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How To Lose 30 Pounds In 10 Days With Sensei’s Island Diet

How To Lose 30 Pounds In 10 Days With Sensei's Island Diet

I recently went on a bike ride through downtown Cambridge and Boston with my friend Rob who is what you'd call an "urban forager." Rob knows his local trees better than anyone I know. As we stopped to take breaks along our route, Rob was constantly pointing out city trees that produced local nuts, berries, fruits, and even coffee substitutes. Some of these trees had been planted by "guerrilla foragers," meaning savvy individuals who had taken it upon themselves to plant these trees in the cities as a source of food.

I couldn't help but think of the news I had read that morning about the war in Ukraine.

In the news piece, they discussed how residents were forced to cut down local trees in the cities to make cooking fires, and their food supply had been cut off with only a few days remaining.

It made me wonder— did they have local urban trees that they knew about that were sources of food?

Were there similar guerrilla foragers who had planted edible urban forests?

Were they forced to burn trees that supplied food?

I thought about how trees represent "survival" in some cultures, meaning that they can provide shelter, fire fuel, water (sap, rain-drip, and healthy groundwater), and food. It's no wonder that the proverbial Tree of Life is ubiquitous on many continents.

I also couldn't help but think about how here in North America, all major cities depend on transporting food from remote regions, and that major cities like New York and Los Angeles have only 4-7 days of food on the shelves to supply the population if transportation resources are cut off. This was a topic of a recent ninja blog.

But on this cold winter bike ride with Rob, my mind also wandered to the warmer climes where many people this time of year venture to escape the cold. When I thought of both survival food and warm tropical islands, the first thing that came to mind was the story that Dai Shihan Mark Roemke told me about the food on his island survival trip.

So, I'll let Sensei Roemke tell you the tale first hand...

A couple years ago I went on an island survival trip with Tom McElroy. This was a group survival trip to the island of  St. Croix. Before heading into the bush for our survival scenario, the instructors taught us local ways to make fire, how to identify edible plants, ways to make hunting tools, and how to construct a shelter using local materials. When we arrived at our location, the first thing that we did was focus on making our shelter because, if you have a shelter, you feel comfortable, which is key, especially with a group.

After we completed our preliminary training, we drove to a remote part of the island, then hiked several miles to our camp spot. Of the basic needs of survival: shelter, water, fire, and food, water was the one essential item that we brought with us to the site due to a lack of local fresh water.  It became very apparent early on that you need calories to have energy to simply walk around, to travel to the beach to gather food, to gather almonds, to crack almond nuts and process the seeds, and to gather sea parsley. It was really important to carefully choose the actions you would do each day because your mind doesn't work as well when you are extremely hungry. For example, if you think that you are just going to go hunt after a few days without food, you quickly learn that it is much harder than you think just to perform the basic physical motions.

By the end of the ten day trip I had lost over 30 pounds. I learned that every day when you wake up, the primary thing that you think about is this— where am I going to get food?

This thinking takes over everything else. All other concerns pale in comparison to finding food. It is key to know your local edible foods. It's paramount to know what plants are poisonous. Above all, you need to learn when and where to gather wild edibles and how to process them.


Back on my bike in Boston, I started thinking about sticks. When I lived in Hawaii, there was a local "pig dog" that was semi-feral that occasionally roamed the dirt road that crisscrossed the native forest on the way to my home outside of Volcano Village. When I rode my bike home, the hound often lay in wait and would chase me at full speed while snapping at my heels. As a kid I remembered my dad, who lived his whole life with one dog or another, telling me, "every dog knows what a stick means." By this, he meant that some were "fetchers" but other aggressive types knew that it wasn't a good idea to mess with someone wielding a big stick. He didn't mean that you should hit the animal, but instead, all you needed to do was to raise the stick above your head and the animal would back off.

With this in mind I picked up a large ohia tree branch as I biked home one day. Just like clockwork, as I rounded a corner by an old abandoned barn, here came the snarling pig dog. As he approached my heels I raised my large stick overhead and snarled back. What happened next was somewhat of a blur. In raising my stick quickly, I instantly disrupted my steering balance and went head-first over my handlebars. I remember watching the dog run away as the world turned upside down, followed by a crash into a nearby koa tree. I remember lying on my back, looking up at a slowly spinning front wheel. The dog's face looked down at me curiously, tail wagging. I threw the stick across the field and he ran off to fetch it. We were buddies after that day.

As I hobbled home that day, I thought about sticks. I had just returned from a wilderness survival course in New Jersey. On the last day at that course, I asked the instructor, "what would be the first thing you'd do in a survival situation?" Without hesitation he looked me squarely and said...

"Get a stick!"

He went on to describe all the many uses of a stick in the wilderness— from making shelter, to tools, to fire, and especially for getting food.

Which brings me to today's training video. In the video below, Sensei Roemke demonstrates two ways of using a "throwing stick." This might be a scenario for self defense, or for getting food, such as knocking those island almonds out of a tree.

If you are someone who works with kids, check out our Ninja Mentor Lesson Plans. We have a specific plan that details how to teach the throwing stick skill below to youth.




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Asking for Fire

Asking for fire

What are the essentials for "survival?" In our recent posts we covered shelter and water. Now for one of our Here's one of my favorite fire skill memories...

I'll never forget one of the most intense hours of my life.

“One hour to start the fire. The clock starts in three, two, one...go!” the instructor yelled to the 120 students.

Our group had ten students. Immediately, a frantic energy rippled across the landscape. The challenge for each group was to make a fire using only materials from the surrounding forest within one hour.  I felt the jittery nerves pulsing through my group, as the crowd quickly dispersed in random directions.

“Wait, I have some intel that will help us!” I called to our group, just as they began to scatter to the forest.

Everyone had ample forewarning of this challenge, a year to be precise. In the prerequisite workshop at the Tracker School the previous summer, we learned how to make fire by friction with a bow drill kit. I remember being the very last person to leave the camp at the end of the week. Most students had succeeded in making their fires by the end of the workshop. As hard as I tried all week with my kit, I couldn’t get it to produce a coal. As my spindle loudly screeched on my fire board as I struggled one last time to get a coal, I could hear the other participant cars driving away.

“Ken, time to pack it up. Gotta go.” The instructor stood over me, looked at his watch, then turned and walked away.

“Just one more try, please,” I begged.

In a billow of smoke, spindle squeals, and frustration, I quit. I was exhausted. I had burned eight holes already through my fire board, to no avail. I had busted blisters, bloody scraped knuckles, and rope burns. I was exhausted. I gave up. The instructor was right, time to go. As the cloud of smoke dissipated, I noticed something. There was a faint wisp that continued to drift quietly up from my tiny ash pile in the notch of my fire board! I blew gently on this. A red glow appeared from deep within the dark brown ashes.  My first coal! I put it into my tinder bundle that had patiently awaited a coal for days. I gave a few blows and it erupted in flame. When this happened during the training week, people cheered and gave high fives. I was all alone in my celebration. I just sat down and smiled as I watched the small bundle burn down to ashes.

Fast forward one year. I was living in Hawaii and preparing to return for the next class of survival skills training— the “advanced camp”. I had heard rumors about the “one-hour fire challenge” that happened at this next training. My friend, Tonnie, a fellow biologist I worked with on the island, attended this same training the year prior. Like most groups who had been given this one-hour challenge, her group had failed to get a fire within the time limit.

“Tonnie, got any tips?” I asked her. After the previous class of failing, or rather flailing to get a coal, I wanted an edge up on this next fire challenge. I had spent the entire year since my initial class, exploring the types of wood available in an island forest and practiced my bow drill skills intently every few days.

“Yes!” she immediately answered. “Ask for fire!”

“What?!” I didn't understand.

Ask for fire. Ask the forest to provide what you need. Invite the fire to come to your group. Envision the warmth before you even make the fire,” she said.

“How do we do that?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Whatever works for you or the people in your group. You'll figure it out,” she said.


As our group paused in the center of the  growing frenzy of the one-hour challenge, they slowly approached me.

“I have a really good tip for this one-hour fire challenge,” I explained. “We need to ask for fire.”

As our circle of ten came in close, I explained to them what Tonnie had told me. We collectively took a deep inhale and exhale, and sank into a quiet space as a group. Around us, the rest of the class madly scampered in all directions, diving into bushes, climbing trees, running away down trails. It appeared as if we were wasting valuable time. As the clock ticked away, we stood in silence. Then, one by one, we each asked for fire in our own unique way, either silently, or out loud. We envisioned the feeling of the warmth and glow of our tiny, yet to be seen flame.

As we finished our request, I had a flash of a stone in my mind’s eye.

“I’ll go for a stone to cut the fire board notch,” I said.

“I’ll go for the cordage,” someone else replied.

“We will go for the spindle,” another pair answered.

“Tinder bundle, we are on it!” a husband and wife said with raised hands.

“I'll go for the bow,” another said.

“We’ll get the handhold,” the last pair said.

A stone. Which directions should I go for a stone? I slowly turned a circle. As I rotated to the East, I felt pulled in this direction. I was a marathon runner at the time. I had jogged on the trails out from camp every morning. I was excited about this. I wanted to run. I took off immediately down the sandy trail heading out of camp.

I had learned a different kind of running at this camp. It was a silent form of running. Instead of launching your body with each step, crashing down on your heels with each pump of your legs, this was a gentle movement. In this technique, your feet lead, and you land on the ball of your feet. It’s an ancient form of running based on barefoot running. It was also a form of running where your head didn’t bounce up and down, but instead stayed level as you looked toward the horizon. Twenty years later, when I met Dai Shihan Mark Roemke, I learned a similar technique, called silent ninja running.

At the course, we also learned to use peripheral or “wide angle vision” in order to expand our visual awareness. We also learned techniques for quieting the chatter of our mind in order to sink into a place of mental stillness and awareness in nature.

I layered all of these techniques as I sank into a quiet jogging rhythm. My mind and body dissolved into a moving meditation. I don’t know how far or long I traveled. I wasn’t wearing a watch. I knew, however, that at one point I snapped out of my quiet mind, realizing that I was a long distance from the camp. Precious time was running out. Still, I had found no stone. This landscape was mostly a sandy terrain, remnants from an ancient ocean that had once covered the area. Thus, everywhere I looked, I only saw sand, or an occasional sandstone, which was too brittle for cutting wood. I panicked. Was I going to fail? Maybe I should just run back. I was on the verge of giving up when I passed  a small side trail.

The sensation I experienced when I passed this trail reminded me of  water skiing as a youth and being whipped around a corner as the boat turned and tugged on my rope. This little side trail tugged at me. Go this way, was the sensation, so I made a quick right turn. And there it was! A beautiful wedge shaped metamorphic stone  in the middle of the trail. I grabbed it, and shifted into high gear for a sprint back to camp.

“Five minutes left!” bellowed the instructor as I entered the large clearing of the main camp. The scene was much different upon my return. Groups huddled all around the forest clearing, with some students darting back and forth in desperate searches for materials. My group was in the center of it all, looking dejected. They had given up.

As I approached them I noticed that they had a perfect tinder bundle made of an abandoned bird nest. There was a beautiful bow with three feet of cordage tied to it laying next to the tinder bundle. Nearby was a piece of wood that someone found with a divot in the center for the spindle. The spindle lay on the ground by the fire board. I learned later that everyone in our group had similar serendipitous experiences to mine in finding their fire kit components.

Everyone slouched in silence. There were broken fragments of a stone on the ground which had crumbled in an attempt at making a notch with a soft stone in my absence. The fire board had a burned circle from the spindle with ash scattered around the burn mark. To get a coal with a bowdrill, you need a triangular notch carved in the board to catch the ash, which heats as it falls into the notch and turns to a coal. Without a proper notch, this attempt was doomed.

“Hey, look what I found!” I said, as I showed them the stone. Instantly the mood shifted. I gave my stone to a teammate, who began carving the notch.

“Four minutes left!”

Everyone in our group saw the problem developing. My stone was way to big. The wedge of the stone would create a gap in the wood far too large to hold the spindle. So close. At least we made a valiant effort.

The person carving the wood with my stone handed it back to me. "Dang! Sooo close!" she said, handing me the stone.

“Three minutes!”

Oh well, at least we tried,  I thought as I tossed the stone a few feet away. That’s when it happened. As the stone hit the ground, it landed on a rock that was buried just beneath the sand, splitting the wedge perfectly in half.

“Oh my god!” one of my teammates exclaimed, and raced over to grab the smaller stone. “Look at this! It's perfect!”.

She started carving the notch again. It made the precise wedge cut needed into the center of the fire board. We now had all of the components assembled for the fire kit.

“Who wants to give the bowdrill kit a try?” someone asked. We looked around the circle at each other.

“I’ve been practicing a lot this past year. I can try if no one else wants to,” said one member.

“Yes, go for it!” was the resounding response from the group.

He wrapped the spindle with the cordage, tucked the tinder under the fire board notch, placed the spindle on the fire board, and added the handhold on top. He started bowing quickly.

“Wait,” someone in our group said. “Remember to ask.”

We all paused in silence, and again felt our collective gratitude for fire.

“Two minutes left!!!!”

Our team member began pushing and pulling the bow back and forth. Smoke erupted from the base of the spindle. As a gray cloud rose from our fire board, something strange happened. I noticed a sound behind me. A quiet began to envelop our surroundings. I heard the soft patter of approaching feet all around us. Other groups, realizing that they were not going to succeed in getting fire, slowly put down their kits when they smelled our smoke. They followed their noses toward our group. When I looked up from the smoke of our fire board, a hundred people surrounded our team as we crouched around our fire-maker.

“One minute!!!”

Our fire-maker stopped bowing. There was a collective gasp from the crowd when they saw a small red coal in the notch of the fire board.

He carefully removed the fire board, picked up tinder bundle, and began to blow.

“Thirty seconds!!”

He held the tinder bundle slightly skyward so that the gentle breeze blowing through the forest could help coax the coal to flame. He continued blowing.

“Ten, nine,...”

I’ll never forget the next moment. As the tinder bundle burst into flame, all one hundred plus participants and instructors burst into a triumphant cheer. People all around were jumping up and down, high-fiving, shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!!” Some of our group members were crying. The beauty of the collective celebration of that moment is something I will never forget. I felt I had been transported thousands of years back, to when someone in my ancestry made fire for the group in a moment of need. It wasn't a celebration for a team's victory, but a celebration of nature providing fire, as it has gifted us for so long.

If you'd like to learn how to make a bow drill fire kit, check out the tutorial video below. One of the most valuable things I have learned from making many bowdrill fire kits over the years is the connection they create to the landscape around me. It's a great opportunity to explore the forests, to learn the trees, grasses, stones, birds, and much, much more. If you have kids, making a bow drill fire with them is nothing short of magical. And, when you feel ready for a ninja challenge, get your stopwatch out, put away your knives, grab some friends, and set the timer to one hour. Oh...and don't forget to ask.

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The Roots of Water and Ninja Treasure Trash

Next time you hop aboard a commercial flight to space, take a look back down. You'll see that 70% of our blue planet is covered in water.

Feels good right? Knowing that our bodies consist of approximately 60% water, and that we need 2-3 quarts of fresh water each day to stay alive.

But here's the challenge with this.

Of all the water on Earth, only 3 percent is fresh water. Of all this fresh water, only 1.2 percent of it can be used for drinking. The rest is far out of reach, being deep underground, in glaciers, or in permafrost.

So when you are looking out the spaceship window, less than .025% of what's down there can make it into your astronaut aqua-pack that is attached to the straw in your space helmet. Back on Earth, if you are lost in the wilderness, the deck is already stacked against you.

In the previous blog, we discussed one of the first priorities for survival— shelter. Let's dive into water for a moment.

It's easy to take fresh drinking water for granted, being so readily available for about 75% of the planet. Still that leaves over 2 billion people who lack access to potable water every day. How tenuous is our access to this fresh water?

There's a couple ways to look at scenarios that could suddenly cut off our access to water. Survival skills courses often have one consider a situation of being "lost" in the wilderness, and needing to find fresh water to drink. While this happens to a relatively small handful of individuals annually, a more common experience that impacts many people, is that of a natural disaster suddenly shutting off the supply of fresh water. These types of disruptions are happening more frequently, and the topic of something we discussed in a recent blog.

In either type of situation, be it a James Bond scenario where you parachuted out of a burning plane into the wilderness or a sharknado suddenly ripping up all the infrastructure in your town (as well as eating the local water utility worker), there's a helpful ninja perspective to remember...


To illustrate this idea, let's go to my favorite layover on the way to Japan from North America...Hawaii. We'll also need to transport via the wayback machine and time travel to pre-European contact times.

When I was a biologist in the upper slopes of the volcanoes of Hawaii, I explored  a section of the forest on Mauna Loa. My task was to try to find the critically endangered 'Alala, otherwise known as the Hawaiian Crow. Not an easy task. There were less than a dozen birds spread out over 5000 tangled acres.

Many days were spent wandering the forest and listening intently for the distant call of the remaining handful of birds. On one particular day, I was wandering through the forest, when I stumbled across a giant hole in the ground, approximately one hundred feet in diameter and twenty feet deep. This was a collapsed section of an underground lava tube, or "skylight." Typically endangered plants could be found in these holes, because the non-native pigs and feral cows could not get into the holes to eat the rare plants. There often were other surprises to be found in the bottoms of these depressions.

I scrambled down into the bottom of the lava tube skylight by climbing down a small tree that was growing on the inside edge of the collapse. These lava tubes are often long, underground tunnels, sometimes miles long, that formed when hot, fast flowing lava cooled quickly on the top surface. Like a giant plumbing system, once the surface cooled, underground, the lava would continue to flow in these giant cave-like pipe systems all the way to the ocean. Once the flow of lava ceased, the tubes would drain out, leaving a long, empty, underground tunnel. Eventually the ceilings of these tubes would collapse in spots, creating a "skylight" to expose the tube below. Usually, you could find the existing underground lava tube entrances on either side of these collapsed sections.

As I reached the bottom of this skylight, I found an entrance to the lava tube on either end of the large hole. The surprise that you often find just inside these entrances, are very unique bones. Before humans arrived on the islands, Hawaii was home to an array of flightless birds. Some, like rails, were relatively small, while others, such as a giant flightless duck, were over four feet tall. For some of these birds, they unfortunately would fall down into these large holes. Without the ability to fly out, they eventually died. Inside the entrances on either end I found piles of such bones. Some of these bones could be thousands of years old. Having spied some, I called for reinforcement.

A few weeks later, a pair of lava tube paleobiologists ,who specialized in these extinct bird species, arrived. Since this lava tube was not on any maps, they were eager to explore the site. I led them back to the entrance. As I showed them the piles of bones, they picked them up carefully and quickly identified them.

"Flightless rail, over here!" or "Giant duck, over there!" they shouted from inside the tube.

But there was more...

As we wandered into the tube further, they found something in the beam of their headlamps, and called me over to look. On a small shelf on the side of the tube were small black papery piles. "What's that?" I asked.

"Those are probably old carbon fragments from an ancient Hawaiian torch. Someone was probably living in this lava tube. They were likely collecting water from the roots coming out of the ceiling up there. They would put gourds below the roots to catch water," one of them said, pointing to the ceiling of the lava tube where the roots of ohia and koa trees dangled down. Small drips of water were slowly dripping off the ends of the roots. I held my hand out and caught one on the tips of my fingers.

Before the arrival of Captain Cook to the islands, most of the native Hawaiians lived close to the shore. Relatively few Hawaiians traveled into the "mauka" or higher elevation forests up the sides of the volcanoes except for unique plant gathering, koa or other native tree harvesting for things such as canoes, or perhaps to collect bird feathers for the capes and regalia of the ali'i or Hawaiian royalty. As I wandered the forest, I often wondered how people long ago found fresh water to drink.

Our camp in the forest was rigged with all sorts of tarps to catch fresh rain water, which we mostly used for outdoor showers or cooking. Non-native rats, which often cruised the forest canopy, carry diseases such as leptospirosis, which can get into catchment water. But hundreds of years ago, there weren't many blue polyethylene tarps to rig up in the forest like we had in our camp. The other challenge at this area of the mountain was that there was practically no running water. There are no creeks, springs, or rivers because the ground is predominantly porous lava rock. Even though we received over 100 inches of rain every year, most of it sank quickly into the lava and disappeared.

Seeing the ancient torch fragments and learning about this practice of gathering fresh water was a classic "aha!" moment for me. More than that, it was a realization of humans adapting to the landscape. I can imagine the first person who was really thirsty, happened to be carrying an empty gourd water container, and stumbled into a collapsed lava tube. I imagine them looking up to the ceiling, to the dripping ohia roots and thinking..."aha!"

So, what's our modern "aha" moment that would serve us in a time of need for fresh water?

One of my favorite ways to adapt to a water situation is remembering the old saying— "one person's trash is another's treasure." Literally, I mean trash. But, you need a fire too. That's another skill that we have covered previously. Combine the two and you can purify water.

It involves a paper cup, or an empty glass bottle. Unfortunately (fortunately) there are plenty out there to be found in nature. I remember being mesmerized as a youth on a scout camping trip when first shown this technique. Still am. You can place a paper cup full of water on a bed of coals in a fire. The cup won't burn, and eventually the water will boil. Technically speaking, water needs to reach 158° F (70°C) for one minute to kill 99.999% of bacteria, protozoa, and viruses. Since water boils* at 212°F (100°C), this means that by the time water has reached the boiling point, it is safe to drink.

There's many other ways to purify water, or to collect potable water. It's important to know that most streams, lakes, and ponds need to have the water purified before you drink it. don't want it.

Below is a short video showing one way to boil water with a paper cup on hot coals. You can do this also in a glass bottle, but here's a couple tips I learned the hard way...

  • some paper cups have weak glue that melts at the seams, causing the cup to fall apart
  • some newer brands of glass bottles are made with really thin glass that breaks under heat exposure. Old school, thick, glass bottles work better

You'll have to do your own experimenting. I'm still mesmerized watching water boil in a paper cup. Twists my brain a bit, but then again so does ninjutsu.

For you ninja guardians out there, this is a GREAT one to do with youth. They will remember it the rest of their life. I have so far. You never know. It could even save their life one day.

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Shelter is at the core of what gives us a sense of safety, security, confidence, and protection. It is central to the mindset of perseverance, which is one translation of the Japanese term "nin", as in ninja. Imagine if you will a disruptive scenario...

Picture an extreme weather event that suddenly sweeps through your home area. Let's say a hurricane or flood (or both) destroys your home. Beyond surviving the immediate event, a common reaction is the extreme emotional disruption caused by loss of a home. I'm sure you've seen this so many times in the news in recent years.

"We lost everything!" the voices say through tears on the news.

This scene unfortunately is playing out more and more each year with the changes occurring in our climate. It's a subject we covered in a recent blog, where we also discussed the value of the art of the ninja in dealing with this uncertain future.

But if you could put yourselves in these shoes, and imagine how you could prepare, adapt, and react, what would you do? As a former college athlete, our coach would routinely have us envision each race start to finish, so that when we actually competed, we had already been there. We had already achieved success in our minds. In Sensei Roemke's zoom classes, I often find myself training alone, having to imagine an invisible attacker. I find this often more valuable than training with a real partner as it develops my envisioning muscle. As a musician, I used to practice scales and songs with my hands invisibly on my desk in grade school algebra class.

My point is that practicing skills physically and mentally is key to developing the mindset when the skills are really needed.

In the survival skills teaching circles, some refer to a "sacred order" of survival skills: shelter, water, fire, food.

There's lots of debate though about what is the first thing you should approach. Typically the landscape dictates which should come first. For example, if the temperature is sub-zero with a windchill, you might need to focus on fire. If you were lost in a desert environment, you likely would want to focus on water as a top priority. We interviewed survival skills specialist Tom McElroy for a ninja blog. I like his approach in one of his training videos where he sets up a water drip catchment system (from wild grape vines!) and then sets to work on a debris shelter. By time the shelter is done, he's thirsty. And guess what...there's a full bark container of fresh water waiting.

My personal preference for the "sacred order" starts with attitude, or perseverance. In general though, the idea of shelter-first is often a worthy consideration. The thinking behind this is that you can survive for days to weeks without food. You can survive a handful of days without water (depending on the climate and landscape), but you can die of exposure within hours without adequate shelter.

I remember learning this lesson many years ago when living in Hawaii. I was surfing at a river mouth north of Hilo on the Big Island. There had been a recent storm and lots of cold fresh water was rushing into the small bay where I waited for waves. Within a very short time my whole body was shaking and my fingernails were purple. I kept thinking, "How is this possible? I'm in Hawaii?!" When I tried to unlock my truck later, my hands were shaking so hard that I had a very difficult time getting the key in the slot. As I warmed up with the heater cranking in the front of the truck, I thought about how fast my body can lose heat, even in Hawaii.

Learning to make a debris shelter changed my perspective on how to connect to a landscape, and what I truly needed to survive and be happy. I first learned this skill at a Tom Brown Tracker School course in California. We didn't actually build shelters at the course, but were instructed in the basic technique. The mission was to return to our home turf and try building one. If we returned for the follow-up course, then we would build and sleep in our shelters for an entire week.

I returned to Hawaii. The location where I opted to try this skill was a friend's property in a native koa forest at an elevation of 4500' on the side of Mauna Loa.It is a wet place. I mean, really wet. It gets over 150 inches of rain some years. I knew it would be a challenge to stay dry and warm (the temperature dipped into the 40's at night).

Despite lots of lush vegetation, the Hawaiian upper elevation wet forest did not provide the most ideal material in the form of debris on the ground. Plant material quickly decomposes under such wet conditions. I remember making an extremely leaky, damp, cold shelter that just wasn't going to work for the night.

I ended up sleeping under a tarp.

I was hungry too because my attempts to find wild edibles were dismal. There are few native plants at that elevation that are sufficient for the human digestive system. I remember falling asleep, hungry, under my tarp wondering how the native Hawaiians made shelter at these elevations in the past. My answer would come a few years later. But that's another story about water and shelter. I'll save that one for later.

I returned to the Pine Barrens of New Jersey the following year, excited to build a debris shelter at the follow-up survival training course at the Tracker School. It was October and there were dry leaves everywhere! I worked on my shelter for 2-3 days in between lectures and other skills workshops. By time I was done, I had a giant mound of leaves and sticks about five feet high. I had made a door to keep the wind and rain out. I had even woven a reed mat as a sleeping pad. Thinking that the sound of the dawn chorus of birds would wake me, which usually happened in my tent, I went to sleep the first night without setting an alarm. My shelter was so soundproof that the next morning when I crawled out, I realized that I had not only missed breakfast, but the first lecture.

On the third night a huge storm hit. I could faintly detect the sound of thunder from inside my shelter. There was a torrential downpour as well, yet I stayed dry and warm. I didn't need a sleeping bag because of the warmth of all of the leaves.

On the fifth night I decided to sleep in my adjacent tent for comparison. The tent flapped all night long. I remember looking at the thin nylon walls, seeing my breath, and feeling so cold in my sleeping bag. I returned to my debris shelter for the rest of the week and slept happily.

Sleeping in that debris shelter changed the way I viewed my camping relation to the outdoors. I felt the confidence that I didn't need a sleeping bag or tent, and if needed, I could make a comfortable shelter with just the materials from the forest around me. But most important for me was the deep sense of connection and gratitude– the feeling that the Earth provided me everything I needed for shelter.

Not only was it a really fun, engaging activity of building this structure alone in the forest, but it instilled a deep sense of confidence within me that I liken to the positive attitude that martial arts training teaches. The feeling being– that if the proverbial dooky of doom really hit the fan, and I found myself in a desperate situation without shelter, I knew that I could at a bare minimum build a shelter from the landscape, and be engaged in doing so as a challenge instead of succumbing to panic.

Unless I was at 4500' on Mauna Loa. Then, I'd need another technique. But I digress again...

Since then, I have taught this skill countless times to youth and adults. It's amazing to watch kids build shelters. Go into any forest that abuts a neighborhood and you are likely to encounter piles of ramshackle sticks leaning against trees, a result of local kid's innate drive to build shelters in the forest. There's something deeply embedded within us that resonates with this skill.

At a Wilderness First Responder course, I remember an instructor discussing the idea that a lost child has a better chance of survival than an adult because most young kids have an instinct to seek shelter under bushes or leaves, whereas many adults panic and die of exposure.

One of our favorite ways to introduce the basics of making a debris shelter is to create a "head shelter." This is a small scale version that incorporates all the essential components of a debris shelter: ridge pole, ribs, lattice, and debris. It's basically big enough to stick your head into.

But, to make it a little more challenging, we throw in the "water test." What?!

The goal is to make a head shelter with enough debris that when a full water bottle is poured over the top, that the person's head inside the shelter stays dry. Or, if you are really brave...go for a gallon jug of water.

Once this shelter is learned, it's simply a matter of scaling up the size to fit an entire body.

This is a great one to do with a pack of ninja kids in the backyard. They especially enjoy pouring the water over the adult shelters.

We also talk about disappearing the shelters when done using them, to return the landscape to its prior condition. A good, sneaky ninja leaves no trace. But sometimes we have used these shelters to stash our dry fire wood on the periphery of our "ninja camps."

Below is a tutorial video showing one way to make the head shelters.

Because we are ninjas, we of course go hiking in the forest and use our hand-made hanbos for the ridge pole. Ninja secret– a full length rokushaku bo makes and awesome full size ridge pole for a debris shelter. But, if you find yourself in the forest without your hanbo or rokushaku bo, a tree branch will work.

Good luck with your head shelter!


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Ninja Rainbow Unicorns of the Apocalypse

Brace yourself ninjas. I'm about to bum you out. But if you stick with me, there's rainbow unicorns at the end. I promise.

Chi, sui, ka, fu, and ku. These form the foundation for the San Shin or Gokui kata forms that Dai Shihan Mark Roemke teaches during his NTTV Live classes. These represent the elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Void. We also use these elements as the thematic modules for our NiN or Ninjas in Nature training.

There is a another lens to view these elements as we humans collectively head into an uncertain planetary future with the growing disruptions of the climate.

Chi- the Earth, or the ground beneath our feet in many places, is drying due to drought, deforestation and desertification. It is also eroding at alarming rates due to industrial agriculture.

Sui- the waters are rising in the ocean as the glaciers melt, and the rains fall with unseasonable force and frequency.

Ka- wildfires are becoming more frequent, intense, and devastating. I write this after a recent unseasonably late December wildfire tore through the Boulder, Colorado area.

Fu- the winds from hurricanes and tornadoes are occurring more frequently, with higher intensity, and longer seasonal duration.

But what of ku, the void? The mystery of the unknown is what lies before us all with our collective future on this planet.

But I don't mean to fill you with doom and gloom in describing this. I don't have to. There's plenty of others doing this for me. Sadly, the news is saturated daily with stories of the above elements gone haywire. It's hard for me to personally keep track of all the climate related disasters in this past year. But this is old news.

Doom and gloom. I know. But hang in there ninjas. I hear the hooves of unicorns approaching...

I've been closely following the climate science for decades, since my work in the wildlife conservation field began over thirty years ago. I worked with critically endangered birds in Hawaii for many years. Hawaii was and unfortunately still is considered "the endangered species capital of the United States." We are in the midst of what is now considered the 6th great mass extinction event in the history of our planet. The last mass extinction event occurred at the end of the cretaceous period when a meteor took out the dinosaurs, and we all know how that turned out. For decades scientists have been raising red flags regarding the effects of climate change. While strides have been made in developing some green technologies, and some conservation efforts have succeeded, the unfortunate truth is that trends continue, and the intensity of the elements continues to amplify.

More recently, there is a new lexicon that has entered the climate change discussion from scientists, policy makers, and the public at large. These discussions include terms such as "tipping point," "the end of growth," "overreach," "collapsology," and even "the extinction of the human species." Many believe we have already passed the tipping point at which we can no longer hold back the devastation and disruption with increasing climate change. This discussion is supported by the fact that increasing average global temperature is no longer a linear progression with CO2 in the atmosphere. In other words, even if we could reverse, or remove the additional CO2 that began increasing with the industrial revolution, the climate would still continue to warm. This non-linear increase is due to things such as reduced solar reflection by snow in the polar regions, increased methane from melting permafrost in the arctic, subsurface oceanic methane release, and changes in the oceanic conveyor belt, to mention a few. There is a very real possibility that we have set things in motion that cannot be stopped at this point.

We are also on course for the end of growth, meaning when the growth of civilization collides with the end of finite resources, in other words the "collapse of civilization." This is predicted to occur around 2040. Interestingly, this is almost the exact time at which human fertility is predicted to reach zero, due to the presence of toxic chemicals to which we are all exposed. We will more or less cease to be able to reproduce as a species by this date. Recent studies are also showing that climate change is effecting the health of fetuses, babies and and infants globally while increased fossil fuel burning is lowering women's fertility. Not far behind this timeline is soil depletion by modern agricultural techniques. The UN estimates that all viable topsoil for farming will be depleted in 53 years if no changes are made in practices. Or looking at it another way, we have only 53 annual harvests remaining.

Have I totally bummed you out yet? Don't forget..rainbow unicorns.

A 2018 article  published by Jem Bendell entitled "Deep Adaptation: a map for navigating climate tragedy," quickly became a global phenomenon, with millions of downloads. It went viral. It sparked a new global movement and a subsequent book that was recently published. The idea behind deep adaptation states that while we need to continue to do everything we can to mitigate the effects of climate change, we need to prepare economically, culturally, socially, and psychologically for collapse. Further, while no one knows exactly what collapse will look like, we need to begin having these important discussions now, even as we are seeing increasing disruptions, so that we minimize the ultimate effects of the change that is coming during our lifetimes.

How prepared are we currently for an economic and ecological societal collapse? More than 95% of the food coming into the major cities in our country arrives by long-distance trucking. If this ceased, it is estimated that New York would have a four day supply of food. Los Angeles would have three days of food. In 1880, 50% of Americans were farmers. Today, that number is less than 2%. In 1945, Americans grew 40% of their food in backyard gardens. That number is now less than 0.1%. This is homeland insecurity. I wonder how many Americans today can identify a single wild edible plant? How many know the ubiquitous edible "weeds" in their yards, that they kill with glyphosate herbicides at the cost to their own fertility and health? As I look out my kitchen window during the winter, I ask myself— how can I expand and grow more? What new wild edibles can I learn and find in the nearby forests?

These realizations, however, have given me an awakened perspective on the value and role of the art of the ninja when faced with the possibility of collapse. If you examine historical examples of societal collapse, wars or social unrest typically precede or follow the downfall of civilizations. While actually having to defend yourself or others when faced with unrest might be a real matter worthy of discussion, there is a deeper value that I find in the art. The essence of perseverance, or the meaning of "nin," is at the heart of what motivates me daily when I wake. What am I going to do today, to take a necessary step towards adapting to the unknown that lies on the horizon? I have been teaching survival skills for years. Beyond shelter, water, fire, and food, we teach that attitude is the most important survival skill. If you give up, and admit defeat in the face of doom, then you most likely will fail. Remembering to embody the spirit of "nin" is thus essential to survival.

I have also realized that a valuable skill of the art of ninjutsu is being able to adapt to any situation. When training with Sensei Roemke, he is always throwing challenges at us that are outside the box, that cause us to think differently and adapt. I remember during one of my first classes, after I was feeling confident with all my forward, backwards, and sideways rolls, he suddenly threw a curve ball at us. He took every weapon off of the wall and scattered them all over the floor. Rokushaku bos, hanbos, bokken, kyoketsu shoges and more covered the majority of the mat. "Okay, everyone, zenpo kaiten naname, forward rolls, over the mat! Ready go!"  I'll never forget that lesson. I had to adapt the basics to an unexpected, seemingly impossible challenge.

I posed this question to Dai Shihan Mark Roemke regarding this topic: How does the art of the ninja relate to an uncertain future of disruption on our planet? Here is his response.

"The meaning of perseverance is to adapt or overcome. In our uncertain present and future, people need to learn to adapt. One way to persevere is to find a positive inner mindset. One of the key lessons that I have learned from Hatsumi Sensei, is to have a positive mental attitude. I have also learned this from my military and survival skills training. Your mind is so much stronger than your body. Your body will try to quit before your mind does. If you have fortitude, strong will, and perseverance, then you can adapt to any situation. Perseverance means to adapt in many ways— physically, mentally, and spiritually. This is a skill that modern ninjas have, that many people in our world lack. Most people will just give up in a challenging situation. The mindset of the ninja is to keep moving forward and thriving."

Beyond my garden, I think about my own kids and the youth I have encountered with the programs I teach. I realize that to simply hope that our governments and corporations can figure out a solution to climate change while continuing "business as usual" is not only foolish, but does an extreme disservice to the youth of today and the future generations. If I make it to 2045, I'll be firmly in my elder years. My kids, grandkids, or great grandkids (if there are still enough viable sperm and eggs by then) will be the ones facing the brunt of this trajectory. There's a song that I love that has the words that speak to this:

"The Earth is not given to us by our parents. It is loaned to us by our children's children." - Wookiefoot

These recent reports and projections were a real wake up call for me. I used to believe that even though I was trying to do what I could in this lifetime to make a positive change regarding the health of the planet, that the ultimate disruptions were far off on the horizon. There was still plenty of time. I no longer think that way, and I also realize that this ignorance is a form of denial.

I also have a new perspective on the large volume of skills that we have put together for youth with our Ninjas in Nature program. I used to view them primarily as a means to help someone connect deeply to nature, while building powerful self sufficiency, awareness, and self confidence through the martial arts skills. Connect someone deeply to nature, and they will want to save it was once the standard mantra. The end result was a truly happy and whole being, with a desire to preserve nature, and still is. Unfortunately, the pragmatist and former Boys Scout in me remembers the old motto: "be prepared." How to prepare for an uncertain future, with no template from history to go by, is at the core of this challenge for me.

But now I see these skills as essential tools for adapting to the unknown change and disruptions to be faced by the inhabitants of our planet. It's not just the confidence of knowing how to find and process acorns as a vital protein source should the shipping trucks cease to show up, or how to make a fire by friction if the electricity goes down. It's about how to tap into the spirit of perseverance.

I've learned a lot by watching how youth in our nature program learn to adapt to challenges that nature throws unexpectedly at them. When they have been stung multiple times by an angry horde of wasps, and know how to find the nearby plantain remedy; when they have been covered head to toe in mud camouflage while crawling on their belly for hours in a forest at night; when they have found the glowing ember under their spindle with blistered, cold hands in a snowstorm when they needed a fire— in those moments I have witnessed something. I have seen that they knew discomfort and the unknown intimately. They knew failure. They knew perseverance. But above all, they knew the joy of what it meant to be truly alive and grateful for each day, and to be present in a moment in time. This mindset is the gift we can strive to pass on to our kids and future generations as we head into one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced. Moreover, they are the skills that our ancestors depended upon and passed down to us. To me, passing down these important martial arts and survival skills are the essence of "nin" or being a ninja.

But I promised rainbow unicorns...

Over 98% of all life that has ever lived on this planet has gone extinct. Think about that. The deck was stacked against us as a species long before we ever appeared on this planet. There have been five major extinction events in the history of planet Earth, and we likely are driving the current extinction bus blindly towards the precipice of the sixth. Still, after every major extinction event, something more beautiful evolved in the aftermath. Dinosaurs and ferns were pretty cool, but the mammals and flowering plants that followed were much more beautiful. I know. I'm a biased mammal. Still, I think the photographers and landscape artists are on my side. While this may sound like a nihilistic doomsday perspective, I find solace in stepping back to look at the wide angle vision, long view of our human time on Earth, and our collective connection to the mystery that holds this tapestry together. There is a beauty to this mystery that we are part of. One definition that I heard recently for "love" is a state of consciousness that is an awareness of beauty. I love the mystery.

Even with the long view odds stacked against us, and the short term prospects appearing a bit daunting for our survival, I'm an optimist. There's an opportunity here. Our old operating system of resource extraction for a distraction economy to produce giant piles of things in landfills that, in the end, have little meaning or value, has run its course. We have an opportunity to change the way we operate externally as humans who have been given the responsibility of stewarding this planet. But we also have an inner opportunity. We have an opportunity to evolve the way we think, act, and focus our internal and external energies as beings on this planet.

Chi, sui, ka, fu, ku. These energetic elements are within each of us. If we can bring these inner elements into alignment, our outer world, and all of its elements that are showing signs of dis-ease, just might find alignment. And if we don't pull this one off? Well...humans are beautiful. But you know, rainbow unicorns just might evolve after this sixth wave passes. And we all know...they're pretty awesome.

Check out the video below where Dai Shihan Mark Roemke demonstrates a technique to practice the elemental forms of Chi, Sui, Ka, Fu, and Ku from the San Shin or Gokui no Kata.

San Shin No Kata

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What does chi mean to a ninja?

What Does Chi Mean to a Ninja?

By Dai Shihan Mark Roemke

One meaning for chi in Japanese is “Earth.” There are a lot of ways to examine the meaning of this word, be it for martial arts, meditation, or just looking at the Earth beneath your feet. One of the ways for martial artist to examine chi is to focus on grounding. When people start martial arts, people are usually in their heads thinking about everything. They need to sink down with their physical body, bending their knees, and “dropping in” as we say. But they also often need to ground in their mental, energetic and spiritual body.

How does this relate to Chi? It is important to learn how to become centered. If you are affected by someone yelling at you, calling you names, or pushing you off balance, then you are not centered. It is important to learn how to center yourself through training. One of the ways you can learn how to do this is to think of yourself as grounded to the Earth. Bending your knees and dropping your energy into your center will help to ground you. Then you will be part of the Earth element, the chi element.

As students progress over the years through the martial arts, you can see them drop from being in their head, down into their shoulders, their waist, their knees, and eventually the ankles and feet. When this happens, you have a complete being who is very solid in their own stature, feeling, and energy. We call this person a grounded martial artist.

In meditation, there is another way that you can view chi or the Earth element. If I am sitting in a meditation retreat and I want to be grounded to the Earth, I might think about tree roots growing out of the bottom of my feet, dropping down into the Earth. However, if I did this as a martial artist, I wouldn’t be able to move very fast because I would be so grounded that my feet would feel like they were locked in place. I might get hit by something swinging at me. But in meditation, you aren’t worried about this. You are in a safe space and you have time to shift your awareness internally to “drop in.” If you drop your energetic tree roots into the ground, you can feel your connection to the ground that we stand on every day.

The physical part of grounding leads to the mind, which leads to the spirit. The way to tap into this is called “Earthing.” This involves taking off your shoes and sinking your feet into the ground beneath you. I recommend hiking in nature without your shoes on. This can be a little challenging at first if your feet are tender, but you can find a grassy field to try to experience this feeling.

Over the years in my travels, I have loved to take my shoes off and feel what the place feels like with my bare feet, dropping my energy down through my feet into the Earth. Connecting to the Earth through your feet in nature is an amazing feeling.

For me, places like Hawaii feel very empty and light because the islands were just made recently. If I go to an older part of the world that has been around for a long time, you can feel the density beneath you. If you stand on concrete or metal and put your awareness beneath you, it has a whole different feeling.

These are a few ways that I like to think of Chi and relating to the Earth.

One of my favorite ways to tap into the energy of the Earth and to become grounded is to practice the 1 thru 10 meditation. Check out the video below where I lead you through this meditation that will connect you deeply to your personal source of chi.

1 thru 10 meditation

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The Spirit Behind Calligraphy

The Spirit Behind Calligraphy

In our last blog, Dai Shihan Mark Roemke discussed his perspective on observing the Grandmaster of ninjutsu, Hatsumi Sensei, create calligraphy during his classes in Japan as gifts to his students. We wanted to seek out someone with an inside perspective on the art of Japanese calligraphy who also understands the practice of ninjutsu. Megumi Whittle is one of those unique individuals.

Born and raised in Osaka, Japan, Megumi came to the United States to study English literature and poetry. After learning the rhythms and rhymes of English poetry, she rediscovered her roots in Japanese language and culture.

Since 2002, she has been studying Japanese calligraphy and ink painting under Horino Seisen in Atlanta, Georgia.  She is a certified calligraphy instructor and a member of Shihan Kai under Horino Shodo School in Tokyo, Japan, and has achieved the level of Sandan.

Megumi Whittle describes herself with one word— passion. Her personal mission is to "...share the joy that empowers us to become better selves."

Her method for this?

Being a teacher and student.

She teaches classes that include Japanese language, cultural immersion, calligraphy, and origami. She is the first Japanese female to be certified under the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Instructor Certification Program. She is also currently an advanced student of Bujinkan ninjutsu with Pathways Dojo. Pathways Dojo is fortunate to have Megumi Sensei as a Japanese cultural arts and calligraphy instructor. We recently found a window in her busy teaching and learning schedule to ask her about the value of calligraphy to the modern martial artist.

Pathways: Why did you decide to study calligraphy?

Megumi: All Japanese students learn calligraphy in schools. I also took after school calligraphy classes growing up during my elementary school years.  After I left Japan to study in the United States, I started to look back at my heritage. Calligraphy came to my mind as one of the Japanese cultural arts to study. I met my master in Atlanta and started learning as her pupil in 2002.

Pathways: How do you view the relationship between martial arts and calligraphy?

Megumi: I think that both are essential— they go side by side, and they are parts of a whole. There is an idiom called 文武両道 (Bunbu Ryōdō). Hatsumi Sensei mentions this in one of his books. He says, “ follow both roads of scholarship and war. Do not become too absorbed by only one of them.” This idiom is widely used in many schools and dojos as a motto to commit to both scholarship and sports/martial arts. Also, it is used as a phrase that means to be good at both literature and sports. Historically, both 文 and 武 were the expected expertise for leaders. 文 may include calligraphy, arts, tea, poems etc. Having both qualities were equally valued.


Pathways: How has becoming a teacher of martial arts and calligraphy influenced your personal training in these arts?

Megumi: To teach comes with great responsibilities. I strive to be dedicated and passionate about learning what I am teaching.

Pathways: Do you have a favorite calligraphy that pertains to ninjutsu?

Megumi: Many come to my mind. If I have to choose one, it would be 心 技 体.

This phrase is widely used by many artists and martial artists. In his book, Hatsumi Sensei says, “I am teaching shin-gi-tai-ichi— the bringing together of the spirit (shin), technique (gi), and body (tai) into one (ichi)." Having the right heart, the right techniques, and the right body is what we are trying to attain in our journey. We should be responsible for making them healthy and sharpened at all times. That’s why there is no end to our learning— we are always evolving and moving forward. The heart/spirit is the first one mentioned because it’s the most important. It reminds us that we should always ask ourselves if our heart is in the right place.

Pathways: What is one of your favorite teachings of calligraphy and ninjitsu?

Megumi: What I’ve come to find out from my teachers and masters in calligraphy, jiu-jitsu, and ninjutsu is that it all comes down to one teaching: to grow as a human being and be a better version of ourselves.

Masters of each art that I have studied taught me that calligraphy is life; jiu-jitsu is life; ninjitsu is life.

We study these arts not only to advance in our techniques but to recognize, extract and absorb the principles of the arts and apply them to our everyday life. With these principles in different art forms, I hope I am contributing to make a positive impact.

Pathways: How does calligraphy influence your martial arts and vice versa?

Megumi: The more I study both arts, the more I see the similarities and connections. They compliment each other and help me view things from different perspectives. I love learning about classical literature, history, and nature. Ninjutsu and calligraphy both emphasize these areas. I am having so much fun learning both of these disciplines.


Pathways: For someone new to the art of calligraphy, what do you recommend for a starting point for training in this art?

Megumi: A great way to begin is to practice lines. You can use any writing materials you have such as pencils, pens, fountain pens, brush, fingers, etc... Practice drawing straight lines (vertical and horizontal) and spinning lines, paying attention to the breathing, spacing, pressure, and movement. This is one of the important basic conditioning exercises calligraphers do.

Pathways: Anything else we should know about calligraphy or something you would like to share with us?

Megumi: I really appreciate this opportunity to take a moment and think about things I enjoy and care about. I value the joy of sharing my passions with the Pathways Dojo community. I look forward to meeting your readers in the future online or in person to “play!” as Hatsumi Sensei would say.

If you would like to learn more about Megumi, and how to participate in classes that she teaches, you can visit her website, blog, Facebook or Instagram page.


Check out the calligraphy lesson from Megumi below where she teaches the technique to write the kanji "shin" which means heart/spirit as she describes above.

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Ninja Calligraphy

By Dai Shihan Mark Roemke

In our last blog, we interviewed Sheila Haddad, who not only is an amazing martial artist, but also a highly talented photographer. The Grandmaster of of ninjtusu, Masaaki Hatsumi, is another example of a martial artist who expresses themself through creative arts.

One of my favorite parts about going to Japan has been watching Hatsumi Sensei, do his calligraphy. He typically does this at break time during one of his Bujinkan classes. His calligraphy is not only an expression of his art with a brush, but also an expression of his martial art.

For those who haven't been to the hombu dojo (headquarters) in Nodashi, Japan, whenever Hatsumi teaches, about half way through the class, he will take a break. When this happens, students form a big line in the dojo, each holding a blank scroll or piece of blank calligraphy paper. An instructor then brings out paints, brushes and ink. Hatsumi Sensei will then do individual calligraphy or paintings for everyone waiting in line. Even better, he usually takes requests for his art.

As you hand your paper to him, a translator will ask, "What would you like him to paint?"

One of the things I observed when Soke painted was this—when a person asked him to paint a specific thing, or when they handed him their blank paper and said,"paint whatever you want," he often paused to look at the person. It seemed as if he looked at them with what we call "owl eyes" or peripheral vision. Then, he put brush to paper.

Or, if someone asked him to draw something for their son or their daughter, he painted beautiful characters such as wild animals or nature scenes. I once requested a painting for my son Austin, and he painted an amazing lion for him.

After watching Soke practice his art, I learned that calligraphy is an expression of sword work. It is also a spiritual connection to the brush. I've watched Hatsumi Sensei do this on every trip I have made to Japan. I have paid close attention to how he uses his calligraphy brush. Sometimes when he paints fast, it seems as if he was doing a blessing onto the paper. Sometimes it feels like he is doing a kuji-in or protection grid, as he does before class using his "sword fingers" to create a safe training space.

There are so many amazing things about watching Soke wield a brush as the Grandmaster, as a martial artist, and as an artist. His art is an extension of who he is. His books and the walls of the Hombu dojo are filled with his paintings. His art also hangs on the walls of my home and in every one of my dojos.

I appreciate that ninjutsu is deep and has roots that are not only martial, but also incorporate the art of the brush. This helps me to become more well rounded as a martial artist.





Pathways Dojo is fortunate to have Megumi Sensei who teaches Shodo (the art of calligraphy) occasionally for us. Below is a short video where she teaches how to draw the kanji for "nin" which means "perseverance” and is part of the word ninja.

How to draw the kanji for nin

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Sheila Haddad

Sheila Haddad's bio on her website sums up her experience up concisely.

"Her passion is learning."

In her pursuit of learning, Sheila has emerged as a leading inspiration in the fields of martial arts, healing, women's self defense, and photography.

Sheila is a global keynote instructor who has been has been teaching martial arts internationally since 1989. She holds a 15th degree black belt in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu/Ninjutsu, and was awarded the title of Dai-shihan by Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi. She has a 7th degree black belt in Seibukan Jujutsu with the title of Shihan, and a 2nd degree black belt in Hakko Ryu Jujutsu. She also has a 5th degree black belt in Enshin Itto Ryu Batto Jutsu and a 6th degree black belt in Mugai Ryu, under the umbrella name of Enbukan.

Sheila also teaches Self Defense workshops of all levels for girls, teenagers and adult women around the globe. In addition to the physical, Sheila focuses on the psychological aspects of trauma and abuse, broadening awareness, developing intuition and sensitivities for prevention purposes. Sheila is a past Chair and Executive Board Member of American Women’s Self Defense Association and a member of the National Women’s Martial Art Federation. She is also an active member, teacher and past event organizer for the Pacific Association of Women Martial Artists.

Sheila founded the Seido Institute, an organization devoted to the integration of the warrior and healing arts. The Institute offers international workshops, seminars and certifications in martial arts and Seido Bio-Energy Therapy. She has earned a Masters degree in Psychology.

Her passion for photography has led her from a hobbyist to a semi-professional award winning photographer. She recently printed a photo biography book of Ninjutsu Grandmaster Hatsumi, which can be found in her Webshop.

Through the lens of Sheila's photography, you get a view of this amazing woman, her experiences, her connection to nature, her sense for capturing beauty, and the influence she has created around the globe. It's easy to become lost in her gallery of photos on her website. We chose some highlight photos of hers to share for this interview.

We had an opportunity to ask Sheila about some of her lifelong pursuits and how they intersect.

Pathways: What is your favorite thing about ninjutsu?

Sheila: There are many aspects of Bujinkan that I love. First, I have trained in other arts, and what sets them apart for me from Bujinkan and Soke’s way of teaching, is the freedom of expression. Of course, in the beginning as with all things, it’s necessary to learn the foundation, the basics and to copy. But once the foundation is laid, it is fun to create, to put pieces together, create something new. It is satisfying for the creative side of myself, I never feel stale, bored, nothing gets old. Second, being honest with what works and what doesn’t, and knowing that sometimes it does in one situation, but not another. There is, as Soke says, no right or wrong way, it works or doesn’t. Training with many different people, in different situations allows me to discover what works when. There is freedom in all this. There is no place to get to, no end of this journey, unless you quit. The longer I am at it, the deeper the rabbit hole. The simplistic intricacies, the obvious subtleties, these continue to amaze and lure me on. Nothing is what it looks, it is the Wonderland of Bujinkan.

Pathways: How has your Seido Bio-energy Therapy influenced your martial arts?

Sheila: I started Seido Bio-Energy before the martial arts training. The influence has been profound. I think I started from a backwards place. I felt connections, and energetic influences before I knew martial techniques. For a while in my training, I had to consciously put that away so I could learn moves. I felt lacking, empty, but continued until the awkwardness of technique became smooth and fluid, and then I could add my connections and energy and subtle skills to it. I felt whole again, and also much more effective. I learned the outside and already had the inside. Combining them has been powerful and created an effortlessness I love.

Pathways: Has your photography helped you to be a better martial artist? Has your martial arts practice helped you to be a better photographer?

Sheila: Photography and martial art practice are definitely a two-way street. Being at a more skilled level in martial arts before taking my camera to capture Soke helped a lot to know what to focus the lens on. At the same time, honing the lens in on small movements and almost invisible touches by Soke helped my training, as I saw with greater clarity what he was doing. He told me once, after seeing all the images over the years, he said he knows I “feel” through the lens and connect with him as he moves. And that is true, I did feel that.

Pathways: What have you learned about the art of ninjutsu from your photography work with Soke?

Sheila: All I can add to this question is that being a ninja has helped me in photography in general. When I want to take candid shots, I can make myself be there, but invisible. To not be obtrusive, and in nature, to keep my energy low, to blend in to not disturb, so in this way, training has helped my photography.

Pathways: As a pioneer in martial arts you have created empowerment opportunities for women through martial arts around the globe. What do you think still needs to be done in this area?

Sheila: In terms of women in martial arts, or Bujinkan specifically, we have come a very long way. There are more women training than ever before. Additionally, we can say too, that is related, in my opinion, to our societal changes. I have researched for a joint project that hopefully will come out later this year, and as part of that research, have found four waves of feminism. I won’t go into any of that, but we are entering this 4th wave, globally, and it is reflected in martial arts in general, Bujinkan included. I believe the various kunoichi Taikai we have had the last decade has helped immensely in bringing to light the skills of women, and encouraging more women to join dojos and train. I also think this momentum is continuing on its own, and the younger generation of women and girls don’t have as much of an uphill battle as we did early on. I think going forward, it’s a new situation with Soke no longer teaching, and having individual Soke for each Ryu. All I can say is to keep going, and most emphatically, to keep Soke’s legacy, his teachings, his ways alive.

Pathways: You have taken your art of photography underwater into nature and in the studio. Has this experience with the element of water influenced your Seido Bio-energy or martial arts practices?

Sheila: All the various aspects of my life are connected, yet on the outside they can seem very different. When I talk to photographers, and they find out the other things I do, it doesn’t really compute, and same with being in the health and healing field, martial arts seem so unrelated. But they are all connected, the deeper principals apply to them all, and yet, the outside is varied so much, that I have variety and fun in doing something different all the time. A new expression of self, over and over, yet a self that is the same.

Pathways: Anything else you'd like to share with us?

Sheila: The most important thing I would like to say in general, is not to get caught up in our own self-importance or identify with what we do. We are not what we do, but let what we do, be an expression of who we are. Be true to yourself, be honest with your short comings, seek to find your blind spots, and express yourself as love and joy in the world. We certainly need more of that. And of course, keep training, because within that you discover so much more. And if you are the type that loves to learn, to discover and be an adventurer, then absolutely keep going! Thank you for this opportunity.

If you would like to learn more and connect to Sheila's body of work, check out the links below.

Sheila's website

Her books and DVD's

Her photography




Because we like to share training videos as part of this blog, we decided to take a look at one of the most popular videos of Sheila on the internet. This video is from her Seibukan Jujutsu 7th degree black belt test. Trust me, this is one of those videos that you will want to play on Youtube at slow speed to truly digest all of the techniques she does for this test. As you can imagine, it's not really a spoiler to say she passed this test.

But being the ninjas that we are, we wanted to take you on a deeper dive (roll) into one of the techniques she demonstrates in the above video. In the video below, Sensei Roemke breaks down one of these advanced techniques and shows multiple variations.





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Ninja Forest Bathing

In the early 1980's, a national health crisis emerged in Japan that resulted from increasing industrialization and a culture of overwork. During this time, researchers in Japan discovered that trees released certain chemicals to protect themselves and the forest around them from diseases and pests.  They discovered when humans were exposed to these chemicals known as phytoncides, they too demonstrated increased health and vigor as evidenced by elevated moods, lowered stress hormones, increased immune responses and more.  Government officials in Japan encouraged people to practice “Shinrin-yoku” which translates to “bathe in the forest atmosphere” and thus “Forest Bathing” was born.

Since that time, there has been a global movement in Forest Bathing. There are now organizations around the globe that certify instructors to lead Forest Bathing , also known as Forest Therapy Guide Certification.

Caitlin Williams has spent more than twenty years teaching the practical aspects of wilderness survival, place-based ecology skills and environmental science in conventional and alternative educational settings.  She is a trainer with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy’s Guide Certification Program. She holds certifications as a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide instructor, Wildlife Tracker with Cybertracker International, and in Permaculture Design.  In addition, Caitlin continues to guide forest bathing walks and teach bird language, wildlife tracking and wilderness survival skills locally, nationally, and abroad. When we set a good tripwire trap, we can occasional snare her for a wildlife tracking course with Pathways Dojo.

We recently tracked her down to dive into the amazingly aware mind of someone who trains instructors in the art of Shinrin-Yoku.

Pathways: For people not familiar with Forest Therapy or the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku, could you describe this practice?

Caitlin: At the most basic level, Forest Bathing is simply engaging your senses in nature.  There are different schools of thought on how to best do this.  One school of thought is an extractive health and wellness approach such as,  "Stand here. Look at that tree. Take three breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth." Another approach is a more eco-psychology approach. For example, "The trees are releasing their leaves. What might you need to let go of?"

My preferred approach, which I use to train guides, is a more holistic approach.  By this I mean— let's engage nature as a congress of living beings, of which we are a part, and from which we get many physical and relational benefits. For example, "today the forest is offering us fall colors, lie on your back and watch the leaves fall."  It's a simpler, more self directed approach that assumes a person and nature have their own unique relationship and way of knowing and meeting each other's needs.

Pathways: What are the benefits of forest bathing?

Caitlin: There are so many benefits to forest bathing and simply spending time in nature. There is a growing body of scientific research that confirms what seems like an obvious truth— human beings benefit from engaging with the natural world.  The list of well documented benefits of forest bathing is quite extensive. Benefits include lowered cortisol and stress hormones, reduced inflammation, elevated mood, lowered blood pressure, increased focus and attention, and enhanced creativity. There are many more documented benefits.  One of the most exciting discoveries, which sparked the movement of Forest Bathing, is the discovery that chemicals released by trees to protect themselves and their forest communities from pests and diseases also dramatically enhance immunity in human beings. When we spend time in nature, and specifically amongst trees, we are exposed to these chemicals and it causes our immune systems to produce a special white blood cell called a "natural killer cell". It's a scary little name for a highly beneficial cell that has the ability to find and combat disease in a cell before the cell has any signs of damage. In a sense, the forest has the potential to heal us before we are even sick.

Pathways: Are there significant changes that you see in your students as a result of this training?

Caitlin: Yes.  It varies from person to person. There is quite a range of things that we cover in the six month course to prepare people to be guides. Because each group has its own special character, the areas of focus can be a little different from group to group. However, some typical outcomes are increased confidence, greater cultural sensitivity and increased sense of community and purpose as a guide.

There are two outcomes that are most universal and profound for people.  One is the increased understanding of how to create a non-coercive experience for others.  Learning to do this is a big part of the training and it is also profound because it is something that is rarely modeled or experienced in the western world. The other outcome that is closely tied with this is an increased faith in nature to give people exactly what they need, when they need it.

Pathways: Do you have a favorite experience in nature that you have had while practicing Forest Therapy?

Caitlin: One of my favorite experiences with Forest Bathing was my first experience of being a Forest Therapy Guide.  As someone who has spent decades teaching in outdoor and environmental education settings, I had become burned out on this style of teaching. Part of what was contributing to my burn out was the pressure to know, to have all the answers, to be able to scientifically explain every phenomenon and observation.  It was so refreshing to be allowed to let all of that go and to just be in nature.  It helped me reconnect with the simple body-based love of the world that had inspired my outdoor career in the first place.

Recently I had a delightful experience with an owl.  I had chosen a barred owl call as my auditory cue for participants to return to a group I was leading.  At the end of the walk, as we were all sharing our final thoughts and experiences, a barred owl flew from a tree down to the ground right in front of me.  It was magical, not only because it was broad daylight, but also because it was as if the forest was responding and participating with the group.  It was a very special moment.

Pathways: Why would a practitioner of ninjutsu (or any martial arts) benefit from this practice?

Caitlin: I think one of the coveted gifts of this martial art is the ability to blend in and to be invisible. Besides the obvious health benefits that I already mentioned, I think this practice may be of particular interest to a ninjutsu practitioner for one simple and esoteric reason—you do not become invisible by hiding in the forest. You become invisible by being hidden by the forest.  It takes attunement and relationship-building with nature to understand how to let the land fold you into itself. Attunement with nature is at the heart of the forest therapy guide training.

Pathways: What’s a way to begin this practice for someone with limited nature experience or who lives in an urban environment?

Caitlin: A good starting point is to begin with the simplest form of forest bathing, which is to engage your senses with the natural world.  Sit outside with your eyes closed and spend five minutes just paying attention to sound. Just notice the different sensations on your skin.  Another option is to use your sight in new and novel ways.  You could wander in nature while paying particular attention to colors or to light and shadow. You could also try spending five minutes with water, either in your home or in an outdoor setting such as a fountain, just gazing at the surface.  As you do these simple practices it doesn't matter if your mind wanders but, when you notice it has, simply return to whatever sense you are engaging with.

Pathways: Anything else we should know about forest bathing?

Caitlin: Beyond just engaging the senses in new and novel ways, one is also engaging a being. This being is the land, the water, the trees, the rocks, etc.  Being cognizant of this, and approaching that being with the presence you might offer another human can greatly deepen and enhance the experience of Forest Bathing.  There is an animate wonder to life on Earth that modern humans rarely engage with. Doing so is deeply nourishing.  We rarely consider that all that we observe in nature is also observing us. Science is now providing evidence-based research to confirm what probably seemed obvious to early humans— the world is alive.

There is a little book I love called "What a Plant Knows" by Daniel Chamovitz. It's all about the sensory experience of plants that science has confirmed thus far. The first sentence of the book says "Think about this: plants see you."  I think it is important to take this type of understanding with us into our forest bathing experiences because not only does it increase the benefits that we as humans get from the experience, but it also increases the likelihood that we will develop a sense of stewardship and reciprocity with the natural world.  It matters that we understand we are not alone in this world, for our own health, and for the health of this world we co-occupy with other life.

To train with Caitlin or to learn more about the Forest Therapy Guide training programs that she leads, check out


As Caitlin mentions, a good way to enter the world of forest bathing is to tune-in to your senses. One technique that we teach at Pathways Dojo to train peripheral vision awareness is a practice called "owl eyes." Check out the video below that demonstrates this skill. Then, head outside and find a place in nature to practice this skill. Owl eyes can be practiced on your back porch, while sitting quietly in nature, while walking down a trail, at a busy bus stop, and of course when training in the dojo. When you sink into the "zone" of owl eyes, it will change the way you see the world around you.

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