Two Hooks and the Skin of my Back
Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to experience something that few do and that is… hook suspension. Where are the hooks attached? Well, they pierced through the skin of my upper back. The first time I was introduced to this idea was from childhood (of course) and it was from an old movie titled “A Man Called Horse” from 1970. This old western was about an English aristocrat in America around the early 1800’s where a man was captured by a tribe of Native Americans and pretty much enslaved and used as a horse. During his time of being used as a pack mule, he catches the eye of one of the women in the tribe. They hit it off and become very interested in each other. However, in order for anyone to “be with” any of the members of the tribe, they must be a part of the tribe. One of the initiation practices in that the tribe includes a very particular dance, the Sun Dance, they would need to perform. First, the participants take bones that would be broken and filed down then used to push through the skin of their chest. Ropes or vines were then tied to those bones and hung on a pole so participants can lean back on varying degrees of suspension away from the pole (like the CN Tower edgewalk).
I can imagine there is a lot more to the preparation and mental state that is engaged within these intense experiences than what is being acknowledged in this short blog. Needless to say, I was shocked at the sight of this performance. At no point was I thinking this is something for the bucket list. Close to two decades later, in one of my classes in Chinese Medicine in Toronto, a casual conversation came up with a fellow student about the movie A Man Called Horse. I commented on how suspensions are still done today and where would anyone possibly get a chance to do something like that. It turns out she knows of a legit place in Toronto that does it. I can’t say for sure how and why I decided to inquire further but I made an appointment with them.
The appointment day has finally arrived and I found myself in front of the studio flooded with all these emotions. The studio was near the waterfront and was a unique looking warehouse place. It was neat and full of character. There were about 12-15 people already there for their experience along with some friends, acquaintances, and staff of the studio owner. The participant before me was getting prepped and she seemed like a seasoned veteran opting to be hung in what is called a lotus position. She sat cross-legged with a ring (like a halo) hung above her with a number of anchor points used to suspend hooks at various lengths from top down. The hooks were inserted through points along her arms, legs, shoulders, ankles and wrists. Once everything was set, they slowly hoisted her up. While suspended, the rigger (staff) was regularly checking all points of contact during her suspension. Within minutes, the rigger called to bring her down and they lowered her back to the floor. They moved quickly taking the hooks off and in time before any further tearing occurred in the ankle area. You can imagine the horror of tearing when being picked up at the height of less support.
Thankfully, the rigger was experienced and qualified at recognizing what was happening and was able to get her down quickly and stitched her up. Then it was her friend’s turn and she chose to have her suspension with the hooks through her back. With her feet still on the ground, the hooks pulled on her skin stretching it more and more as she lowered herself further. The trembling started, a bit of fear was evident, and panic started to set as the tears rolled down her cheeks. After some time working through the pain, she decided that this was her limit for the day. Based on what I read, most people find it difficult to get “airborne” where the feet are lifted off the ground. I can see why after witnessing the two participants before me that anything can happen with the experience that causes you to adjust expectations for the experience.
MY TURN. For my prep, they marked lines on my back where the hooks would be going. I was very impressed with the professionalism and cleanliness procedures of how everything was handled. The hooks were actually dull with a blunt tip and a hollow point that was sharp. That hollow point would be removed and discarded after. This is going to happen. Brace yourself. Breathe. At the tug of the skin on my left side, they pulled the hook through it. Immediately, a bucket of pain washed over me. To my surprise, that pain subsided just as quickly. They did the right side and I was ready to be connected to the suspension cables. I stood there soaking up the sensation of it all and eventually got high enough where I stood tip toed. The pain definitely increased when on my tip toes. I now understood where the hesitation sat when considering the feat of leaping off your feet completely. I thought to myself… well I’m here now so I may as well go for it. Very slowly, I bent my knees and am no longer supported on the ground by my feet. I want to overcome the fear. I trusted that I was going to be ok.
I decided to lower my legs again but out to the sides so that I was still suspended. The rigger guided the experience by asking me to tuck my knees up to my chest. A different sensation rushed through me and once again I acclimatized to the pain. At this point, I was ready to have some fun trying a few different things up here. In one moment, I tucked my knees up while another staff gave a little push. In another moment, I was spinning and swinging from side to side. I also reached down, grabbed my ankles and arched my back. At some point, I attempted to reach up over my head and realized it was really difficult to lift my arms. Eventually, I worked through the pain and got my arms overhead.
It’s been about 15 minutes and was getting the hang of it (no pun intended). One of the staff then suggested my partner join me. She stood in front of me so that I could wrap my legs around her and hold on tightly. She held onto my shoulders, took a step back and lifted her feet off the ground. We swung like a pendulum back and forth a couple of times. Twice was plenty and that was bloody painful.
Shortly after, I was grounded and the hooks were taken out. I got to keep the hooks for memento. After the hooks were taken out, they squeezed all the air out of the pockets of the pierced areas. A lot of air gets trapped inside that vacuum space underneath the skin. I had no idea but it certainly makes sense. As a wet t-shit, you’d stick tight to the skin. So if you grab the center of the shirt and pull it away from the skin, there would be a pocket of air that forms in that space. Once they got all the air out, the area got bandaged. My partner and I played with the area pushing air out of it every hour after. There was a hollow sound that’s made from tapping on the areas like hitting a drum.
So what did I learn from that experience? Well, some years later while sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, a discussion about predetermination and free agency came up. Are our actions pre-selected from family, education, culture, and religion? How much of what we do is actually out of conscious decision making. In that moment, I was able to draw upon my suspension experience where I had taken a step out of the social norms of those around me and wasn’t influenced by my circle. I feel I had produced an authentic interaction with myself where I was confronted with something and reflected on the person I am. Will I choose to be someone who is conquered by my fears or be someone who could rule over them and soar above? In the interaction with myself, I was able to know the self a little more and perhaps be able to relate to others better too. Ultimately, this extreme experience brought me to the edge of myself so I am closer to knowing the self.