Thursday, August 2, 2012

The real secret of firewalking is not falling down

Motivational speaker and guru Tony Robbins has been featuring “firewalking” as part of his seminars for about 35 years. On July 20th he got some unfavorable press coverage, like in a Mercury News article titled San Jose: 21 people treated for burns after firewalk at Tony Robbins appearance.

What’s the first thing you need to know about firewalking? That the experience has been carefully mislabeled. You actually just are walking briefly over a thin bed of hot coals - after the fire has burned down and been raked out. If you really walked through fire, then you’d die like Joan of Arc did. Nicholas Wade summed it up briefly in a New York Times article back on June 30th, 1998:

“People expect to be burned by anything incandescent, but the coals, if carefully prepared and at a late stage of combustion, have the density of styrofoam and hold too little heat to burn the skin if touched quickly.”

You can find a more detailed description of fire walking in the Skeptic’s Dictionary.

On July 31st the Huffington Post blog carried a long sympathetic article by Marianne Schnall titled Tony Robbins Sets the Record Straight About Fire Walk ‘Controversy’. That article contained statements from his medical personnel at the firewalk. In it Mr. Robbins said:

"For 35 years, I have had more than 4 million people go through my programs from 100 countries, with more than 2 million specifically doing the fire walk seminar itself. Throughout that time we have been conducting these events healthfully and successfully, and we have medical support and attention at every single event for those 3.5 decades. This program in San Jose was no different than any other one that we have ever done. The fact is that the ratio is usually about 1 percent of the people will get some pain, hot spots or blistering, and at this event it was only one-third of 1 percent: 21 people out of 6,000. So while I don't want anyone to feel any pain, and I care immensely... and we make sure that everyone is taken care of, I also know that part of life is facing a fear and there is risk! You take those risks if you choose to, and that's how you reap the rewards. He added, ‘It's really sad that some in the media chose to turn such a victory for so many people involved with the event into a tragedy.’ "

I looked in the medical literature to see what else had been reported about burns from fire walks. There was an article from 2011 in Burns magazine by Andrew A. Sayampanathan titled Fire walking in Singapore - a study of the distribution of burns. He reported on a firewalk at the Sri Mariamman Temple where of 3794 men, 17 ( or 0.045%) had superficial or partial thickness burns with an extent less than 1.5% of body surface area. But one man fell down and was burned over 20% of his body - with 15% being deep dermal injury. The real secret of fire walking is not falling down, so don’t drink alcohol or get high before you try it.

The image of a firewalk came from Wikimedia Commons.


michael platania said...

So is the ability to fire walk truly mind over matter - as from what I've heard that's how Tony Robbins tries to package it, or is it because the coals are sufficiently burned down and have a layer of ash, in which case it doesn't matter what your mind thinks, if you move quickly enough across the coals it won't burn you. I like a lot of what Tony Robbins stands for and teaches, but there I always feel an element of "snake oil salesman" when watching him.

Cathy said...

It was probably more like 2% that got hurt but it was the 1% of male participants that complained about pain hehe. Sorry I couldn't resist.