The Therapeutic Experience of Being Suspended by Your Skin

Coichetti's body is covered in tattoos, and his head, shaved bald, is adorned with a neatly trimmed goatee. In his ears, for aesthetic reasons, he has removed the cartilage around the ear canal in what is known as a conch removal. It's possible to see through the little holes in his ears, but you wouldn't even notice the modification unless you sat down and talked with him. He is lively and expressive, and as he told me about his first suspension, he did a good deal of speaking with his hands.

"So, I go in and I'm ready to go through it," he said, "and once I got into the air, once they lifted me up, it was the most peaceful, serene, blissful experience I've ever had. And it was kind of like, throughout life, you tend to take on negative energy -- by energy I could mean stress -- stress from your job, stress from home, if you're married, if you've got kids -- just stress. And this was just the ultimate stress release. Everything bad that had built up, it was just resetting it back to zero."

"The second I came down, I knew I wanted to go back up."

Shortly after his first suspension, Coichetti began to study the rigging aspects of suspension. He consulted Allen Falkner, one of Fakir Musafar's apprentices and also one of the greatest influences on suspension as a non-ritualistic act, to learn about suspension techniques.

Coichetti says that he has helped people from all walks of life suspend, including lawyers, wrestlers, doctors, acrobats and politicians. Two of Trigger's suspensions in her YouTube video were done by Rites of Passage. The group performs suspensions free of charge, but ask for a suggested donation to cover the cost of hooks and other equipment. Any money Rites of Passage receives in excess of the suggested donation goes to sending the group's members to certification courses in first aid and industrial rigging.

"Suspension can be broken into two aspects," Coichetti said, "basically the medical aspect and the rigging aspect. By medical, I mean the insertion of the hooks, the cleaning, the blood, the skin, how that all works. The hard part about suspension has nothing to do with the body. It's everything above the hooks."

The rigging methods of suspension are borrowed from techniques developed for construction, rock climbing, and stage rigging (think Cirque de Soleil). Those who master the rigging techniques are referred to as suspension artists.

"The term suspension artist is a bit misleading," Coichetti said. Suspension is, he insisted, a skill. "It's not really an art. Anyone can learn to be a suspension artist. It's science. It's math. It's understanding principles and practicing and putting those principles into effect.

"When we go up to install rigging points, we need to know what the ceiling is made of, how it's constructed, what it can support. I need to know what it's already supporting on top of it. If I'm stressing a ceiling at a fracture point where they have an air compression unit on top of it, I need to know that."

The rest, Coichetti said, is all physics, and it boils down to F=MA.

"When I have a pulley system on a ceiling, if you weigh 100 pounds, I have to exert 100 pounds to lift you off the ground," he said. "Now, you also have motion. You have to figure out the angle of motion, the rate of acceleration. I do it in my head. I have to figure out how much stress you are putting on the top rig, on the pulley, on the rope, on your hooks, on yourself, and I have to make sure everything is within a correct range."

To more easily hoist the weight of a human body, suspension artists make use of mechanical advantage, rigging up complex pulley systems that facilitate the raising and lowering of the suspended person. Coichetti once rigged a woman in a marionette suspension, where hooks were inserted on the woman's back, into her legs, and into her arms, so that the woman was suspended as a living, breathing marionette controlled by Coichetti with the movement of his hand and arm.

"I had to figure out a way to attach all her points to a glove," Coichetti said. "So that going like this," he moved two fingers up and down as if playing a piano, "would raise her left arm, would raise her right arm. And I had to rig it all so that just three inches of motion would create four feet of motion on her side." Moving his arm up and down lowered and raised the woman.

He acknowledged, though, that he had a little help with lifting the woman's limbs with his fingers--most people, he said, when they feel a hook pulling on their arm tend to raise their arm along with the upward pull.

***

The most visibly jarring thing about watching a suspension is seeing flesh stretch as it supports the weight of the body. It looks like it's about to rip -- sending the suspended person falling to the ground amidst a confetti of torn flesh and blood -- but it's actually quite safe. During a suspension, hooks are inserted under the dermis and into the subcutaneous fatty tissue, a very resilient chunk of flesh.

"Skin is pretty strong," Dr. Nelson Goldberg, a plastic surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said. "It's basically leather, and in the back it's basically double leather. I think it could easily handle the tension before it would rip."

Dr. Brett King, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine, sees suspension as an application of physics and a testament to the human body's remarkable toughness and healing ability.

SHARK300200.jpg[AmirCohen/Reuters]

"You're putting your body's weight worth of force across that tissue," King said, "and it's quite striking that the skin holds up as well as it does. My guess is that, whether or not the practitioners of suspension realize it or not, the people who plant the hooks in the skin understand that there's a tremendous amount of physics to all of this. They must use hooks that are appropriately thick to hook an appropriately broad swath of skin. You can imagine, if you were to take something as thin as a slim nail and kind of loop it under the skin and back out, and then pull the two ends away from the body, it might very well rip the skin. Alternatively, if a much wider nail or hook is sewn underneath and back out across a wide enough section of skin, then suddenly there is enough fabric to support the weight. It's a calculation that involves the total dimension of skin across which you're supporting some amount of weight."

"It's kind of dazzling," he said, "to conceive the entire body's weight being supported by a couple of hooks through the chest."

"It's pretty cool," he added.

When I asked Coichetti to describe the sensation of being suspended, he said, "It's this odd pressure, and it almost feels like--" he paused, thinking. "Do you ever stand in the sunlight, like at the beach, and, not that it hurts, but you can feel when you're burning? Like, 'Aw, man, I can feel the heat. I can feel myself burning. I know I've gotta get out of the sunlight.' That burning sensation. You feel that. It's not painful, but you definitely feel burning. And you feel this odd pressure happening. Once you're in the air for, like, 30 or 40 seconds, that burn fades away. And then you get hit with the euphoria. You still feel the pressure, but at that point in time, you're elsewhere."

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Wyatt Marshall is a writer and photographer based in New York City.

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