Pushing My Limits with Body Suspension
WARNING: The following article contains images and descriptions of body suspension. The images are in a slide show at the bottom of the article. If you don't want to see them don't scroll down.
What is body suspension?
Body suspension is the ritual practise of piercing your skin with hooks and then being suspended by them. When you are doing suspension your body weight is supported by your skin, which is an incredibly strong and resilient organ. Ritual body suspension was first practised by the First Nations Mandan Tripe of the Missouri River.
Today suspension ritual is closely related to other body modifications and are most often preformed by tattoo artists and piercers who specialise in the field. A few decades ago only a few thousand people had experienced a suspension ritual. Today that number has increased to many thousands. As of last Tuesday, myself included.
Why did I do it?
When I called Russ Foxx, the body modification artist who facilitated my suspension, his first question was, “What is your motivation?” I have been interested in suspension for years. As a teenager I was fascinated with body modification and devoured all the reading and viewing material I could on the subject. Among them, a documentary on body suspension. I was never able to get the idea out of my head, but wasn’t certain I could handle what looked like a great deal of pain. Plus, back then my interest was purely curiosity.
Then, at 19, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. A painful neurological condition that has no cure and, though treatments are available, nothing can give you back the life you once had. I had to quit my jobs and between 19 and 22 I spent more time in bed than out of it. When I began a new medication earlier this year I was thrilled to find that my pain and functioning were as high as they are likely ever to be. I knew I needed someway to celebrate my new ability to participate in my own life. Then, I remembered body suspension.
Watching videos of suspension makes it look like a superhuman feat of endurance and mental stamina. It was exactly what I needed. With FMS I hadn’t been able to push myself at all and now I needed a challenge for both my body and my mind. Suspension became a way to prove to myself that I was me again. When I mentioned my interest in a conversation I was directed to Vancouver body modification artist Russ Foxx.
After phone trouble and schedule mix-ups I finally made it to Foxx’s studio in East Vancouver on a Tuesday in early March, 2012. All day I had been fighting anxiety, but I couldn’t quite tell what it was for. I knew the suspension would hurt, but I had been in so much pain over the last three years that I knew that couldn’t be it. I realized it was simply fear of the unknown. Knowing that I had this anxiety spurred me on. No, I didn’t know exactly what to expect and yes, my nerves were so bad I could hardly eat but for me that was just stronger motivation.
That day he was training a new member of his MBS (Modern Body Suspension) team. My suspension was the first she would participate in. As my husband and I watched they set up and sanitized the one-time use only hooks, needles and rigging. I was able to hear him verbalize the entire process for his trainee and it was clear I was in good hands.
My husband, who had been harbouring a number of concerns, most notable that my skin would tear, also became completely settled watching the setup. When you watch Foxx work it’s impossible to retain concerns about the safety and efficacy of what (admittedly) appeared to be 4 fairly small hooks.
Finally it was time to get started. FMS is a condition that not only causes pain but also makes normal pain sensations worse. Before I got it I was one of the small group of people who liked the feeling of getting pierced and tattooed. I doubted that would still be the case and, unfortunately, I was right. The piercing was done quickly and efficiently and Foxx made sure I was fully prepared before inserting each hook.. Nevertheless, it hurt like hell. But I’ll tell you now, once you’ve been pierced the worst pain of the entire process is over.
Getting off the ground
After getting pierced my body was pumping with adrenaline. I was a little shaky and already the pain from the piercing was subsiding considerably. We took a short break (just a few minutes) and by the end of it the dopamine in my body had more or less covered up the pain the piercing had caused. I didn’t yet know that the worst of the pain was over, but by now my anxiety had been replaced by impatience and excitement.
All the while explaining what he was doing to his trainee Foxx prepared the rigging (suspended fairly low) and donned a belaying harness so that there was no chance the rope would slip.
The challenge of suspension is more a mental one than a physical one. It’s hard to wrap your brain around the concept that your body weight is being supported by four metal hooks in your skin. For a while I stood under the rigging, my full weight on the ground getting used to the idea.
Foxx assured me that I was in complete control. He didn’t lift until I asked him to, and then he lifted so slowly that my body (and mind) were allowed to ease into the sensation. The moment I said stop he did. I didn’t feel rushed at any point. He had told me that some first timers take an hour to get off the ground, some get up there right away. I was so eager that my own ascension took about 5-10 minutes.
I was advised, at first, to bend my knees instead of being lifted so that I was able to mentally adjust. I slowly applied my weight to the hooks. The first sensation is one of pain, though not nearly enough to make you stop. The pain quickly turns to a hot tension that is completely new. I kept trying to explain it to my husband afterwards but eventually gave up. Suspension feels like suspension, and anyway, as I said before, it’s more of a mental feat than a physical one.
Finally my whole weight was being supported on those four hooks and I had been raised up until just my toes were on the ground. By this time the pain was no longer a factor. I suddenly had to face doing something that I hadn’t prepared for: letting go of the ground. We spend our entire lives walking on the ground and never have to think about how much we take that fact for granted.
The ground was a security blanket that one part of me was reluctant to relinquish. Then there was another part of me that was so eager to actually be hanging from the hooks. Luckily, my husband had hands to lend me. Holding his hands for emotional support I was finally lifted off the ground. When he stepped back I was hanging up there all by myself. Russ had warned me that some first-timers experience shock and nausea but all I felt was exhilaration. Go me!
Swinging and spinning
At first, all I wanted to do was hang there and get used to the sensation. The pull of my skin made it feel like my arms were stuck at my sides but after getting used to just hanging I got a little restless. I wasn’t far off the ground so I couldn’t swing or spin too much but for my first time that little bit of movement was plenty for me. Once I got comfortable I was spinning myself and having a pretty awesome time. I think I spent about a half hour up there before I got a little bored and came back down to the ground.
Once my feet were firmly on the ground again I had a strange sensation. Just as I hadn’t wanted to let go of the floor going up, now I didn’t want to let go of the rigging and come down. Fortunately there were still a few things to try.
First, I got to try pulling myself up. It was very cool to have complete control of the process. Then the rigging was taken down and Foxx held on while I pulled against it. At one point (Russ being a little stronger than I am) I started to slide, he was pulling my whole body backwards by the hooks. The experience of pulling is completely different from hanging as it’s a direction your body is more used to. I still can't decide which I like better.
I was expecting body suspension to be triumph over pain but it turned out to be more of a triumph over fear of the unknown and an exercise in leaping over mental barriers.
So, how badly did it hurt? When I was watching suspension videos before hand there were two things I noticed. 1) that it looked kinda gross and really painful and 2) that the people being suspended never looked like they were in pain. They were either laughing and joking or calmly experiencing the sensations. While I was up there I did both.
When you have FMS pain is your constant companion. You can begin to forget what other sensations feel like, so I felt sure I could handle the pain. In fact, I welcomed it as a pain that I had some level of control over, that I was inflicting (indirectly) and enduring by choice. But like I said above the worst pain is getting pierced. After that it’s all pie. The pain is relative. For some it is a meaningful part of the experience (as it was for me) for others a minor hurtle, negligible really, that you have to get passed to get to the fun part.
Of course, the hooks leave a few tiny scars, and those scars hurt for a few days. At first they were really irritated by my clothing. It’s been three days as I write this and I hardly notice them. They are small, balanced and actually (depending on your tastes) kind of attractive. And, as Foxx pointed out, nothing else causes scars like these so it’s easy to recognize others whom you share the experience with.
Will I do it again?
Right after I got the hooks taken out I couldn’t help thinking, “Who would need to do that twice?” but by the time I woke up the next morning there was one thought fully formed in my head, “How long do I have to wait to do that again?” I’m almost certain (health allowing) that I’ll be up there again. I would love to do it outside and with higher rigging so I can spin and swing more freely. I’m also interested in trying out different positions.
What was the point?
For me, the experience can be most aptly describe by two words: Empowering and therapeutic. Six months ago my health was so bad it was a struggle, and a triumph, to walk around the block. Some days it was too much to walk to my kitchen, and this week I pushed myself beyond mental and physical limits that I wasn’t certain I could surpass. It made me feel strong and in control. The experience was very positive due to a few days of mental preparation, lots of research and great coaching.
Am I happy I did it?
Thrilled. Foxx runs Modern Body Suspension as a non-profit organization, charging only for the materials used because he believes in the spiritual aspect of this ritual. Having done it I’m inclined to agree with his view. The experience is invaluable, I don’t know how one could find a price point for it.
Do I recommend it?
If you have been looking into suspension and are interested but nervous I would say definitely go for it, however suspension is not for everyone. Only you will know if it’s the right decision and when it’s the right time. But, if you were on the fence? Yeah, I’d push you over.
Modern Body Suspension in Vancouver
If you live in or near the Pacific North West I would definitely suggest having Russ Foxx and the MBS team facilitate your suspension. It’s worth the drive to East Van. Whether your experience is good or bad will largely be due to your state of mind going in but the MBS team inspires such confidence it would be hard to maintain that anxiety.