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Photograph by Kathy De La Torre

Burning Questions

For most firewalkers, the experience is more than a trial by fire

By Leigh Ann Maze

AS I DROVE the twisting mountain roads above Los Gatos looking for the Laurel Mill Lodge, I kept imagining the hissing sound a hamburger makes when placed on a grill. I had dutifully packed a bag with sensible firewalking necessities: a bottle of drinking water, a flashlight, a warm sweater and a towel, as the firewalking instructor had suggested. But, honestly, I had no intention of taking off my shoes.

I joined a circle of 50 people sitting cross-legged in the low-ceilinged, wood-paneled room of the Laurel Mill Lodge, warmed by excitement and a fire in the hearth. "I acknowledge that ... people have in fact been injured by participation in firewalking, that there is inherent risk in firewalking and that there is a possibility I myself may receive injuries requiring medical attention," the waiver read. I signed and tied my shoelaces in double-knots.

As everyone shared their reasons for being there, it became apparent that most had more on their agenda than a simple jaunt over the coals. They were seeking big changes in their lives. To overcome drug and food addictions, a mother's suicide, a lover's illness. One man said his wife suggested that he write his problems on a piece of paper and throw them into the fire for his New Year's resolution. "I thought, 'Why not throw myself into the fire?' " he said, laughing.

The reasons were acknowledged around the circle with broad smiles, nods and deep breathing. "It's not about walking on fire," instructor Arthur Faygenholtz reassured them. "It's about what goes on between your ears and between your mind and your heart. It's about getting in touch with the great inner strength within all of us, so that whatever you're doing in your life, you have more of what it takes to get the job done."

The ancient custom of firewalking has been practiced for thousands of years as a religious ceremony by people in India, Greece, Africa and Fiji. "People today are accessing an old ritual because of its potency. They are bringing in society's more current social and emotional issues," Faygenholtz said.

Faygenholtz, who has led firewalks for 10 years, gave the roomful of first-timers some helpful tips. "Walk with a purpose and have a plan," he said, demonstrating on a rug. "Know where you are going and how you are going to get there." The group filed out into the clearing and gathered around the neatly raked bed of glowing, red coals. Everyone had their shoes off and their pants rolled up to their knees. Everyone except me.

A drum beating in the background kept time with the pounding hearts and pumping adrenaline. The experienced firewalkers went first, walking confidently across the coals without hesitation while the first-timers cheered them on. Nathan, the instructor's 9-year-old son, who has been firewalking since the tender age of 5, proclaimed he was walking "for all the future firewalkers" and nimbly danced across the coals several times.

I wondered what the ancient Fijians would think to see Americans prancing across the coals for career enhancement and world peace.

To my own surprise, I found myself slipping off my shoes and socks, rolling up my jeans and elbowing my way through the jubilant crowd to the edge of the coal bed. I crossed in three quick strides.

The bed of ashes and coals was soft and warm on the vulnerable underbelly of my feet, like sand at the beach on an August afternoon. Warm enough that you notice the heat and walk with staccato steps toward the ocean's salvation, but bearable enough to kick off your flip-flops and make a run for it. Aside from a few ashy smudges, my feet were unscathed.

Scientists say firewalking is possible through a combination of physical and psychological means. The body is capable of cooling and protecting itself to a certain degree, and confidence, a relaxed body and plenty of blood flow to the feet are main factors. Others have suggested that the layer of moisture on the bottom of the feet protects them.

Whatever the reason, my feet and I survived.

After the coals had been stomped out and doused with water, the group headed up the hill, amazed at what they had just seen and done. One of the instructors put it best: "Everyone will have an explanation as to how you did it."

The Laurel Mill Lodge will host a firewalk March 18 and a women's firewalk May 13.

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From the March 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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