The stealthy art of ninjutsu traces its origins (which, fittingly, are murky and veiled in secrecy) back as far as the sixth century, and was popularized during Japan’s feudal Sengoku period in the 15th century. But, with the growing prevalence of television fitness competitions and gym training regimens, the way of the ninja may only just be reaching peak popularity—especially among Americans—today. Fascinated by these silent warriors? Here’s a crash course in their ancient technique—and how to hone it in your modern, urban environment.
1. Become an Early Riser
If you want to become a ninja, you best invest in a good alarm clock. Ninja training is a serious, time-consuming business, so you can count on rising with the sun in order to make time for all your exercises. Conditioning your mind and body to a grueling schedule—one that you stick with—also teaches you resilience and self-control, qualities every young ninja must master.
2. Free Your Mind
Before you can start scaling walls and walking on water, you must learn to clear your mind. A particular kind of meditation known as Kuji Kiri is a fundamental tenet of ninjutsu. Kuji Kiri, which means “nine symbolic cuts” or “nine hand seals,” is the practice of using symbolic hand gestures to focus one’s thoughts and achieve a certain mindset. Pressing your hands together in the “sha” (or healing) position, for example, will invoke a rejuvenating energy in the practitioner.
3. Limber Up
Ninjas must be strong of both mind and body. In order to perform the athletic feats expected of a ninja, you will need to mold your body into a lean, mean, fighting machine. While enrolling in martial arts classes at your local dojo is the most sure-fire way to achieve a lithe physique, you could also limber up with dance or yoga classes.
4. Play the Quiet Game
A ninja is nothing if not stealthy. Practice quieting your breathing, limiting your extraneous movements, and—most obviously—keeping your lips zipped. Taihenjutsu is the ninja-approved system of quieting your movements, absorbing falls, and leaping through the air. In order to rebound quickly from a tumble, you must learn to relax your body, lower your center of gravity, and exhale with each movement. And for the beginner ninja, keeping your knees bent and walking on the outsoles of your feet will soften your steps.
5. Get to Know Your Surroundings
In order to move without being detected, ninjas must become masters of their environment. Take stock of and memorize all the possible exits whenever you enter a room (in case you must make a quick getaway), and chart the best possible route for any mission. In an urban environment, this could mean learning parkour—or mastering the subway system.
6. Harness Nature’s Elements
Ninja teachings show us to embrace hardship and become one with nature by embracing the four elements: earth, wind, fire, and water. By channeling the earth, you become grounded and centered. The wind teaches us to be flexible and able to change at any moment, seizing opportunities as they come. Fire signifies passion and anger—forces that can be destructive if not contained—and water can flow gracefully around all obstacles.
7. Become an Escape Artist
Even experienced ninjas will get caught every now and again, which is why they developed complex “disappearing acts” that used tactics like smoke bombs, explosives, and sleight of hand to create diversions. Ninjas also train in the art of sui-ren, or water training, in which they learn how to hold their breath for long periods of time. This skill is also useful if the person next to you on the train forgot to wear deodorant…
8. Dress the Part
If you live in New York, you probably already have a closet full of black clothes. If not, it’s time to invest in some dark-colored garments. Ninjas do their most important sneaking around at night, so black or navy blue (which actually blends in better in the moonlight) outerwear helps them better hide in the shadows. A common misconception about ninja garb, however, is that tight bodysuits are the way to go. While they may look alluring, skin-tight clothes can restrict your circulation and range of movement, so it’s best to choose clothes that can move and breathe.
9. Get the Right Gear
If you’ve made it this far in your ninjutsu training, it’s time to build your arsenal. In addition to hand-to-hand combat, ninjas are skilled with such legendary weapons as nunchaku (commonly referred to as “nunchucks” in English), katana (a sword often worn on the back), and shuriken (throwing stars). Ninjas also regularly make use of tools like grappling hooks and mizugumo, flat wooden discs that are strapped on one’s feet to help walk on water.
10. Eat Right
Ninjas tend to be small and agile. To build long, lean muscle and maintain the energy necessary for their demanding missions, early ninjas would eat tofu, vegetables, and brown rice rather than meat, dairy, and sugar. Legend has it that ninjas also avoided smelly foods that would foil their concealment, such as garlic, chives, and leeks.
11. Exercise Your Tongue
You know those stories of ninjas disappearing in thin air or floating above the ground? They’re just that. Tales of the ninja’s magical abilities were spread by the ninjas themselves in order to bolster their reputations and incite fear in their enemies.