Firewalking: Mind Over Matter or a Tool for Personal Growth, or Both?

If someone told you that walking barefoot over a hot bed of glowing embers could change your life in dramatic, positive ways, instead of making you the main course in a bizarre barbecue, would you do it?

Or could you muster the courage to stroll barefoot across sharp broken glass without needing so much as a Band-Aid at the other end?

A lot of people are walking the walk and, as a result, overcoming personal fears and limitations in their lives.

Firewalking has a long history in many cultures, where it was originally used as a test of faith and a rite of passage for young boys coming of age into manhood.

At the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education in Dallas, Charles Horton teaches people that they have the power to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their daily lives.

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"The message that we teach in all of our seminars is really about things that you build up in your head as being really difficult; getting the job or the mate of your dreams, or starting your own business. Whatever it is that's holding you back from accomplishing what you want, and the firewalk is just a wonderful example of that."

What may appear frightening at first glance is a stunning event to witness (and to experience firsthand, as I recently discovered) as people walk over fire or broken glass or attempt other exercises that produce a stronger, fresh attitude.

I went to a firewalking event at the New Jersey home of Michael Agugliaro, an entrepreneur and martial arts instructor for the past 25 years. He cautions about the potential danger.

"There's inherent risks in everything," he says. "With firewalking, you can end up with a little blister, or you can end up being burned. It's all in your belief of what's going to happen when you go across it."

I must admit that standing there, facing the 8-foot-long fire pit -- composed of several layers of wooden logs that are doused with kerosene and set ablaze -- and staring at the hot, glowing embers, one of those little voices in my head urged me to just get into the car and quickly drive home.

Instead, I took that tentative step and, moments later, at the other end of the pit, with embers trailing from my naked feet, I felt exhilarated and, if you will, empowered. And that's the whole point.

Martial arts instructor and co-owner of Amazing Business Amazing Life, LLC, Michael Agugliaro walks over intense fire path while his wife, Jennifer Agugliaro, calmly strolls across hot coals at their home in Middlesex, N.J., August 2009. (Courtesy Michael/Jennifer Agugliaro)

"The only reason you believe, at first, that something like this is not possible, is because you had this belief programmed as a child," Agugliaro says. "Somewhere along the way, you were told, 'Don't touch that, it's hot.' The belief is something you've been programmed with -- just step outside that belief and then everything's possible."

Firewalking Is Introduced to the Public

Agugliaro's wife, Jennifer, has done a dozen firewalks and notices something about people who come at it with a skeptical point of view.

"I find it very common that those who come and really think it's a lot of baloney, get burned pretty bad -- their mind is not where it really needs to be, and I believe that just comes from a place of fear," she says.

Tolly Burkan, a former professional magician, was the first person to introduce firewalking to the public in the late 1970s and founded the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education.

When Burkan first learned how to create a firewalk, he was under the impression that it was all a trick, until he tried it a few times. "Immediately, I thought, you know, this has the potential to knock people out of the rut of conventional thinking," he says. "This is remarkable and potentially life-changing."

Burkan decided to take the idea of firewalking out of the circus, sideshow arena and make it more available to the public as a personal-growth tool.

"I was the first one, and I knew that the key was I had to present it to people in such a way that they would take that first step," he says

And, in recent years, through Burkan's efforts, firewalking has been included in executive empowerment seminars at companies such as Microsoft and American Express.

Medicine vs. Skepticism

Burkan was invited in the mid-1980s to the home of Dr. Andrew Weil -- the internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson-- to conduct a firewalking seminar.

"I was very distracted at that event, I didn't do it in the right state, and I ended up with minor burns," Weil says.

At a later firewalk, where the pit was 40-feet long and much hotter than his previous attempt, Weil had a different experience. "There was no sensation of heat, it just felt crunchy," he says. "I could've done it all night, it was amazing."

Weil, who has twice appeared on the cover of Time magazine, believes that the difference between getting burned and not was in his mental state. But he doesn't think it's mind over matter.

"I think it's a mind-body phenomenon, that in a certain state of consciousness, the body can conduct heat away from the surface and not be injured," he says. "I think it's very relevant to medical practice and healing."

All of the mind-body implication stokes the critical fire of the world's leading skeptical organization, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Skeptic and senior research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Joe Nickell, easily glides across a hot bed of embers, September 2000, at the Center for Inquiry, in Amherst, N.Y. (Courtesy Joe Nickell)

"Anyone can walk on fire," says Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at the Amherst, N.Y.-based group and author of numerous books, including "Secrets of the Sideshows."

"There's nothing special about it except there are laws of physics and these have been very well tested out, and people who follow these laws will do OK, regardless of their mental attitude or their belief in psychic energy."

Here Comes the Firewalking Judge

"People can walk on fire, which I've done many times," Nickell says. "One of the reasons firewalking is possible is because wood does not conduct heat well. But if you increase the distance, eventually your feet will heat up."

When ABC News' Diane Sawyer took a dare and walked on fire last year, live on "Good Morning America," she actually did it several times.

"GMA" anchor Diane Sawyer and writer Lara Naaman race across firey coals in Times Square, Feb. 27, 2008. (Ida Mae Astute/ABC)

"I rarely let go control of my mind, so my dare was to get in that zone," Sawyer said last year, "to get in that self-hypnotic zone where you can firewalk, where you can master anything in your life. This is one of the oldest and most universal symbols of achieving your goals -- walking on fire."

Many people say that firewalking is something anyone can do by calling forth his or her internal focus and energy, and, thus, be propelled into a more personally fulfilling life.

But skeptics say that's not true. "Anytime you're doing something dangerous, it's good to be mentally alert," Nickell says. "But there's nothing mystical about firewalking."

Maybe what's needed here is some legal advice and expertise; like, for example, from Judge Darrel Lewis, a retired California Superior Court trial jurist who now spends his time between serving as a legal mediator and, interestingly, as a firewalk instructor.

Nutritionist and bodybuilder Jeff Lewis, left, appears unfazed as he firewalks, while his father, retired California Superior Court Judge Darrel Lewis, right, prepares to step on a hot bed of coals in Sonora, Calif., April 2007. (Courtesy Darrel Lewis)

"I would say to the skeptics that there are some things that we don't understand," he says. "Several hundred years ago, people were convinced the world was flat or that Earth circled around other planets.They had all kinds of evidence to support that, and we ultimately found that it wasn't true."

Lewis became a firewalk instructor when he discovered how it improved his life as a mediator. "Particularly after seven or eight hours of mediation, when people just say that this isn't going to work, I stay calm and focused," he says. " And that's what firewalking taught me; to keep walking, keep your focus, be persistent and believe it's going to happen.

"And I fervently believe that your beliefs can be transmitted to others around you. And I was about as conservative as you can get."

Even in a sagging economy with record unemployment rates from coast to coast, Americans want to be happy, want to feel empowered to lead productive lives.

Perhaps firewalking is a path that can help people find their way through the struggles of the economic crisis in which they find themselves.

On New York's Long Island, Lorraine Simone will soon offer firewalking to her many clients and students at Moonfire Meeting House, a global community and wholistic wellness center she founded in 1990.

Walking over hot coals "makes me feel as though I can do anything I put my focus on, anything I intend to do, because I feel part of a bigger picture of life."

Barefoot in the Glass

A teacher since 1969 with a master's degree in environmental science education, Simone knows how she'll use firewalking in her work. "I've needed to find ways to inspire and encourage people, to have them step out of the little box that they've been living in, to expand their awareness and their skills."

And then there's glasswalking, another challenge presented to me at the firewalking event. Spread out on the floor was a 50-pound mixture of different colored broken pieces of beer and wine bottles, over which each of us in attendance -- or those willing to -- would slowly walk, barefoot.

ABC News' Elliot Lee Speigel and Moonfire Meeting House founder/director Lorraine Simone slowly walk over 50 pounds of broken wine and beer bottles in the martial arts studio of Michael Agugliaro, also pictured, in Middlesex, N.J., Oct. 17, 2009. (Courtesy Michael/Jennifer Agugliaro)

As with the firewalk, the upshot of this experience, for me, was that I successfully walked over broken glass with no problem. And except for the unnerving sound of the glass crunching beneath my feet as I gingerly made my way across the shards, I came away uncut and exhilarated -- a feeling that has lingered long after the event ended.

Firewalking Out of Katrina

And proponents believe that an activity such as firewalking can help people pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.

Charles Pizzo, a communications consultant, and former chairman of the board of the International Association of Business Communicators, lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. He lost everything in the storm: clients, employees and his home.

After several years of trying to rebuild his life, Pizzo discovered firewalking through the Firewalking Institute of Research and Education. "Right then and there, all my resolve galvanized, came together," he says. "It definitely lit a fire inside of me that's undeniable."

Pizzo is a newly certified firewalk instructor and finally excited about how his life is unfolding in the tragic wake of Katrina. "What happened for me, all of that noise in your head -- that head trash -- symbolically got burned off," he says. "Water washed away the life that I knew. Fire reignited my passion for life."

I don't think there was anything mystical or magical -- certainly not supernatural -- about my firewalk-glasswalk experience. But I can say with total certainty that I've been on an interesting "high" since the event. And, yes, I am more motivated now than I've been in recent memory. So, how can that be a bad thing?

I highly recommend the experience.

If you consider trying this out, the best rule of thumb is A) do it under the supervision of someone who knows how to help you be 100 percent safe and comfortable with the experience, and B) don't try this at home.

ABC News' Dan Childs contributed to this story.

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