Can Firewalking Really Change Your Life?

Associated Press/March 14, 2005
By Emma Ross

London -- Seconds before stepping up to the coals, I was semi-sure I wouldn't burn my feet if I embraced my fear. Never one for perilous adventures, I resolved to consider walking on hot coals on the promise that the experience might ignite the courage to lead a more fulfilling life. That was the lure of the four-day emotional boot camp that is the Tony Robbins weekend seminar, called "Unleash the Power Within."

I was warned to expect goings-on that might seem a touch foreign to an English girl like me - hugging strangers, crying in public, high-fiving, screaming and cheering reminiscent of a pop concert, feverish dancing, confessions of deep fears. Yuck.

With slight skepticism and no real commitment, I decided to drag myself out to the hinterland of London's docklands and take a bite. I could always spit it out.

One of the best known of a breed of self-help teachers called life coaches, Robbins uses the firewalk as a metaphor for getting out of the "comfort zone" - taking risks and gaining a new grasp of what's possible.

The point of the weekend, Robbins says, is to start to discover what you really want, identify what's getting in the way - fear - and to begin attacking those obstacles. It's about confronting self-limiting beliefs and patterns and shattering their hold by engaging the body, focusing the mind and using the right language when speaking to yourself and to others.

Some of the language Robbins used when speaking to us was shocking - and that was exactly the point. It's a technique pioneered by Sigmund Freud, who discovered that taboo words can be used therapeutically to trigger deeper emotions.

Adopting by turns the dulcet tones of Barry White and the comical facial contortions of Jim Carey and displaying a range of emotions in between, Robbins, a 44-year-old American, purports to guide the crowd through the steps toward a richer life.

"Where do you have to be on a scale of certainty from zero to 10 to walk successfully across fire?" Robbins asks the crowd. "10," we shout back in unison.

"You have to be a 20," he says. "You push yourself to 20 so that 10 feels like relaxing by contrast."

"If you feel strong, say yes. Say yes, say yes," he commands.

"YES, YES, YES, YES," the crowd yells, punching their fists in the air.

"Squeeze your fist and feel it when you say yes. Now double the intensity. Say yes."

The experience never felt more like joining a cult than at that moment, when virtually the entire crowd of 12,000 people formed a fist with their hand, and jerked their arm down across their flank in a move of pure certainty while shouting, emphatically, "YES!"

I did it too, though perhaps not with quite the same ardor as others seemed to have.

Is all this hype necessary, I asked myself? If I don't get with the program, will I burn myself?

Dr. Robert Sheridan, chief of burn surgery at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston and co-director of the adult burn unit at Massachussetts General Hospital, says he has never seen a patient come to the burn unit after firewalking.

"I doubt that you can take a bunch of lay people and suddenly make them mystically able to do this, so there must be some physical reason why this doesn't happen," said Sheridan, who has treated burns patients for more than 15 years.

According to experts, firewalking can be explained by science and most believe that no matter what state of mind you are in, the coals will not burn your feet as long as you keep moving forward.

When people do get burned, it's not because they lack faith or willpower, it's because the coalbed is too hot, they lingered too long on the coals or the soles of their feet weren't thick enough, scientists say.

It isn't that the coals aren't hot.

The 12-foot bed is packed with wood chips heated to temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Farenheit, but the heat doesn't escape the coals very efficiently, experts say.

"It's got absolutely nothing to do with your mind," said physicist David Willey, a recreational firewalker and physics instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. "It's just the fact that wood is a lousy conductor of heat, so is ash, and so is dead skin on the bottom of your feet."

That's the reason it is possible to hold a wooden match and not feel the heat through the wood while the tip burns. It's why cooking pots used to have handles made of wood.

"It's like walking on broken glass, lying on a bed of nails and having a concrete block broken on your chest. It looks really spectacular, but really there's some good reasons in science why you can do it," Willey said.

"The only mental element that I think there is to it is you've got to have the confidence to take the first step," Willey said.

According to pain specialist Dr. Thalia Segal, the body's processing of pain is also probably involved. Natural pain-relieving chemicals are likely released in the body during the psyching-up process, said Segal, an anesthesiologist and pain specialist at the New York University Pain Management Center.

"You may have already augmented your body's endorphins so that you had your own natural pain reliever," Segal said.

In the hour or so leading up to the firewalk, I was definitely energized - chiefly by my panic in figuring out how I was going to do this.

As I'm bending down to untie my laces I'm suddenly grateful that I had a pedicure last week. At least when I turn up at the burns unit, my feet will be pretty.

Then I thought, "What if the pedicurist sanded too much off the bottom of my feet, making them more likely than normal to melt?"

But isn't nail polish flammable? Quick, ask somebody if they've got any remover.

But nail polish remover is also flammable. Probably best to leave it.

Rolling up the cuffs of my jeans, I took the hand of my firewalking buddy Terry McElhinney and let him lead me out of the room, out of the building and into the dark night.

Bongo drums beat in the distance, mixed with rhythmic clapping.

I was staring straight ahead at Terry's back, my hand trying to wriggle out of his, when all of a sudden we were in the line for the coals.

Torn between finding a way over and a way out, I was suddenly stepping onto grass and the glowing bed was before me. There was no more time to hyperventilate and indulge my panic.

Suddenly, I was walking - no, sauntering - across the coals, cool as can be. There was no heat, no drums, no sight of Terry. Not even the sensation of crunching under my feet.

The shock of the cold water hosing down my feet snapped me out of my reverie and there was Terry, a broad smile across his face and his arms wide open.

"You did it," he said.

For days afterward, I was temporarily brainwashed, luxuriating in the achievement and not caring how it was possible that I did it. But I soon returned to my old ways and pursued the scientific explanation.

"The mind over matter part - which is not to be neglected - is the idea that you are willing to take the risk to do this," said New York psychologist Alan Hilfer.

But does walking on fire free you from all your fears and change your life forever? Usually, no, the experts say.

And even Robbins admits that while the firewalk can change some people's lives, for others it's merely a good pub story.

Hilfer, director of psychology training at Maimonides Medical Center in New York, said there are a number of people who go to such seminars who have deeper emotional problems that take more than self-empowerment and motivation to overcome.

Willey agreed that the long-term benefits of firewalking is limited for most people.

"That's part of what they are selling," he said. "This great group feeling and if I can do this, I can change my life. It might make you realize that you can go to your boss and ask for a raise and give you confidence to do that, but you are not going to cure your own liver cancer."

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