whilst you were being pierced, and you position yourself underneath it while the hooks are attached to the frame.
Some people lift themselves up in to the air and I know some people who are very positive in their praise of this experience but I have yet to try it. I leave it up to a “rope holder” to lift me into the air. This is the part where the mental aspect becomes the key; even though someone is holding the rope, you still need to give instructions and tell them to lift you. After many suspensions, I have found what works for me is to have as much tension onto the hooks as possible, leave it at that point for a while and then lift straight into the air. I have observed many more suspensions and have seen all sorts of different methods. However you get up into the air, once you are there it is an intensely exhilarating feeling that overcomes you. There are moments as the skin stretches into position that can be difficult to overcome, but once you have, it changes to be comfortable and relaxing or energizing depending on your hanging position.
One thing that you discover after suspending for the first time is that the most difficult part is to get your feet off the ground. There is definitely a mental barrier; it always feels like it is not possible. In reality, once you are at the point where your feet are almost off the ground, the tension on your hooks is as it would be once you are in the air, so in lifting your feet the pain does not really get worse and you have the relief of finally leaving the ground. The chemical overload puts you in a blissful state of being. During the suspension, I feel: anxious, apprehensive, nervous, pained, intense, euphoric, ecstatic, exhausted, exhilarated, disorientated, relaxed, stoned, happy, high… roughly in that order, sometimes all at once.
After you touch the ground again, you are removed from the rigging and taken to aftercare. The hooks are removed, blood cleaned up and air bubbles massaged out of your skin (this is one of my favourite parts!). I usually then get bandaged up, bleed the bandages off, get bandaged up again and so on.
It is difficult to choose my best experience; if you had asked me this a year ago, I would have undoubtedly said my first suspension. I had such an amazing experience and was riding a high for at least a week afterward. Since then, I have aimed to recreate that experience and I had not really got there. However, this year I traveled to Russia and did a free-fall suspension which was everything I had been looking for. In a way it felt like “the next level” and it brought back the trepidation I felt as I prepared for my first suspension and provided a real challenge with an added sense of relief once I did. Add to that the enormous adrenaline rush I got from it, it was just incredible. I have watched my reaction back on video immediately after doing it and I still struggle to watch the video without all the hairs on body standing on end. Aside from the additional adrenaline and intensity created by the free-fall aspect and the feeling of being so high up (I was shitting it!), I think the setting itself was incredible. There is something very special about being able to suspend high above the trees of a Russian forest. The view provided visual stimulus which I had not before found in a suspension setting even though I had suspended in a back garden before. I think that being in a remote part of nature, as well as being with a group of lovely people and experiencing such an intense rush is the sort of feeling and experience one should strive for in life. A close second (or third, depending how you look at it) suspension highlight also occurred in the last year. I have talked to my close friends about suspension for a long time and a friend decided to come to a suspension event to suspend himself. Going through the experience vicariously; watching a person I cared about struggle, hesitate, overcome and eventually enjoy and go through the same reaction as I had when I first suspended, was very emotional and an experience I feel truly lucky to have had. I hope it is an experience I can have again in the future…
I feel the journey of overcoming fear for freedom and ecstasy is a part of suspension, rather than the whole. One of the ways in which body suspension is special is in the way the community works. Suspending is a personal experience and could be enjoyed on your own but I think many people also gain from the event-based suspensions (called ‘suscons’) and sharing the experience collectively with other like-minded people. This also leads to questions leading to the alleged attention-seeking nature of suspension, when one does not “keep it to oneself.” There is a certainly a degree of showmanship within many practitioners, myself included. One of my favourite suspensions I did was at a tattoo convention in front of a crowd of people.
I have read many testimonials to the healing effects of body suspension and I feel it’s related to the general topic, “pain as medicine”. Suspension usually improves my mood, my mental state and my outlook. It provides me with self-confidence, a sense of belonging and a purpose. I come from a fairly conservative religious family who generally reacted negatively, up to and including stopping contact. It is very difficult to explain in words why I do it and my usual suggestion of, “Why don’t you try it!?” is not an option. In general, my family supports the things I choose to do and I know of people who have put much more on the line in order to continue with suspensions, especially in some countries which are not tolerant of the activity. I find suspending therapeutic, stress relieving and in a way, I use it as a form of anger management. Ultimately, the reason I keep going back for more (and I know of several people I share this with) is it makes me happy. I think that when asked why I do it, that is the simplest but most concise and accurate reason.