Hovering above the ground with a series of hooks pierced through his upper back, Ryan Hayes’s body went into shock. Horrified by the blood and the pain, Hayes realized he should have researched body suspension more thoroughly
than he had.
“I was sweating and nauseous,” said Hayes of his first suspension. “It was a complete adrenalin dump.” But after the hooks were removed, and his blood and sweat were wiped away, Hayes realized he had never been more proud of himself, nor felt more successful.
Hayes, a 32-year-old paramedic, was participating in the modernized form of a ritual that dates back thousands of years in both the Indian and Native American cultures. Warriors would use bone or wood to pierce their flesh before dancing for days. They would place their minds and bodies in a state of exhaustion to ‘speak’ to a higher power through hallucination.
The rituals in these cultures often revolved around the graduation from childhood to adulthood. The experience simultaneously heightened the sense of the individual and emphasized the importance of formally joining one’s community.
In modern times, hanging from hooks inserted through the skin is known as body suspension. The practice has become a less mainstream avenue of body modification.
Body modification, traditionally, involves the physical alteration of the human body for aesthetic rather than medical purposes.
Within the context of body suspension, the modification of the individual extends beyond the scars – the sense of control and spiritual consciousness a person leaves with after suspending is just as important.
Hayes described the sensation of hanging as a “feeling of success, but it’s disjointed because you’re just there. It’s not really pulling. There’s no really good analogy for it. It heightens your awareness.”
One hook can hold up to 220 pounds of pressure. The more hooks you use, the less ‘difficult’ the suspension (because a person’s weight is more evenly distributed).
Hayes first tried suspension at Halifax’s Adept Tattoo and Body Piercing Studio on Quinpool Road with Greg Marsden, a piercing specialist.
Marsden added suspension to his list of expertise 10 years ago. He knows everything about suspension’s history and its physiological and psychological effects.
“[Suspension is] an adrenalin spike. Body sugar is converted very rapidly, much like an intense workout. Some people even find it therapeutic,” said Marsden.
Hayes tried a suicide position his first suspension (hooks are inserted through the upper back). He spent 45 minutes balancing on one toe before he hovered completely off the ground for the last 60 seconds.
“The pain with the panic completely destroyed my concentration,” remembered Hayes.
Suspension is a very delicate and physically strenuous endeavour. But for Hayes, the stress is well worth suspension’s benefits.
“After it gets done, there’s a lot of reflection and self-evaluation. I think about who I am and where I am and where I want to be because [suspension is] a definite indicator. There’re very few things that [reflect who you are] more than [the endurance of] some horrible thing,” said Hayes.
The physiological effects of the procedure are also well worth the pain.
“The giddy, high feeling that comes after [suspension is] awesome. The coming down is almost a whole experience in itself [as] the lack of pain becomes a pleasure. Once the hooks were out, I sat down and watched a movie where I didn’t move the whole time. When I stood up, I was an absolute giddy laughing-stock. It was ‘the whole world is wonderful’ kind of thing.
“That lasted probably about three days where I was just high as a kite on endorphins,” said Hayes.
Dr. Liesl Gambold, a body adornment expert and sociology professor at Dalhousie University, encountered suspension through tattoo research for her master’s degree in the early ‘90s.
“People find [suspension] extreme and shocking, but people have always done extreme and shocking things. The physical side, in some ways, remains the same, but the psychological component really reflects the society where it is found,” said Gambold.
She believes individuals participate in suspension for the same reason people go to church – it is a way for people to confirm their own identities within the greater whole of society.
“Modernity is characterized by extreme individualism, which I think can also result in a shared sense of being alone while being amongst a bunch a people. It is the urban condition of having people around you, but not knowing how you are connected to them. These sorts of physical extremes can give an individual a heightened sense of themselves,” said Gambold.
For Gambold, suspension’s effects are similar to those achieved through rite of passage ceremonies.
“In many cultures outside the west, there are still many important rites of passage that involve some kind of physical process. We lack those here for young people. Rites of passage have always included some elements of pain,
fear and danger,” said Gambold.
For Hayes, suspension solidifies his individualism and self-confidence.
“In the end, it really is something I do just for myself. I’m doing it for me, regardless of anybody else,” said Hayes.
Before starting the suspension process, Marsden, the only licensed suspension specialist on Quinpool, interviews every participant.
“I have to know why they’re doing it. I need to be their motivation,” said Marsden. “I’m standing right in front of them, talking them through it. If I know why they want to do it, that really helps me motivate them because I know what to say.”
Marsden does, however, extend a few caveats to those brave enough to try suspension.
“There is a bit of care required after suspension. I always have [people who suspend] come back for the next couple days to check their bandages and see how their wounds are closing up. A lot of air can also circulate through the holes and into the body during suspension, which isn’t healthy. After suspension, we feel around the holes to look for air pockets and push them out,” said Marsden.
In his entire career, Marsden has only had one accident.
“One person’s skin ripped a little bit. The hook didn’t rip out, it just tore a little. We gave the guy a few stitches. It was still a successful suspension,” said Marsden.
If you passed Hayes and Marsden on the street, you would never assume they knew one another. Marsden is a huge fan of tattoos and piercings and has covered the majority of his body in decorative art. Hayes has one tattoo, hidden under his clothing and no piercings. Slightly balding with glasses, a T-shirt and blue jeans, he seems like the last person who would be interested in such a radical activity.
“In the grand scheme, I’m kind of a sissy,” said Hayes. “It’s really true, and that’s one of the reasons I did [suspension] and kept doing it. As a kid, I was a big wimp. I was the scrawny little runt who cried when he got hurt and got hurt a lot.”
This is why Hayes likes the small, circular marks he is left with after his suspensions.
“In the grand scheme, my scars are reminders of how I was pushed,” said Hayes. “They’re pain but not suffering.”