Friday, March 31, 2000

Walking on fire

Miraculous or mundane, firewalking draws mystics, physicists

By ERIC TALMADGE -- The Associated Press
A group of Yamabushi, mystics who mix Buddhist beliefs with the nature-worship of Japan's native Shinto, walk on the path of embers during the annual firewalking festival in Mount Takao on the western outskirts of Tokyo. (AP Photo: Itsuo Inouye) 
  MOUNT TAKAO, Japan (AP) -- Flames from the bonfire leap into the chilly mountain air. Mystics dressed in bright robes of silk chant, beat drums and shake fists clenched around silver bells.

 As the fire begins to burn down, water is thrown on to convert the blaze into a pile of orange-hot embers, which the barefoot mystics rake into a smooth, glowing path.

 Then, with flames still burning around them, they walk the walk with nary a flinch or blister.


 Hardly, say the skeptics. Thanks to a trick of conductivity, just about anybody can do it, as this reporter learned by following in the mystics' footsteps.

 Fanned by New Age interest in North America and Europe, firewalking has gone through something of a popularity surge in the last decade, with hundreds of thousands of people believed to have given it a try in the United States alone.

 The practice itself is quite ancient -- the oldest references to it go back more than 3,000 years, when ascetics in India walked on embers to test and purify themselves.

 Firewalking has a long history in Japan as well. Today, tens of thousands of people gather for several firewalking rituals around the country each year, usually in the weeks just before the beginning of spring.

 The firewalking festival in the mountainous area on the western outskirts of Tokyo is one of the best known. Priests say it was first held more than 1,300 years ago by "yamabushi," mystics who mix Buddhist beliefs with the nature-worship of Japan's native Shinto.

 Dozens of mystics gathered for the festival this year. It also drew thousands of spectators, many of whom walked the path after the mystics finished.
A barefoot young girl is pulled up by her mother as they walk on the path of embers during an annual firewalking festival. (AP Photo: Itsuo Inouye) 
  Most of the embers were pushed to the side for the neophytes, creating a less challenging walk and allowing the squeamish to sidestep the hotter areas. All of those who tried completed the 4.5-metre path -- though the heat was intense enough for the uninitiated to blister an instep or two. Mine included.

 "It's not so hard," said Hideo Uehara, who came to the festival from Tokyo. "But that's not important. It's the religious aspect that I'm here for."

 The mystics carry out an elaborate ritual to prepare and bless the fire, which is made of wooden amulets upon which spectators write wishes for health, wealth or good luck.

 A ceremonial arrow is shot into the pile before the fire is lighted and sacred words brushed in the air with the frantic waving of fingers as the mystics seem to enter a trancelike state.

 "It is our training that allows our bodies to endure without feeling the heat," said Gisei Kato, a yamabushi who led the firewalk. "Fire is sacred. Firewalking is a rebirth, a purification."

 Firewalking instructors generally take a similar approach.

 "The firewalk is an extremely beneficial and powerful experience," Michael McDermott says on a Web site ( advertising his weeklong, $1,000-plus training course near Redmond, Wash. "It changes lives."

 But with firewalking's increased popularity has come a good deal of scrutiny from the scientific community, where few see it as a mind-over-matter feat.

 "They (instructors) want you to believe there's something special to be learned," said David Willey, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "Anyone can do it, with just a few minutes coaching, but they wouldn't make money if they told you that up front."

 Willey has more than an academic understanding of firewalking -- he has done a dozen or so firewalks and is co-holder of the world distance record with McDermott and others at 50 metres. 

 On a shorter walk, Willey says, he has crossed a bed that reached more than 500 C. Considering that skin chars at that temperature -- and even less is good enough to cook a roast -- it would seem an almost miraculous performance.
Firewalking has a long history in Japan, and today, tens of thousands of people gather for several firewalking rituals around the country each year, usually in the weeks just before the beginning of spring. (AP Photo: Itsuo Inouye) 
  But Willey says that conductivity, not temperature, is the more important factor.

 Because metal is a good conductor of heat and air isn't, you can put a hand in a hot oven briefly without getting burned. But touch the metal walls, and a burn results immediately.

 The same goes for sand -- because sand is a good conductor, a walk across the beach on a sunny day can be quite painful.

 Wood, however, doesn't conduct heat very effectively, Willey says. And since the actual amount of time the feet are in contact with the coals is usually only a second or so, not much heat is transferred.

 The buildup of ash around the embers and the natural moisture on the bottom of a firewalker's feet are two more layers of protection. 

 That doesn't mean there are no risks.

 "If your flesh stays in contact with the hot coals for too long, you will get burned," Willey said.


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