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The Roots of Water and Ninja Treasure Trash

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

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

But here's the challenge with this.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was more...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ninja Rainbow Unicorns of the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I promised rainbow unicorns...

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

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

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

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

San Shin No Kata

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Sheila Haddad

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

"Her passion is learning."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathways: What is your favorite thing about ninjutsu?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheila's website

Her books and DVD's

Her photography




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

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





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Alone with the Apelian Apothecary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathways: You write...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Open post

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.


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.

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