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Why rope bondage is a kick-ass spiritual practice (2020)

Surprisingly to many rope bondage is unfolding in the spiritual community. From the lush jungles around Ubud to sandy beaches of Koh Phanang, to bohemian clubs of Berlin, and shamanistic circles in cold Scandinavia. How has it come to that practice from the Japanese BDSM-subculture is growing from a tiny seed into an everyday spiritual practice?

Initially, many people are curious about rope bondage because of the opportunity to surrender and let go of control. Capitalistic society today can be experienced as fast-phased and full of threat. From climate and economic collapse to political and religious fundamentalism. While the risks may be real, the constant stress often results in a mindset of having more and feeling less. A state of physical tension, hyperarousal in the nervous system, and bottled-up survival energy. The opportunity for letting go, if only temporarily, while trusting in another human can be a great relief. 

Photo by Ken Buslay

First-timers in rope bondage often describe the feeling as being “held” by the ropes, rather than being “tied up”. To “be loved and cared for”, rather than dominated and/or humiliated, as a general assumption about bondage may be. Of course, the experience is much dependent on the person tying – being the receiver of the control – and surrounding teachings and environment. A big reason why it works is the inherited consent and consciousness practices from the BDSM-subculture. Rope bondage may be a high risk/reward activity – just like all spiritual work. Because of the release of both physical and emotional tension around sexuality, power and surrender, may be overwhelming. But there is also an opportunity for healing in the right environment. Openly talking about what bondage symbolizes for oneself helps clarify the intentions and limitations, and works as a shared path to follow. Another contribution to a safer practice is the down-to-earth focus on ones embodied experience and the relationship with one’s partner. Where in there is no ancient deity to believe in, no guru to be understood, and no sacred medicine to “fix you”. There is only the continuously unfolding experience – (except when we practice complicated patterns or argue about the most conscious ways to express consent).

The care for ritual, beauty, and craftsmanship are some of the most meaningful influences on rope bondage from its Japanese origins. This care brings the balance between challenge and competence needed to reach a state of meditative flow. There is an eastern philosophical framework for relating to it. To make an example, using the concept of Ma – the relevant distance between things. Ma, in rope bondage, represents the tempo when wrapping the body in the rope to give ample space for reactions. But also awareness of the intimacy expressed by the physical space in between the person tying and being tied. And aesthetic beauty of spacing rope on the body. Ma, as many other concepts, fall under the umbrella term Do – meaning “the way”. The idea is to include spirituality (a tao/dao kind-of teaching) in everyday practices, like Aikido and Kado (the way of arranging flowers). And again, a way that things are being done and experienced, rather than talked about or believed to be.

Photo by Ken Buslay

A rope bondage session can hold many things because it’s a reflection of two people, the person tying, and the person being bound. Some meetings are intense rituals for healing, while others are playful, creative, and fun. Some practitioners enjoy circus-like suspension, while others like emotional tying on the floor. With this wide range of desired experience comes an important expression – Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Ok. It’s a symbol for the absence of norms about what one should do, feel, or experience. Just ten years ago, BDSM was considered sick and dysfunctional, in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) released by the World Health Organization (WHO)[1]. While a recent study[2] by Dutch researchers Wismeijer and van Assen suggest that BDSM practitioners are less neurotic and happier than a control group – but who cares. The important message is that people in the BDSM-subculture know how it feels to be judged and excluded. Therefore they try to make space for the inherent variation of sexual preferences and gender expressions.

Rope bondage practitioners are, in general, curious about what is triggering. There is an opportunity to consciously use a triggers arousal (or energy if you prefer) for understanding oneself better. The arousal itself doesn’t have to be judged as positive or negative but can be seen as a reflection of oneself. Or to use a metaphor, as a story told on our journey through life. The stories told in rope bondage are often related to sexuality, domination and submission, shame and pride, surrender and control. Beginners may ask – “but isn’t there enough power games in the world today”? And yes there is, but they are most of the time unconscious and non-consensual. By exploring the subject in a safer place, one can learn how to confront the power structures in everyday life. As they express themselves in intimate relationships, the work environment, and the political arena. Quoting relationship therapist and renowned speaker Esther Perel – “Most of us will get turned on at night by the very same things that we will demonstrate against during the day – the erotic mind is not very politically correct”.

Finding a conscious and consensual outlet to experience all of oneself might be precisely what is needed. To transcend the fear of being a misfit, inappropriate, or simply “wrong”. Learning to surrender to what is, rather than trying to control how things “should be”. And seeing that there is light in the darkness and darkness in the light. Maybe this will release some bottled-up tension, and perhaps that journey begins with a rope.

Photo by Ken Buslay

[1] The current definition in DSM-IV is ambiguous, so some countries, like Sweden, Denmark and Germany, has made local adjustments while waiting for the next revision.

[2] Wismeijer, A. A. J., & van Assen, M. A. L. M. (2013). Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners. The Journal of Sexual Medicine.

Footnotes