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Firewalking Health Tips to Save Your Sole

Tim Boyer's picture
Walking across hot coals

Motivational seminar speaker and self-help guru Tony Robbins made news recently as reports of 21 attendees at his four-day Unleash the Power Within (UPW) seminar received 2nd and 3rd degree burns on the soles of their feet during his signature firewalking over hot coals experience on Day 1 of the seminar.

According to the Anthony Robbins’ UPW promotional website, Unleash the Power Within is a total immersive and powerful weekend event where you will create breakthroughs that will allow you to shift the quality of your life—physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, in your relationships and in your business.

Also known more commonly as the “Firewalk Seminar” by devotees of his motivational program, the first day of UPW concludes with attendees walking barefoot along a short path of hot coals with temperatures reaching between 1,000 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This trial by fire is promoted as a demonstration of learning how that a person can turn fear into power and that by walking on a bed of hot coals you will annihilate your fears and come to understand that there is absolutely nothing that you cannot overcome.

As it turns out, firewalking is just one of several tools used by motivational speakers to engage attendees. Other seminar speakers employ similar methods such as glass-walking, steel bar bending, using mind over matter to break pointed arrows with your throat, board breaking, and smashing cinder blocks with your bare hands.

Although there is no mention on the UPW website what it means if an attendee does not walk the coals unscathed as many are reported of doing so successfully without injury, believers of the practice typically attribute the burned soles being due to a failure on the participant of not being in the right state of mind in overcoming matter that bears an uncanny semblance to some sects of Pentecostal worshippers that test their faith with poisonous snakes. If a person is bitten by a snake during a service, then that person is viewed by some as not being “with God.” Others, however, view it as being God’s decision of unknown divine reasons regardless of the bitten individual’s degree of faith and spirituality.

In fact, according to a National Geographic article about religious snake handlers in the Appalachian Mountains, some members who practice snake handling point out that there is no mention of promise in the Bible that you won’t be bitten.

"It's a misconception that these people believe they won't get hurt,"
quotes Ralph Hood, a professor of social psychology and the psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee in the National Geographic article. "The Bible says to take up serpents, not that they won't be bitten. If they're bit, that's up to God. The issue is obedience to God. There's no magic power type of stuff. They know the reality of it because so many families have had people hurt and killed."

Interestingly, some sects also employ drinking strychnine and exposing the palms of their hands to an open flame as tests of their faith.

Skeptics of firewalking believe that rather than being a mind over matter phenomenon, that it is really a matter of physics. David Willey, a physics instructor credentialed with a “Teacher of the Year” award for Natural Science in 1990 and creator of "How Does A Thing Like That Work?" explored firewalking and explains that stepping on hot coals can be done without injury--a feat he has accomplished multiple times and was part of the “World Record Longest Firewalk” in the late 90’s at Redmond, Washington.

According to a video titled “The Physics of Firewalking”—co-written and co-produced by Mr. Willey—both hardwood and charcoal are good thermal insulators, and that even when on fire, that wood is just as good an insulator, and charcoal is almost four times better as an insulator than dry hardwood. In addition, the ash that is left after the charcoal has burnt is just as poor a conductor as hardwood or charcoal, and in itself is producing no further heat and actually blocks much of the radiation of heat from live coals layered beneath.

The heat from a bed of coals that is significant in firewalking is the conduction of heat when the soles make contact with the coals.

According to “Firewalking Myth vs. Physics,” conduction happens when energetic molecules from the hot coals collide with the more sedate molecules on the soles of the feet and transfers heat energy to them. However, the article states that the heat transfer may not be enough to cause a burn because, “…the thermal conductivity of coarse charcoal is very small and that of skin or flesh is only about four times more. By comparison the thermal conductivity of most metals is several thousand times larger, metals conduct heat well, but non-metals such as charcoal or skin do not. Additionally, not all of the foot is in contact the whole time, because of the coarseness of the charcoal and how the foot is placed when walking. The foot’s arch seems to be where most people blister other than between the toes.”

In summary, Mr. Willey believes that what makes firewalking possible is that when a person walks on fire, the feet absorb relatively little heat from the topmost cooled embers because they are poor conductors and do not have much internal energy to transmit heat. Furthermore, the layer of cooled charcoal and ash between the foot and the rest of the hot embers deeper in the coal bed insulates them from the coal's highest temperatures.

A compilation of advice from multiple sources offers these recommended health tips to save your sole when engaging in a firewalking event:

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1. Do not walk on a bed of coals soon after it was lit. Give it enough time to burn down enough to create a protective layer on top.

2. Do not be the first one to walk on the bed of coals. Let a few other potentially successful candidates be the first to ensure the bed is walkable.

3. Do not attempt if you have open cuts or breaks in your soles.

4. Do not attempt if you have flat feet. The instep is typically very tender in comparison to the rest of the bottom of the foot.

5. Walk across briskly, but do not dig in with your toes or heels or try to tiptoe across. These actions will bring your feet closer to the deeper layer of the hottest part of the coal bed.

6. Immerse your feet for a minimum of 10 minutes in cold water immediately after firewalking whether you feel burning or not.

7. Ensure that whoever is in charge of the firewalking has some certification or training for this activity.

8. Ensure that immediate medical help is present.

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile


Firewalking Myth vs. Physics

National Geographic: Snake Handlers Hang On in Appalachian Churches

YouTube: “Adam Tries Fire Walking”

Anthony Robbins: Unleash the Power Within