Open post

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/

**********

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.

Open post

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.

********

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.

 

Open post

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.
********

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.

********

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.

Open post

Respect

In today's post we look for the intersection of the dojo and nature with respect to...well...respect. Sensei Roemke has a short story of learning how to become "invisible" in nature through the practice of respect.

He also has a short video at the end where he teaches ways to practice respect in the dojo.

In a previous post, Sensei Roemke went tracking with a local instructor who introduced him to the art of bird language.

That tracker was a guy named Jon Young.

There's a little more to that story that Sensei wanted to share with you. It's about how approaching life from a place of respect not only will make you "invisible," but it will also get you far in life.

I'll let Sensei tell you the rest of the story...

Did you know that showing respect can make you invisible? Here's how.

I was on a tracking hike with Jon Young. The first thing we did when we went out on the landscape was to pull in our concentric rings of disturbance by quieting externally and internally. Being a lifelong student is one of my favorite mindsets. It's amazing how much you can learn in just a short time if your cup is empty enough to be open to learn new things by just listening and observing without talking.

On this day with Jon, we were going down the trail when we came to a narrow point where two bushes were on opposite  sides of the trail, close to each other. There were some small birds that were flying from one bush to the other, each flying across one at a time.

Jon raised his hand to signal us to stop. He said quietly, "We can't go through that threshold there. Those are some of the most aware birds on the landscape. If we just go blasting through there, they will send out alarms. They'll blow our cover and we won't be part of the baseline of everything here in the forest."

I had never heard of this before. I was intrigued.

We waited. While we were waiting, I started counting birds. I counted twenty-eight birds that crossed between the bushes.

Then Jon asked, "Are there any birds left in the bush?"

"I have no idea," I replied.

He jokingly said, "Use the force Luke."

I laughed and tuned-in to my senses. "I think there's one left," I said.

"You are right. There's one left, and it's not going to let us pass. It doesn't know where we are yet. So, just bend down and start to pretend to pick at foliage and pretend to eat it. It will think we are feeding," said Jon.

So we did just that. We bent over and pretended to pick plants and bring them to our mouth. We took our intent off of looking at the bird and were just busy with our own pretend foraging.

The bird still wouldn't move.

"Ok, it's not going to let us go by. We're going to go around in a different direction," he said.

The bird still didn't make any noises. We casually turned 90 degrees to our right and went off trail and went in another direction.

Then Jon stopped and said, "Just act like you are foraging for food again." So, we resumed this practice.

Before long, a small covey of California quail appeared. Quail are usually very skittish. When they see people they usually run or fly away while making a lot of alarm calls. When these quail came out, one of them flew up to a nearby tree about six feet off the ground. It looked over toward the other bush where the previous little bird was, and then it looked back at us. The quail gave no alarm. The rest of the quail walked by us while continuing to eat. Soon they were right next to us, less than two feet away!

They didn't seem to notice us.

And then a rabbit hopped out and looked at us, then looked at the quail. Then it began to eat from a nearby bush. It was only two to three feet away.

I thought...what is going on?! This is awesome!

That was the first time that I had this lesson of respecting nature.

The reason I was able to respect nature was because of my martial arts training. In my training, I have been told so many times- when you enter the dojo, put your hands by your side and give a respectful bow to honor the space. It's the same feeling for entering nature.

To show respect to nature means that you don't go blasting into a landscape unaware and create disturbances to all the animals, including people. Magical things will unfold if you are coming from a place of respect.

When you are respectful in the dojo, it gets noticed. For example, when one of the teachers is leading a lesson, I will usually take a knee so the people behind me can see. Other people in the room will often notice and will also take a knee. It shows that my intent is to pay attention. I am quieting myself.

Respect will get you a long way in life. When you learn how to give a good handshake and look people in the eye, that opens doors because people feel validated. When this happens, people are much more willing to share more with you, especially teachers.

*********

Below is a short video by Sensei where he teaches how to practice respect in the dojo.

 

 

Open post

Place of Power Hand Mudra

In today's post, Dai Shihan Mark Roemke shares a technique for locking in the energy of a place of power.

Sensei says...

There is a special hand mudra that I was taught in ninjutsu that you put by your heart. When you do this mudra, you can focus your mind and intent. You can use it to "take a picture" mentally, physically, and with your emotional or spirit body. You can do this on landscapes around the planet that you connect to deeply and then use the mudra to return to this place later as a way to refocus your mind, body, and spirit.

Similar to holding your hands to pray, or using rosary or mala beads, this hand mudra creates a focal point using tactile touch. This helps to direct your mind. Where the mind goes, the chi flows. Where the chi flows the healing goes. You can use this mudra for healing or to invoke your personal power if you are scared or unsettled.

One way to use this mudra is to place it by your heart when you are at a place that you connect to deeply in nature. For example, this could be in a place looking over the ocean on a calm, serene day with a nice sunset or sunrise. Or it could be a really stormy day when there is a lot of amazing power and energy being shifted through wind and swells. Or it could be a the top of a mountain where there is an amazing view and you feel fully alive in your body, mind, and spirit from the physical exertion of climbing. When you are at the top of the mountain and you look out over the beautiful scene, this would be a good place to do this mudra.

I like to call this taking a picture with my heart.

But remember too that nature is everywhere, and that some of the deepest connections to the natural world can happen in your own back yard or a nearby park. These would be good places to do this mudra as well.

Later on, if you are sitting at your office, or at home, you can take a moment and do this mudra. It helps you to instantly go back to those places of power where you took that heart picture. You can go back mentally, emotionally, and physically to tap into this feeling.

You can also do this with your spirit arms. You don't have to physically use your arms.

For example, if a suspicious person is approaching you, and you think that you might need to be in a confrontation, you can imagine your arms doing this mudra by your heart and you will experience the same feeling. It can help empower your mind, body, and spirit so that you will not be overtaken by fear.

I have done this mudra all over the world- in Japan, in high mountains, under waterfalls, and many other beautiful places that I connected to deeply and considered sacred. I wanted to be able to "lock-in" so that I could return to those places whenever I felt the need.

I hope this helps you out. Check out the video below from our NTTV Live online classes where I show you how to do this hand mudra. In this class you can train live with me weekly and request skills and get instant feedback from my Ninjatrainingtv.com curriculum.

Just remember that FEAR is just an acronym for Forgetting Everything is All Right.

***********

A footnote (from Ken) to this teaching...

My daughter learned this technique in the NTTV Live class with Sensei Roemke the other day. The next day we were out with our Ninjas in Nature Youth Program making rope ladders and then practicing the art of disappearing into the the trees. My daughter was the first to climb into the tree. She disappeared high into the tree. Several other young ninjas followed up the ladder and scrambled around the lower branches of the tree. I noticed my daughter was being very still.

Later when we were packing the car she said to me,

"Daddy, do you know what I was doing in the top of the tree?"

"What?" I replied.

"I was doing the finger weaving Mark taught us the other night to lock-in sugar maple power."

 

Place of Power Hand Mudra

Open post

The Ultimate Free Ninja Pillow

Ok, I know what you are thinking.

This is a promotion for a new ultimate sleeping pillow made specifically for ninjas right? You can buy a ninja blender, so why not a ninja pillow. I'm sure it's already been thought of. But I'm avoiding the urge to google it right now.

This is a different kind of pillow. This pillow comes with an added serving of instinctual training, a helping of bird language, and a pinch of baseline in this recipe.

Oh, and it is free and always available.

What?

Today we have a bird language story plus a fun instinctual training exercise by Sensei Roemke. And, we will relate everything to this mysterious aforementioned pillow.

I want to share a short story that just happened to me on my back porch as I was watching the sunrise, drinking my morning mate, and tuning into the language of the birds.

What's bird language? If you didn't catch the recent blog by Jon Young, who literally wrote the book on bird language, I highly recommend that you check it out. He talks about why ninjas should listen to the birds.

Back to my porch.

It's spring here, and the bird activity is off the charts, especially at dawn. The dawn chorus, when the birds wake up and begin singing in full force, is starting well before 6 am here. This morning I grabbed my morning brew and went to my favorite chair on my back porch to tune my ears into the bird language.

My first thought...I need to recalibrate baseline.

What is baseline?

The natural world has its own daily and seasonal rhythms. To know baseline means that you tune your awareness into this pattern of the symphony of nature that happens all around you. The animals have patterns of activity, much like you and I. Naturalist Dan Gardoqui spoke about how he uses baseline to get close to animals for photography or hunting in a recent post.

At my previous home in California, I had some neighbors whom you could set your watch by. As I sat on my front porch at dawn to listen to the birds, the baker at the local donut shop would walk by. A couple minutes later, a local jogger in a funny 1980's sweat suit would run by heading east. He wore those old-school giant headphones with the antennas sticking out of them. Loved watching that guy. Always made me smile.

Think of the animals similarly. Okay, maybe not with the headphones. The red squirrels in my yard have their morning feeding routines and routes. The same is true with the birds.

There is a baseline to the daily sounds of the birds that is like the score to a musical song. There are crescendos of sound, times of quiet, and then more peaks throughout the day. For example, at sunrise during the dawn chorus, there is a peak of singing, as if the birds are claiming once again...

"I'm alive! The owl did not eat me! Hey! This is my territory!"

After this, the singing typically will settle down as the birds remember..."I'm hungry!" and start putting less energy into singing, and more into feeding. After a full belly, there may be times of rest and quiet (sound familiar?), and then more occasional song to maintain territory. Then at the end of the day there is often a lot of nervous singing and posturing as birds announce territory one more time before scrambling to find a perch to roost upon.

The key to bird language is to recognize baseline, which is a state of activity when the birds aren't having their lives threatened.  Then, notice the deviations from this normal relaxed state. These deviations often appear as alarm calls from the birds.

Here's a simple visual of what baseline with the birds can look like.

But...here's the catch. Baseline for the birds shifts seasonally, and even daily if things like storms approach. Once birds are sitting on eggs, the adult singing diminishes.

Why?

Because there are a LOT of nest predators out there looking for tasty snacks. The birds need to go into stealth mode. Things get even more paranoid with the adults once a bunch of loud-mouthed, uncoordinated, hungry nestlings hatch and then fledge the nest. It's like ringing the dinner bell for the hawks.

For most species of birds, fewer than 50% of of the birds that hatch make it to adulthood. Think about what that means in terms of bird awareness of predators.

So...back to my porch.

I was settling in, hot cup of brew in my hand. The thought in my head was ..."I wonder what baseline looks like this morning?"

But then, unexpectedly things took a left turn into the instinctual zone.

Pillow of silence!

I hadn't even had a chance to start mentally mapping all the cardinal and chickadee vocal locations when this thought popped into my head.

One of the things I've learned over the years from both tracking and martial arts instructors who teach instinctual training is this- "trust your gut" or to trust your first impression. Otherwise, the mind jumps in and starts to mess things up by analyzing and confusing things.

So what is a pillow of silence? This is a concept I learned from Jon Young. Basically silence is an alarm.

Imagine you are at a crowded music concert (remember those?). Everyone is dancing and singing. Then suddenly the music stops. Everyone stops dancing, gets quiet and stares in one direction. It would most likely freak you out and make you really nervous. You would be in a pillow of silence.

The same thing happens in the bird world. The cause of this is often a bird of prey such as a Cooper's hawk. These hawks are designed to survive by feeding on other birds. And they are sneaky and quiet. Imagine an assassin that lurked outside your home every day, with big daggers on the end of their limbs, waiting to pounce on you. Welcome to the world of the little chickadee.

As I shifted my awareness to three dimensional listening- in front, behind, right, left, above, and below me where I sat on my porch, I noticed a few things.

The chickadees were singing their morning "cheeseburger" territorial song, but they were farther away than usual, as if a big bubble had pushed them away all around me.

I noticed too on the ground in the yard below our porch, there were no birds feeding. During baseline, birds are relaxed. Feeding on the ground casually is an example of birds behaving in baseline. Usually our yard would have sparrows, juncos, robins, and cardinals hopping about on the ground searching for breakfast.

Hmm. I thought. I wonder if there is a Cooper's hawk around?

No sooner had I thought this, when I noticed the flapping of wings in the top of the white pine on the north side of our yard. A moment later a Coopers Hawk flew out and headed to some trees on the south side of our yard. As it did this robins erupted in what is known as a "bullet" flight as they flew away from the hawk, and a blue jay flew to a "sentinel" perch in the top of a nearby pine to watch, both alarm behaviors.

Within just a couple minutes of the hawk's departure, a downy woodpecker began its territorial drumming from the pine next to our yard where the hawk had emerged. Then, the chickadees all moved closer to the periphery of our yard and resumed their "cheeseburger" songs.

The quiet buffer zone I witnessed is known as a pillow of silence. Typically, everywhere a Cooper's hawk flies, it creates these zones of silence and stillness in the birds around it.

But then my yard became quiet again. This time, however, it had a different feel to it.

A robin landed in the yard and started hunting, as did a cardinal. Feeding time. A bluebird flew by and landed on the top of our birdhouse that we recently built to poke its head in the nest box hole. This was a return to baseline.

Learning bird language is one of the best ways to train your "spidey" senses. At first you don't have to know the names of the birds, or who is making the song, though eventually it will help. If you listen deeply you can feel the level of intensity in their songs or alarms.

When you hear a bird, ask yourself...how does that sound feel? Is it nervous, relaxed, contacting it's mate? This is the first step to understanding bird language.

 

In the Bujinkan, there is a well known test that is given to those going for their 5th degree black belt, or Godan. In this test a Dai Shihan or the Grandmaster Hatsumi Sensei will stand behind the kneeling ninja student while holding a training sword above their head. The student must sense the exact moment when the sword is coming down toward their head in order to roll out of the way.

At Pathways Dojo, we occasionally practice other methods for training our instinctual awareness. Check out the Energy Sensing video below by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke. This is a fun activity that we do in the dojo to heighten our sensitivity.

Next time you head outside, see if you can sense baseline and the alarms. The pillow is free. It's always been around you. It just takes practice to learn to recognize it. Who knows, it might even help you detect that sword behind you one day.

Open post

Decoding Nature’s Secrets

In our last post, we interviewed renowned tracker and naturalist Jon Young who introduced the world of bird language to Sensei Roemke. Bird language reveals how listening to birds can teach us the art of invisibility on a landscape. In this post we interview Dan Gardoqui who specializes in teaching people how to get close to animals.
Sensei Roemke also shares one of our favorite meditation exercises for quieting the mind, which is key to getting close to wild animals.
Over thirty years ago, one of Jon's first students was a young guy named Dan Gardoqui.  Today Dan is one of the preeminent trackers, naturalists, and mentors of nature connection in North America. He co-founded and was Executive Director for the White Pines Program in Maine. He lives in Maine today where he runs Lead With Nature which offers consulting, coaching, online training, and more for those wishing to tap into a deeper awareness of nature. Dan teaches how to use tracking, bird language, and an ecological awareness approach in order to help people get closer to wildlife by "decoding nature's language."
We recently sat down with Dan to get a glimpse under his cranial hood, learn his approach to getting closer to wildlife (including humans), and how this can help us as ninjas.
Pathways: You use a term called "Ecological Awareness." How do you define this and how do you use it to get closer to animals?
Dan: To me it is knowledge of place. It's understanding landscapes, habitats, the animals that inhabit them. For instance, if my goal is to get closer to a moose in the fall, I am going to go to a place on the landscape where I am most likely to find them. So I have to understand what moose are eating, what they are thinking, what they are doing biologically that time of year which is their rut. Or after their rut when they are done breeding, I need to know if they are likely to be alone, or in pairs, or in bachelor groups. If they are in their thicker winter fur and it's a warmer day, they are going to be seeking out cooler and moister areas, so I'm going to have to think about microhabitats. I'm going to have to think about the cool pockets on the landscape. Ecological awareness flows with the rhythms of nature and is about understanding the natural history of animals and how habitats are preferential or not to different animals.
Pathways: In your work you refer to helper species and allies. What are they and how do they help you get closer to animals?
Dan: This one is fun. "Helper" is a bit biased. It implies that the animals have the intention of being helpful to humans, and they may actually. I'm not sure we can say they definitely do or definitely don't. Some of the most well known examples are of ravens. There are many stories about these birds and how they sometimes act as guides to help people or other animals find certain things on a landscape, such as carcasses or prey species. If you pay attention to some basics of how ravens communicate, and if you are open to the fact that you are in communication with them, because frankly we all are in communication with the animals in one way or another whether we are conscious of it or not, then they can truly help you with some of your goals. The flip side of this relationship is that the ravens also get a benefit. For instance, if you are a hunter, and the ravens are helping you find your prey, after you successfully get that animal, you may leave parts of that animal behind after you process it. Then, the ravens will benefit from this food. There are other examples of this such as the honey guides in Africa.
 
Pathways: If I live in a city or don't have a lot of experience in nature practicing these techniques, what is a good skill to begin with?
Dan: Listening, sitting still and giving your attention to the more-than-human world. It's important to pay attention to humans as well. Knowing our human behaviors and patterns is really helpful and wise when we want to stay safe and alert. But, also start to pay attention to everything else. It can be pigeons, crows, rats, squirrels, little sparrows. Start to give your attention to things that are not human and be open to a fact that they are speaking a language that we can understand. Just start being curious, ask questions, and develop relationships with them. The more you spend time in the same place, quietly listening and observing and being open, chances are those individuals are going to get used to you being there. When you give them your attention and respect, they are probably going to do the same for you. Start by just listening, watching, and giving them space. Say you are walking down a sidewalk, and there's a pigeon in front of you feeding on the sidewalk, just slow down and go around it. If you start to give birds a little more space and respect, it changes the dynamics, and it changes the way you see the world.
How does quieting the mind relate to getting close to animals? What is a technique that you use for this?
Dan: This is what I was just talking about. Doing the quiet sits and giving birds your attention and respect for example. Doing this just helps us get out of our own little bubble of thoughts, emotions, and things that might cause disturbance around us. If you think of yourself as moving through a pond, when the mind is quiet, the ripples you cause and the way you move is much smoother, so there are many less ripples or disturbances. When the mind is busy, we tend to cause quite a wake, ahead and behind us. This tends to push things away from us. Many species are very sensitive to our thoughts and emotions, and where we are in our heads, including our own species. It's easy to tell if your family or friends are in a tough space or not. So it's silly to think that wildlife can't detect this as well. Whatever helps you to get to this calm mental space, be it yoga, breathing exercises, or meditation, it's going to help you be more "invisible" in the forest. But it's not really being invisible to me because that means we are trying to hide from something. To me it's more about having integrity with the vibe of a forest or nature. It's not thinking that our human existence is the most important thing. It's just being open to all the other things that exist around us.
You use movement, camouflage and stealth as a method for getting closer to animals. What are some of your preferred techniques in this area?
Dan: This is a big one. You need to spend a lot of time outside in nature to get to understand the baseline of those places before you decide the techniques you are going to use to blend in with that place. For instance, the pace that you would move in a busy city street in rush hour in order to blend in better be pretty quick. Whereas the pace you are going to use in a quieter rural wild area will probably be a bit slower. So getting to know the baseline of a place and how to blend in with that baseline and how to be invisible, that's part of the stealth and camouflage. So you really need to know a place. Camouflage is not just about colors and patterns. It's about our energy and speed, our body movements, and where we put our eyes. There's all sorts of little tricks in there.
You teach people to "decode nature's language" in order to get closer to wild animals. Do you have a favorite or recent short story about doing this?
Dan: I have lots of great failures. It's really hard to do sometimes. I think that's really important to know. You shouldn't just walk out the door and think, "I'm going to take you to the bobcat licking her paws with her babies next to her." That almost never happens to me. That's because there is an early warning system in the wild that is used by every animal that is paying attention. Every animal that is awake and alert is warning each other when there is trouble coming. So that's part of the decoding- being aware that early warnings exist. The second part is tuning into it and getting to understand it by practicing and testing it out. The third part is being able to manipulate this system. It's like hacking the system and using it to your advantage.
An example of this happened last fall when I was turkey hunting in the woods behind my place. I am an avid birder and conservationist, but I also hunt birds. On this day, I approached an area pretty quickly where I thought there might be a flock of turkeys. One technique for hunting turkeys is to bust up a flock and then camouflage yourself and hide, then try to call them back. Often it's successful. On this day, I tried this and it didn't work. This group was a bunch of male Tom turkeys. They didn't separate, but instead stayed together. So I tried tracking them and that wasn't working. So I decided to do some predictive tracking. I imagined where they would move. I visualized in my mind's eye the landscape- all the slopes, wet spots, dark spots, spots for feeding, and hiding. I thought of the direction they took off in. So I sneaked quietly away from my spot and I listened to the birds. I listened to what was the baseline with the birds. I listened for alarms. I was able to move quietly without scaring any birds. I moved around birds that were feeding so as not to spook them because the turkeys would key in on this. Eventually I moved across the landscape at a very, very slow stalking pace while listening, breathing, and waiting. Then I repeated the process- stalking, listening, breathing, waiting. I noticed some chickadees doing their typical calls and songs. But then I noticed that they suddenly stopped. Without even thinking, this made me realize that the turkeys were nearby. I quickly raised my weapon and waited. About ten seconds later I saw a large gobbler walk by about ten yards from me. He seemed a bit nervous which made me wonder if he also heard the chickadees stop singing. When the chickadees stopped their singing, this was a slight change in the baseline. This was a moment of decoding nature's language for me. It doesn't always go this way. But this time I was able to intercept this animal.
I just had some pulled turkey leg sliders with some friends the other day.
*****************
Dan mentions that meditation can help build integrity with the vibe of nature. In the video below, Sensei Roemke shares a meditation technique that will help quiet your mind in nature and help to close the gap between you and the animals around you.
If you want to learn more, check out Dan's programs at Lead With Nature.
If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to get the latest from our Ninja Blog or you can train live online with us with our PNT or NTTV Live training programs.
Open post

How a bird can teach a ninja to be invisible

In our last post, Sensei Roemke told the story of his first lesson in Bird Language when he went on a hike with a local tracking expert, and how that helped him as a practitioner of the art of ninjutsu.

Spoiler alert...the tracker was a man named Jon Young.

To take a deeper dive into the art of bird language, we recently connected with Jon, a renowned author, tracker, naturalist, and mentor. Jon is a guiding force in bringing the practice of deep nature connection to the planet and is a pioneering voice in teaching the ancient art of bird language through his workshops and book, What the Robin Knows.

We sat down with Jon recently to pick his bird brain on the art of understanding what the birds are telling us and how this awareness can benefit a student of ninjutsu.

Pathways: Jon, can you describe bird language?

JY: Birds talk to each other. We can learn to understand them, and it's fun. And it's not just birds. It’s birds and other animals communicating with each other’s sounds, motions, and body language. Most animals, including birds, in the natural world cooperate in this shared communication. The exception today are modern human beings who have forgotten this important network. Wildlife all pay attention to each other because it gives all those involved in the conversation many more eyes and ears. This keeps everyone safe.

Pathways: Can you give us an example of bird language?

JY: An example of bird language happened here on the evening of March 16. As the sun was going down. There were some deer feeding in the yard peacefully. There were three adult male deer and two yearling males. The yearlings were being yearlings. They were playing with each other. They were going off a little bit too far from from their uncles who would coax them back to the herd. The five bucks were feeding peacefully out in the meadow. At one point, a young male wandered off into the forest, on the east side of the field. Then on the west side of the field, where there is a forest edge, something changed. Out of that forest edge came the alarm call of the spotted towhee slowly moving from south to north following something unseen on the ground.

The spotted towhee alarm caught the attention of the adult male deer, all three of whom raised their ears very high, piquing their interest and stared with total focus in the direction of the alarming towhee. The adult bucks stomped their front foot lightly—not to make sound but to show the young deer that there's danger. Both young deer came over and hung out with the three older deer.

The next morning, my partner Sarah went out to the place where the towhee was calling from to look for tracks and sign. Sarah found the tracks of a mountain lion. Later that afternoon, Sarah and I continued trailing that mountain lion for another 40 yards. The lion had traveled exactly where the towhee had been calling.

Pathways: Why should ninja’s learn bird language?

JY: Deer listen to bird language and it keeps them safe. A Ninja could learn from the deer to have awareness of bird language. If invisibility is what we're about as ninjas, it's very similar to the scout tradition of the Apaches, which is where my mentor, Tom Brown learned bird language from. He passed this scout skill on to me.

As a scout or a ninja, you have to move on the landscape and not scare the birds. This would tell other scouts or ninjas that you're there. Through bird language study, I learned to tell that a person is coming from two minutes away. That’s two minutes before they arrive to where I am in the forest. I know a person is coming.

What if you had two minutes to prepare for the arrival of you opponent?

The reason I can tell a person is coming is due to the fact that they're not paying attention to bird language.

The other day, I was in a Scout game that was offered to me by my mentor Tom. We were pretending we were behind enemy lines and had to get to a destination without alerting the Scouts on the other team. When I went to the destination, I made sure not to scare the squirrel, not to scare the robins, and not to scare the juncos.

When I arrived at the destination, the juncos were all feeding peacefully on the ground around me. This means that I managed to be ‘invisible’. If a scout or ninja had been looking for the approach of a human by the alarm that I created, they wouldn't have observed any alarm. I have a relationship with the birds where I pay attention to what they're saying to me. They let me know if I'm getting too close so I don't scare them. I'm always watching the birds, always trying to be careful not to disturb them when I'm moving around. That way I can get close to wildlife without them knowing I'm coming either.

Remember, the deer are like the ultimate ninjas. The deer are like the ultimate scouts. When deer don't want to be seen, they choose invisibility—bird language tells them where YOU are, and they can avoid you with plenty of room to spare.

Sometimes deer come out and feed in your yard. And, there’s other deer who just don't ever want to be seen. Bears don't want to be seen. Wolves don't want to be seen. All of them use bird language to keep away from us.

Think about how that might come in handy for you if you were in a ninja game or a real situation where you had to be invisible, but there might be a scout or a ninja who knows bird language on the other team.

Pathways: How does learning bird language affect us?

JY: Bird language really helps our brains. Also it opens up our awareness of the three dimensional space and has deep neurological benefits that brings us to the quiet mind. In the quiet mind, we’re able to hold silence and not be stressed out by the anxious thoughts that run through our head. Awareness of bird language allows us to be present in the moment. Of course, it allows us to see a lot more when we are moving around.

There's other benefits that emerge as you build relationships with the birds and wildlife right outside your back door.

Pathways: How can someone begin to learn bird language?

JY: Place a chair just outside your door. Simply sit outside several times a day in the same spot and get to know the birds that live right around you. Watch how they are with each other get to know them as individuals. Get to know them as friends over time. You'll learn that this particular junco has a different personality than another one.

Watch how the birds and wildlife interact with each other. You'll see a lot of really interesting things. This has great benefits to your three dimensional spatial problem solving capabilities, and will really sharpen your intuition—this can be really helpful to ninja. This will bring you a greater sense of peace, and this makes you and me function a lot better.

Pathways: Anything else we should know?

JY: The only other thing I would say is practice bird language everyday by going out into your yard to watch birds and wildlife in their routines. Watch as they move between a state of relaxation—when they're feeding, singing or doing other maintenance behaviors—versus when they look tense and nervous. Learn to understand why they're doing that, and eventually you'll figure out “Oh, they suddenly got nervous and all flew away and then a hawk arrived!”

You'll actually learn to see things in advance.

*****************

If you want to go even deeper into the practice of Bird Language, I highly recommend Jon’s book, What the Robbin Knows.

One practice that we use with our Ninjas in Nature program to introduce the concept of bird language is to make a sound map while outdoors in nature. This activity works for any age. And, like training in ninjutsu, you learn much more if you can do this skill with partners, where people are scattered across a landscape and then compare notes at the end.

Check out the short video below that shows how to make a bird language map.

The more you practice this skill, the more you will start noticing patterns. Before long you will be on your way to detecting stalking mountain lions and sneaky ninjas in the forest.

If you enjoyed this latest installment, you can subscribe to our blog below. If you want to train with us live online each week check out our NTTV Live or Pathways Ninja Training Classes.

Bird Language

Open post

Should Ninjas Listen to Birds?

One thing that Sensei Roemke and I share in common is that we both used to go on patrol in nature as a job occupation. Another thing we have in common is that we both eventually had our minds blown by the language of birds.

In the video below Sensei Roemke shares a technique for moving through nature silently in a state of heightened awareness called Shinobi Yoko Aruki. This skill will come in really handy if you want to move invisibly through the forest. And, the technique relates to birds and ninjas.

Full disclosure…I used to be a “bird nerd.” Okay, actually once a bird nerd, always a bird nerd. It’s impossible not to notice them once you start paying attention.

I was a professional ornithologist for the better part of twenty years. I began as a ranger patrolling the Brooks Range in the Arctic of Alaska. While on patrol, we were supposed to record all the birds we saw. I was new to Alaska at the time and was unfamiliar with the local birds. So, I started with the easier, big birds…first learning to identify the eagles, then gradually moving to smaller birds such as ravens, owls, hawk owls, and falcons. Eventually I learned to identify the LBBs (a.k.a. the Little Brown Birds).

I then moved to Hawaii where I had to learn an entirely new suite of birds as a wildlife biologist. These birds were sometimes really tiny, lived at the top of the dense forest canopy, and often made quiet "whisper" songs. In other words...they were a real challenge to learn.

Eventually I figured those birds out too. At that point, I thought I knew a lot about birds.

Then I met people who new about the ancient art of “bird language”. Mind blowing stuff.

What is bird language? In short, the birds are communicating to each other about all the threats that are moving through the forest, including us. Learn this, and you have the keys to moving "invisibly" through nature.

But I’ll take a Shinobi Yoko Aruki step or two to the side and let Sensei Roemke take over to tell you his story first about meeting someone who understood this language.

Tag. You're it Sensei…

When I was in the army we were taught to use our sense of sight, smell and hearing to try and detect the enemy when on patrol. My martial arts awareness training complimented this military training. Through years of martial arts training, I learned how to heighten my awareness.

I thought I was pretty good at finding ambushes and booby traps using my senses until the day I went on a hike with a tracking instructor.

I really love being a student and am always seeking new teachers. When I met a local tracking instructor, we soon realized that we had a common interest in the natural world. He was interested in ninjutsu, so we decided to trade skills with each other. He would take me tracking, and I would teach him ninjutsu.

He took me to a trail in the nearby redwood hills near where I live in Santa Cruz. A few miles into our morning hike we stopped. He turned to me and said, “Let's just stand here for a minute and tune in.”

We stood there quietly for a few moments, paying attention to the sounds of the forest.

All of the sudden, a large group of birds flew down the trail over our heads. The instructor turned to me and said,“There's going to be two people coming down the trail in about two minutes. Start your watch.”

I looked at my watch, and we waited.

Then, in exactly one minute, fifty-nine seconds, two people came hiking down the trail.

“Good morning!” they said with smiles on their faces. I stood there looking at them in disbelief.

I just had my mind blown.

I learned more in those two hours of training with my tracker friend about sensory awareness than I did from all of my training in the military.

What I learned was that the birds can teach you so much. They give you an understanding of what is around you.

That morning made me think about the ninjas of old times, and how they could use their observations of birds to tell where people were. I have heard Hatsumi Sensei say, “Go back to nature to learn.”

He wasn't kidding.

It really helps to have a mentor or instructor to help guide you down the path. I feel lucky to have met a lot of great teachers in my life.

But I know what you are thinking…

“Lucky you! You had a tracking instructor living near you.”

Yes, but not to worry.

If you don’t happen to have one on your street corner, we have one lined up for you in the next blog. Master tracker and naturalist Jon Young will be dropping by in the next blog to give us some tips about learning bird language.

Until then, if you want to move silently through the world, and not freak out all the birds (who are more than happy to give your location away), I have a skill for you to practice.

It’s a silent walk that the ninjas developed called Shinobi Yoko Aruki, or “silent sideways walking”. This move also allows you to avoid looking at your feet so that you can expand your awareness around you. I also include a technique that we used in the military to spin 360 degrees while doing this move.

Shinobi Yoko Aruki

I hope you enjoyed this one. This video is part of our White to Black Belt training series at Ninja Training Tv.

If you want to hear another bird language story, checkout another previous post The Sword and the Whisper Song.

Bird language is amazing stuff. Get ready to have your mind blown in this series on the birds and learn what it truly means to become invisible in nature.

Open post

The Sword and the Whisper Song

Recently I was sitting on my back porch, watching the sunrise, and tuning in to the language of the birds around me. Bird language is a little different than typical bird watching or bird identification by song. Bird language is a three dimensional practice of being aware of not just who is out there communicating, but what the landscape is telling you through the soundscape. Among other things, it teaches you how to detect alarms in the forest of approaching danger, well before you actually see or encounter it.

On this recent morning I heard a whisper song that I had never detected before. What's a whisper song? Most people are familiar with bird songs. But there is a subset of birds that have an additional, much more subtle addition to their playlist- the whisper song. These are very quiet, almost murmurings of songs, whispered by a few birds.
I had first learned of whisper songs while doing bird surveys in Hawaii. I was part of teams that would annually trek from the tops of volcanoes, through thick impenetrable fern covered native forests, all the way to the ocean in some cases. We would stop at designated locations, listen, then record the species of birds we heard. Many of these birds were endangered. Some have since vanished from the planet. Some sang very stealthy whisper songs. These were the hardest to detect. Imagine a recording of a squeaky wheel on a grocery cart, turned down to the lowest volume, and played 100 meters away. That's how challenging it was to hear these songs.
I had forgotten about whisper songs when I moved to California and changed professions (to become an educator). Then, one day I was sitting in my backyard watching my son try to lure a local Scrub Jay to come down and take a peanut off his head. That's when I heard a quiet murmuring of a whisper song behind me. To my surprise, there was a Scrub Jay, perched on the roof, looking at us while going through a near-silent repertoire of babble. I doubted what I was hearing until I did some research and sure enough, the local jays were known for occasional whisper songs.
Fast forward to the East coast where I live now. I was on my porch when I heard a very faint Cooper's Hawk call. If you are not familiar with Cooper's hawks, they are deadly to many of your backyard songbirds. They are silent hunters of the forest canopy and subcanopy. They specialize in killing birds. They are especially effective at decimating entire nests of their young. They are also one of the main reasons at the beginning of the fledgling season you see a lot of young birds following their parents screaming for food, and then within a few weeks, many of these young birds disappear.
It took me a moment to realize that what I thought was a distant Cooper's Hawk calling was actually an Eastern Blue Jay in the trees twenty yards away. In California, the Scrub Jays do a near perfect imitation of a Red-Tailed hawk. Whenever I would hear them doing this, I would look to the skies, and usually there would be a Red-Tailed circling overhead. Some believe that this is the way the jays communicate to each other that this predator is nearby.
But this Blue Jay was not only doing a whisper song of a Cooper's Hawk, it seemed to be doing this call to an audience of its three young fledglings. It hopped on a branch by these three birds and quietly did this call. These young birds at the time were being quite noisy with their begging calls. I couldn't help but wonder, was this the parent's way of saying, "Pay attention! Are you listening!! There is a Cooper's Hawk nearby! Do you want to get us killed?!!!"
But what does this have to do with ninjas or swords?
Ancestral knowledge, passed down from one generation to the next, with the intent of ensuring survival.
Two years ago I visited the honbu dojo for a week of training. I watched Soke (the grandmaster) Masaaki Hatsumi, teach about sword evasion. It was so subtle, quiet, a whisper song of movement. He hardly spoke. He deflected and controlled the sword at times with only his fingers, a light touch, sometimes just a single finger. At the time I was a green belt, and I understood that he teaches to the level of the 15th dans, so I know there were many levels of teaching that I wasn't comprehending. Still, I walked out of the dojo that day, struck by the value and effect of soft, subtle, and quiet.
There's another whisper of the sword I have encountered as a student of Sensei Roemke. It's the quiet sound that the sword makes when cutting through the air. It's known as tachikaze, which means "sword wind". It's one thing to hear this sound. It's another to create this sound yourself, and it feels sooooo good when you create tachikaze. Sensei Roemke has entire video sets on sword training if you want to venture down the path of tachikaze.
Here's a recent one from our Pathways Youtube Channel where he teaches how to draw and put away a sword.
Ninja Mentor Suggestion
It's hard to find a youth that is not interested in wielding a sword. Grab a nearby ninja youth. Ask them if they want to "learn how ninjas draw and put away swords". Then go make or find a sword and practice these skills that Sensei Roemke teaches with them.
Within a few days, the family of jays I observed had dwindled from three young birds to two. I had to wonder if the surviving two had actually paid attention to the Cooper's Hawk warning, while the other hadn't. I also wondered if this evasion technique was ancestral knowledge that has been passed down from teacher to student since as long as there have been jays and hawks in the same neighborhood.
Like avoiding the sword, there are valuable lessons to persevere, but sometimes you have to be listening for the whisper song.
Scroll to top