My eyes roam the room on rue Sainte-Catherine in which we are enclosed. There are tatami mats in the corner and suspension gear hangs from the ceiling. The subject of our conversation is shibari, the Japanese art of erotic rope bondage.  

"To this day I can't decide whether I prefer to tie or be tied," said Masha Smushkavitch.  

Welcome to Tension: it's not your typical downtown shop. There's a lot on offer, including a line of dainty lingerie and certified massage therapists to banish your stress after a long day at the office. Also, it's one of the few places in Montreal that teaches the fundamentals of shibari.  

Shibari literally means "tying" in Japanese. The practice evolved from hojōjutsu, a Japanese martial art that was used to bind prisoners, into a form of BDSM.  

"It's a little bit like having sex with somebody, except there's no sex," said Smushkavitch, a lingerie designer and one of Tension's co-owner.

"But the mental aspect of that is still very present in the way you're paying attention and you end up breathing together and listening to each other and your body responds to the other."  

Tension has reopened its doors after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the house of sadomasochistic pleasures back in March. With social distancing rules in place, the business has found creative ways to stay afloat. 

For example, you now have to bring your own rope. 

In addition, sessions are now limited to seven tying pairs to ensure safe social distancing, and people will only be allowed to tie with known partners, which means pick-up play is out for now.

A typical shibari session is a performative exercise that involves the person tying (the rigger) and the person being tied (the bottom).

Sometimes the bottom is tied up while laying on the floor. Other times they're suspended from the ceiling and twisted into all kinds of pretzel-like shapes.  

At Tension, Smushkavitch and co-owner Will Desjardins have created a community space for people to come and tie each other up in large numbers under supervision.

If your sexual tastes tend to run toward the vanilla end of the spectrum, chances are you've probably wondered why people would bother to do this. Are they pain seekers? Or is there something else going on here? Or are humans just as complicated as their turn-ons and kinks?  

"There's the meditative aspect," said Desjardins. "And some people like it purely for the pain. Some people like the circus aspect of it, being flipped around. There can also be a very strong connection and a story told between the two people. It's like a conversation without words and it's like an adventure where you don't necessarily know what's going to happen."  

At the end you're in an altered state, "literally high from natural drugs your body is producing. I get goosebumps talking about it," he said.  

Smushkavitch said the act of binding or being bound can produce an emotional catharsis that leaves you in a euphoric state, something she calls being "rope drunk."  

"And for some people there is the aspect of playing with shame," she said. "And making the person feel shy and exposed and it plays on so much more than just physical sensation."  

The pair said their classes provide the tools and knowledge necessary to adapt shibari to suit individuals of all body types.

Their introductory class is open to everyone and is a prerequisite to beginner classes. They also offer more advanced classes and put on a number of events throughout the year including the Nuit des Cordes, which coincides with Nuit Blanche.  

There are physical risks, however: nerve damage is a possibility and rope burns are also a thing.  

"Then we have what we call rope bites, which are when the rope pinches the skin," said Desjardins. "Sometimes you'll be walking around and you actually see someone with rope bites and you're like 'oh that person does shibari.'"  

"Takes one to know one," said Smushkavitch.


This article's cover image is used for illustrative purposes only.

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