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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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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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The Freedom of Natural Movement

In our recent blog post interview with survival skills expert Tom McElroy, he talked about a specific type of freedom that he connects to through survival skills. In this post we connect with natural movement coach Kyle Koch who talks about another freedom to be found through movement in nature.

If you happen to wander the snowy forests of northern Minnesota on a subzero winter day, you might get a glimpse of a creature bounding through the forest on all fours, dive rolling over logs, and quickly scaling the highest trees. Chances are this is not a Yeti, but instead a person named Kyle Koch who is honing his unique art. Kyle is a former IT software technician turned practitioner and coach of Natural Movement.  Kyle has been facilitating transformative experiences in nature for almost a decade: inspiring youth and adults to connect to their gifts through exploration, play, and curiosity through movement outdoors. Kyle is always expanding his practice through the study and application of functional neurology concepts, traditional strength training, martial arts (Systema), meditation and breathing (Wim Hof Method).

We caught up with Kyle recently (after he came down from the treetops) to learn more about his art.

Pathways: Can you tell us a little about your history/background and what it was that led you to this form of Natural Movement training?

Kyle: I grew up on the outskirts of Milwaukee Wisconsin. When I was younger I was interested in rough housing and physical arts. Later, after becoming an IT technician I realized that all of my personal skills depended upon equipment. I relied solely on technology to express my skills. My life was changed when I took a survival course where they taught us how to make shelter, fire, and how to move in nature. I remember making my first bow drill fire at that course. At that moment I realized my greater potential. I realized I was capable of so much with so little. Then I studied and eventually became an instructor at Wilderness Awareness School in Washington State. After years of sitting at a desk as an IT professional, my experience in the wilderness taught me that nature allowed me to express myself physically in the way that I wanted to be. I’ve been teaching since then. Now I facilitate transformative experiences in nature centered around movement and play.

Pathways: You call your art “Natural Movement.” How do you describe it?

Kyle: I describe it as moving from a place of joy instead of a place of fear. I believe a lot of our movements are dictated by conscious or unconscious fears. Social fears in particular are one of the biggest limits to people's movement on a daily basis.

Pathways: In some of your videos you give the disclaimer that what you teach is not about losing weight or building a specific physique, although becoming fit is a likely side effect of natural movement. Can you explain?

Kyle: I consider fitness as a side effect. If you have a good nutritious diet, healthy social relationships, and a movement rich lifestyle, then looking and feeling good is a natural side effect. However the flip side isn't always true. If you just focus on looking good, it doesn't mean you eat well, have a healthy social life, or a movement rich lifestyle.

Pathways: What are the benefits of the natural movement techniques that you teach?

Kyle: My goal is to help people move towards freedom. By freedom I mean the ability to make choices. Your ability to move can dictate the choices you have. If you don’t use it, you lose it. In our modern world most people do most of their movement at a table. With the kids that I work with, I notice that as they get older, they lose their ability to squat. By time youth reach their teens today, most have lost this ability completely. Most adults avoid spending much time near the ground. With the skills I teach, you can regain many of your lost movements and retain them for the rest of your life. I do a lot with coordinating movement on both sides of the body. This has huge neurological benefits. Moving on the ground on all fours also has huge neurological benefits, especially for those who haven’t done this movement before because it is what is referred to in science as a novel complex movement. This is one of the most stimulating things for your brain outside of food. For me this is about learning what keeps you young. I think movement is one of the best skills for continuous learning of new things. The more movement skills I know, the bigger the map I have of my body. The bigger this map, the more choices I have for the places I can go, and ultimately the more freedom I have.

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

Kyle: To be a “protector” in nature requires movement and a level of strength to move through the rough terrain or to climb trees. Ultimately I think of these skills as a relationship with the ground or the Earth. Unless you are in an airplane, you can’t escape the ground. It’s always there. The fear of falling is real for many people. As people age, falling can become catastrophic. Tens of thousands of people die each year from relatively minor falls. I like to think of falling differently. I like to think of falling to the ground as if I am meeting an old friend. What if falling could be like getting a massage? Instead of tensing up and fearing a fall, I try to relax. The ground has so many variables, so you have a diversity of ways to meet the ground and find comfort.

If you are practicing stealth movement as a hunter or a ninja, getting close to the ground and moving slowly is important. The animal movements that I teach give you a lot of options for this. If I’m far away I might move like a raccoon. As I get closer to a target, I might move like a lizard. When I get really close I might move like a worm. I look at this progression as bipedal (human) to quadrupedal (lizard) to belly (worm) and then reverse.

Pathways: For someone just beginning or possibly living in an urban environment with limited access to nature, what is one way they could begin practicing natural movement?

Kyle: One of my favorite introductory exercises is to challenge someone to go from standing to touching their butt to the ground in ten different ways. Most people start to struggle after five attempts. From there you can switch it up. For example, can you get to your back from standing in ten different ways? Can you get to your chest? Can you do it with one hand or no hands? And so on.

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To connect with Kyle for some of his free introductory lessons or to train one-on-one with him, visit his website www.trottingsparrow.com. You can also follow him on Instagram and subscribe to his Youtube channel.

In our Pathways Ninja Training classes, we teach several animal form movements as part of our white to black belt curriculum. Learn how to tap into your inner primate with Kyle's monkey movement tutorial below. These movements are a great way to practice moving low to the ground, build coordination, and develop strength and agility, everything a healthy ninja monkey should add to their training quiver!

 

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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.

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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.
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Footwork Swift Like a Falcon

I remember staring down at my hand as the reality of the situation sank in. Literally.

A hawk’s talon was sinking into the center of my palm. I had eight additional puncture wounds on my hand that were bleeding.

I gripped the back talon, the most powerful of all the toes called the halux, with my finger and tried to slowly pull the small dagger out of my hand. This only caused the hawk to resist and tighten its grip. The searing pain was intense. After a brief struggle I was able to  wrench its grip loose. In a flurry of wings it whirled and retreated to the back corner of the modified dog kennel and jumped on its perch. I slammed the door quickly behind it.

A few minutes prior I was assisting with putting a radio transmitter on another hawk at a table in the forest. We were a team of biologists working with the endangered Hawaiian Hawk, or ‘Io as it was known. We were also studying and trying to save a critically endangered bird called the Hawaiian Crow or ‘Alala. The problem was that recently the endangered hawks had started to eat the critically endangered crows. One component of trying to solve this problem was to assess the situation first, which involved learning about where the hawks lived, moved, nested, and other natural history. Thus our reason for catching hawks that day.

My friend Peter who was a master falconer at the time with the Peregrine Fund was finishing the stitches on the harness of a hawk.

“Ken, can you go get the next hawk out of the kennel and bring it here?” he asked.

Being new to working with this bird of prey, I was more than eager. “Sure!” I said.

I looked at Peter and noticed that he was bare handed as he finished working with the current hawk, which had a falconer’s hood on its head to calm it down.

Hmmm. Well if Peter doesn’t need leather gloves, I guess I don’t either.

Big mistake.

When I arrived at the kennel, I slowly opened the door and eased my bare hand in towards the bird that was sitting on its perch to grab it.

In an instant, there was a blur of feathers and lunging feet. Within a couple of seconds it had lashed me with its talons multiple times, one of which sunk into the center of my palm.

After I removed the halux, I stared at my bleeding hand that day and thought of two things:

#1 The swiftness of its feet, and…

#2 The power of the talons from a bird of that size.

I returned sheepishly to Peter and asked, “How did you get the bird out of the cage bare handed?”

Peter laughed and said, “What, are you crazy? I wear leather gloves for that. I take them off after I get the hood on the bird.”

I still have a faint red dot in the center of my palm that reminds me of that day.

But what does this story have to do with a ninja blog?

Two things.

One- there is a history of ninjas or shinobi as master falconers.

Many ninja clans or families were falconers that were closely embedded with emperors, daimyo lords and shoguns. Falcon masters were known as Takasho or Takajo who had intimate knowledge of inner workings of people of power.

They also often had the ability to move freely outside of their homeland, something few people were able to do. These abilities allowed them to develop relationships with spies and shinobi. The Takasho could roam the territories, take in information, and report back to their superiors.

There is a recent book that details this that I highly recommend by Sean Askew titled Hidden Lineage: The Ninja of the Toda Clan. This is one of my favorite books on the history of shinobi.

The second ninja connection is the video we have for you today.

Today we have a video by Sensei Roemke that incorporates this feeling and action. It is called Shun Soku, or “footwork swift like a falcon” from Gyokko Ryu.

This is another video from our Ninja Training TV Live classes that Dai Shihan Mark Roemke teaches each week. In the previous blog he teaches another skill about henka from a recent NTTV Live class.

Get your katana ready for this one!

Shun Soku

When I practice this move I like to imagine myself as that hawk in the kennel that day with lightning swift feet, taking on a giant 20 times my size, feathers on my back, fresh mouse in my belly.

Ok, maybe not the mouse.

(Here's a blast from the past- a pic of me releasing an 'Io into the Hawaiian forest.)

 

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