Dig deeper into the ancient Japanese art of rope bondage, also called shibari, with the help of professional rope artists and this beginner's guide.
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If you've seen episode three of Too Hot to Handle or follow sex educator Shan Boodram on YouTube or Instagram, then you've probably gotten a taste of shibari. Maybe you've never seen the show or don't know who Boodram is, but you've heard the whispers of shibari in friend circles or online feeds.

What brought you here isn't important — your interest in and curiosity about shibari is. Below, shibari educators and rope artists share what shibari is and how you can start practicing this style of rope play.

What to Know About Shibari, Rope Bondage
Credit: Getty Images

Okay, What Is Shibari?

Shibari is an ancient form of artistic Japanese rope bondage. "It's a modern practice that involves tying people with rope," says Marika Leila, co-founder of Shibari Study, an online Shibari education platform. "It's evolved into many different branches and practices and has become something that people can use for artistic expression and self-care."

Brief History of Shibari

Shibari draws on Hojojutsu, a martial art used by the Samurai in Japan's Edo period (from 1603 to 1868) to restrain, transport, and often torture prisoners with rope or cords, according to Shibari.ph, an online hub for Japanese rope bondage enthusiasts and practitioners. Seeing as prisoners were intricately tied according to their crime, Hojojutsu served a functional purpose as well as an aesthetic and symbolic purpose. Hojojutsu later disappeared from society. Its rope techniques, however, found themselves in Japan's underground BDSM scene. This often painful, sensual, and sexual art of tying became known as "shibari" or "kinbaku."

Shibari began to spread and become more popular when it made its way to Europe and the Americaa in the early 1900s, near WWII, according to Shibari Academy, a Shibari training program. The changing interpretation of shibari continues to this day — so much so that shibari lessons, events, and workshops are far more accessible now than a few decades ago.

The origins of shibari may not be fully understood by those who aren't of Japanese heritage, but the complexity, intricacy, functionality, and aesthetics of this style of rope bondage have been recognized and appreciated by rope artists, educators, and enthusiasts all over the world.

Shibari vs. Western Rope Bondage

Regular rope bondage generally refers to Western (or American) rope bondage used in BDSM settings. While shibari and Western rope bondage share some qualities, they're different styles of rope play.

The two styles of rope bondage differ in the material of rope used — shibari uses ropes made out of natural fibers (such as jute or hemp), while Western rope bondage may use hemp, cotton, or even synthetic ropes such as those made from nylon — but the main difference is the aesthetics and the motive, says Leila.

"There's a certain aesthetic to Western bondage" that's more about tying the ropes for the function of restraining, "compared to Japanese rope bondage, which cares a whole lot about aesthetics," says Fuoco, professional movement artist and instructor at Shibari Study. Western bondage also focuses more on tying as a sort of foreplay, appetizer, or means to an end for what comes after the tying (i.e., sex). With Japanese bondage, each tie carries symbolism, and that's what really sets it apart; the process of tying or being tied is the experience with shibari; it's the main course.

Misconceptions About Shibari

Myth: It's all about sex.

It isn't always, but it can be. Because the journey with the rope is the experience, there's a lot of room for interpretation. Shibari can be psychologically and spiritually intense, says Leila. People have many motivations for practicing shibari, and sexual pleasure can definitely be one of those motives. The reason may not always be sexual initially, but you can end up feeling aroused by the pain or the body awareness that comes with the experience.

Oh, and you don't have to be in a romantic relationship to practice Japanese rope bondage. In fact, many times, the person you're practicing with won't be your romantic partner. While you won't feel sexual pleasure from those sessions, you'll still experience intimacy — a closeness with the other person because of how much trust goes into the practice. "The beautiful thing about rope is it can meet just about any relationship where the relationship is," says Fuoco. You can practice shibari with a friend, roommate, or family member. You can also practice solo via self-tying as an act of self-care, in the same way you might make time for meditation or another mind-body practice like yoga.

Myth: It's violent.

Shibari isn't meant to be overly painful. If there is pain, it should be enjoyable, not intolerable. "There are these layers of trust and closeness during any experience," says Fuoco. Clarifying boundaries (including consent) or safe words (if necessary) can take a lot of the unknown out of the situation. Fuoco suggests asking questions such as "what might it sound like if you're in distress?" and "what might it sound like if you're doing okay?" to understand each other's boundaries before practicing. "At the foundation of every experience, there needs to be trust," says Fuoco.

Myth: It's degrading.

Shibari can be empowering in the way it challenges your body. "I find that getting comfortable with discomfort in rope makes me more comfortable with discomfort in life," says Lyra E., a current student at Shibari Study. (Think of it like sitting with and breathing through the discomfort of being in a deep yoga pose to reach another level of mental strength and relaxation.) Rope play can do many things, but it should never make you feel uncomfortable or disrespected. If this happens, then listen to your gut and step away.

Myth: It's unsafe.

Engaging in any form of rope bondage can pose some risks — but, again, it's not about pain, force, or degradation. Before practicing shibari, you should evaluate what those risks are for you. "[I've found that] good questions to ask are about any health conditions (mental or physical)," says Lyra E. "Discussing trauma is always good too, because there may be some trauma that can be triggered by being restrained and lacking control." If you want to keep safety scissors close so you're able to remove yourself quickly, that's always an option. (See: How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Sexual Past)

The Benefits of Shibari Rope Bondage

What you get from Shibari depends on your motive and intention behind your practice. You may come away with improved body positivity, empathy and sensitivity, deepened intimacy with a partner, or creative and artistic stimulation — all this, in addition to the benefits below.

Mindfulness. "With Shibari, you're stimulated from so many angles, you end up being mindful without really trying," says Leila. "Your body feels very present and your mind feels very present. In a way that, I have to say, that not many other practices do."

Awareness. You become aware of where you are and the sensations happening throughout your body. "There's no way to be in a really uncomfortable position and focus on your grocery list," says Fuoco. "You choose to submit to that moment, to that position, and your body rewards you with a lot of feel-good hormones." For example, Fuoco likens Shibari to running as opposed to yoga because yoga focuses on doing things that are generally good to your body, whereas running can involve pushing yourself into discomfort to then experience feel-good endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. The same goes for rope play.

"It's this practice where you push through a hard moment to reap those benefits," says Fuoco. "It makes you more in tune with your body." You figure out the difference between good pain and bad pain, and you get the opportunity to see what your body is capable of.

Communication. "Part of the appeal is figuring out how to be in deep communication with somebody in a way that's a little more subtle," says Fuoco. You learn what your body likes, what it doesn't, and how to communicate that to someone else — sometimes without words.

Connection — and disconnection. The relationship between rigger and bottom (more on these terms below) is extremely intimate. Generally, it's not about sexual tension, says Leila. Rather, "there's a physical and emotional exchange that's really deep and really satisfying." Of course, if the moment is so intense that sexual feelings arise, then there can be sexual tension — but, again, sex isn't the only reason why people practice Shibari. There can be an incredibly deep connection without any sexual feelings present. (Related: How to Build Intimacy with a Partner)

It's also a good way to hush the world around you. "It's that balance between discomfort and equanimity. Being comfortable and okay with what's around you," says Lyra. "Sometimes I may be in an uncomfortable pose or a painful spot, but I can feel it in my body when I release and I let go of my breath. It's like releasing a big deep breath you've held for a long time."

How to Practice Shibari

If you're considering giving Shibari a go, then let these steps be your guide.

1. Digest plenty of info before you touch a rope.

"The best way to get started in shibari is to learn as much as possible before touching a rope," says Leila. "Reading articles and looking at pictures and videos online is a great way to get a sense of what's to come." The Seductive Art of Japanese Bondage by Midori (Buy It, $28, amazon.com) is a great read to start. Or try Shibari Study: If you're a new user, use the coupon code "SHAPESTUDY" for 35 percent off the first month of a monthly subscription.

Some common terms in shibari that you should know:

  • Scene time: The time you spend playing with skills you're comfortable with and are actively tying or being tied.
  • Lab time: The time you spend learning and practicing skills at or above your skill level before trying them on yourself or someone else.
  • Bottom: The person being tied.
  • Rigger/Top: The person doing the tying.
  • Self-tie: When a person ties themselves.
  • Suspension: An advanced skill in shibari that involves lifting your body off the ground.
  • Floor-play: Rope play that's done on the floor.
  • Single column tie: The foundation for every other tie you'll learn.
  • Rope switch: Someone who enjoys practicing both as a rigger and as a bottom.

2. Find teachers that align with your values.

"There are a lot of ways to learn about and experience rope bondage, especially now that everything is virtual," says Fuoco. "When looking for a teacher or studio, don't just look for competence, but also look to see if this instructor's values match your own. There is a shibari instructor out there for everyone; all you need to do is take the first step and start exploring." Whenever COVID-19 permits, in-person conventions and local events can be a great way to connect with other people who're also interested in rope.

Here are some rope artists and education sources you can check out via Instagram: @notcamdamage, @shibari.study, @fuocofet, @miss_true_blue, @kissmedeadlydoll, and @voxbody.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B4OF73uBZKs/

3. Be okay with going slow.

"I think a lot of people from the outside look at bondage and see eroticism," says Fuoco. "But they don't see the years of education that's behind that crazy video. There's this entire unsexy education that precedes it and has to exist." You won't find yourself two weeks from now an expert rope artist, and that's completely okay.

4. Practice with people you trust and who trust you.

"Find someone that you trust a lot," recommends Lyra. As an intimate style of rope bondage, trusting the person you practice with is major. "Don't be afraid to have an honest and frank conversation about desires, boundaries, and consent with your partner," says Leila. "Consent goes both ways. It's crucial for everyone involved to explicitly state their expectations, limits, and experience."