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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, “...to 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.

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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.

 

 

 

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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

 

 

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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 https://www.natureandforesttherapy.earth/

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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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Alone with the Apelian Apothecary

If you are faced with a survival skills situation in nature, you are bound to encounter challenges. Our challenge in interviewing wilderness skills expert Dr. Nicole Apelian was how to narrow the focus of our interview when our interviewee has such a diverse and prolific background.

Nicole is known to many around the planet for her experience as a cast member on the History Channel's Alone Series, where she survived solo for 57 days in the wilderness of Vancouver Island. Side note, she developed a taste for giant slugs while on that trip, but that's another tale. Nicole is much more than a connoisseur of slimy gastropods. She has been a field biologist and game warden for the Peace Corps in Botswana where she began her studies of African lions. She has worked with the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. She earned her doctorate in Cultural Anthropology. She has been a consultant for television and film projects including the acclaimed film Leave No Trace.  She also is a sought after wilderness skills instructor.

In addition to enduring wilderness survival situations, she has persevered through other personal challenges. After being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she turned to medicinal herb studies which led to her recovery from this disease and the creation of Nicole's Apothecary where she sells herbal remedies and helps others treat this disease. She is also a co-author of the The Lost Book of Herbal Remedies,  A Reference Guide to Surviving Nature, and her newly released book The Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods: Edible Plants, Lichens, Mushrooms, and Seaweeds.

We had an opportunity to sit down with Nicole and learn more about her strategies to prepare for and thrive in survival situations. She also shares how she finds balance and time to actually be alone in a distracted world.

Pathways: One thing stands out when watching your videos or browsing your websites...your beaming smile. Have you always been this happy since your girlhood days collecting shells and nests, or has your happiness grown as your connection to nature has deepened?

Nicole: I was always a pretty happy child, though any childhood has its moments of sadness and grief. I lived a pretty feral existence. I definitely had nature connection in my life. As I aged, my connection with nature grew a lot deeper. Not only did this connection increase my happiness, but it also helped me to move through periods of grief. We’ve all had moments of deep, deep grief in our lives, and I’m no exception. The two biggest ones for me are when I was diagnosed with MS when I was thirty, and the other was the death of my oldest son. For me, one of the biggest healers that allowed me to move through that grief was my connection with nature. The healing practices that nature offers allow us to move through grief with joy in the end.

Pathways: You write...

“When you experience discomfort in the wild like hunger, fear or severe weather, it’s not as if you are having “fun” during these trials. But six months later, while in the comfort of your home and thinking back on the hardship, there’s an indescribable joy that washes over you. It’s actually quite beautiful. I’m willing to contend with great discomfort to feel the joy in knowing that I was able to survive (and thrive) in raw, untamed wilderness.”

Pathways: When you have been in the moment of such discomforts in the wilderness, are you actually thinking about this joy that will come in the future as a way to help you persevere or is there a different approach you are using in the moment to get you through the challenges?

Nicole: I’m not actually thinking about the joy that comes in the future while in the midst of persevering or having moments of extreme discomfort in these wilderness experiences that I put myself into. That said, one thing that helps me get through it is that I actually find joy in the present moment, in the now. There is real power in that. When you are out foraging for yourself or surviving on your own, the only things right in front of your face in the moment are shelter, fire, water, food, and maybe medical needs. When you only have those things to think of, it really keeps you in the present moment. It’s like the old saying of “chop wood and carry water.” This holds true. When you are in the now, there’s a lot of joy that you have because you aren’t worrying about the past, obsessing about the future, or looking at your to-do list. I think this is really important. There is extreme discomfort at times, and while I’m not thinking about the end results, I am actually able to find joy through that discomfort. There are days of course that I really struggle like everybody else, but I’ve been able to move through those moments.

Pathways: You describe your life-changing experience of being diagnosed with MS and how you overcame this challenge in part through medicinal herbs. Was this a motivating force behind why you took a deep dive into the study of medicinal plants? Is overcoming this challenge a significant source of your happiness?

Nicole: Multiple Sclerosis definitely was a motivating force for why I took a deep dive into the study of medicinal plants. Overcoming MS was a significant challenge. Still, everyday I have to watch what I eat. I have to make sure I’m taking the right herbs and supplements, and I’m also spending time in nature and remaining balanced. That certainly has led to my happiness because all of those things discreetly, regardless of whether someone has MS, are important factors in how your body and brain feel, which definitely links to happiness. Becoming an herbalist has had a significant impact on how happy I am in life.

Pathways: In an interview, when asked about your custom knife that you used on The History Channel's Alone, you talked about spending lots of time training with it before going to the wilderness by doing things such as making feather sticks, splitting wood, etc. You practiced these skills as a way to develop muscle memory. Were there other tools or practices (athletic or mental/mindful) that you also did in preparation to develop a similar muscle memory for Alone?

Nicole: I definitely spent a lot of time using my custom knife to make feather sticks, split wood, etc. as a way to build muscle memory before going into the Alone experience. I did have other practices as well. I would take cedar bark and wet it overnight and then work it in the morning until it was fine enough to catch a spark. I did that over and over. I practiced the Wim Hoff method in order to get ready for the cold so my body would not be shocked by the weather. I practiced knots over and over, especially fishing knots for Vancouver Island, so I wouldn’t have to think about it, and instead it would be a skill that just came naturally. When you are tired, hungry, or cold, if you don’t have that muscle memory developed, it’s easy to forget things, and it’s harder to simply do these skills. I tried to overcome these challenges beforehand by making sure I had those things deeply ingrained in my brain. Traps were another thing that I practiced over and over to make sure I wasn’t thinking about how a trap would work while I was out there. I wanted to ensure that I knew them through and through.

Pathways: Many in the nature connection world thrive on being alone in nature, away from crowds, and the focus of attention. While you were on a program called “Alone”, this experience has helped to put a spotlight on you. How has that experience affected you? If you look back on yourself before and then after this experience, do you notice any changes in yourself?

Nicole: There’s been a lot of positive effects of being on TV, in that I’ve been able to have a big impact on the MS and autoimmune communities and give people hope for how to manage these disorders naturally through diet, lifestyle, supplements, and herbs. It’s also brought a lot of awareness to herbal medicine, wild foods, and foraging, which I think has been really positive. Demonstrating these skills on screen reaches people that might not be aware of these practices. To me that feels really good to expose more people to natural ways of being and natural ways of connection.

As for looking back on myself before and after these experiences, I have noticed changes in myself. The main change is that I am more guarded about my privacy and personal time. I live in nature, so it’s really easy to get regular alone time. I don’t have any close neighbors. I’m lucky that I have that kind of access to nature.

Pathways: You write about how you grew up with little television or technology. With all the digital distractions of the modern world, are there routines, practices, or boundaries that you set for yourself (or family) to ensure that you can still have regular alone time in nature?

Nicole: During Covid I found myself more digitally distracted. I have to actively set boundaries or it’s very easy to fall into a routine that isn’t healthy physically or mentally. I moved to the middle of nowhere purposely. I never expected that I would be in the public eye so much. While the wonderful things of this experience far outweigh any of the negatives, I’ve definitely had to learn the art of saying “no” to maintain my personal balance. Weekends and evenings are off limits. I reserve them for my family. I find that every three to six months that my plate gets so full that I have to reevaluate. I have to think- what is not important? What can I pull off my plate? A few weeks ago I spent a week writing down how I was allocating my time, including time online, in order to figure out what I could let go of or delegate. Maintaining this balance can be really hard but I find it’s necessary.

Pathways: Where do you see yourself going from here? What are your latest curiosities and skills that you are working on?

Nicole: I just finished a wild foods book, The Forager’s Guide to Wild Foods: Edible Plants, Lichens, Mushrooms, and Seaweeds, that comes out in mid-May. I’m really excited about this new book. Like my herbal remedies book I think it will have a wide appeal. I’ve tried to make it the most comprehensive wild foods book out there. I’m hoping it will inspire a lot of people to access resources in their own backyards. I’m always working on my herbal apothecary to make it better, and love writing for my blog. Family is really important, so I’m taking some trips with my teenage boys to make sure we have good quality time together before they fly the coop.

Pathways: You can connect with Nicole to learn more about her experiences, products, events, or to contact her through these links:

and

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As Nicole describes above, knowing wild edible and medicinal plants is not only essential to surviving in a wilderness situation, but can have a transformative effect on your life. With so many plants to encounter in the wild, beginning this process can seem daunting. The good news is that for most people, there are edible and medicinal plants right outside your door, to be found in backyards, vacant lots, or nearby parks. In the video below we show you a handful of plants that can jumpstart your learning journey. If you research and journal these plants, you will open a doorway to an awareness of the natural world of edible and medicinal plants.

 

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A Pandemic, A Pond, and Perseverance

In a recent post by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke, he told the story of going to the island of St. Croix for five days of testing survival skills. He ended that post with this nugget of wisdom...

"It’s good to sometimes be uncomfortable in situations that you might not think you could ever endure."

This statement made me think of the local twenty-six acre pond in my neighborhood.

But before I proceed further, first...The Dunker’s Disclaimer

Most written material you encounter about swimming in cold water comes with big disclaimers, in big red bold font, advising of the hazards if you are not careful. I have been teaching wild edible plant classes for years. Likewise, most edible plant books come with similar disclaimers saying to read the material, but don’t go out there and eat wild plants willy nilly. These cautions considered, there is something worth claiming in these experiences. Within the content is an invitation for a life-enhancing experience, but only if you proceed safely, do your research diligently, share your experience with a buddy, and possibly with consultation of a physician. My friend Duncan in the story below happens to work in the healthcare profession, so I had a slight advantage. I consider myself a strong swimmer, so add one more advantage.

So, enjoy the story for what it is, a story and not a how-to guide. But if you want a swim buddy...I’m easy to find.

*********

Since I was five years old, I've been a creature of the water. Competitive swimming was my life from this young age through college. After college, I "retired" to surfing when I moved to Hawaii and then California. I have stayed wet whenever possible over much of my life. I’m lucky to have lived in South Kona, Hawaii where I could snorkel daily with green sea turtles and swim at night with manta rays and bioluminescence. I've swum through rapids of the Grand Canyon and dunked at the base of pure spring desert waterfalls where you could drink the water while submerged. In Alaska I swam in cold rivers sourced from glacial melt (I didn't last long in those cold waters).

None of these experiences however, could compare to the connection I've had with our local pond over the past twelve months. The onset of Covid over a year ago resulted in the local indoor swimming pool shutting down. Little did I realize that this would change my life and more specifically my relation to water.

70's Fahrenheit— In early June last year, my friend Duncan called me on the phone. "Ken, I'd like to work on my crawl stroke. Since you used to coach swimming, could you give me some pointers?" Duncan showed up the next morning, and we started swimming across the pond. I gave him some pointers. The water was a comfortable temperature, in the mid-seventies. We started swimming three times a week at 7 am. Dawn patrol fishermen dotted the shore, and occasional morning swimmers roamed the periphery. After two and a half years living by the pond, I hadn't "trained" by doing long distance swimming in these waters. I usually ventured down daily to romp in the pond with family and friends. For some reason I had been in a rut. I believed the indoor pool was for "training" and outdoors was for fun and play. That was about to change.

The water was relatively clear and warm. Being a faster swimmer, I swam ahead of Duncan and then floated on my back to watch ospreys, hawks, kingfishers or eagles while he caught up. I was starting to like this routine.

80's— As late summer approached, the water warmed. Occasionally you could see a thin film along the surface. Pollen or algae? Hard to tell. The temperature was warm enough to heat my core and face to an almost uncomfortable level during peak exertion. Duncan was getting faster. He had outfitted himself with fins, and we now kept a similar pace. He started arriving with printed Google maps showing the distance we had covered previously, and a route we could take from beach to beach to fence and back that equaled a mile. The sunfish roamed the shore’s edge and would nibble our toes if we lingered near too long in the calf-deep water of the pond’s edge. My favorite mornings were swimming through a low layer of warm mist in the rain.

70's— As summer drew to a close, the swimming crowds thinned in the morning as virtual or hybrid schooling kicked in due to the pandemic. Duncan continued to arrive at my house on his bike by 7 am three times a week. It was nice feeling the shift back to a more comfortable water temperature. We could swim a little harder without overheating. The die hard morning swimmers still arrived, and you could see their brightly colored floats trailing behind them as they traversed the pond. The early fall bird migrations were beginning. When I did backstroke, I watched geese fly over in "V" formation, while I oriented myself to the cardinal directions. "Let's see, which way is north?" I would think. Some flocks were already beginning their southward journeys.

60's— I remember thinking at the pond one morning..."Where did all the swimmers go?"  Getting in the water in the morning was starting to feel a bit jolting to my body. When I surfed in California, the ocean water was usually between 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit year round. During the early New England fall, the kids and I had continued surfing in New Hampshire, Boston, and Rhode Island. We had been tracking the local ocean temperature at those locations. The pond temperature felt like it was in the same range. Being curious as to the daily pond temperature, I went to the local hardware store and bought a cheap thermometer. It confirmed that the temperature was in the 60’s. The morning swims felt so refreshing. The hot cup of coffee upon returning home after swims tasted better as I hugged it to my chest for warmth.

50's— "That's it. I'm done. Too cold!" said Duncan one morning after making it to the first dock buoy then quickly retreating to the shore. Now what? I went online that day and found a used cold water triathlon wetsuit. The online ads all had the same description— "Used twice to train, then once for the race." It showed up in the mail two days later. I was back in the water feeling super floaty and warm in my new suit. This is awesome, I thought— now I can swim through winter! Maybe. There was the complication of ice. Try as I might, I couldn't convince Duncan to get a wetsuit to join me. So, I borrowed my wife's pink flotation buoy for my safety comfort companion and I kept going. I was expecting the water clarity to improve, but the opposite happened. The water became cloudy. There were days when the multi-colored fall leaves sank below the surface creating a mosaic of oak, pine and maple leaves in suspension as they slowly descended to the bottom. It was beautiful to swim through.

40's— I kept swimming several times a week in my wetsuit. And then I saw the documentary My Octopus Teacher. In the movie, Craig Foster mentioned that he swam everyday for a year in the South African coastal waters. He said the water was around 5 degrees Celsius year round. I was a big fan of his work and had seen all of his previous documentaries. I pulled up the conversion table. 5 Celsius = 41 Fahrenheit. Craig swam in the movie with only a mask, snorkel, fins, a neoprene hoodie, and shorts. The previous winter I had taken a Wim Hof cold training course and had spent 15 minutes up to my neck in the water on the edge of the pond on a sunny January morning. My January dunk the previous winter was a glimpse into this cold water experience.

I froze the frame on the documentary so I could see the brand of neoprene hoodie that Craig wore. I placed my order. A few days later, I put my wetsuit back in the storage box and stood on the edge of the pond in my swim shorts, a new 5 mm thick hoodie, and a pink buoy belt around my waist. I looked kinda goofy, but I didn’t care. There was no one around anyway. The temperature had just dropped recently to 49 Fahrenheit. I dove in.The shock was immediate, but with a warm brain and no "ice cream headaches," I swam. I could feel a shift in my core. My muscles in my arms tightened and felt a bit numb. My pace slowed. I only swam for about five minutes. When I emerged on the shore my legs, arms, and torso were pink, but I felt so good. I'm pretty sure this feeling could be attributed to the endorphin rush that accompanies cold water immersion. The few remaining fall fishermen I encountered in the weeks that followed would occasionally make funny comments when I swam by their boats. But I kept swimming. I was hooked.

30's — Occasionally I coerced my daughter Phoebe to be my "copilot" and accompany me on my swims. She homeschools, and at the time was taking a class across the pond at a local teacher's house. I'd swim with her to class while she paddled the kayak. After dropping her off, I tied a strap around my waist and pulled the kayak back. Later in the afternoon I would reverse the process.

The first day it snowed while I was swimming in the pond, Phoebe joined me, paddling the kayak. She wore her favorite rainbow colored snow jacket. The water was warmer than the air, so it actually felt more comfortable to be in the water than standing on shore in the snow. Some winter days though, when the wind blew, and the snow was on the ground, it was really hard to get out of the water (or into the water). One windy winter day my fingers were so cold that I couldn't get my socks on when I emerged. Attempting to insert a wet foot into a fuzzy snow boot resulted in a wardrobe malfunction, and I had to hobble home trying to push my skateboard while wearing floppy boots. It didn't work well.

Freeze-Up— When the ice first appeared, for a limited time I could break through the thin layer and make a short channel for swimming if I wore my neoprene gloves to keep the ice from cutting my hands. I started researching the effects of cold on the body, so I could understand more about what was happening to my brain and body. I learned about the safety precautions and the benefits to my immune system, brown fat, and mental well being. I joined several cold water swim forums and learned tips to be safe. I never ventured far from shore. I only swam for the recommended time based on the water temperature. As the pond approached the freezing point, the feeling of swimming in water in the 30's was intense and edgy. I would only swim for a couple minutes before retreating to my towel.

Eventually the thick ice came, and the swimming halted. I read Norwegian ice swimming forums where they debated the best chainsaw or axe for cutting holes through thick ice. I missed the routine and the feeling of my weekly swims. I looked for a few windows, when I wouldn't disturb the ice fishing or skaters. I cut a small hole a few times in the thick ice with my maul, just big enough for a shallow stationary dunk.

Break-Up— As spring approached, the ice began to thaw around the edges and I resumed short dunks and then longer forays. One day as the ice retreated, I donned my wetsuit, hoodie, and gloves and called on my kayak copilot. Being someone who studies "survival" skills, I wanted to have a gauge for how thin ice needed to be to fall through, and what it would feel like to break through thin ice. With Phoebe as my backup, I swam to the edge of the remaining ice sheet and scrambled onto the ice. I jumped up and down until it cracked and I fell through. I did this repeatedly and practiced scrambling out onto thin ice after falling through. I appreciated my wetsuit and my copilot. I learned a lot that day about ice dynamics and how to practice pulling myself out should I ever need the skill. I had so much fun that a few days later I tried it again, but the warming conditions had changed so rapidly that I could no longer scramble onto the ice. Instead, it broke under my arms as I swam. I’d have to wait until next winter to try again.

40's— I remember one day years ago, after surfing the winter Santa Cruz waves, when I had an extremely difficult time getting my car key into the lock because my hands were shaking so violently. This past  winter, after I walked home from swimming in the cold water of the pond, when I reached my driveway, the cold core shivers would begin. I did some research.

"After drop", also known as peripheral vasoconstriction, is what happens after you leave cold water. When your body is exposed to cold, it cleverly closes down the circulation in your limbs in order to keep the core and its vital organs warm. When you get out of the water and put warm clothes on, the body reverses the process. The warm circulation returns to the limbs, but this time the cold blood of the limbs returns to the core body and your core temperature will actually drop. So you start shivering. I'd make my coffee with shivering hands and then sit on a couch wrapped in a wool blanket until the shivering subsided while I read a book.

Soon, flocks of migratory merganser ducks arrived. They would spend parts of their days resting on the shrinking patch of floating pond ice. Within a week of their arrival, their icy resting spot disappeared. I slowly started venturing further from shore as the days grew longer and my arms could tolerate warmer water.

50's — The swallows arrived as the water temperature warmed. The dawn chorus of the local birds was finished by the time I arrived for morning spring swims. I started calling Duncan again. I coerced him to try my wetsuit. He reluctantly showed up one morning, borrowed my suit and joined me once again. He soon bought a matching neoprene hoodie. It was good to have a swim buddy again. The water was the clearest it had been all year. It was amazing to swim over the deepest holes of the kettle pond and see the bottom. The bald eagle and the osprey returned, as did the fishermen. The bass started reappearing in small groups from the depths. The clear water wouldn’t last long. With the spring bloom, the pollen soon clouded the water followed by cottonwood fluff on the surface. By 7:15 when we'd hit the water, the sun was well above the trees. I sneezed often from the pollen on the walk home.

60’s— As I write, the after drops are diminishing and all but gone. Parts of the surface water on the south facing shore are hitting the 60’s. Duncan purchased his own second-hand wetsuit, "Used twice to train, then once for the race,” so I’ll hopefully have a swimming buddy as fall returns next time with its chill. The water has warmed past the “brain freeze point.” Tomorrow morning I'll ditch the hoodie. As Duncan and I continue swimming the pond perimeter, we have come full circle in the seasons of the pond. As summer approaches, I am melancholy for the slowly fading cold water.

The temperature cycle is a personality of the pond that will depart but return, as it has for millennia. I’ll continue returning too, but these cycles of the pond will far outlast my human form. Still, for my short time here, I am changed by its waters. I am so grateful for this pond and what it has taught me this past year. While the pandemic raged and worry abounded, I have been able to find windows of hope in the chilly waters. I called my dunks my "sanity swims" even though some people shook their heads and called me crazy. I get stuck in my mind more than I would like. I fret about the past and worry about the future. At times the pandemic amplified this. While some days I was hesitant to venture into the cold water, I welcomed each opportunity to swim, because the pond gifted me moments to truly be present.

It's really hard to describe the sensation of the deep cold swims. The moment I plunged into the cold water, my lungs reflexively gasped, but then, after the first initial strokes, I was just there. Sometimes it was a detached feeling, as if I were an observer watching my arms move through the air and water. Other times I was lost in the experience, as I gazed at the patterns of rocks, stumps, leaves, and fish below me. My favorite moments happened at the end of the swims, when I rolled over, grabbed my buoy and just floated— I lost the boundary between my form and the water, watched the clouds drift, felt my heartbeat in my chest, and was glad to be alive for another day.

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Nin means "to persevere." We'll let you in on a big secret for how to persevere in nature. It's called a sit spot. This is a place that you visit to observe the natural landscape as many times weekly as possible. I once trained at a Wilderness First Responder course. In this intensive training, the instructor made a side comment that stuck with me. She said that people who spend regular time outdoors visiting nature statistically have a better chance for surviving a wilderness survival situation.

Why? It's all about attitude.

People who adopt a sit spot and visit the location repeatedly, year-round, rain or shine, wind or snow, become comfortable being uncomfortable in nature. They also learn to be present in nature, which helps shift your attitude when faced with challenges. Finding a sit spot that you can visit year round is a doorway to developing a present mindset. I've spent a couple decades, from Alaska, to Hawaii, to California, and now to New England visiting and keeping journals of my local sit spots. My year round pond experience was an extension of my backdoor sit spot.

Remember, the most important thing about a sit spot is that it needs to be convenient, otherwise you will never make it there.

What do you do when you get there? Turn off your phone. Observe. "Lose your mind and find your senses," as some say. Ask questions. Breathe. Connect. Tune in to the birds. Just be. If you really want to take a deep sit spot dive, check out our interview with Josh Lane. He's a sit spot Jedi.

Check out the video below where we introduce some perspectives on finding a sit spot.

 

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Sensei’s Island Survival Story

I once asked the Grandmaster of ninjutsu, Hatsumi Sensei, "When do we learn the survival techniques like building survival shelters, making fire, fishing line and cordage, trapping animals, hunting and other survival skills?"

He told me that he was never taught those by his teacher, Takamatsu Sensei. He said that he primarily taught the skills pertaining to being on the mats and doing the waza in the scrolls. He said that the survival skills I was seeking were being done by many really good people on the planet, and that I should find those teachers.

My searching led me to a world renowned survival instructor who actually lived in the same town as me. His name is Tom McElroy. We interviewed Tom in a recent post. If you haven’t read it, his stories have some real gems of wisdom. He’s been all over the planet seeking the ways to survive from the landscape around him.

When Tom taught a survival skills workshop for Pathways Dojo, he mentioned that he had an opening on an island trip where they were going to learn how to survive in a warm tropical island setting on the island of St. Croix. He invited me to go. I jumped at the opportunity.

A few months later I flew to St. Croix. The first thing that hits you when you step off the plane is the heat and the humidity.

It was really amazing. I learned so many new skills. The survival part of the trip was really challenging, but what I really enjoyed most was the pre-survival trip training session where we learned and practiced skills for several days before heading into "survival mode" for five days.

We focused on learning the local plants on the island. Our days were packed with intensive training that lasted all day- from  morning until we went to bed at night. What was really cool was that we learned all of the native species of trees, the wild animals that lived on the island, and how to identify the local hazards.

There were all sorts of stinging and biting creatures that you needed to be aware of. We also learned safety protocols for what to do if somebody was hurt, such as how to treat a broken arm.

When our front-end training was complete, the day arrived for us to head out on the actual survival trip.

We climbed into trucks and drove a long way down a remote island road. The pavement turned into a dirt road. The dirt road turned into a rough trail of bushes and grass. Eventually we left the trucks and headed out on foot with our backpacks. In our packs we brought a few of the handmade items from our previous class. These included items such as cordage made from snake grass, and calabash bowls for eating. What we didn’t bring was food.

Full disclaimer…I love my morning coffee, and I’m what you’d call a “foodie,” so I knew this was going to be a challenge.

We spent the first day hiking to our base camp location. The first thing we did as a group was to set up a large group shelter. We cut grass and made thatching for the roof of the shelter, which when finished would sleep the ten of us participating in this training. Then we prepped an area out for a central cooking fire. For food that day we caught fish and gathered local plants. I was exhausted by the end of the first day. I crashed and immediately went to sleep that first night.

There were so many cool adventures that happened in the days that followed. What happens on a survival trip is that you go back to basics where every day you get up and you think about getting enough water and food. As the days pass.. day four, day five, day six… you realize how you are hungry all the time and how hard it is to find enough food. This is especially challenging when you're with many people and need to feed everybody.

On that trip, I lost about 35 pounds. On our last day we had to hike uphill out of the valley where we had our camp, and then five miles to the cars. I was exhausted on our hike back to the road. It felt like a rite of passage. It was tough. It wasn’t comfortable. Still it was an amazing experience.

That experience taught me that as a human being, we have an innate drive for survival, like wild animals do. I realized that I could connect with this feeling. I learned that when you need to access this part of yourself, you can tap into it in order to survive. It’s a true feeling of perseverance, the meaning of “nin” of ninja.

There’s much more to this story, which I will share in future posts. I hope this story helps inspire people to go into nature and push yourself occasionally. It’s good to sometimes be uncomfortable in situations that you might not think you could ever endure.

Give it a try. I guarantee you’ll have an amazing experience.

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Fire is an essential skill when in a survival situation. You need it for purifying water, cooking food, heat, light, tool making, and more. Odds are you wouldn't survive long without fire. As Sensei Roemke mentioned above, it was one of the first things they focused on when they made their survival camp.

If you have downloaded our FREE Fire Skills videos, we have a bonus fire training below for you. It's one thing to make a bow drill kit. It's a whole different skill to learn how to use it correctly in order to get a fire. There's a lot to body positioning, angling, distancing, and timing.

Sounds kinda like a familiar martial arts style that we study. Hmmmmm....

In the video below we break down some helpful techniques for using a bow drill. Get these skills down, and you'll soon be cooking your own tasty survival island meal.

This video is Part 2 of a series on tips for making fire with a bow drill. To see Part 1, check out the Tom McElroy post.

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Hanbo Drills

Hi, this is Mark Roemke with Ninja Training TV, Pathways Dojo, and Ninjas in Nature with another blog for you. This blog is about hanbo striking drills. This training video below was filmed at our beautiful training spot in the redwoods of Santa Cruz, California. In the video we are gathered at our central fire pit area that we made in the forest where we practice our fire by friction and other survival skills.

On this day we had just finished making our own hanbos from wood gathered in this forest. There is a lot of tan oak that is competing for sunlight in this area, which creates strong growth rings. It's also an area where sudden oak death is hitting a lot of the tan oaks, so these two elements combined offered us an opportunity to "tend the wild" by selecting small trees that were effected by sudden oak death and to help open up the forest for other trees to grow bigger.

After we gathered the wood, we carved them with knives then fire-hardened them. The hanbo is the "half staff" in ninjutsu. There are lots of objects that can serve as a hanbo. You are basically looking for a three foot piece of wood or a length that measures hip height.

This video shows a lot of basic strikes, but also show angling, distancing, and timing. These drills are best for you to figure out on your own how they work. You can do these drills with or without a partner. Make sure you have plenty of room for swinging your hanbo. First start in shizen, or "natural" stance. Practice falling off in all sorts of different directions when doing these strikes. Practice "cane stance" or munen muso, much like you are walking with a cane. The second stance is called kata yaburi where you hold the hanbo with two hands horizontally in front of you. In the third stance called otonashi, you hold the hanbo behind you with both hands horizontally.

In this video you will see a variety of drills to flow through to practice these stances and angling, distancing, and timing. I hope you enjoy this video because it will give you a lot of drills to practice. If you can, take your training outside. You can practice striking dead branches and trees and moving over uneven terrain with these drills.

Enjoy!

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How Hicho Kaiten Saved My Life

Today's blog is about a roll called hicho kaiten, the "flying bird" roll. This roll is from Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, or ninjutsu, the "art of the ninja". This particular roll is an amazing roll. It has saved my life on multiple occasions and has prevented me from getting broken bones or worse. Here is a true story of how hicho kaiten saved my life.

I was on my motorcycle, driving at about thirty miles per hour down a street. A woman pulled her car out right in front of me. She didn't see me so I tried to swerve around her at the last instant, but I ultimately hit her. As I realized that I was about to impact her car, I leapt up at the last second as my motorcycle hit the car, launching me about fifteen to twenty feet in the air. I went into a hicho kaiten dive roll as I came back to the ground. I was wearing a helmet and full leather riding gear, so those saved my skin.

I stood up and walked over to the lady's door and said, "excuse me ma'am, but you just hit me." This roll literally saved my life. I was able to walk away from that accident more or less unscathed thanks to this roll.

One of the things that I tell my students all the time is that the elements of ninjutsu that will save your life just might be the practical, "basic" skills, like how to roll and fall properly. People fall and have accidents all the time in everyday life, but not everyone gets into a fight or self defense situation, unless you are a police officer, in the military, or are a bouncer.

This roll has also saved me more than once when I have gone mountain biking. I love to do some extreme mountain biking here in Santa Cruz. More than once I have gone over my handlebars, and guess what saved me? Hicho kaiten.

Check out the video below on how to do hicho kaiten. You can practice it on mats, wood floors, cement, rocks, lawns, or out in a forest...anywhere. Once you learn how to safely do this roll it just might help prevent serious injury or possibly save your life one day.

We have much more about hicho kaiten in our white to black belt series at ninjatrainingtv.com for adults or a full white to black belt series for youth at ninjasinjature.wpengine.com.

Keep training!
Sensei Roemke

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How Nature Can Develop Intuition

 
 
Most practitioners of ninjutsu who are part of the Bujinkan are familiar with the 5th Dan test. Students from around the globe travel to the Bujinkan honbu dojo (home dojo) in Nodashi, Japan to take this test. For this level of progression, a would-be 5th Dan sits with their back to a Dai Shihan or Soke (grandmaster) who is holding a training sword above their head. This test consists of one challenge. To pass, the student must sense the exact moment when the sword is coming down at their head and must instantly roll out of the way.
While Hollywood goes to great lengths to dazzle us with feats of "spidey senses" or instinctive reactions (think horror films when the victim has a bad "feeling in their gut"), little attention in our modern world is paid toward actually training the human instinct or intuition.
Nature is full of instinctual moments. If you take the time to watch the little birds in your backyard, you'll soon observe such moments. Every day is a life or death situation for the birds. Something is always lurking, waiting to make a meal of these feathered creatures, be it a furry, stalking ground predator, a silent explosive hawk with dagger-like talons, or an owl that might silently snatch them from their perch while sleeping. As a result, the birds, and all other prey animals for that matter, have their sensory knobs turned up to eleven everyday. If they didn't live in a constant level of heightened vigilance, they would be toast.
While it's relatively easy to observe these daily occurrences in the natural world, how do you actually learn to develop skills of intuition and instinct? Where do you find someone who specializes in this type of training?
Fortunately, we found one such teacher. His name is Josh Lane. He is the author of the award winning new book Conscious Nature. Josh is a wildlife tracker, deep nature connection coach, qi gong practitioner, and musician. When he lived in Santa Cruz, California, he was also a student of Dai Shihan Mark Roemke. Thus, he has an inside ninja perspective on the connection between the art of ninjutsu and training sensory awareness to hone intuition. Josh talks about the baseline feel of nature and how tuning in to this can help hone your intuition. In a recent post interview with Dan Gardoqui, he also discusses this baseline and how he uses this to decode nature's secrets. Be sure to check that one out as well.
In the interview below, Josh talks about a technique of slowing down and tuning in to your senses in nature in order to sharpen your intuitive skills. We have a fun training video on this at the bottom called "body radar."
We had a gut feeling that we should check in with Josh, so we decided to pick his intuitive brain recently.
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Pathways: How can you use nature to increase your intuition?

Josh: When you immerse yourselves in the patterns of the natural world, your brain state effortlessly begins to shift into what's known as the alpha brain rhythm. This is a slightly slower rhythm of activity in the brain than what we use when we're doing day to day thinking or working on problem solving. For example, when your brain focuses on doing math, it is in a beta level brain pattern. In alpha, you turn on your holistic pattern detection, where your senses become more attuned. You relax and get into the present moment. This is a state commonly associated with meditation. It's interesting that immersion in nature brings us into this state of consciousness. Researchers call alpha waves the "windshield wipers of the mind" because they help reset the neural network and refresh our attention.

How do you attain this? The first step is simply to take some time to be in the moment. Let go of your agenda. Let go of the things you were dealing with earlier in your day. Give yourself ten to fifteen minutes to just be present and settle into where you are. Focus on how you are feeling and how the landscape around you feels.

A key point is that there's a feeling of the landscape. Different places have different feelings. This is really evident if you go to a beach where you feel the wind on your face, you hear the sound of the surf, and you feel the texture of the warm sand under your feet. It's a very relaxing feeling. Compare this with climbing a steep rock scramble of a cliff face. This is a very energizing feeling that brings you into the moment in a very different way. Contrast this with the feeling of busy activity around you when you're walking through a crowded urban environment. This landscape has a very different feeling from a quiet place in nature.

There's a different feeling around you in the forest when the animals are going about their usual business feeding, foraging, resting, singing, or working on their nests. That's what we  call a harmonious feeling or baseline versus when a predator is on the move. When a predator is nearby, the birds become alarmed. This creates an agitated sensation amongst the animals. By becoming present, you open up the possibility to tune into the feeling of a place and to the feeling of what's going on around you. This helps you awaken intuition because we have to be present in the first place to tap into it.

However, intuition can often be overlooked through overthinking. You start to learn all the textures, the nuances of feeling that come through our intuition, and through our instinct when you are fully present. When you're out in nature, you may get that feeling of disturbance, such as when you hear birds being upset. You may see them then move from the ground to the tree canopy. If you're wondering what's causing that alarm, you might get a flash in your mind of a hawk. That could be your intuition communicating something to you about what's going on. But if you weren't present, you would have missed the alarms and the feeling that they produced. You probably would have even missed the flash in the mind's eye of that hawk.

When you have intuitive moments like that, it gives you an opportunity to go investigate them in nature. If you do this follow-up, you start to learn that those instincts, those feelings, those intuitions, can be telling you things.  Everyone is different in the way their intuition communicates to them. Maybe you get a feeling or an image. Perhaps you even get a sound or a song. Sometimes when tracking deer, I'll get a particular song coming through in my mind that for me is connected to the deer. When that happens, I pay attention to it. I might look down at that moment when I hear the song and see a fresh deer trail in front of me.

You have to learn how intuition speaks to you personally because it can communicate in different ways for different people. The key here is that nature starts to open us to the moment. Through all those textures and patterns, it enriches our capacity to sense on any level. The key point is to sense. Be with nature. Notice what comes up. As these patterns emerge, follow up on them, and see what they have to tell you. This is how you build your intuitive vocabulary.

Pathway: What's the difference between intuition and instinct?

Josh: Oftentimes these get blurred together. I even see this in modern consciousness research where researchers are confounding these two things. I think of instinct as the body's memory. You could say this is inherited through adaptation. Countless generations have survived by training the body to respond to external cues in order to survive. That information can be encoded on an epigenetic level. This is what Rupert Sheldrake calls the morphogenetic field. You also see this idea in traditional Chinese medicine. It is an energetic aspect that informs the body through acupuncture meridians. The idea is this— the body is informed by the information contained in an energetic field. With each generation, there's an encoding that builds up a database of action and reaction for how to survive. Some of these patterns go dormant when they're not needed. Sometimes they activate again. When you have an instinctual experience, you can think of it as the voice of the ancestors communicating through genetic or energetic encoding. This helps us to survive and thrive. Instinct can speak through a "gut feeling" that we're all familiar with. However, it might speak in other ways.

Sometimes instinct can be confused with intuition. With instinct, I think of it this way— what is it that my senses or past experience have access to right now? You might experience a mind's eye flash that alerts you to danger from the part of our brain and sensory system that's always detecting danger. It says, "Hey, the birds have actually stopped singing right now!" You get a flash in your mind's eye of a Cooper's Hawk. This is where the line can get blurry between intuition and instinct. Instinct can communicate danger, but so can intuition. I think of instinct as being based on our past ancestral experience combined with our own life experiences.  This combination makes a deduction based on the information that's coming through on an unconscious level.

If I get a mind's eye flash that is a sense of knowing or feeling with no context for how I know this information, then that is intuition. I might get a flash of information about something far away from me physically. Perhaps it is something I perceive will occur in the future. That's intuition. That's when you're entering what quantum physicists call the "non-local realm." This occurs when you're accessing information that is not local to where your physical body is now. You're bordering on what we might call the spiritual realm. To me this is where intuition really shines through. This is the voice of that part of ourselves that connects to that non-local realm— the larger field of information that we are all part of. It's where you see that oneness of nature coming through in everything. We are all interconnected in some mysterious way to this. When we get into that quiet mind in nature, it starts to connect you to this larger field of life.

Pathways: If someone is new to spending time in nature, what is a good way to start training your intuition?

Josh: I often suggest that people should begin by walking very slowly. Try slowing down to a third or quarter of your usual speed. Feel each footstep. Be fully in your senses. Notice how you are feeling physically and emotionally. Tend to your physical needs first. This will allow you to be more fully present. Are you feeling open and receptive to nature? How do you feel internally? Once you are present, expand your senses outward. Notice what's going on with the birds and the wind. Notice the scent of the air. Open each of your senses fully. I go deep into this in my book, Conscious Nature. I teach the four stages of meditating outdoors. Each stage is designed to help tap into your intuition. As you get into your senses, start to notice if things arise on the screen of your mind's eye. As your senses notice things, do you get a flash of anything in your mind's eye or a sense of knowing? It could even be a gut feeling that there might be something interesting to check out in a particular direction. Some people call this "body radar." Follow up on your intuition. Explore nature and see what you discover. This is how you build trust and capacity with intuition because intuition is a sense. The more you work with it, the more it comes to life. This is what I teach in my course Exploring Intuition in Nature. It only takes ten to fifteen minutes a day to make a difference and to start developing your intuition.

Pathways: Why would someone studying the art of ninjutsu want to learn these skills?

Josh: Ninjutsu and nature really flow together as an expression of being in the moment. Being present is a prerequisite for the practice of developing intuition. Whether you're on the mat, in a real life conflict situation, or in the woods, cultivating presence through the senses is going to give you an advantage. This skill informs you of  what is actually happening in a situation. This opens the door towards greater sensitivity through attunement. Attunement means that you are able to adjust and detect changes in the moment and shift accordingly. Sometimes receiving intuition is about what's going to happen next.

The dojo and nature go hand in hand. Going into nature is an extension of the training that you do in the dojo. Nature becomes the dojo. Nature teaches you to be present in the moment and to attune. The more that you practice this in nature, the more it improves your awareness when inside in the dojo.  This training is a good expression of "nin" or perseverance. To persevere is to invite yourself into the present moment again and again, instead of getting lost in thoughts and concerns or worrying about the past or future. Ask yourself- what is the opportunity and gift of the moment?

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

Josh: If you found this useful, I definitely would invite you to check out my book Conscious Nature and also check out my course Exploring Intuition and Nature. These resources are designed to build a framework for cultivating intuition.  I teach you how to access some very deep, intuitive meditation states. These states of being connect your conscious mind to your unconscious mind using the wisdom of the body  and the field of information to be found in nature. These teachings are built step-by-step so that you can build these skills into your daily practice. These practices are skills you can do both indoors and outdoors, wherever you are, to cultivate your intuition. Calm waters reflect the image of the landscape. As you step deeper into the quiet mind, you find that still place inside of yourself where you begin to reflect that which is around you. If you find that place of quiet inside yourself, you will find a doorway to your intuition.

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As Josh describes above, intentionally slowing down in nature while tuning in to all of your senses is a great way to become present in the moment and thus start training your intuition. Check out the video below from our Ninjas in Nature Program that describes a technique called "body radar". One thing we hear in the dojo often from Dai Shihan Mark Roemke is that "Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast." This is a great way to learn how to embody this concept.

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