He kneels in front of his crowd, securing the two stainless steel fish hooks in his back to the pulley rigged to the ceiling. The music starts, loud and vibrant, and he is lifted to a standing position. He runs and kicks his feet off the ground until he is swinging back and forth through the air, suspended only by the flesh of his back as it stretches and bends over the hooks that hold him. To make his point, he picks up a man twice his own 160 lbs. and holds him off the ground in a bear hug, his skin resilient, holding the weight of them both. He swings by himself a few seconds more before he cuts himself loose, dropping to his feet again to the roar of the crowd.
For Russ Foxx, a Vancouver body art and modification artist, body suspension is a career, and a way of life. Not only is it a way for him to express himself, he said, it’s a means of helping others discover themselves through a unique and personal experience.
Body suspension originates from ancient Native American and Hindu cultures. Suspension experts who maintain www.suspension.org write that the practice has been going on for thousands of years as rites of passages, healing rituals and as a means of leaving the body and entering the spiritual realm. One notable Native American ritual is the Sundance ritual, in which the person is pierced through the chest and attached to a sacred tree. The person then pulls and dances until the piercing rips free.
Today, Foxx said, most people suspend to gain some sort of experience, whether it be to overcome fears, to gain a new level of understanding spiritually or just for the sheer endorphin release.
When Foxx does private suspensions, it’s usually for first-timers. Foxx encourages everyone to create their own ritual to make the experience more significant, whether it’s using certain lighting or music during the suspension or having certain people present.
According to Foxx, the physical and mental preparation by the suspensionist is the most important part in the prep stages.
“For me as a facilitator, there isn’t a whole lot…to do,” he said. “I already own the equipment. I’ve got it set up. It’s more about the person suspending making sure they’re going to be in a healthy physical and mental state for it, making sure they’ve slept, they’ve eaten (and) they know what they’re getting into.”
Foxx said he is most comfortable when performing public suspensions through his show, The Human Tacklebox. For him, something that is already fun becomes amplified when a crowd of people is watching.
Those who have never tried it often don’t understand the appeal, and though each individual suspends for various reasons, Foxx gets a lot of people suspending for the sheer adrenaline rush.
The body undergoes several stages of pain between preparation and suspension, said Dr. Sekhar Upadhyayula, a pain medicine specialist.
There’s a certain amount of residual pain taking place after the hooks have been inserted into the skin, Upadhyayula said, along with a quick burst of adrenaline. But as soon as there’s traction applied, the nerve endings in the skin’s stretch receptors respond, adding another burst of pain.
“Then what we expect to happen chemically…is a secondary release of endorphins,” Upadhyayula said. “(This lasts) a lot longer than the pain and that’s the sensation that they’re looking for. That’s when they get the euphoric effect.”
Suspension is most popular among people who are involved in body modification. There's an increase in interest among those in the tattoo community, said Katee Cavallaro, a Florida tattoo apprentice. Many people who are interested in suspension ask their tattoo artists for direction.
Foxx said there's been an increase in involvement just over the last 10 years of his career, mostly due to word of mouth.
"We are able to keep track of each other through a website called www.bme.com," Foxx said. "So we're all kind of aware of each other and what we're doing in other places of the world."
That site and others allow for information sharing and the ability to create standards. For example, Foxx said, the community agreed only to charge what it costs them in equipment, allowing suspension to become a reality for those who yearn to try it.
But Foxx, along with Cavallaro, recognizes body suspension will always have its shock value. They understand the demand for it within its community will continue to grow, but Foxx doesn’t expect it to be something the general public will grab onto.
“It’s more of a niche,” he said. “The people that like it usually seek it out.”