“Berlin in bondage: a sexperiment” (& miscellanea)

Two Tuesdays ago was November’s Yoga + Shibari, as always in Alte Kantine Wedding. For quite a while now the monthly workshop has been an even mix of newcomers and cycling through a probably quite large group of regulars. More often than not there’s some dancers, theatre, or performance people, and generally a lightly queer-ish demeanour. This Tuesday was no exception, in fact probably exemplifying what the workshop is at the moment, with several unannounced arrives swelling numbers to sixteen or so. Shortly before, while I was busy hanging rings (joy of manual work? yes!), Dasniya was being interviewed by two from Deutsche Welle who then came along to class.

Class itself was one of those really good ones—well, they’ve all been really good for some time with this alignment of Dasniya’s teaching and the people in the room—really good in the sense of probably not a better night this year for an article to be written on the class, with most of the shibari part being a mass, messy suspension across four rings causing much excitement and laughter.

Janelle Dumalaon’s article came out on Wednesday, and reading it threw me back to when I first started coming to Dasniya’s classes back in 2009. All that nervousness, anxiety, unknown things, was I about to drown in an ocean of hardcore Berlin BDSM? All even before picking up a rope and trying to do this shibari thing. Some years later, and I haven’t been debased and discarded; I can almost pretend I haven’t changed much at all—well, OK, I have, it’s just not the shibari that’s responsible for all of it, rather the contrary, it’s been me changing shibari.

What I’ve always liked about Dasniya’s class, and probably why we work together well, is the absence of typical expectations. The yoga is unspiritual, yet also not fitness-obsessed; it’s just doing things and noticing what effects come about, quite matter-of-fact. The shibari is also quite matter-of-fact, though more consciously avoiding and criticising the tendencies to fetishism, gender and identity strictures that prevail. Or to put it another way, there isn’t an expectation, or coercion to have to buy into these additional things in order to do the thing itself. This allows for the possibility to discover it on one’s own terms, to take from it what one might, to bring to it one’s own interests.

The last three years since our messing around with messy tying and anarchic unshibari has also contributed to this difference in at least one notable form: the reduction of teaching fixed forms. The only ‘traditional shibari’ regularly taught is the ‘basic knot’ (a square or reef knot), and ‘change of direction’ (a half-hitch); everything else tends towards various forms of improvising, which nonetheless in my mind are unmistakable as shibari. Very seldom is a class spent teaching and learning Takatekote or other figures. For people who are only going to come infrequently, who have no interest or desire in becoming experts with rope, who want to learn and experience something of rope bondage without the anxiety and stress of learning a complicated figure from nothing, I think there’s no better way than this, gaining confidence, having fun, being relaxed, learning aesthetic principles and even some technique almost unawares, and some hours later, usually approaching midnight, leaving feeling even if shibari itself is not for them, the class and experience they had was something special.

In totality, it’s not a conscious, premeditated thing, though Dasniya and I have talked about class and what we’re doing endlessly over the years—I think a lot of last Tuesday’s class was spur-of-the-moment from her. Some things are rather conscious and premeditated. It’s unavoidable in BDSM to come up hard against the inequalities and discriminations which we live with every day. I would say it’s a certainty for any woman to have received some kind of unwanted attention in this. Even for us, having taught separately and together for years it still comes up and we still have to discuss how to deal with it, and undergo debriefings of sorts when it does, try and come up with more effective ways of preventing it or responding to it when prevention fails. It’s the not-fun part of it all that constantly has to be done.

Tuesday perhaps was an exemplar of all this, a large group of people some known to many, some only to the person they came with, some complete strangers a bit nervous hoping and not knowing what to expect, and over the four and an half hours through the yoga, the pause eating and drinking and getting to know each other a little, the shibari, relaxing and enjoying, doing strange things they probably hadn’t imagined a few hours prior, feeling comfortable and trusting and safe.

Maybe for context to say I’m not touchy-feely, have zero mystico-spiritualism in me, and am suspicious of both.

In the meantime, Dasniya’s next Yoga + Shibari workshop, the last for 2014 is on Tuesday, 23rd December.

Berlin in bondage: a sexperiment

“Poor, but sexy” is no understatement for Berlin. Since the Roaring 20s, the German capital has been known for its anything-goes take on sex. As DW’s Janelle Dumalaon found out, sexual freedom can come with restrictions.

It’s the middle of the week and I’m hanging suspended from a ceiling somewhere in a converted hangar complex in Berlin-Wedding. Ropes crisscross my chest and waist and I’m trying to concentrate on ways to describe the sensations I am experiencing.

“How are feeling?” asks Tim, my partner.

“Unghh. Unghh. Nghh!”

And that’s me – 28 years old, educated in a Jesuit Catholic school, and raised with the conservative, traditional family values considered the bedrock of society in the Philippines, where I’m from.

Now, I wouldn’t consider myself conservative by any stretch. I find Berlin’s sexual openness and embracement of nudity a refreshing contrast to my personal background of Catholic, abstinence-only education, where skin is a letter away from sin. Nevertheless, Berlin will challenge just about anyone’s opinions on sex.

Sex shops galore

Not far from where I live in Berlin, there’s Other Nature, which describes itself as a “feminist, queer-oriented, eco-friendly, vegan sex shop.” I’ve been inside a few times, marveling at the array of alternative menstrual products and environmentally friendly sex toys.

I’ve wondered what would happen if someone put up a similar shop in my neighborhood in the Philippines, where everyone sees everyone at church. “These sex toys are immoral!” I can hear my neighbors shouting. “Why? They’re eco-friendly!” the well-meaning but culturally uninformed proprietors would reply.

It’s not like I’ve seamlessly blended into Berlin’s freewheeling sex life. I have yet to visit – even as a spectator – the KitKat Club, famous for the unfettered sexual activity among its patrons. I also don’t really see myself ever playing naked volleyball in the park.

But until recently, bondage yoga wasn’t on my to-do list either, but here I am.

Berlin in bondage

Back to the shibari yoga class, where I’m straining under my own weight. I’ve learned shibari is a 16th-century Japanese bondage art, formerly used by samurais to keep captives in check. Since then it’s evolved into a form of erotic play with ropes, a specialised kind of BDSM, if you will.

To me, shibari yoga is quintessentially Berlin. It’s as if someone took the spiritual hipness of Berlin’s countless yoga schools and combined it with the city’s frank sexual expression to form a new erotic art form.

But I’m not convinced that it’s a perfect fit. To my mind, yoga is about movement, bondage about restriction. One evokes images of peace and serenity, the other of pain and violence. However, I’ve been told they’re not that different.

Rewind to earlier that evening. I am sitting in a café with Dasniya, a ballet-dancer-model-yoga instructor-bondage artist.

“Yoga is bondage,” says Dasniya. “Yoga can be brutally painful; meditation can be quite intense and difficult. Bondage can be quite calming and comforting, an exercise of trust. It’s not about harm.”

Dasniya’s father was a Thai monk, and yoga was a family affair from the time she was a small child growing up in Germany. From then on she makes it sound like dance, choreography, and BDSM were a natural extension.

“It’s a lot of playing with identity,” she explains.

How does her family feel about her combining their spiritual tradition with bondage? She smiles:

“They don’t really want to know what I’m doing in detail. They just want to know I’m spiritually and mentally happy.”

Peaceful brutality

Minutes later, I’m sitting cross-legged with around 15 other participants on neon-green yoga mats, with two small bundles of rope neatly arranged before each of us. We start with breathing exercises and make our way through different standing yoga poses, or asanas. Seated again, we are asked to unravel the rope bundles, and rub the tangled mess on our bodies.

I self-consciously rub a fistful of rope under my armpits, like everyone else. I sneak a look at Tim, who is sneaking a look at me. We both visibly try, and fail, to suppress giggles. I look at Dasniya, fully expecting a look of disapproval for blocking the class’s collective spirit, or whatever you get in trouble for in yoga bondage class.

But she’s smiling, and I’m relieved to know we’re allowed to laugh. It’s permission to deal with my staggering awkwardness, and I take it with relief.

We use the rope in other ways, standing and hooking the rope under our feet while standing, pulling its ends to help us stretch further downward, or stretching our legs to our faces while lying on our backs.

Yoga is brutal, I think to myself. But I would feel a lot more meditative if my hamstrings weren’t screaming.

Beyond Boy Scout knots

Eventually we come to the shibari part, which involves using the ropes in intricate ways to encase a person in aesthetically pleasing knots – which are also strong enough to hold that person suspended from the ceiling.

“Think of the ropes as a particularly firm hug,” Dasniya said. A quick conference, and Tim and I agreed I would be firmly hugged first. The knots were easy work for him.

Soon, my ropey hug was knotted to other ropes suspended from a metal ring dangling from the ceiling, and then I was dangling too. Now what? To my right, a woman was lying close beneath her suspended partner, rocking him softly. I looked for Dasniya. Her partner was tied to a chair, both suspended and pitched forward. The emerald green sweater Dasniya was previously wearing over her shirt was arranged over her bound partner’s eyes.

“Maybe I can play Superman?” I ask Tim. He sighs, but gives me a push. I swing heavily through the air with my arms outstretched. Soon I’ve had enough of being neither bird nor plane, and think it’s my turn to do the tying.

But I have a harder time with the knots than Tim did, and I feel like I’ve just failed spectacularly at a macramé class. He sits patiently as I loop a rope around his chest and shoulders and mutter instructions to myself. Man, was I sexy.

“I’m a little bored now,” Tim admits, after one side of my creations sags downward in a clear case of faulty rope engineering. But perseverance triumphs over butter fingers and I finally have Tim up on the ring. I gather him in my arms, run, and release him with a flourish.

Tim crashes into some chairs before swinging wildly back to the starting point. I scramble to take the chairs away before he swings back.

Liberating restriction

At least we got the Rule Nr. 1 right: Have fun. It was the space I found to be who I was – a little stiff, too self-conscious for great displays of physical emotion, but curious enough to experiment in ways I wouldn’t have in the Philippines.

Maybe someday I will be able say, “body-bound, but spiritually sound” and maybe even mean it in a shibari yoga context. But for now, I have tried another way to get to know myself in Berlin, in a way that I may never have tried at home. If shibari yoga has taught me one thing, it’s that sexuality and spirituality are flexible concepts to be shaped by choice, practice and curiosity – and that even restriction can be liberating.

Date 03.12.2014
Author Janelle Dumalaon, Berlin
Permalink http://dw.de/p/1DyCy

Deutsche Welle Berlin in bondage — 1
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