Yoga not your wellness bag? Try the lessons of the ninja
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“A ninja who’s fighting is not a good ninja at all,” says ninjutsu expert Hiroshi Jinkawa, emphatically. Well, that’s me told. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up to a virtual ninja training lesson – twirling kitchen knives in circles before striking, precise and deadly, into the heart of an unsuspecting sofa cushion? The reality is rather less violent, more mindful – and surprisingly more practical.
Jinkawa, my instructor for the morning, is speaking live through an interpreter, Jeffrey Garrish, from Odawara Castle, south of Tokyo. Odawara now houses the Ninja Museum, and Jinkawa is giving a foundational lesson in the ways of the Fuma ninja – while busting a few myths along the way. Unlike their teenage-mutant-turtle descendants, I learn, the original ninja weren’t all-action martial artists, but experts in stealth reconnaissance, for whom fighting was a last resort. “Over the past 100 years ninja were adapted in culture to make them more exciting,” Jinkawa explains. “But the main goal of a ninja was to avoid conflict while collecting information.”
“The ninja existed 400 to 500 years ago,” continues Jinkawa, making a link with their approach to “Zen, and mindfulness, and yoga.” And though ninjutsu is an ancient art, some aspects still seem relevant.
Jinkawa shows us the greeting: when bowing, you lay your left palm on the ground, followed by the right, then lift the right hand first as you straighten up: “This leaves your right hand away from your katana [sword] for the least possible time. We aren’t labelling the stranger as a friend or enemy, but relationships are fluid.”
Next up is ninja breathing. In modern life “we breathe very shallow breaths”, Jinkawa explains. “And when we get nervous our breaths get even shallower.” The solution is to practise the longest, slowest, deepest breath I have ever taken. “Spread your arms to force air in!” Jinkawa urges. Just as I think my lungs will burst, we’re exhaling, slowly, painfully, until I’m sure all of the oxygen has left my body. “Bow down to force air out!” By the end of the exercise I’m doing some very unstealthy gasping. “We test our limits physically, but it applies mentally and spiritually, too.”
Once we can breathe the breath, it’s time to walk the walk. “The way we walk normally, our bodies swing and twist,” says Jinkawa. “Place your hands on your hips, then lean forward, feel your centre of gravity, and catch yourself.” He demonstrates it as a swift, stealthy trip – my own attempt is more of a drunken penguin, but maybe it’ll improve with practice. “Understand where your core is,” I’m urged. “With this style of movement you can move smoothly at any age or fitness. Efficient body movement is more important than anything else.”
We finish with some swordplay, albeit symbolic, as we practise the ninja hand gesture: hands clasped together, index and middle fingers extended, as if playing Cops and Robbers. “Your right hand is the katana, your left is its sheath,” explains Jinkawa. “Draw your katana, set your sheath to one side and make nine cuts in the air.” Each of the nine represent evil spirits – and there’s only one thing to do when a ninja encounters one. “Cut them with a ‘HEI!’ Then sheath your katana.” I cut, I cry out, and for the rest of the day I try to deepen my shallow breath; I feel the working of my core muscles; I am free from the evil spirits. If yoga’s not your mindfulness style, I think the ninja are onto something here.
Fuma Ninja Experience, JPY1,500 (about £10); discoverjapan.guide