Catharsis through Shibari 

By Keren Obara Middlesex University, UK

September 2020

About Shibari / Japanese rope bondage:

Shibari is an artistic form of rope tying deeply rooted in Japan’s culture and history, as well as it’s other crafts (Kordic 2016). It involves creating intricate patterns with rope around a model. As an art form, the taut lines and complex designs (Sehayek 2017) yield various rhetoric and discourse as witnessed from the wide array of literature surrounding the topic and over 100,000 tagged posts on Instagram alone.

Shibari (translating to “decoratively tie”), has made it’s way to modern art today, manifested through alluring photography, performance and video. The artistic practice has a special place for creatives, adventures, learners or curious cats who constantly seek new and transcendental experiences. Being tied or suspended in the air gives one a feeling of utter inclination and self alignment.

The technique has it’s roots in the feudal Edo Era (Joy 2017, Sehayek 2017, where the ruling samurai class would use rope to combat and bind prisoners of war in a martial art known as Hojojutsu. Each tie held meaning and symbolic admonition. 

In the early twentieth century, the Kabuki theatre adapted Hojojutsu rope ties for performances. The techniques of the martial art were replicated to provide safe movement for the actors on stage and remixed to be more visually and aesthetically appealing. From this rose Shibari (decorative tie) and Kinbaku (tight binding). Both these forms of art involve using rope to decoratively tie and restrain the body. However, Kinbaku focuses on the sole goal of erotic stimulation while Shibari focuses on healing and attaining a kinetic meditative state by which the subject enters a sub conscious space in their mind.

This meditative state is kinetic, for the sheer act of being tied up and or suspended in the air burns an intense amount of physical energy. A subject is bound, baring his or her human vulnerability and confronting all emotions evoked. The positioning of the knots in appropriate places can stimulate pressure points just like Shiatsu, a Japanese massage (Kordic 2016). Eventually, he or she is unbound, the ropes come off, each knot untied ignites a freeing flow of relief. The act of binding and unbinding are a direct purgation of feelings that involve restraint, uncertainty, fear and so many more. 

According to Shibari Healing.com the following are ways in which the ancient art and sensual practice is advantageous in terms of catharsis;

  • Experiencing surrender and vulnerability,  

  • Emotional releasing of energetic blocks, 

  • Strengthening one’s masculine and feminine traits, 

  • Letting go of Fear, Rage, Anger, Guilt, Shame and limiting self judgements  
     

“Many people think of,” says Bruce, a professional British rope tier “secretaries bound to office chairs with nylon rope or hogtied house wives on kitchen floors - Shibari is very different. It is like an aerial tango, done with flow and passion. When people put their heart and soul into it-well, I’ve seen people in tears after being tied. They say; I have no idea why I’m crying, I’m just so happy. It unblocks emotional dam” (Walsh 2015). It has a meditative effect, Bruce says, it silences the chatter of the everyday and immerses the subject in the here and now, conjuring up mental images, rushing adrenaline and endorphins, much like the runner’s high (Kordic 2016).

Pent up feelings hold people back in so many ways that they do not know. Taking back control over one’s body is extremely empowering. Facing fear directly and coming out triumphant brings healing and freedom. Nina, Bruce’s wife states that Shibari gives her a better awareness of herself, her body, brain, psychology and empathy. It is all about evoking different sensations and confronting different emotions for the sake of growth.

Shibari has also been described as a shared meditative practice, achieving revelation for the mind and body. The aesthetics of the practice also hold immense importance for the kinbakushi or nawashi (rope master). 

Rope binding is more about the journey than the destination. The process is delicate and follows specific forms and aesthetic rules. The rope master creates different geometric patterns and shapes to compliment the human body with a texture that contrasts the sensitivity of the skin (Kordic 2016). Creating such precise art and patterns requires analytical alignment of the rope master’s mind. He or she must focus and channel energy to the act of the practice. As mentioned before, it is more about the journey than the destination.

This is where many fall short, as they try to categorize it as mainly a sexual tool, demeaning it’s healing properties and thus never fully understanding it properly or grasping its full essence.

From the material and immaterial blending to the communication established between two participants, the artist -rope rigger- is provided with a paint brush in the form of a model. Much like sculpting, painting writing, digital enhancements and so forth, the artists can portray different aesthetics through Shibari such as strength, vulnerability, sensuality, boldness, ecstasy and so forth. 

Falling between performance and sculpture making, Shibari touches onto topics such as power-vulnerability coexistence, identity, psyche and physical energy, confidence, bravery, communication and sometimes enhancing sexual energy as a result.

In conclusion, it is very possible to experience Catharsis through Shibari as seen from the above examples. Both the artist and the subject go through a journey of psychological alignment. Different sensations are felt, thoughts are evoked, both parties express themselves and massive amount of energy is let out. In the end, there is relief from the release of strong pent up feelings.

About Catharsis:

Catharsis involves the release of stagnated emotions through kinetic action and stimulation. The term Catharsis stems from the original Greek Katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing” (Cherry 2020). The American Psychological Association defines catharsis as the discharge of events that had previously been repressed by bringing these events back into consciousness and re-experiencing them. In everyday language, the term catharsis is often used to describe moments of epiphanies, insight and healing. The first man to use the term in relation to emotions was Aristotle, when he talked about catharsis as the “Purgation of negative emotions.”

Aristotle’s also stated that “fear and pity” bring about a magnitude to “tragedy” that is immense and powerful. Tragedy, in Aristotle’s sense, refers to a genre of plays acted during the City Dionysian festivities. A form of theatre in ancient Greece also comprising of comedies and music.

Tragedy, in particular, was said to engage the empathetic side of the viewer to result in the sharing of emotions between actor and watcher. Through this, the audience was able to project their own emotions on to the characters and find release. The same feeling is derived today as well, from kinetic stimulation such as concerts, horror movies, even social media videos. There is a timeless discussion of how much more Aristotle encapsulated in the terms “fear and pity.” 

Fear as an ego centered emotion tends to create anxiety and bring a tension to life. On the other hand, there is a thrill that comes with feeling fear, accelerated by adrenaline, directed to whatever problem has to be overcome. This explains the appeal of horror movies as they direct our fear and negative emotions towards external objects. By the time the movie comes to an end, so many of our internal fear has been let out regardless of the climaxing scenario (Sachs 2020). When people finally calm down from the height of fear, there is a sense of relief that is felt. It is as though they have been striped down and a load has been released.

This sense of emotional relief is called catharsis (Cherry 2020). It is the process of releasing and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions. When experiencing catharsis, one feels something very similar to the relief felt after fear, but without necessarily having to be put into a state of fright. This is an effective solution to releasing pent up emotions. This form of relief can be void of any pain and instead derived from different kinetic stimulation. The act of getting oneself into a active mind space in order to reach a peak, eventually creates an outlet for all built up physical, mental and emotional energy. For example, if one puts himself into an uncomfortable position, a not so positive feeling is evoked. This person then takes action to work through that uncomfortable position. Eventually, they reach their peak and experience full relief by which other emotions are released. 

One of the great stoic minds- Seneca, a man of great fortune and status, stated that we should all expose ourselves to uncomfortable situations every once in a while. From discomfort comes growth. Seneca wrote about the importance of challenging oneself and taking charge into the storm; embarking on journeys we feel fearful or redundant about. The very action of taking charge is therapeutic in a sense that, it gives one a feeling of balance and control. The very physical energy spent while taking on tasks is as much as the mental energy. Action is the lead medium for channeling stagnant emotions into fuel to be burned and released. Some of these emotions we are unaware of because the greater part of psychological components are stored in the unconscious mind.

Josef Breuer, a colleague of Sigmund Freud developed a treatment for resolving trauma which he described as cathartic. He would put patients under hypnosis and have them express emotions that had been repressed, after letting everything out, his patients experienced relief from their symptoms. A teenager going through a rough patch might describe experiencing a “cathartic” moment that brings them a sense of purpose or piece and helps them grow. This term is often used to describe an emotional moment that leads to a positive change in a person’s life. 

Different ways people practice catharsis include;

Exercise: The physical demands of a workout are an effective way to conjure up intense emotions and releasing them in a constructive manner. Our heart rate goes up, we experience a spike in adrenaline, we reach a peak, sweat it out and eventually cool down. The feeling one gets at the end of a workout is calming and soothing as endorphins are released into the body. 

Talking and expressing oneself is a great way to release pent up emotions. People practice catharsis through open dialogue with others. For example, if one is faced with a challenge which gives rise to emotions such as frustration, anger, helplessness, etc, they often discuss these with close family or close friends, this is the importance of having a good support network. It is also important to speak your mind and express yourself. Parents must actively engage in unrestricted conversations with their children from a young age, or else they risk having to deal with problems in the future due to unresolved feelings that would have been released through simple open conversations. 

For those who care about growing into better individuals in general, it is a known fact that humans gain happiness by being of value to others as much as themselves. We must practice the art of listening in order to help those around us experience release. Through listening and truly understanding we achieve a better perspective of our own emotions as well, which makes it simpler to process and actively let them out. 

©Keren Sarah Obara Apr 2020

Creating and or Viewing any kind of Art: Art provokes strong emotions for the viewer, most of which come from deep down in the unconscious. Symbols, semiotics and subliminal elements in different kinds of art act as a template for psychic images to be projected on to, acting as an outlet for those emotions. Performing arts in general are very powerful. As mentioned earlier, performers channel profound emotions that they are able to confront and leave out there, either on the stage, set, or wherever they present their art. Creators of art are able to explore psychological components as they delve deep into their minds, often facing immense shadows of their own without even knowing. Through innovation and self expression, they bare unseen pieces of themselves onto the templates of their work and reach release and healing.

Listening to music: Music is known for driving moods and influencing the hues of people’s senses. Music is also known to influence perceptions and provoke emotions that usually lay low. When one listens to a song, for example about being happy. They experience enlightened and positive feelings. Similarly, when one listens to music about being angry, they are able, through the lyrics or the beat to channel out that anger in the fleeting moment and leave it there. Music is food for the soul, as William Shakespeare wrote. Because the kinetic nature of the sound waves directly echo structures deep in us that we have no knowledge of.

Prayer: There is immense spiritual, physical, mental and emotional energy that is released during prayer of any kind. The Bible states how important catharsis is. 

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” -Ephesians 4:31-32

The psalms of anger and lament are there to show that one of the ways to handle pent up feelings is through spiritual meditation and prayer. Collectively, regardless of what religion, people pray as a method of confronting dark emotions and aspects in order to achieve relief through light-hearted healing and truth. 

Travel: The act of moving from one place to another gives a sense of independence and freedom. Sights, sounds an other sensory stimulants act as outlets for different feelings and emotions. Aside from this, traveling helps one to achieve a sense of balance and control. As one takes a break from their day to day routines and location, they surrender to a formless and fluid feeling. From these experiences, one feels as though they are fresh and new.

Journaling: Seneca, the famous stoic’s favorite time for journalling was in the evenings. He would bare all his thoughts out, being brutally honest, vulnerable and hiding nothing from himself. He recorded that the sleep that would come after this was pleasing and calming. The act of writing things down creates an outlet for intense and honest feelings that we are usually unable to process. It also gives perspective and helps one plan for the day ahead, such that pent up emotions are not an interference when it comes to going about regular activities and even socializing with people.

Cherry, K., 2020. The Role of Catharsis in Psychology. Very well mind.

Kordic, A., 2016. The Art of Shibari- Japanese Rope Bondage photography. Wide Walls.

Nanay, B., 2017. Catharsis and Vicarious fear. European Journal of Philosophy. (1)1 pp 1371

Master K., 2014. The beauty of Kinbaku: 2nd Edition. US King Cat Ink.

Sachs, J., Aristotle: Poetics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Walsh, J., 2015. Shibari: A couple explain the appeal of Japanese Rope Bondage. Independent. p.1

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