Firewalk with me

Two local women reveal how walking on hot coals changed their lives.

A member of the Sundoor School for Transpersonal Education walks across fire as though it were not any more painful than walking on a warm sidewalk.

A member of the Sundoor School for Transpersonal Education walks across fire as though it were not any more painful than walking on a warm sidewalk.

When most people get depressed, they get counseling, take up a hobby or call a friend. It wouldn’t occur to them that walking across a fiery pit might change their lives.

But Elaine Hirt of Reno has walked through fire more than 150 times. For her, it’s an exercise in breakthroughs, achievements and empowerment.

She first attempted firewalking in 2000. Her boyfriend, an avid firewalker, brought her to a workshop at the Sundoor School for Transpersonal Education in Sonora, Calif. Armed with nothing but an open mind, Hirt quickly realized she could benefit from the workshop. Last summer, she helped publicize a Sundoor workshop up at Tahoe.

“In the workshop, they went around asking us what we really want in life. That [first] summer I had lost a special ring that I’d received as a gift,” Hirt said. “It was an anchor, a source of strength to me. You know how we get attached to things. But without it, I felt like I had lost my strength. I decided that I wanted that anchor in me. I wanted that strength inside me, not in something I could lose.”

These workshops consist of a lot more than just fire. Exercises also include positioning an arrow against a firm surface, pointed end out. The point is placed at the base of the throat, in the hollow of the collarbone, and the object of the exercise is to break the arrow using only your throat. Sound impossible? Elaine Hirt is of average size and strength—she had very little trouble.

“I just had to ask myself, what do I want to break through? I just focused on that, and I broke it!” she said. “Sometimes when things get tough or I think I can’t do something, I touch that spot on my neck and I remember, ‘yes I can.'”

As if firewalking and broken arrows weren’t enough, other exercises involve walking on broken glass and bending a quarter-inch rebar using only two people’s throats. As the couple walk toward each other, the bar bends. Is there pain? Of course, Hirt says, if not done correctly. You wouldn’t try to walk on broken beer bottles on your kitchen floor, or ram a pipe into your throat. The point of these workshops is to create a safe environment, to train your mind first.

The culmination of a workshop is the firewalk. Using no tricks, participants simply walk across coals reaching 1,000 to 1,200 degrees.

“We talk about what it’s going to take to walk across the fire. How will it feel?” Hirt explained. “It’s about being real. Those are red hot coals. It’s very physical. I can’t tell you why, it just works.”

There are several well-tested theories as to how people with no training and no physical preparation are able to safely walk across hot coals. The first and most common is called the Leidenfrost effect. It proposes that when a cold, wet object (here, a foot) touches a hot, dry object (the coals), a barrier of steam is created, which is a poor conductor of heat, and therefore protects the foot from injury. In Hirt’s case, except for perspiration, which also evaporates like water, there was no water on her feet.

Another theory suggests that dry wood coals are poor conductors of heat. While being very hot themselves, they don’t tend to transfer heat to skin very well. Some say that since wood coals have such a small surface area, there simply isn’t enough heat energy to transfer to a foot. Still, others say it works because firewalkers keep moving fast and don’t spend enough time on the coals to burn themselves. And of course, everyone’s pain threshold is different, which might explain why some don’t feel a burn.

But the majority of those who have firewalked say it’s a simple case of mind over matter: If you feel ready, your body will be ready, and thus will protect itself from injury.

The first time Hirt walked, she’d had no intention of doing so. But to see the others across the fire, so happy and joyful, was infective. She wanted to be a part of it. Before she knew it, she was on the other side, completely safe.

Calan Johnson, director of Transfire, runs across fiery coals. One theory to explain the ability to walk on fire is that participants move too quickly to really burn themselves.

What did the coals feel like for her?

“Kind of like Styrofoam. It just didn’t feel hot. I mean, I can’t even walk on hot asphalt in the summer. But this wasn’t hot!” She attributes it to spirituality, to asking herself what she wants on the other side and focusing on the task at hand. She says that trying to impress people will only get you blisters, or “fire kisses.”

So what’s the point to firewalking?

“So people can break through, so they can move on with their lives,” Hirt said. “And for some people, it’s the healing aspect. We all have things in our lives to fix.”

In fact, most people come into these workshops convinced they won’t participate and quickly find themselves ready and willing to heal their lives. Amber Balliet, a local dancer, was dragged to a workshop held by a Sundoor offshoot, Transfire.

“I said, ‘I’ll watch you guys, but I’m a dancer, and I can’t ruin my feet!'” Balliet said. But in her workshop, she was asked to name one thing she wanted to accomplish in life, and three reasons why she couldn’t.

“At that time, I hated Reno,” said Balliet, who moved here from Buffalo, N.Y. “I was miserable because I had no friends here. So the thing I wanted to accomplish was to make and keep friends. The three reasons why I couldn’t were my insecurity, shyness and a fear of rejection.”

With her goal firmly set, Balliet sat meditating with her eyes closed while broken glass was spread across the floor. “They taught us nothing about how to walk on the glass, but I decided that if I was really committed to changing my life, I had to do something. I had to go all the way. I took off my shoes and decided to change my life.”

Balliet was the first in her workshop group to break her arrow and got so worked up at the prospect of it that she scrambled to go first. Her arrow splintered into pieces. Balliet tried every workshop exercise and succeeded.

“It’s completely changed my life,” Balliet said.

Balliet saw changes instantly. “I invite friends out now, I stay in touch with people. I look at what I have, not just what I don’t have. I’m thankful for everything—the moon, the stars. I travel, and I appreciate everything. I’m just happy. I can’t explain it.”

In fact, the firewalking workshops seem to infuse happiness like a drug, which is why its participants become so addicted. After the workshop, they feel there isn’t anything they can’t do, in spite of plausible scientific explanations for the ability to tread on fire, as well as bust the arrow and totter over the glass.

“How many of us set a goal and follow it through?” Balliet pointed out. “I control my circumstances now, not anybody else. I can do anything I set my mind to, as long as I’m focused. Anything I don’t achieve is totally on me.”

Hirt insists that such an exercise isn’t for everybody, it requires a certified firewalking instructor, and it definitely shouldn’t be attempted at home.

“You never know until you’re in front of the fire if you’re going to walk or not. Only you will know when you’re ready. But you can come watch, and decide for yourself,” she said.

“To say that someone shouldn’t do it is to limit someone’s ability to change their life," said Balliet.