Rock guitarist Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction is just one fan of hanging by hooks from the ceiling to relax. Isn’t it dreadfully dangerous? Not at all, its aficionados claim
“You know, I’m an ex-adrenaline junkie,” Dave Navarro begins, dark eyes gleaming intently. “I’m an ex-heroin addict. I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my life, and none of it has given me what this craft has given me. It’s almost as though I had to try all these other avenues before I arrived here, to know that they don’t work.”
The rock guitarist – of Jane’s Addiction, and formerly the Red Hot Chili Peppers – is waxing lyrical about the practice of body suspension. Closely linked with the greater world of body modification, suspension is a practice in which an individual’s skin is pierced with large sterilised metal hooks, from which they are then hung. Used in ancient cultures for millennia, the modern form has been redefined by people such as Fakir Musafar, Stelarc, and Allen Falkner, who describes it as “cathartic”. “If life had a dial to adjust the volume,” he says, “suspension has a way of accessing this invisible knob and turning it down.”
Clearly, there are risks. “Anyone keen to pursue this needs to ensure thorough aseptic skin preparation, and any sort of needle or hook should be single-person, single-use and be sterile,” cautions Tom Bowers, a registrar in trauma & orthopaedic surgery in west Wales. He highlights a number of possible risks, including infection, nerve and tendon damage due to improper hook placement, and the appearance of suspension shock syndrome if an individual suspends vertically for too long.
“It’s not something I would try myself,” Bowers concludes.
However, Scott DeBoer, a Chicago-based emergency medical technician and register nurse, insists it is safe. “As you can imagine, there is very little published in the medical journals about suspensions, [so] it’s difficult to address the medical issues involved,” he explains. “But a health history is obtained beforehand to check the person is healthy, they come down when they want to, and medical assistance is available as needed.”
There are many different ways to suspend. One involves hanging from two or four hooks in the upper back, but there are any number of more complex positions. The height varies just as much, from a few feet off the floor to more exotic options, for example dozens of feet in the air above a cheering festival crowd. Professional suspension artists Starr Belew and Marlo Marquise did just that when Navarro invited them to perform onstage at a recent Jane’s Addiction concert. Belew was pleased with the crowd’s reaction: “When I hang, I immediately go into an ear-to-ear smile and everyone I could see in the crowd below me was smiling just as big, snapping photos or pointing with their hands over mouth. I’ve got to say, it was an amazing experience.”
This was not a first for the band, and Navarro credits performers such as Miss Crash and Samar with igniting his interest in the practice. “To be honest, at first I just wanted to try it because it was interesting; I didn’t know that there was going to be an experience attached to it. I saw it as just a mind-over-matter thing until I got off the ground the first time. Then a lightbulb went off.”
Both Belew and Navarro say they understand people’s scepticism and horror at the practice. There is pain involved, things can get bloody, and not every suspendee responds well to the intensity. Body suspension is often referred to as sadistic and Belew recounts dealing with “disgusted” reactions to her performances. This is one reason why Navarro has refused to discuss his involvement before. “Since it’s a personal journey, part of me feels that it such a sacred practice that I don’t know if I want the masses to know about it.
“I’ve hung dozens of times and not every time or position is the same experience or end result. I can get a very intensely gratifying emotional release. Sometimes it’s just fun, but it can also be very meditative. If I’ve been in a deep depression for a few weeks, a few hooks and a few feet in the air and I’m feeling radiant and optimistic again.”
Suspension.org does however warn people to “prepare for both the possibility of being overwhelmed and underwhelmed”. Not everyone experiences a spiritual or physical high, and the psychological effects vary. It also details the many potential risks – though to date, no deaths have been reported as a result of suspension.
Meanwhile, Falkner claims that growing interest is making it more mainstream. “Media exposure has given us an air of legitimacy,” he says. “People may not understand why we do it, but because it’s been in the media, it’s hard to argue that it’s a negative or self-destructive act.”
Will this make it less taboo? “Time will tell.”