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I'd heard of the Burger King employees who got burnt on a fire-walking exercise but, when I saw a chance to take part in a fire-walk myself, I was keen to find out more.

Fire-walking has been performed all over the world for centuries. It has in recent decades become popular both with New Age followers and as corporate "team-building exercises". The scientific explanations for the general lack of burning include the low conductivity of the wood embers/coals used and the "Leidenfrost effect" (wet or sweaty feet generate an insulating layer of water vapour).

The rational explanations, however, didn't make the prospect of walking across something red and fiery any less daunting. Reading about 30 fire-walkers burning their feet about a week before the event didn't fill me with confidence either.

I'd been to a couple of Skeptics in the Pub events and thought this would be something skeptics might be interested in. I got in touch with the organiser of "Skeptics in the Pub", Nick Pullar

, and Nick in the end decided to join in himself!

The event was in aid of Haven House, a children's hospice which cares for terminally-ill children. The fire-walk itself was led by "serial record breaker" Terry Cole who is a generally amazing person.

What about the experience itself? Well, it took place on Saturday 9th March, in the evening. My brother, Prosenjit, had come along to take part too and I'd managed to persuade some friends and family to spectate. Things started off with Terry showing off some of his tricks. He placed two outward-facing chopsticks at the base of his neck, just above the ribs and then by pushing the point into him, snapped them into pieces. His final show was to have a broomstick broken over his forearm.

Next, we psyched ourselves up - this included going through the motions of doing the fire-walk successfully, and telling ourselves that we were BIG, STRONG and MAGNIFICENT. Then came some breathing exercises. Another person in charge of the fire-walk was Andy Johnson. He was a relief from the pure testosterone of Terry Cole and also claimed to be a natural healer.

His information sheet states that "It[healing] is not a mystical process" but "simply the exchange of the vital animating force (Chi, Ki, Prana, etc) between living beings". This was clearly something that Nick disagreed with. My personal opinion was divided. In terms of preparing for a fire-walk, hearing stories about "Chi" was simply more inspiring than explanations of low conductivity. On the other hand, the healer's leaflet made claims of "positive results" with "cancers" and I'd read of people being diagnosed with cancer only after it was too late because they'd been using solely alternative medicine. On balance I'd say that, as a motivational idea, "Chi" is great - but making any stronger claim than that is misleading and dangerous.

Sadly the walk was only 8-9 feet long and not the 20ft I'd been telling my friends - 20 feet was deemed too far for novices. I think a lot of people made up the difference by walking more than once - I walked it twice, my brother five times and Nick walked as many times as it took to get his photo just right! And yes, it wasn't hot - it only felt warm.

I'd recommend fire-walking to anyone - it was brilliant being able to do something that looked amazing and hear interesting, harmless stories at the same. (You can expect to see some photos soon).

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Partha Lal

Last modified: Wed Mar 13 01:50:26 GMT 2002