Some see walking over hot coals as insanity. To others, it's a motivational technique that teaches people to pursue dreams. Either way, the offbeat activity is gaining popularity in Pinellas County, where there are now six certified firewalk instructors.
By LEONORA LaPETER
Published October 5, 2003
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Firewalking seminar participant Taju Tiffany Crim Pieniak exults after negotiating the hot coals for the first time during a session last month.
ST. PETERSBURG - The red cedar had been burning for two hours, the chunks of wood once stacked like Lincoln Logs now a pile of glowing orange and black embers.
Three dozen people took turns raking the embers into a 10-foot path, chanting "my body will do whatever it takes to protect me."
Bill Glover, a real estate developer from Clearwater, stuck a tool near the fire and captured a reading of 1,150 degrees. Then, just like that, he walked over the coals twice, calmly but briskly. Kind of like he was headed to lunch but not late.
"The firewalk is now open," announced Theo Tillson, a gourmet vegetarian chef from Clearwater.
A 48-year-old forensic court interviewer from Pasco County who said she had walked on fire before was the first to traverse the coals. Followed by a 53-year-old heavy equipment operator from Naples sporting a mullet hairstyle and a Harley Davidson T-shirt. And a cleancut 40-year-old engineer from Palm Harbor with three kids who was there at his wife's insistence. And a bare-chested man who played the flute as he ambled across the fire.
Within a half-hour all 30 people, many of whom paid $100, had walked across the coals.
Glover, 53, and Tillson, 41, smiled.
They have new careers. They are firewalking instructors.
* * *
Six people are now certified to teach firewalking in Pinellas County alone.
An organization in California, the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education, actually certifies firewalking instructors. Some 800 people across the country have become teachers.
A typical firewalk, a practice believed to precede written history, begins with a participant breaking a board and ends with them walking across a path of burning embers. In between is plenty of talk about conquering fears and activities involving steel-tipped arrows, broken glass and skinny steel rods.
The thought is that if people can walk on fire, they believe they can accomplish anything. Practitioners of firewalking say it helps those who are frozen by fear - whether it be in relationships or careers - find fulfillment in their lives. Often major companies use it as an employee motivational tool.
"It's about how you approach life, how you tackle your problems," said Marcie Mendez, a St. Petersburg hair salon and dog kennel owner who became certified to teach firewalking behind her businesses last spring. "There's always something stopping people. You have to make up your mind you're going to do it, go for it and you will see end results."
The firewalks in Pinellas County are drawing customers, to be sure, but the instructors appear to be creating the demand rather than the other way around.
"Every person in the world is a potential firewalker," said Gail Baiman, a Seminole real estate investor and one of those firewalking instructors. She has walked on fire more than 1,000 times since 1988. Her 5-year-old granddaughter has walked on fire, as did her 90-year-old father six months before he died in July.
"Demand will be created as the knowledge about it goes out," she said.
So how did Pinellas County become such a hotbed, so to speak, for firewalking?
The answer lies at a small retreat in Citrus County, where firewalking instructors from all over the world are being produced by the dozens. Baiman and her friend Bob Jackson own the 26-acre property in Floral City.
Last spring, the man who is considered the father of firewalking, California's Tolly Burkhan - trainer of self-help guru Tony Robbins - trained some three dozen instructors at the retreat, including Tillson, Glover and Mendez. He's trying to keep going what he started.
That is why in the last few weeks alone, three firewalking seminars were available to residents of this area, including two in St. Petersburg.
* * *
"There's something absolutely powerful about doing something that you absolutely shouldn't do," said Glover, a short balding man who wears T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops and gazes at people through bifocals.
Glover picked up a wooden arrow from the floor and set its steel tip at his throat just beneath his Adam's apple. Then he walked up to a nearby wall and placed the other end of the arrow against the wall. He leaned into it, the steel tip digging deeper into his throat until the arrow began to bend and finally cracked in a flurry of broken pieces.
The trick? Glover contends it takes 75 pounds of pressure to pierce the trachea, but only 25 pounds to break the arrow, so it will break before doing harm.
One by one, about a dozen people placed faith in his words, stuck a steel-tipped arrow at their throats and leaned into it until it hurt and some were coughing.
It's about testing limits, pushing themselves to do something they feared but were told wouldn't hurt them if they focused and did it right.
For example, no one cut their feet walking across glass, because, Glover said, glass breaks in a downward direction. If you find your footing and walk across it slowly, you are unlikely to cut your feet, Glover claims. Of course, participants must sign a form releasing Tillson and Glover, and their business, Shift Happens, from any liability if you are injured.
"It sounds like corn flakes," said Heather "Honey" Smith, 31, a Tampa massage therapist, as the glass crunched beneath her feet. Once she got to the other end, she wiped her feet on the floor and said, "Look, Mom, no cuts!"
* * *
The explanation for why firewalkers rarely burn their feet is less clear. It appears to be a skill, requiring the right frame of mind and the correct pace.
Some believe the ash from the burning wood protects the feet from the fire. Others say firewalkers wet their feet first, giving them a protective cover. Another theory is that firewalkers move across the coals fast enough to avoid burning their feet.
Several podiatrists contacted for this story - ranging from two to 40 years in experience - had no medical explanation for the phenomenon and none had seen any firewalking patients either. Dr. Tim Runyon, a podiatrist of 26 years, suggested it might be because the skin on the feet is twice as thick as the skin on the rest of the body.
"I hope they have disclaimers about people who are diabetic or have sensitive feet," he said.
Burkhan, Tillson and Glover contend it is all about one's mental state and blood vessels.
"When you have no fear, your blood vessels are wide open and they take the heat away from your feet," Tillson said.
Two years ago, a dozen Burger King marketing employees were treated for first- and second-degree burns following a firewalk in Key Largo. Burkhan said he investigated the incident and found that a hotter-burning wood, mahogany, was used, and a stiff wind whipped up flames.
Burkhan says some 2-million people have firewalked since he was the first to begin teaching firewalking 26 years ago, and only 50 have been burned.
But walking on fire clearly has its skeptics.
"If you use that way as a pop psychology tool to help people get over their problems, you can understand it for how it works," said Gary Posner, founder of Tampa Bay Skeptics. "But it doesn't mean I condone it for substituting seeing a psychiatrist. I can understand the placebo effect for giving them more confidence."
Glover has walked over fire about 300 times, including 109 in a single night. Upon request, he produces the bottom of his feet to show they are not damaged. He and Tillson said it has changed their outlook on life, and they want to share that with others.
Still, they offer pointed warnings to about 30 participants as they embarked on a recent firewalk in a wooded area south of downtown St. Petersburg.
"If you run, it's because you believe it's going to burn you, and every time someone has done this, they have been burned," Glover said.
* * *
Mike Prili rubbed his bald head and looked nervously around the room in a small wooden building in the forest of palms and live oaks. A short, muscular guy in a bright yellow and brown Hawaiian shirt and light blue shorts and sneakers, he is intense and passionate.
"I'm scared out of my mind," said Prili, 47, who teaches English as a second language. "I have no intention of walking tonight. Absolutely not. I'm just hoping to get something out of this."
He wants to change something in his life, though he's not sure what. There are fewer international students to teach and more red tape, so he's thinking of a job change. He talked about "getting grounded" and "finding balance."
Prili broke the board, cracked the arrow, bent a steel bar and walked on glass. When he thought about walking on fire, he said the "what ifs" entered his mind. He has no health insurance, so what if he burned his feet?
Later, as the firewalk began, he said he cleared his mind and became the eighth person to walk on fire. Then he walked four more times.
It is still too early to tell if firewalking will have an impact on Mike Prili's life. But he and a number of others were clearly emotional after they'd done it. Many felt they'd experienced some sort of fundamental shift in their lives. About six people asked for aloe after the firewalk to tend to small burns from "hitchhikers," small embers that can get caught between toes and leave small blisters.
"I was very apprehensive, a little afraid," Prili said. "Everything else was sort of a like a trick, no offense," he says, looking at Tillson and Glover, "but then I told myself, "What difference is it going to make?' ... I thought if this guy can do it with a flute, I can do this. The first time was the easiest. The more times I did it, the hotter it got. I was floating, letting go."