It can sound surprising to the beginner, but one often requires much less technique learning than one thinks. To have one’s first simple session on the floor, one only needs a safe way to attach the rope, wrap the body, and fix the tie so it doesn’t unravel. However, soon things will evolve into a need for an external anchoring point, like a bed post or a beam in the ceiling, to manipulate the body with twists and restrictions. Then, finally, to wholly suspend and use gravity to increase the pressure, one needs stable rope structures that can take a lot of weight. The amount of needed techniques grows exponentially according to desired complexity. Keeping focus on what is needed at any given moment is essential.

The biggest mistake I see in beginners is trying to overly complicate things and losing sight of the reason for tying in the first place. I experience a strong connection between the simplicity of rope bondage and esoteric eroticism in the form of presence and non-doing. I also see this focus in many Japanese masters I admire, even if they would never call what they do esoteric. This is when rope bondage is truly magical; when both the person tying and being tied make it about something greater than themselves. When they are connected together with whoever is witnessing them and cherishing the moments in between the actions of doing. This is true intricacy, yet on a completely different level than learning complex knots.

Complexity In Simplicity

In the stillness between moments, life happens.

Pause, witness.

I believe that the art of rope lies in the interplay between simplicity and complexity. Its evolution is circular: first, one masters simplicity and only then adds on complexity. One of the most common mistakes I see is beginners only interested in learning ever more intricate, fancy techniques while disregarding elements which seem too simple or functional. To paraphrase the immortal wisdom of the rope gods, if you cannot make an impact with one single rope, then don’t add another. In fact, don’t even try another knot as you would then be heading down a dangerous path into some dark woods where many become lost for a long time. Simple does it, as Yukinaga would tell me.

I remember a student coming for a private tuition, who remarked with surprise.

Your bondage is like jazz improvisation!

Likely, his ideas of Japanese craftsmanship were informed by the apparent pursuit of strict perfection that informs so much of what we see in the art emerging from that country. There is so much we tend to misunderstand about the entire philosophy of and approach to creation in Japan, something encapsulated in the concept of Shu-ha-ri. It literally means: submit (to practising form), rebel (once one knows form well enough to know when to break from it), and master (fully becoming one’s art, what we might call ‘flow’). The emphasis here is very much on tradition and verbally transmitted knowledge – something entirely overlooked in many books about bondage. They focus almost exclusively on positions and patterns and How Tos. In Aikido, Ikebana, bondage and other arts with lineage, deeper truths lie in between words. Knowledge that can get lost in just a few generations as it is never really written down. That makes it all the more precious.

Preserving a Legacy

The goal of classical preservation is to be able to recreate something in its finest detail. To carry on a legacy. This is valuable in a subculture that has roots in a handful of geographically distant masters and which evolves rapidly. When following the classical preservation approach, it’s helpful to assiduously practise one set of techniques from one master. It is choosing one style to study in utmost depth. In the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1992) it is also suggested to choose one spiritual path and follow it thoroughly to the end and that in doing so you will learn much more than following many different ones for shorter periods. The risk of not doing so is missing both tiny but magnificently rich details as well as the larger picture of why we do what we do.

On the other hand, jazzy improvisation aims to pick out certain concepts from many different teachers and one learns how, when and of to combine them. One can choose to go deep into one area of sadomasochism, for example taking one’s pleasure as a dominant, and investigate that from different perspectives, from different teachers. One takes elements from here and there, and applies them in practice, always keeping focus on that one central theme. Eventually, muscle memory of these skills develops enough for your intuition to latch onto them, and a certain flow starts to unfold wherein you find yourself seamlessly reaching into your tool kit to use various techniques, acquired from various sources. It is not that jazzy improvisation is easier, or does not involve studying and practising, it is simply a different approach to learning.

These two ways of learning are similar in that they both segment knowledge to make it less overwhelming. The classical preservation approach does the segmentation by taking many details from one source, while the jazzy improvisation takes one aspect from many sources. In the end, however, all of these are dependent upon knowing what one has actually built muscle memory around.

When people ask why shibari or kinbaku is so complicated, I like to answer that it is because we allow it to be. It’s up to each of us to decide in which aspect we wish it to be complicated and to remember that we are also perfectly well served by starting in a more simple manner.

Wrapping It Up

A rope is not limited to a single function. It’s not like a pair of handcuffs or a flogger; it can be used in any number of ways. So let’s be as flexible as a rope in thinking about its function. It does not need to be used exclusively for performative art or bedroom kink. It need not be intensely intricate or minimally simple. It can be everything depending on the situation. I mainly orient towards rope’s erotic potential but this doesn’t mean that I cannot become highly technically skilled as well. Similarly, all people who wish to include some bondage in their intimate lives need not engage an old Japanese teacher.

Now imagine yourself with a single rope in your hand. Is the point of bondage either to make maximum use of the rope, utilising a variety of knot styles, rope patterns and bodily positions? Or is it to make the most straightforward tie to fulfil a specific play or fantasy, similarly, making as little as possible of the same rope? Some would say that shibari, the verb for tying, is more about complexity, while kinbaku, the philosophy of connection through rope, is more about simplicity. But I think the terms are used too interchangeably to make this distinction. Yet the very open endedness of Japanese rope bondage allows for the question even to be a question. 

Finally ask yourself before continuing this journey into the sadomasochistic world: what are you witnessing? What draws you to this practice? Is it the impressive ropework and beautiful body positions, the physical and emotional challenge, an erotic fantasy unfolding, or the vulnerable honouring of old trauma? Know thyself!