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The Freedom of Natural Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Global Survival Savvy with Tom McElroy

Over twenty years ago I met a young instructor at the world-renowned Tracker School, run by Tom Brown Jr. He was teaching bow and arrow making, among other skills. I was blown away by his attention to detail and craftsmanship. In a subsequent course, the "scout class," all students, myself included, made "scout pits" which were hidden, subterranean sleeping shelters that we slept in during the week-long course. This young instructor was also teaching at that class, however, I learned that he had taken the subterranean sleeping shelter to another level. At the time, he was living in an underground hogan shelter that he built, complete with a fire chimney that exited secretly through an old hollow stump on the surface.

That young instructor was Tom McElroy. Since that time in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Tom has ventured around the globe, from the Amazon to Australia, to New Guinea, to remote tropical islands and beyond. Each of his explorations is fueled by a curiosity to learn from nature and to share this information with others.

Today we interview Tom to get a teaser-sampler of  the wisdom behind some of his experiences. Tom has taught everyone, ranging from children to hunters, to outdoor enthusiasts, and even elite military groups such as Seal Team Six. He has consulted for numerous news programs, Hollywood movies, and was featured on the Discovery Channel. He holds a BA degree in Anthropology and Geography from Rutgers University and a Masters in International Policy related to Indigenous Peoples from the University of Connecticut. At the age of 18, he spent an entire year living completely off the land. During that time, he built and lived in a shelter made from the land, made fire by friction, purified water naturally, hunted, fished and gathered all of his own food.

Tom takes wilderness living skills to the level of a true artist. You can see this for yourself in the detail of his handmade tools. His tools are not only functional, but beautiful. This is evident in the pictures of his handicraft included in the interview below. Pathways Dojo has been fortunate to have Tom guest instruct at some of our events.

Here's Sensei to tell you a little about his connection with Tom...

Tom and I actually live in the same town of Santa Cruz, California. I first heard of Tom through local friends. I met him when we did a podcast interview of him at his house several years ago. We discussed how survival skills and ninjutsu go together. Little did I know that I would be going to one of his island survival courses a few years later. More on that adventure in an upcoming post. That first experience with Tom would lead me to some really fun adventures in nature. I'm really excited that we get to work with Tom. He's an amazing survival skills instructor and is very tuned in to the natural world.

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Here's our recent interview with Tom...

Pathways: You have traveled all over the world to learn and teach survival skills. Is there one place/experience that stands out that was extremely challenging? What did you do to overcome that challenge?

Tom: I really believe that the only way that someone can easily survive off the land is if they have a deep knowledge of place, meaning they have an intimate knowledge of the terrain, edible and medicinal plants, animal behavior, weather patterns, density of wood, strongest fibers for rope...etc.  While indigenous people are the only masters of survival, you still couldn't take an Inuit person and drop them in the Amazon and expect that they would thrive. Some skills might transfer, but it would still be a struggle to adapt and relearn what you need from the foreign landscape. It's always a challenge entering an unfamiliar place to attempt to survive. The second I walk into a survival situation I have to try to soak up a lot about what is useful to me in that area--playing catch up with what I should already know.

I would say, one of the biggest challenges would be in the Amazon jungle where everything is out to get you.  There are spikes on half the trees, mosquitoes spreading malaria, poisonous spiders, and snakes lurking under every fallen log.  These are things I can’t plan for, and sometimes it's just luck that has kept me safe from total catastrophe

Pathways: What was the biggest hazard you have encountered?

Tom: I have to admit, with all the chances I have taken, I've been pretty lucky.  I try to stay very safe in survival and am hyper-vigilant of anything that can hurt me.  In my first full-survival situation I remember breaking firewood and cutting my finger fairly deep when I broke a stick in half.  I still have a scar from that. Every time I see it, I think about how the smallest mistakes in survival can lead to big consequences.  In Papua new Guinea I saw how tiny cuts would get infected and turn black in a day.  That is probably the most common issue that people overlook.  Infection is not as much a part of our modern world, but in survival, it's one of the biggest threats to your life.

Another experience stands out. While staying with a tribe in the Amazon, a hunter named Nanto and I wandered too far into an "undiscovered" tribe's territory in the jungle. They are a very hostile group. Many intruders into their territory have been found dead with a spear in them. One day, we were out blow-gunning birds and came upon Puma tracks on a tree. Nanto mentioned that the shaman had told him that he needed to be wary of Puma as they were a sign that he was in danger. Soon after that, we came across two spears crossed in an 'X' across the trail. Essentially this was our one warning that this one tribe, the Taegeri, were watching and they were telling us that we had gone too far. If we went any further, that would have been the end. Nanto was pretty shaken up when he saw that, which made me literally shake. Luckily we took the warning, turned around, and quickly headed back to his village.

Pathways: Is there a favorite/memorable shelter experience that you have had?

Tom: One of my favorite shelters I have ever lived in was one that was a completely underground hogan.  To get into the shelter you would lift a small oak bush to reveal a door, then climb down a ladder into the shelter.  One could walk directly over it and not know it was there. I even had a “chimney” going into a hollow tree stump to dissipate the smoke so you wouldn't notice it.

Pathways: What's one of the tastiest wild meals that you have eaten?

Tom: In my island survival class we get pretty into creating amazing meals while in a full-survival situation.  We caught spiny lobster and crab and made coconut cream bisque with Mango dessert.  After 4 days in survival, that may be the best thing I have ever tasted.

Pathways: Do you have a memorable/favorite fire-making experience?

Tom: After 25 years since making my first friction fire, I still get a huge kick out of it.  When I lived in the woods at age 18 for a year, I wouldn't allow myself to have any fire unless I got it with a hand drill or bow-drill.  After consistently getting friction fire for 6 months, one day it just stopped working.  I still don’t understand why, but I could not get a friction fire for about 5 days.  This was in the middle of December, so you can imagine how difficult it was to not have light or warmth in my shelter, warm food and all the things I was taking for granted.  After 5 days, to finally get that back was incredible.  I was so grateful then and still feel grateful even today when I get a fire.

Pathways: What about a memorable water gathering or landscape/water experience?

Tom: One time I drank from what I thought was a clean spring when running with the Tarahumara tribe in Copper Canyon in Mexico.  It kicked in after my trip, but I felt like my insides were on fire for a few days.

Pathways: Do you have a memorable tracking experience?

Tom: I once was called in to track a tiger that escaped from a pen in New Jersey.  It was wandering around the woods and people’s backyards.  After tracking cats with prints the size of quarters, it was incredible to track one with prints the size of dinner plates.

Pathways: When you are preparing to go to a new place to enter into a survival living mode, do you have a routine for preparation, such as researching maps, local indigenous practices, hazards, or practicing techniques at home before you go?

Tom: I try to pour myself into every book of that area to learn about plant life.  Then I try to see what indigenous people of that area do/did.  I think through all the potential problems I could face and try to play it all out in my head beforehand.  Of course there are always surprises, and I only find a few of the  hundreds of plants I have studied.  But, I do plan for how to provide the basics of Shelter, Water, Fire, Food.  After that, I just try to get creative based on what I discover in real-time.

Pathways: Shelter, water, fire, food...every landscape/ecosystem is different. Still, are there common themes to your approach to these needs that pertain to most/all landscapes you encounter?

Tom: One thing I try to emphasize with my classes is that it's the principles of survival that are the most important to learn.  For example, when trying to stay warm, in a deciduous forest you would use the principle of insulation with light, fluffy material, like piled leaves, to trap dead air space around your body.  I then ask my students, using the same principles, how would you create insulation if trapped in your car in a blizzard.  By wrapping yourself in the car seat foam, you can also trap dead air space around your body and stay warm.  Totally different situation, different “shelter”, but the same principles.

Pathways: You write that you came to the realization that "experiencing survival-living changes the way people approach their entire lives." How have you seen this in others and in yourself?  

Tom: I feel really fortunate to have spent a year living off the land when I was 18.  That entire year I spent about $300-$400 in total.  What this has gifted me is the ability to know that no matter what happens in my life, I can always go back to that forest and do that again.  Because of this, I felt free to take chances on pursuing my passions rather than always playing it safe.  I always had an answer to the big “what if things fall apart?” question.  I think this gives people confidence to live in less fear, even if they never actually use it. Knowing you can survive off the land gives you a confidence that even the wealthiest person does not have.

Pathways: If someone is new to survival skills, or lives in an urban area, what is a good way to begin practicing the skills?

Tom: Nature is everywhere.  The amount of interesting wild edible plants found in abandoned lots could keep you busy studying for years.  I grew up near a lot of woods, but still spent most of my initial learning stages making friction fires in my basement, or setting box-traps for pets.  While it's good to get into the forest so that you're comfortable with it, it’s very possible to practice a lot of these skills at home.

Pathways: Why would learning survival skills benefit someone who studies the art of the ninjutsu?

Tom: In one of my classes, there was a Master Chief from the Navy Seals.  He was built like a Greek God and probably one of the scariest people I could ever meet.  He had been in the Seals for more than 20 years, and I can't imagine the talents he possessed.  During one class on tanning deer hides, my co-instructor had everyone make small leather bags of the buckskin.  She taught everyone how to sew various stitches and at some point this Navy Seal called me over asking me how to do a ‘whip-stitch’.  I told him that for a guy as tough as he was, I found it funny he was asking me how to sew a tiny little leather pouch to go around his neck.  Surely this was beneath him at this point.  He then looked at me and commented that being a warrior was about collecting as many skills as possible, and the only way he rose to the top of the Seal program was because he never stopped learning, and finding new things to learn.

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To learn more about Tom and to attend one of his upcoming courses, you can checkout his website which also has a treasure trove of tutorial videos. Tom travels the globe teaching and has upcoming courses in the near future that we highly recommend.

As Tom mentioned above, fire by friction is a skill that is a lifelong learning journey. It always has something to teach. Making a bow drill fire kit is a great way to enter this learning journey. Check out the free video tutorial access on our website for making a bow drill fire kit.

But, once you make a bow drill kit, you are only halfway there. There are a lot of small details that are very important to consider when using a bow drill kit. If you know some of these tips, your chances of a successful fire are much greater. This could save your life one day.

In the video below, we go through the next step...some helpful tips for using your bow drill kit that will help you be successful in making fire.

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Respect

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

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

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

That tracker was a guy named Jon Young.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I have no idea," I replied.

He jokingly said, "Use the force Luke."

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

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

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

The bird still wouldn't move.

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

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

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

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

They didn't seem to notice us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Ultimate Free Ninja Pillow

Ok, I know what you are thinking.

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

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

Oh, and it is free and always available.

What?

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

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

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

Back to my porch.

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

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

What is baseline?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

So...back to my porch.

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

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

Pillow of silence!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Should Ninjas Listen to Birds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tag. You're it Sensei…

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked at my watch, and we waited.

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

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

I just had my mind blown.

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

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

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

He wasn't kidding.

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

But I know what you are thinking…

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

Yes, but not to worry.

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

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

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

Shinobi Yoko Aruki

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

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

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

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The Sword and the Whisper Song

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

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

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.

Rock Boil

It might just save your life some day.

Keep training!

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