Though many people who practice suspension see it as a spiritual experience and a way to test themselves, most suspensions today are not performed as religious sacraments or trials of endurance. For some, it's a sort of, "If I can do this, I can do anything," attitude. For others, it is akin to meditation.
Modern suspension has been largely shaped by Fakir Musafar, a man who was born on an Indian reservation in South Dakota with the name Roland Loomis and developed, or brought back, many types of suspension. Musafar performed the Okipa suspension in 1963 and also coined the term "modern primitives" to describe a subculture that practices body modification with a particular interest in rite of passage rituals. For Musafar, and many others after him, body modification is a form of self-expression and spiritual exploration, a way to move beyond the body into a higher spiritual plane. But others who practice suspension today distance themselves from the sort of ritualistic elements espoused by Musafar, and instead choose to hang for the sake of hanging.
"And this was just the ultimate stress release. Everything bad that had built up, it was just resetting it back to zero."
Cere Coichetti is the head of the New York chapter of Rites of Passage, a group that facilitates suspensions up and down the east coast. He first was introduced to suspension twelve years ago through his friend Brian, a body modification artist in New York. Brian had a friend, Emrys, who had recently moved to New York from Boston and who practiced suspension, something that Coichetti, though active in the body modification scene, hadn't heard of. Suspension requires a small team of helpers to set up and monitor the suspension, and Emrys enlisted Coichetti and Brian to help him suspend. Within a week or so, Coichetti tried his first suspension -- a Superman.
"I wanted to see if I was tough enough to do it," Coichetti said with a smile as we talked over meatball sliders at a restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "It came down to a challenge to myself, a test of strength. If I can put hooks in my body -- suspend my near 300-pound frame from little hooks -- then there's nothing I couldn't do. I thought it was going to hurt. I thought it was going to suck. I thought it was going to be the most traumatizing experience of my life."
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."