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.

For more on birds to bujinkan, train with us at www.pathwaysdojo.com

The Henka of Bujinkan and Banjos

 

Greetings ninjas,

I might as well get this out in the open early in this blogging series. I’m a banjo player.

I know what many of you are hearing when I say that.

The Dueling Banjos song from the movie Deliverance.

I know it’s hard for many of you to block that out of your head. It’s like saying “whatever you do, don’t picture a pink elephant right now in your mind.” It’s impossible not to.

Moving on…

What does Dueling Banjos and the art of ninjutsu have in common?

Henka. Stick with me here. It’s not about a battle or even a duel.

I picked up a banjo over 40 years ago. I was obsessed with learning at a young age. I learned the basics- key songs that everyone played, scales, fancy “licks”, and all the foundational elements that most banjo players learn.

And then I started to play with other people, which evolved to joining bands, recording, performing at festivals, and teaching- typical evolution for an obsessed musician which also included having to learn to sidestep the brunt of all the banjo jokes.

One thing would often happen after “jamming” with people. Someone would ask me after a song ended, “How did you play that part you just did in that jam?”

I would often answer, “I have no idea. I just played it.” I was in the proverbial “zone”.

When I get in the center of an improv-jamming moment, there’s things at work…

Sinking in the “zone.”

Being present in the moment.

Creativity.

Awareness of myself relative to others around me (band members I play with).

Taking a basic concept and dancing with it.

And above all, playing and having fun.

Sensei Roemke began his training in ninjutsu about the time I picked up a banjo.

The first time I watched him demonstrate the concept of henka, I immediately thought of one thing…

“He’s jamming!”

And I heard Dueling Banjos in my head. Just kidding. My sincere apologies for bringing that up again for those of you who successfully removed that earworm from your head.

Henka is a Japanese term meaning a variation of a technique. There is a LOT that can be expounded upon this concept.

For a perspective on this concept, Sensei Roemke uses a technique called omote gyaku, or “outside wrist twist” in the video below. He teaches the “basics” and then shows examples of henka for this technique.

But if you watch closely you may catch a few things that happen in the video below.

He does a different variation every time.

And, he’s laughing and smiling.

And when finished, he says, “What did I do? I don’t even know. It was a blur.”

When I work on learning a new technique on the banjo, I’ll take a specific piece of a song and slow it down to analyze it part by part until I learn it. My daughter and I do this a lot with Sensei Roemke’s ninjutsu videos. When he shifts into henka mode in the video below, I highly recommend putting your video player in slow speed format. It’s fun to watch it this way to catch all of the little subtle things he’s doing

Check it out.




I’ll leave you with what Sensei Roemke has to say about Henka.

“My perspective on the concept of using “variations” of a certain skill in your life or as a student in the Bujinkan is that you will never know what is going to happen, and thus you have to be in the present moment. If you stay totally present and don’t think too much about what is about to unfold or happen, then something beautiful will emerge from the moment you are in.”

That idea can apply to so many aspects of life, even banjo playing.

Hope you enjoyed this one. This video is an excerpt from our weekly live online adult Ninja Training TV Live online class where you can request skills and get feedback from Sensei Roemke.

Here's to health and happy henka hunting!






Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick


Greetings ninjas,


When I walk through the forest and look at the trees I think...


Fire-making supplies...


Food...


Syrup (I live in the northeast and just finished boiling some sugar maple sap!) and...


Rokushaku bos.


Today let's talk about one of the oldest self defense tools, a big stick, otherwise known as a rokushaku bo, or full length staff. We have a couple training videos for you today that teach some of our favorite rokushaku bo skills.


My first encounter with this training tool occurred at 4000' elevation on the southwestern slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa in the wet forests of Hawaii. We were working on methods for catching one of the rarest birds on the planet, the Hawaiian Crow, or 'Alala. There were only about a dozen birds left in the wild at the time. But that’s another story.


We were hosting two guests from India, who were there to teach us some ancient bird catching techniques. Our visitors were an elder father and his son. The father was in his 80's and didn’t speak English. His son was our translator. 


The father had been taught traditional ways to live-catch birds for food when he was a boy. At the time of their visit with us, they were employed by the government of India to live-catch endangered birds.
At the end of a day of teaching skills to our field crew, the son asked, "Would you like to see my father demonstrate some martial arts skills?" 


I had been exploring local martial arts teachers on the island at the time and eagerly jumped up and said, "Yes!"


"Good. Go get my father a long piece of straight wood about this long," the son said holding his hand up to his head indicating full body length.


I ran off to a nearby patch of forest and cut a section of non-native bamboo and brought it back for his father.


Up to this point, the elder had moved slowly as we hiked about the forest. He spoke little, only occasionally talking to describe a technique. When I handed him the full length staff he suddenly became alive. He started spinning the staff at high speed to the front, sides, and back of his body. Then he spun it overhead. Then he started laughing while running up and down the meadow while spinning the wood. He looked like a human propeller.


Oh man. I really wanted to learn how to do that! 


Only problem was that they left five minutes later, boarded a plane that day and flew home. I never saw them again.


Fast forward several years when I happened to meet a guy named Mark Roemke at a friend's house. 

Before long I venture through the doors of Pathways Dojo. 


On my first day training, Sensei Roemke pulled a rokushaku bo off the wall and began teaching us spins!
I'll let Sensei Roemke take it from here to say a few things about this ancient training tool...

"The rokushaku bo is one of my favorite weapons because when you start to spin it, no matter which direction you turn or go, you are in the center. The center of the rokushaku bo is one of the safest places to be. Once you understand the matrix of how to turn it, you will forever be in the middle.

The rokushaku bo has many other uses. You can use it to bound off a tree to reach the first lower branch in order to climb the tree. You can use it to carry pots of heavy drinking water or supplies. And you can use it to defend against wild animals such as an encounter with a mountain lion."

We've been gathering wood from the forests and making our own rokushaku bos for years with adults and youth in our Ninjas in Nature Program. We even use them to make survival debris shelters.

We noticed too that kids are magnetized by rokushaku bos. Have you ever noticed that kids are always wanting to carry a big "hiking stick" when walking through the forest? It usually takes less than five minutes for an empty handed kid to pick up a big stick on a hike through the forest.

Even Gandalf carries one.
 





So here's a couple videos by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke. The first teaches techniques for spinning a rokushaku bo.

Rokushaku Bo Spinning

The second video is an excerpt from our youth Ancient Ninja Training Tools Series


Rolls with Rokushaku Bo




Ninjas walk softly and carry big sticks. I highly recommend both!

In gratitude,
Kenneth and the Pathways Dojo Ninja Training Team

P.S. Here's the secret way to get a Dai Shihan to come train in your home with you and your family.




Blog Maps and How to Teach Ninjutsu to Squirrels



Greetings Ninjas,

I know, a lot of you probably stay up late at night wondering...Is it truly possible to teach squirrels ninjutsu?

Actually, the more I watch squirrels, the more amazed I am at their acrobatic abilities. They truly are the tree climbing ninjas of the animal world.

But before we get distracted by squirrels, first let’s talk about maps.

If you are just joining us, we recently decided to kick off our Pathways Blog with an origin story.If you didn’t catch the Pathways origin story as told by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke, it’s worth a listen. You can find the start of this tale HERE.

But where do we take the blog from here?

“A review of 25 top designer holiday tabis to wear?”




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Probably been done.

“Sensei’s top 5 matte drinks that excite him for class?”

Might cause a run on supplies and then what would Sensei do?

“Sensei’s top 3 surfing spots in Santa Cruz?”

Sorry. I’m sworn to secrecy.

Instead, like the previous origin story, let’s step into the wayback machine...

Once upon a time, I was a backcountry ranger in the Brooks Range of Alaska. Most people haven’t heard of this set of mountains even though they are one of the biggest ranges in the United States. To find them, follow the rocky mountains north, and when you get to Alaska, take a left. That’s the Brooks Range.

The thing about the park where I worked was this- it was vast. 8.5 million acres-vast. And, it was the least visited national park at the time I worked there. In other words, we rarely saw other humans. Plus it had practically no roads or trails. If you looked at a topographic map, most of the mountains showed no name.

We’d go to the headquarter office on Monday mornings and look at the giant topographic map on the wall. I’d point to a random spot on the map and ask,

“Has anyone been there?”

“Nope” was the standard answer.

So we’d go on patrol and see what we could find. No trails, roads, or train tracks. Just vast wilderness, oh and lots of grizzly bears.

And we’d grab our topographic (a.k.a. topo) maps. Without them, we would be more or less lost. Not necessarily a bad thing as the landscape there is unbelievably beautiful. But, if we wanted to find our way out of the wilderness, we had to find the rendezvous point where the bush plane would pick us up.

Sometimes it was easy. Other times, even with the best topo map, I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place or “lost”. Once it almost cost me dearly. More on that in a future entry.

But what does this have to do with Pathways Dojo, ninjutsu, and what we teach?

One thing I’ve learned while studying under Sensei Roemke is how vast the Bujinkan (and the art of ninjutsu) is. Add to this set of skills, the other “pathways” of study at Pathways Dojo, which are healing arts and nature. Each of these additional arts are likewise encyclopedic in the breadth of knowledge they contain.

So how do we cover this “wilderness” of information in a single blog. It’s huge. 

To help organize where we are going with this blog, we decided to start with a map. We decided the blog would have 3 pathways.
 

Each blog that we share will fit into one of these themes: Nature (a.k.a. our Ninjas in Nature) training, Healing Arts (tai chi, qi gong, yoga etc.), and Ninjutsu (including Bujinkan specific topics by Sensei Roemke).

Within each of these paths, we will have additional pathways that branch off, based on specific subjects. For example, in the nature blogs we have stories and techniques based on topics such as shelter, fire, water, food, etc.

For the Ninjutsu Blog Paths we have subjects such as katana, rokushaku bo, instructor techniques, stories of training in Japan, and more.

For the healing paths, we will delve into tai chi, chi gong, yoga, TCM, and more.

You get the idea.

Oh, and we have hundreds of videos recorded that we intend to share with you on all of these topics.

We thought it important to give you this map of where we plan to go, so that you can pick and choose the informational pathway that you want to follow as we build our blog content.

And, like the good ole days when I’d walk to the big map in the headquarters and ask, “What’s over here?,” we would love to hear from you in the comments by asking us…What’s over there? If there is a particular topic that you would like us to cover in any of the three main pathways (Ninjutsu, Healing, or Nature), please let us know.

Ok, I know. I promised squirrels. So here you go.

Some of you may not know that one of Sensei Roemke’s hidden talents is mentoring youth. Below is an excerpt from our Kid Ninja Curriculum (for ages 4-6) where Sensei demonstrates the art of teaching ninjutsu to two young squirrel students.




Searching for squirrels off the trail (with a map),

Kenneth
P.S. Here’s our secret ninja portal if you (or your family of squirrels) would like to train with us in your home.




Becoming a Ninja Part 4

Greetings Ninjas,

Here's the final addition to a 4-part series by Dai Shihan Mark Roemke called "Becoming a ninja."
When we last encountered our unreasonably happy Dai Shihan, he was describing the origins of Pathways Dojo. Before that he told about how he found martial arts and the how he found ninjutsu.  
 
Today we wrap the story bundle with a look into the possibilities of the future, specifically how the philosophy of "everyone is a teacher, and everyone needs a teacher" is a key principle in changing the lives of people, lots of people.

Warning...Mark gets really excited about this topic in the video below, and it's not because of his favorite matte beverage. 

There are a few key things in the video below that are worthy of hitting the pause button to think about. I'll save you the trouble by briefly breaking a couple down. 

"We are pre-programmed to teach." 

He talks about how this is so obvious in kids. As soon as we teach them something and they develop a competency, be it in the dojo or nature, they really want to teach the skill to others.
 
In the dojo or even our zoom classes for example, we can ask..."Raise your hand if you can demonstrate jumonji no kamae."

Boom...hands go up everywhere.

Or in nature..."Raise your hand if you can teach the knife safety techniques."

Boom...hands go up everywhere.

There is a flip side to this as well. I'll let you in on a little detail about Mark if you haven't trained with him. It's this...

You never know when he is going to call on you to teach something. 

What's the effect of this?

It puts you on edge. 

It makes you pay attention.

And ultimately, you learn so much more, about whatever art you are studying, when you are in the teaching role.

This philosophy is behind the vision of Pathways Dojo.
I'll cue the Dai Shihan here to explain this vision in his own words. 
 
 

 
We hope you enjoyed this final episode that explains a little more behind the scenes about the history of Pathways, Sensei Roemke, and where ultimately we intend to take our mentoring in the future.
 
We hope too that this inspires you to step into a mentoring role to help create a positive change in those around you.

In gratitude for all the teachers out there,
Kenneth and the Pathways Dojo NiN Team

Becoming a Ninja Part 3

 Greetings Ninjas,

Welcome to part 3 in our ninja mentoring series called Becoming a Ninja. In this four part blog series, we follow the journey of how Sensei Mark Roemke went from a youth with no experience in martial arts to Dai Shihan, 15th Dan, one of the highest levels one can attain in the art of ninjutsu. 

In other words...what's the secret sauce behind this process? 

 We also take a deeper look behind the scenes through the lens of the "ninja mentor" to see what's really making Mark's brain tick. It's not just mate, which we can vouch does get him excited before he teaches his weekly online classes. There's more to it. Trust me.

In the first installment, Dai Shihan Mark Roemke told the origin story of how he found martial arts in his youth and the effect it had on him. If you haven't checked out, not to worry. Here's that story portal.

Part 2 was about how he continued to train, and train, and train, and his first meeting with the Grandmaster Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi.

But now a death and origin story.

Mark died, technically speaking. No joke. 

It involved a motorcycle accident. Fortunately, due to the technology of high voltage in the operating room, he was resuscitated. 

Side note...Mark's a professional electrician. Hmmmm. Back to the story cliff notes.

In the short story below, when he returned to health, Mark found himself asking one question...

"What am I doing on this planet?"

The answer to this question laid the foundation for the origin of Pathways Dojo. 

The answer to this question was about giving back, about healing, and about nature connection.

But I'll let him take it from here...

 

I hope you enjoy this short story. There's one final chapter to this. In Part 4 Mark talks about a vision that we all can be a part of.

In gratitude for healing, nature, and the inventor of human jumper cables.

Kenneth

P.S. In the video above, Mark talks about wanting to help kids. One way we are doing this is through our Ninjas in Nature Program. We've recently laid out a roadmap for connecting kids to the art of ninjutsu and the natural world in a short book that links to skills videos, games and more, called the Ninjas in Nature: Guardians Guide. These skills are like jumper cables for activating kids.






Becoming a ninja part 2

 Greetings ninjas,

In our last post, Sensei Roemke shared how he began the journey that led him to devote most of his life to the study of martial arts, in particular ninjutsu, the art of the ninja. If you haven't heard that story, you can check it out here.

In this next part of the story, he tells how he found ninjutsu and ended up with a private invitation by the Grandmaster, Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi, to visit with him on his first trip to Japan.

But, what is even more interesting, is the story within the story. Within the short video below is the story of perseverance. So many martial arts students begin their training inspired by a new art or by a new teacher. Between white belt and black belt lies a crucial period of training where the majority drop out. Once again, having a good teacher at this stage is crucial. However, in Mark's case, his instructor at the time actually dissuaded him from pursuing ninjutsu when he first discovered the art. 

Good thing he ignored that advice.

And then he left the art when he joined the U.S. Army. 

For many, it's even more challenging to return to an art once you leave it for years. 

As a musician, I think of all the instruments I have seen over the years covered in dust, in the backs of people's closets or hiding in the corner of rooms.

"Oh yeah, I used to play that," is what you often hear.

Still, when Mark left the Army, he moved to California and where he searched for his next instructor. And that encounter led him to wandering the streets of Japan at 4 a.m. That wander led to the voice of the Grandmaster of ninjutsu who called out from a window and invited him up to tea.

But I'll let Mark himself tell that story.


Hope you enjoy this second part of his journey. Stay tuned, there's one final installment up our gi sleeves in this series.

Tracking the stoke,

Kenneth

P.S. For those of you with young aspiring ninjas in your life, Mark and I are unreasonably excited about our new book- Guardians Guide: NiN Basics. After leading youth for years through our Ninjas in Nature curriculum, which fuses the art of ninjutsu with nature survival and awareness skills, we've put to pen a how-to instructor training manual for our first level of training. We've been running kids through this curriculum for years with the same results every time...extremely activated and happy kids. This guide is intended for parents, instructors, or anyone with a youth in their life that they would like to fully activate. If you want to learn more, you can check out the book here:

Guardians Guide: NiN Basics

Becoming a ninja part 1

 

How does a person go from having zero experience in an art to being one of the highest skilled practitioners on the planet? 


In nature, a person beginning the journey of connecting to the landscape is like a tourist in their own backyard. Imagine this person as one who cannot identify the birds, trees, or plants outside their front door. If lost in the wilderness, they likely wouldn’t know how to make shelter, find water, locate edible plants or catch food, make a fire, or recognize medicinal plants under their feet. 


In other words, they wouldn’t last long.


At the other end of the spectrum, picture an indigenous tracker who by age six could identify all the plants and animals around them. They could also identify all of the tracks and signs of the animals in their region, including even insects. They would know all the edible, poisonous, and medicinal plants and could track weather patterns. By adulthood, this same person could not only run at full speed for hours while tracking an animal, but they could create fire from the landscape, find water in a desert, and create shelter, all while avoiding the lions and other large predators around them. The result is that they would have deep connections to all the species around them on the landscape. They would not only survive in the wilderness, but thrive.


Now imagine another type of person who trains in a different kind of survival skill.


In the world of martial arts, people usually begin as a white belt and work towards attaining a black belt. A small subset continue further to levels beyond black belt. In ninjutsu, the art of the ninja, the highest level one can attain below that of Soke, or Grandmaster, is Dai Shihan. Sensei Roemke has made it to this level. 


But how does a person achieve this level of skill, be it as a deeply connected tracker or a 15th Dan Dai Shihan?


Focus? Yes.


Will power? Probably helps a lot.


Motivation? Helps get you out of bed at 6 am on cold, dark, winter days to train.


But there's one critical piece needed as well. It's probably the most important factor required to reach the highest skill level in any art. Without it, you won't make it far beyond white belt.


What is it?


A good mentor.


The first teacher in any art can be just as important as the Grandmaster. They give you that first nudge and provide inspiration to journey down the trail of learning. There are unfortunately too many stories of a new student encountering their first teacher who then causes the student to turn away from an art.


Fortunately Sensei Roemke had a different experience with his first teacher.


Below is the first part of Sensei Roemke's story about how he started on this journey with his first teacher. If you listen closely, you will hear the "secret mentor sauce" that was used by his first martial arts teacher. This teacher helped nurture an interest that lasted a lifetime.







Enjoy the story of his journey.


Training on the path,
Kenneth


P.S. Sensei Roemke is an unreasonably happy person. Just looking at the thumbnail above makes me think of this. I think it's really funny, and fitting, that Youtube’s algorithm picked this photo of him for the thumbnail for the above video.


If you want to "share the stoke" as he puts it, and end up with a smile like this, you can train weekly with him, from anywhere on the planet, multiple times a week. It’s good medicine for our times. But to learn more, you'll have to enter the secret ninja stoke portal here.





Ninja Gratitude

Greetings Ninjas,

Every year, during this week, here in North America, our nation turns our attention toward one word- thanksgiving. While there is a lot to unpack around the origins of this holiday, I'd like instead to turn the awareness toward the concept of gratitude. 

Sensei Roemke has a reputation as being "unreasonably happy." I'm going to let you in on a secret behind this happiness...gratitude.

In my martial arts training journey, I've been in a lot of classes in various disciplines, in a lot of dojos. I can still remember the day at Pathways Dojo when we lined up to bow in that set this dojo apart from all of my previous experiences. Before doing our usual bow-in opening, Sensei Roemke turned to us and said,

"What are you grateful for?!"

You could see the collective flinch in the group as everyone snapped to attention, caught off guard somewhat by this question. Then, one by one going down the line up, each of us took a moment to voice something important in our lives. I loved it! I had never been in a dojo that started classes this way.

Since then, I've seen Sensei Roemke do this many, many times, in classes with kids and adults, virtually with our online PNT classes, and even with parents in the bleachers watching classes. It's no longer a surprise. I've watched him do this at checkout lines in grocery stores, to random people on the street, and to gatherings of large groups for classes he is about to teach. 

At Pathways Dojo, we start all of our staff meetings this way. And, if we don't, something feels off. It's almost a game now to see who can ambush the others first by asking..."What are you grateful for?"

But what does this have to do with martial arts training?

A lot.

But I'll let Sensei Roemke tell you himself. Check his video below where he dives into the mindset of gratitude.




I'll let you in on a little gratitude awareness secret..gratitude is about more than just being thankful. It's about an itch for storytelling.

What?!

We all have an itch for sitting and listening to a story being told. This goes far back to our ancestors who told stories by the fire, under the stars. But, each of us also has a strong itch to share the stories that we experience. If you listen carefully to people sharing gratitude, you will often hear headlines for stories that are itching to be told and heard.

If you go back to Mark's video above, did you catch his gratitude story headline? He said...

"I'm grateful that I'm alive because I almost died."

Wait, hold on, what!!! Back up there...some of you who know Sensei have heard him tell his story of almost dying.

Gratitude can be an invitation to share deeper stories, and in the process connect more deeply to each other. It's also an opportunity to connect more deeply to our inner selves. When we tell our own stories, it opens up deeper levels of learning about ourselves, and the natural world around us.

So, as many of us head into this holiday in North America, I invite you to become the gratitude ambush ninja that Sensei Roemke embodies. Ambush a random person with this questions, or your friends and family and watch what unfolds.

In gratitude,

Ken 

www.ninjasinnature.com


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.





Kyoketsu Shoge, The power of rope and ring

Recently we guided a group of youth ninjas with our online live training program through the process of making kyoketsu shoges. What's a kyoketsu shoge? For starters it looks like this...


A rope, ring, and wood. To be specific, the ring in this photo is made from a dog chewie. This is the training version. The ancient ninja version would have been made from an iron ring, and used among other things to hit the hands of sword wielding opponents, causing them to drop their sword.

Last summer Mark and I co-led East and West coast summer camps where we had the kids make their own kyoketsu shoges. We realized that branches from trees made perfect handles. It was amazing to watch the focus (and quiet!) that kids put into carving, sanding, burnishing, and oiling their wood.

Then we started to train with them. OMG! Sooooo fun.

Target practice, wrapping around branches, spinning drills. I can't tell you how high the youth stoke factor was, and for the instructors too!!!

What was really cool was how the kids used their creativity with these. They quickly figured out that with the right throw, that they could wrap them around branches and use them as a rope swing, or to climb up into the tree.

Then Mark showed them this "advanced" neck spin in the video below. Check it out. So much fun. But...you have to make one first! I'll save that for the next blog entry. For now, enjoy this one.


How to save your life with rocks and fire

Greetings ninjas,

Most people have heard of the four basics needs for survival: shelter, fire, water, and food.  Let's zero in on one of them...water.

I remember one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had with fresh water in the wilderness. I was about a week into a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. One day of the trip, we went for a five mile hike up into the desert canyon. The temperature was over 110 degrees F. The dry desert landscape showed little sign of fresh water. That changed as we rounded a bend in the trail that put us at the base of a 500 foot high red wall limestone rock face. Hundreds of feet above us an enormous spring roared out of the rock wall face from a cave, landing in a large pool at the bottom of the cliff. It was the only time in my life that I have ever swam and drank the water at the same time. I can still hear the roar of the water fall. The dramatic contrast with the parched landscape surrounding this spring highlighted the value of this amazing resource.

As summer approaches, much of the northern hemisphere starts to dry out, shifting the water dynamic. Depending on the landscape, you only have a few days that you can survive without water. Less than 1% of the Earth's water is suitable for drinking. Over 3.6 million people die every year from diseases from drinking unsafe drinking water. Unless you find a spring where the water is coming directly from the ground, it is generally not safe to drink directly from most streams, lakes, ponds, or rivers. You have to purify the water.

One way to purify water is by boiling it. One way to boil water in a wilderness situation is by doing a rock boil. In this method, you heat stones in a fire, then after brushing the ashes off of them, you drop them into your container of water. You need to make sure these stones aren't "wet" stones, meaning that they aren't gathered from places like streams, or from underwater. Wet stones can be like a sponge and explode when heated.

Check out this short demonstration video where we show how to boil water with rocks.


It might just save your life some day.

Keep training!

Ken

Why ninjas should train with fire during a summer staycation

Greetings Ninjas,

As the longest days approach, I start to think of the fire element, meaning the giant ball of fire in the sky...the sun. I used to work in the arctic in a national park in Alaska where the sun wouldn't set for several weeks. It was hard to sleep. As I write this I am residing in the northeast corner of the U.S. and am grateful for some darkness (and sleep) as the days grow long.

With the approaching summer, up until this year, the routine has been to plan for summer adventures, which usually meant some form of camping. As the covid spread continues, how to accomplish this summer has become a bit more complicated. We opted recently for the backyard camping adventure, including cooking food over the fire.

As the "staycation" continues, I look for the opportunities to connect to the natural landscapes right out my back door. With fire on the mind, my thoughts go to practicing fire by friction, and in particular, bow drill fire making.

I first learned to make fire in Hawaii. I had gone to a wilderness survival class in New Jersey where they taught us how to make fire by friction. On my way out the door to catch my plane back to the forests of Hawaii, I asked, "do you know what woods I would use back in Hawaii to make a bow drill kit?"

"Nope. Just do the fingernail test I guess," they said. 

Don't worry. I explain it in the video link below.

So I did a lot of fingernail testing as I roamed the forest of Mauna Loa while working as an endangered species bird biologist. I eventually found a type of wood that passed the test, and soon was making fire. I later figured out that the tree I chose was a local Hawaiian Hibiscus. To my surprise, and actually not surprise, I would later learn that this species was the same tree that the ancient Hawaiians used to may fire by doing fire plows (that's another story that I'll save for later).

Learning to make fire by friction changed my life, in a really good way. I never looked at the forest the same way. My current bow drill fire kit is made of Basswood (Tilia americana), which not only makes one of the best fire kits I've ever tried, but also has edible leaves, is great for wood carving, and can be used to make cordage.

There is something ancient or call it magical about making fire by friction. Every time I do it in a public setting, people are somehow drawn like a magnet. Jaws drop, they don't believe what they are seeing, people really want to try it, and are so excited when the tinder bundle bursts into flame.

It's a great family connecting tool too. You can use 3-4 people together to make the bow drill work. We also pull ours out when we want to create space for an intentional fire, be it for remembrance (we started my father's 4 day memorial fire with one when he passed), celebration (we used one as part of our wedding ceremony believe it or not), holidays (my wife lit Hanukkah candles every night one year with her kit), and, and, and...you get the idea.

It's really fun to go gather a kit as a family, then make fire by friction as a family. Just try it. I dare you to prove me wrong.

So the first step obviously is to make a kit. Here's a video below showing one way to make a kit.

Oh, did I say, it takes a bit of skill to get a coal after you make a kit? It took me a week to get a coal when I made my first kit. It was really fun though "failing". Good luck!




Keep training!
Ken