Here at Zen Arts it should be apparent by now that if there’s fire involved in any sort of display…we’re not too far away. For centuries fire has remained a symbol of life, death, rebirth, and purification in various cultures around the world. It is revered by many as a sacred symbol of life, being a provider of light, warmth, and sustenance. People have danced around it, jumped over it, twirled it around, and expelled it from their mouths…but how exactly does one walk on it? In the following we’ll take a closer look at the fascinating phenomenon of firewalking to see just how this dangerous and controversial practice actually works, without succumbing the walker to a new pair of permanently scarred soles.
Firewalking dates all the way back to 1200 B.C. India, when ancient Hindu sadhus would walk across burning hot coals to exhibit their devotion and strength of spiritual connection. In Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest religion, water and fire represent elements of purification and wisdom, and Zoroastrian rituals usually involve prayers in front of a flame. Born in what would now be modern-day Iran, many Zoroastrian customs have carried over into Iranian culture, reflected in such practices as the Chaharshanbe Suri celebration (literally translated as “Red Wednesday”), which falls on the last Wednesday of the Iranian year and involves jumping over large bonfires to cleanse away sickness and evil while hopefully taking on happiness, enlightenment, and energy.
All across the globe some form of firewalking has permeated nearly every culture. In North America, many Indian tribes such as the Fox, Blackfeet, and Zuni had their own shamanic firewalking traditions also involving purification and healing. In northern Greece, villagers firewalk during a 3-day festival honoring Saint Constantine and Saint Helen, believing that the Saints provide them with the power to accomplish the task. Due to the ample availability of it, indigenous Hawaiians known as Kahunas usually practiced lava walking, a tradition prevalent throughout many Polynesian tribes. Other regions of firewalking include Bali, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.
Throughout most of these cultures, firewalking is seen as a rite of passage, a test of faith, a cleansing ritual, or even a healing practice. On the great African continent the !Kung bushman of the Kalahari desert walk on fire in their healing ceremonies. They believe walking on fire heats up their internal energy, called n/um, and !Kung priests will walk on it, pick it up, put their heads in it, and rub it all over themselves. It is said that once the body is heated up as hot as the coals, the walker cannot be burned. And the hotter their n/um, the more they will fall into a trance-type consciousness in which all surrounding sickly people can be healed.
The perception of fire as a purifying element is not unwarranted. After all fire is required on Earth for all life to thrive. Right here in southern California wildfires are an inherent part of the region, clearing old, dry, dying brush to create room for new growth. In fact some seed pods of regional plants won’t even open and disperse unless they are heated up or ignited. Many of these plants also have leaves coated in flammable oil to help perpetuate fire, with seeds that will germinate with only fire or smoke present.
Today firewalking has evolved into a clichéd workplace teambuilding activity, to garner confidence, trust, and motivation. The modern firewalking movement spread thanks to inspirational speakers such as Tony Robbins, who believe that practices such as firewalking help show people that it’s possible to do things that seem impossible. The elimination of fear and the realization of self-empowerment are the principles behind modern firewalking occasions.
A man by the name of Tolly Burkan is credited with introducing firewalking into Western culture, with the founding of the Firewalking Institute for Research and Education in the 1970s. Known as the “father of the global firewalking movement,” Burkan developed the first firewalking classes to teach the act to the general public. He spent the 1980s and 1990s working with companies who wished to increase employee productivity and efficiency by creating team-building, confidence-building firewalking retreats, where employees could learn mind-over-matter principles and realize their full potential. Even though firewalking does involve a great deal of courage, the reason for why it is possible lies solely in science and not within any sort of mind-over-matter beliefs.
To discuss the physics of firewalking we first must delve into the science of heat transfer. Thermal energy is transferred in thee forms: radiation, convection, and conduction. Radiation is the transfer of thermal energy via particles carried through electromagnetic waves (think the warming rays of the sun). Convection is the transfer of thermal energy through a gas or liquid, in which hot air rises and expands while cold air drops and condenses. Finally conduction is the transfer of thermal energy by direct contact with a heated object.
Obviously the first two methods don’t apply to firewalking seeing as there is very little radiated thermal energy provided by the hot coals and no liquid or gases involved either. This leaves the main method of heat transfer as conduction. There are two schools of thought as to why the feet are not burned by conduction when touching the hot coals in a firewalk, one being more popular than the other.
The first involves the basic principle that wood (including coals) is a bad conductor of heat. The thermal conductivity of charcoal is small, due to its lightweight carbon structure, and that of the feet is only about 4 times more, due to its extra thick skin. This low thermal conductivity can best be explained by the analogy of a cake baking in an oven. If you place your hand in the middle of a hot oven, your hand will not be burned because it is denser than the hot air of the oven. However if you touch any of the metal inside the oven, your hand will be immediately burned since metal is far denser than air. The denser something is, the better conductor of heat it is. The cake inside the oven will feel hot, but can be touched briefly without causing a burn.
Hardwood and charcoal are not only low thermal conductors, but also excellent thermal insulators. For years wood was used for the handles of frying pans and other cookware until heat-resistant plastics were invented. Ash itself is also a poor conductor and a layer of ash atop the hot coals also blocks any thermal energy in the form of radiation from hitting the feet.
In addition to these properties of wood and ash, the fact that the feet come into contact with the coals for such a brief period of time, prevents them from being burned. The moment of contact between feet and coals is far too quick to burn the feet, usually half a second or less. Additionally the entire foot does not make contact with the coals due to the arch of the feet.
The second and less popular school of reason can best be described by an old boy scout camping trick to cook an egg. If you take a paper cup, fill it with water, and place it atop hot coals, the water will eventually boil enough to cook an egg without igniting or burning the surrounding paper cup. The reason for this is the water inside the cup keeps the cup below its flash point (lowest temperature at which it ignites). Since the feet contain a large amount of water, some believe this same principle can be applied to firewalking. Many firewalking instructors teach their students to stay relaxed when attempting a walk to keep the blood flowing to the feet, further protecting the skin from potential burns.
Although the science behind it is quite convincing, burns still happen during modern firewalks, either because the coals are too hot, a walker has unusually thin soles, or they are moving too slow. Even though moving too slowly can cause the feet to burn, running causes burns too by pushing the feet deeper into hot coals. The best strategy to firewalk is a light but brisk pace.
Foreign objects (like metals) that are left within the coals can also cause burns. Additionally, if coals are not burned long enough to eliminate all the water from them, they could then be too hot to walk on and also cause burns. Furthermore, not allowing a layer of ash to build atop the coals has caused burns in the past. The longer the stretch of firewalking coals, the more ash should be allowed to build up.
Some believe wetting the feet with water can help first-time firewalkers, but this may also cause the coals to stick to the feet and result in severe burns. The wet foot principle is based upon the Leidenfrost effect, that the foot can be insulated by water vapor when the water surrounding it touches the hot coals. This is the same principle you see in play when you pour drops of water into a hot skillet and watch the droplets scurry around and evaporate slowly. This is because they are traveling on a bed of steam that insulates them from the heat, steam created when exposing a very hot surface to water. Since steam is a gas, it conducts heat less rapidly than water itself.
It’s important to note that firewalking is usually only done at night because during the day the coals would simply appear to be a bed of ashes. It is only at night that the heat between the coals is visible, increasing the apparent danger.
Whatever the science behind it may be, it’s no doubt that firewalking still takes balls to do! Although it doesn’t offer any direct health benefits, over the years firewalking seminars have helped hundreds of people overcome personal fears, struggles, and hurdles in their lives to become the people they have always wanted to be. And some of those who have conquered the hot coals have even moved on to the more insane practice of glass-walking!