Devotees of this peculiar pastime insist there’s nothing more blissful than hanging from hooks laced through your skin. But did I have the guts to try it myself?
“Take a deep breath. On your exhale, I’m going to push the needle through.”
Cere Coichetti keeps his word, and Christina Barbato keeps her eyes shut. Next he attaches the shackles to the hooks in her back. Barbato glances up at Coichetti, and he smiles reassuringly. After she displays a clear sense of comfort, he pulls on the rope, and she rises into the air, held up only by the hooks in her back.
Suspension is a 5,000-year-old religious practice that originated in India. Hindus would suspend each other during a ritual called vel kavadi, in order to show their devotion to the god Murugan. Here in the United States, the Mandan Native American tribe performed similar suspensions on the final day of the annual okipa ceremony — a young warrior’s rite of passage and test of endurance.
The father of Modern suspension is a man named Fakir Musafar, who grew up on a reservation in South Dakota and was fascinated by the rituals of the okipa ceremony. The form of suspension he pioneered is not overtly religious, but more of a spiritual meditation to cleanse one’s body and mind of everyday problems.
Cere Coichetti has been practicing suspension since a friend and fellow body modification artist in New York City introduced him to the practice in early 2001. His first suspension was a potion called “Superman,” which consists of ten hooks inserted throughout the body.
“I only tried it to see if I was strong enough to endure something like that,” Coichetti recalls. “It looked like the most crazy, painful thing in the world. The moment I rose into the air, the feeling was the opposite. I felt every negative emotion pour out of me until all I could feel was pure bliss.”
Coichetti helped start a New York chapter of the “Rites of Passage” suspension group, learning techniques from one of Musafar’s apprentices. He and his cohorts have helped grow the suspension community from a small handful of practitioners to thousands of people throughout the country. Later, he founded a group called, “White Flag.” Participants are asked for a donation to cover the cost of supplies, but White Flag does not make a profit; Coichetti believes suspension is for everyone, and anyone wanting to join in the experience is welcome.
“Once I saw what it could do for people, because I saw what it did for me, I realized it was something that needed to be shared,” Coichetti says. “I wanted to share that amazing feeling with others.
“The piercings don’t hurt that much — it really depends on the placement, but it could hurt as much as a shot at the doctor. When one starts going up, I explain to the suspendee that they are going to experience this burning, or heat radiating in the area where you are suspending from, that’s going to increase as you get lifted into the air, but about 30 seconds later it just settles away.”
I met Coichetti when I photographed his wedding; afterwards he and I kept in touch. He introduced me to the idea of suspension, and I was immediately fascinated. I wanted to see it in person, so he invited me on a four-day camping trip to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, with 12 friends he knew through the suspension community. Everyone in the group immediately welcomed me. For the first two days, I watched these new friends of different ages and backgrounds push hooks through their bodies and dangle above an isolated waterfall in the forest.
Collectively, we carried over 400 pounds of rope, suspension equipment, and camping gear to Coichetti’s favorite waterfall in the Pennsylvania woods. The entire group pitched in to help rig the ropes in the trees. Once finished, we were able to start our first suspension with Christina Barbato. She suspended over the waterfall from two points in her back. The pulley system Coichetti has perfected over the years allowed her to start on land and be pulled out over the falls. Barbato stayed out for about 40 minutes, swinging back and forth like a metronome, running and splashing water into the air. The group stood at the edge of the waterfall, Coichetti and Gretchen Heinel, his assistant, holding the ropes keeping Barbato aloft.
We had a station set up near the tents for the piercings. A disposal box was duct-taped to a tree and the tent was stocked with medical supplies that Heinel would bring out on trays. Coichetti takes extreme caution to ensure that everything is sterile. All the hooks and needles are autoclaved like the tools at a dentist office. Gloves are always worn and the area of the body he is working on is always cleaned. Once the skin is clean, Coichetti marks the spots with little crosses to show where the hooks will be placed. Then he pulls the skin up hard, and pushes the needle through. The hook is secured into place by a bolt.
After this prep, everyone walked over to the edge of the water, where Coichetti attached shackles to the hooks. Normally, suspensions are not held over an 80-foot waterfall, so Coichetti took an extra step to harness the suspendee with a loose safety rope.
A large amount of planning and calculating goes into lifting someone into the air. Much of the gear Coichetti uses is borrowed from industries like rock climbing, stage rigging and construction. A variety of different knots are used to secure the ropes to the trees, and the ropes are wrapped a number of times to leave no room for error.
We used a ladder to reach the high points in the trees above the falls, then carried the ropes down and secured them to trees at the edge of the water, where Coichetti could control the suspendee. Naturally, the rigging could malfunction or skin could tear at any time, and these things do happen occasionally. But usually the pain intensifies before the skin actually tears, and Coichetti has precautions and medical supplies in place to quickly bring suspendees to safety, should anything bad happen.
As my curiosity grew more intense, I asked the others to help me understand what it really felt like to be suspended. They were all open and honest when they answered my questions. Tormented by my fear of this unknown experience, I repeatedly asked myself, “Why can’t I do this?”
Finally, after realizing that the fear and frustration eating away at me would probably end up being more painful than the suspension itself, I sat down on the rock, and allowed Coichetti to clean and mark my upper back. He and Anderson pulled at my skin and told me to take a deep breath. They pushed the hooks through my skin at the same time, and secured them together. It was surprisingly painful, and I let out a yell. My skin made a popping sound when the needles were pushed through.
My first words were, “Are there really hooks in my back?” The pain was sharp, but it subsided within seconds .
We all walked over to the waterfall, where Coichetti attached shackles to the hooks in my back. As he began bringing me into the air, he told me to imagine that I was holding two heavy suitcases, to keep my shoulders from riding up. There was no pain now, only a burning discomfort, like a sunburn. Another member of our group, Laila, held my hand to guide me up, and Christina Barbato serenaded us with her ukulele. I came back down just seconds after my feet left the ground, ashamed of myself for not thinking I could handle being lifted. Coichetti and the rest of my new friends reassured me that I really could conquer this fear. I then told Coichetti to pull me back up, letting him take control and hoist me back into the air. He acted as a guide, and helped me ease into my suspension in the most comforting way possible. I felt safe with his hands at the other end of my rope.
After my feet finally left the ground, the discomfort in my back dissipated, and I was flying. I looked down and saw all of those whom I now considered family, some of them tearing up with joy at seeing me go through the suspension process for the first time. I took a photograph of the group from the air, and then came back down. Tears dripped down my face as soon as my feet touched the ground. To the sounds of a few crying and the rest cheering loudly, Coichetti threw his arm around me and brought me close. All I could think about was how I had conquered something that, only 24 hours earlier, I hadn’t had the faith in myself to do.
After my first suspension, I knew that I could conquer so much more than I give myself credit for. Reflecting on the experience a month later, I have noticed a dramatic increase in my own self-confidence. Every time I have come face-to-face with a challenge, fear, or an obstacle, I remember the moment when I rose into the air. As Coichetti explained, “The experience of suspension could be anything: an adventure, trying to conquer a fearful task, a spiritual experience. I don’t want to try and control what the experience is. Suspension does not give you what you want. It gives you what you need.”
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