Over the past few months, there’s been an increased interest in mindfulness. A recent survey of 500 people in the U.S. by a team of psychologists found that during the pandemic, 13 percent of respondents reported using meditation to manage pandemic-related stress. Sensor Tower, a company that collects and analyzes global app data, reported that in April, meditation apps like Headspace and Calm clocked 7 million downloads. The app Calm was downloaded 911,000 more times in April than it was in January. As SELF previously reported, there’s truly never been a better time to get into a mindfulness practice.
As it’s been for so many people, lockdown has been a trigger for my anxiety and stretches of physical and mental restlessness. I’ve sashayed from distracting hobbies to coping mechanisms, from reading every book I own to seeking one-on-one therapy. No single mechanism worked best, it was just a matter of trying them all—sometimes all at once—like a human everlasting gobstopper machine, clanking through mechanism after mechanism to produce a tasty result.
I also took the time to meditate, despite barely having the attention span for it. Seriously. During yoga class, my mind becomes a one-woman podcast in which I chat about career angst and fears of my body betraying me with a sonorous fart. When I plug into a guided meditation, I’m too interested in what’s outside the window to keep my eyes closed.
Perhaps you’re like me and you seek out mindfulness in more active ways, like hiking, long country drives, or a long and intense side plank. Considering not all of these activities were possible in recent months, I found myself returning to knot tying.
I was 16 when I first experienced the fulfillment that came with learning how to tie knots starting with tying a simple bowline. Like some kind of time-traveling child pirate, I spent two weeks sailing down Australia’s east coast on a vintage-style tall ship. It was part of a youth sailing and leadership program that had me rope-swinging into chilly waters at sunrise, spotting humpback whales from the top yard, and most importantly, allowed me to miss a fortnight of school. Throughout the passage, I found the form-altering process of creating bends and hitches in rope, despite its practical application on the boat, to be incredibly soothing in and of itself. In the years that followed, I turned to YouTube and Pinterest tutorials to expand my repertoire.
For a mind that drifts as much as my own, knot tying has offered a way to anchor it in place, even if only for a few minutes. As human beings, we tend to overanalyze what we’ve done in the past, overthink what we’re up to next, and exhaust our wired minds and bodies in the process. Meditation helps me coax myself out of my ruminative mind and into the physical, present moment. And knot tying is, for me, simply a more active way to reach this state of mind. Focusing on the sensation of the rope between my hands while I figure out my next move helps ward off distraction. It’s a means to create my own controlled calm. While yoga offered me a dynamic to be present, it lacked the more tangible element knot tying provides: a puzzle to work through, something that helps quiet my mind.
In 1973, The New York Times published Art of Knot‐Tying Revived, a story in which knot aficionado John Hensel praises knot tying as an inexpensive, easy form of therapy. Half a century has passed and therapeutic knot tying hasn’t exactly caught on. Rope-based craft like macramé has certainly experienced an Instagram-fuelled resurgence, but the kind of knot tying I’m referring to involves tying basic knots without any intention of an aesthetically-pleasing, decorative, or even practical end result. I suppose there’s nothing particularly grammable about this style of meditation, it’s no Goop-approved yoni meditation, but that’s what I like about it. It’s unfussy. It doesn’t matter if the knot doesn’t turn out perfectly. The process of practicing the techniques is what I find most captivating, mentally and physically.
The benefits I get from knot tying aren’t that dissimilar from the benefits research has found that knitting—a similarly active, quiet form of hands-on puzzle solving, can provide. In a 2013 study, which surveyed 3,545 people worldwide, almost 82 percent of participants rated themselves as feeling “a little” to “very” happy after taking up knitting. Thirty-seven percent of participants said that knitting helped them forget their problems, and 39 percent reported that knitting helped them organize their thoughts. Based on participant responses, the study authors posit that the “rhythmic and repetitive nature” of knitting makes it feel both therapeutic and meditative.
Knot tying shares several commonalities with knitting, particularly the rhythmic movements. However, knot tying differs as it requires hardly any material, zero tools, and there isn’t a fixed end goal like a scarf or beanie.
While therapeutic knot tying hasn’t quite entered the mainstream, I knew I couldn’t be alone in my love for it. So, I reached out to those who know best: Girl Scouts. Amanda Daly, Girl Scouts of the USA’s director of the National Outdoor Strategy, has been using lockdown to develop her knot-tying skills. She even keeps an 18-inch piece of rope at her desk to fidget with during meetings.
“Knot tying has a few calming elements. It’s tactile, the movement of the rope through your hands is soothing—it’s soft and smooth. Knot tying is very similar to solving a puzzle,” she tells SELF.
“For as many times as I have tied knots, I still make mistakes and have to start over. You never know until the last moment if you followed the steps correctly and have a successfully tied knot. It’s fun to have that moment of success!”
If this puzzle-like process appeals to you, here’s how to try tying knots.
First, find or purchase some rope. Working with small, braided jute rope (around 5mm-8mm in diameter) is easier than the bulkier varieties. Or you can work with soft nylon rope if you’d prefer a gentler material. Next, make a cup of tea and settle into a space of your own or somewhere fairly quiet. Get comfortable on your bed, your desk, or on my preferred location to perch: the floor.
Next, consider switching on a calming playlist, or if you’re following a video tutorial, stick with that. Take your rope and begin with a simple knot such as the square knot. Slowly follow the instructions and learn the steps, then repeat until you’ve memorized it and can tie it with relative ease. If you’d like, gradually work your way up to more intricate knots. It’s satisfying to observe how you develop more control and speed as you progress, but for me, the part that offers the most escapism is the simple experience of learning each new knot.
I prefer to attempt one knot per session, so as not to overload myself with the new movements. Some starter knots involve three movements, while others—like the Carrick bend—involve up to 10 movements. It’s important to work at your own pace.
I remember creating an original knot in the shape of the fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, and cervix in high school. It was my way of winding down from a biology exam. Chances are, you’re more imaginative than that, so why not come up with your own knot? Let your mind go and trust your hands to figure out what’s next.
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