Tie Me Up, Nawashi

Standing barefoot in the center of the temple, Lochai uncoils a 30-foot length of rope. It's new rope, not much thicker than his thumb, four-stranded and fibrous. All the better to bind Jolie with.

Jolie, a tiny, 20-year-old redhead from Coconut Grove, has modeled for 40-year-old Lochai, a Lake Worth photographer, for several years now. She knows what to expect. She trusts Lochai.

She strips to black bra and panties.

The pagoda-like wood-beam temple — made specifically for practicing shibari, the art of Japanese rope bondage — is the largest piece of furniture in the carpeted Lake Worth warehouse. In fact, the spacious room is empty except for an assortment of chairs, spanking benches, suspension harnesses, and this bulky teakwood structure.

The only sound is the tap-tap-tap that comes from the ends of the rope dancing against the wood floor of the temple. As Lochai lashes Jolie, the green jute fiber coils against her pale ankles and neon-pink toenails.

With several observers watching, there's a certain sexual tension in the room, but it's mostly smothered by a palpable feeling of pretension. Art is being made here, not pornography, and anyone patient enough to watch the long process of knot-tying will likely lose any prurient interest simply from the sheer time involved. The Lifestyle Alternative Centre in Lake Worth, where this demonstration is taking place, may lend itself to the exploration of kinky subcultures like Japanese shibari, spanking, and other exotic interests, but its participants want you to know that theirs is no swinger sanctuary. This is a place of sophistication — Lochai's images will end up in a coffee-table book and will look stunning. And any salacious interest on the consumer's part is out of his control.

Not that the seriousness doesn't mean the participants aren't enjoying themselves.

"Jolie likes being suspended," Lochai says.

He double-loops her arms behind her back with the rope, the slender ends occasionally sliding between her legs, and Jolie's eyes flutter closed. Lochai is binding his subject with what's known as a box tie, or "wrapping of the pearls" — a breast-enhancing truss that also has a Japanese name, shinju, a traditional restraint that can be augmented with additional ties.

Jolie sighs, shifts her weight, and appears to go into a trance as Lochai sweats and grunts. The rope now forms tight, intricate knots between her breasts and down her stomach, wrapping itself around her legs, even between her toes. There's a complicated formality to the pattern of the rope. As Lochai pulls the strands, Jolie winces in pain.

"Hello, rope burn!" she hisses.

Lochai offers a few words of explanation to his audience, a handful of people watching the ritual with blue-flame intensity. "You want to keep rope burn to a minimum," he says. "But you don't make excuses for it."

Lochai — who estimates he's tied up 1,000 individuals, 90 percent of them female — tosses two strands of rope skyward, over a pair of metal beams that cross the top of the temple. He tugs them tighter, Jolie's bound arms lift higher, and she knows what's coming.

"Just being tied up is nice," she says in a gasping voice, her glossy lips tightened in a half-grin, half-grimace, "but being suspended is when it really brings something else out of me."

As Lochai constructs a rope pulley and loops lengths through the knots on Jolie's back and legs, he gives it a quick test. With a sharp inhalation, open-mouthed Jolie stumbles forward onto her tiptoes. Every subsequent tug of the rope contorts her further.

In a few moments, she's hoisted several feet off the ground, facedown. "Once the muscles weaken...," Lochai explains, "that's when most people start flying. When they can't fight it anymore.

"How does that feel?" Lochai asks her every few minutes.

"Fine," she answers through shallow panting.

But a minute or two later, amid the flash and flicker of digital cameras, she's had enough. Her arms are a pale shade of violet. A strangled "OK" leaks out. "Take me down now."

Lochai takes her down. "If she's going to get hurt or complain, it's not going to be fun," he says, softly stroking her hair.

With practitioners like Lochai around, South Florida has become, after New York and California, a shibari hot spot. The mysterious, two-centuries-old Eastern tradition of trussing subjects like imported provolone cheeses has somehow found a natural match with the area's underground art scene and kinky cultist BDSM (bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism) sexual practices.

There are different perspectives on what Lochai and Jolie do. Depending upon whom you talk to, it's a creative way to get off sexually, it's a compelling visual art form, it's a magnet for serious photographers, it's an ancient set of sado-masochistic techniques, and it's a prototypical male-domination fantasy that makes feminists' hair stand on end.