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Fire walking refers to the activity of walking on hot coals, rocks or cinders without burning the soles of one's feet. In some cultures [e.g., India], fire walking is part of a religious ritual and is associated with the mystical powers of fakirs. In America, fire walking is part of New Age religion, i.e., self-empowering motivational activity.
Tony Robbins popularized fire walking as an activity for demonstrating it is possible for people to do things that seem impossible to them; the fire walk is a technique for turning fear into power. Robbins doesn't consider the power of the mind to overcome fear of getting burnt as paranormal, however. Overcoming this fear is presented as a step in restructuring one's mind, almost as if this trial by fire was some sort of initiation into an esoteric and very special group of risk-takers. To the timid and those who feel powerless amongst all the dynamic firebrands around them, such a feat as walking on hot coals must seem a significant event.
Robbins may have popularized fire walking but Tolly Burkan, founder of The Firewalking Institute for Research and Education, claims he was the first to introduce the practice to North America. According to Burkan, fire walking is "a method of overcoming limiting beliefs, phobias and fears."
Walking across hot coals without getting burned does seem impossible to many people, but in fact it is no more impossible than putting your hand in a hot oven without getting burned. As long as you keep your hand in the air and don't touch the oven, its metal racks or any ceramic or metal pots, you won't get burned even if the oven is extremely hot. Or, if you do touch the oven, metal racks or pots, and are wearing insulating gloves or using "hot pads," you won't get burned. Why? Because "the air has a low heat capacity and a poor thermal conductivity...." while "our bodies have a relatively high heat capacity...."(Leikind and McCarthy, 188). And an insulator will insulate! Thus, even if the coals are very hot (1,000 to 1,200 degrees), a person with "normal" soles won't get burned as long as he or she doesn't take too long to walk across the coals and as long as the coals used do not have a very high heat capacity. Volcanic rock and certain wood embers will work just fine.
Also, "both hardwood and charcoal are good thermal insulators.... Wood is just as good an insulator even when on fire, and charcoal is almost four times better as an insulator than is dry hardwood. Further, the ash that is left after the charcoal has burnt is just as poor a conductor as was the hardwood or charcoal" (Willey).
Nevertheless, some people do get burned walking across hot coals, not because they lack faith or willpower, but because the coals are too hot or are have a relatively high heat capacity, or because the firewalker's soles are thin or he doesn't move quickly enough. But even very hot coals with a high heat capacity can be walked over without getting burned if one's feet are insulated, e.g., with a liquid such as sweat or water. (Think of how you can wet your finger and touch a hot iron without getting burned.) Again, one must move with sufficient speed or one will get burned.
However, even armed with this knowledge, it still takes courage to fire walk. When Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine did a fire walk for “The Unexplained” television program, he had the knowledge but the fear was obviously still there. Our instincts are telling us: don't do this, you idiot! Fire walking requires some faith as well as knowledge: faith that the coals were prepared properly, that you can move fast enough to avoid getting burned, and that something will work in practice as you know it should in theory. Even so, whether the firewalker gets burned depends on how the coals were prepared and on how fast the firewalker moves, rather than on willpower, the power of the mind to create a protective shield, or any other paranormal or supernatural force.
Michael Shermer Firewalking Across Hot Coals
books and articles
Leikind, Bernard J. and William J. McCarthy. "An Investigation of Firewalking," in The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal,ed. Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991).
History of Firewalking -- 1977 to 2004 by Tolly BurkanFIREWALKING Myth vs. Physics by David Willey
The Physics Behind Four Amazing Demonstrations by David WilleyScientific study of Firewalking by Kjetil Kjernsmo
Firewalking by Nick Pullar
[new] Dozens Burned During Tony Robbins Motivational Exercise - "Walking across hot coals does have its advocates. CBS DFW spoke with uninjured participant Tish Brazil: 'From a numbers perspective that result is negligible, and I don't mean to diminish anything that's happened to anybody. But there are some coaching techniques, really specific strategies, that he gives people.'" In other words, Robbins tells them it's not really about conquering your fears but about knowing a few basic facts that will prevent you from getting burned as you walk quickly across the burning coals. [/new]
21 people treated for burns after firewalk at Tony Robbins appearance - Amid inspirational talk, chanted mantras and shouts of victory at a late-night firewalking event attended by thousands Thursday came agonized shrieks from followers whose soles were scorched by the superheated coals, witnesses said.
At least 21 people were treated for burn injuries after taking part in the crowning event of the first day of a Tony Robbins function downtown, including at least three who went to the hospital, a San Jose fire captain said.
The people who suffered various second- and third-degree burn injuries were among more than 6,000 who attended the motivational speaker's event at the San Jose Convention Center called "Unleash the Power Within."
KFC crew gets burned February 28 2002
About 12 Burger King employees burn feet while walking over white-hot coals in fire-walking ritual at seminar in Miami that was intended to promote bonding - Oct 6, 2001
Is it safe? Eli Tyler of El Cajon, California, was one of seven people hospitalized with severe burns to the bottoms of their feet from a fire-walking ceremony at an American Association for Nude Recreation convention in August, 2000.
Fred Gilbert, a professional fire-walker, apparently told a bare naked lie when he said that he was providing "a safe and spiritual experience where you walk through your past to arrive at your future."
Tyler is suing Gilbert for "using the wrong type of wood, starting the fire walk before ash formed on the wood and failing to have medical personnel present, among other things."