Tolly Burkan’s Theory of Firewalking (Reprinted from Extreme Spirituality by Tolly Burkan)

Over Six Million Westerners Have Firewalked

Knowing the secret behind firewalking can improve your life! Even if you never do it yourself, knowing how it works can bring you better health and increased personal power. Why? Because firewalking demonstrates how your thoughts impact everything else in your life. Thoughts change brain chemistry, and that results in an alteration of body chemistry as well. Firewalkers are instructed to pay close attention to their thoughts, since those very thoughts are the way in which we create our own realities. Positive thinkers literally live in a different chemical environment than negative thinkers. They impose less stress on their immune systems, and the result of that should be obvious.

I have been researching firewalking since 1977 and am considered to be the foremost authority on the subject. Because of this work, the United States now has the largest firewalking culture in history. Even though firewalking has been practiced since before recorded history, never before have so many common people participated in this ancient ritual that had previously been reserved for only a select few. My ideas regarding firewalking have evolved over twenty-four years of leading and learning from firewalks. My theory regarding why people are not burned when walking over red-hot coals is remarkably different from all the others, but I have found each of the other theories flawed in one way or another.

The Water Vapor Theory

One theory that explains the ability to walk on hot coals is the Leidenfrost Effect, in which physicists suggest that the moisture on the sole of the foot creates a vapor barrier that prevents the foot from actually contacting the coals. According to the theory, firewalking is not unlike licking your finger and touching a hot clothes iron. When the iron is hot enough, it vaporizes the moisture on the fingertip. The finger itself is repelled from the hot iron by this water vapor.

The Leidenfrost Effect can also be observed by putting a few drops of water on a hot metal griddle. When the griddle is hot enough, the water beads up and dances because the griddle’s heat is so intense that the bottom of the water drop vaporizes before the drop reaches the heated surface. The rising water vapor pushes up against the underside of the drop, causing it to bounce off the escaping steam before it ever reaches the metal.

Physicist Jearl Walker was so convinced of the validity of this theory that he believed it impossible to get burned while firewalking. After severely injuring himself on a coal bed, he lost faith in this theory!


The conductivity theory says that because coals are poor conductors of heat, a firewalker’s foot cannot get burned in a coal bed, regardless of its temperature. The analogy used is of reaching into a hot oven to remove a metal cake pan. The air in the oven is the same temperature as the cake pan, yet one can reach an unprotected hand into the oven without injury because air is a poor conductor of heat. However, if you were to grab the pan itself, the result would usually be a burn; metal is a very efficient conductor of heat.

In 1994, physicist Bernard Leikind visited our Firewalking Center to illustrate this concept. He strapped two sirloin steaks to his feet and then walked across a bed of coals. The steaks were unaffected by the coal bed; they did not get seared. He then placed a metal grill in the coals. When it glowed red, he placed the same steaks on it. The metal, an excellent conductor, instantly seared the meat. He felt this demonstration sufficiently proved that the coal’s low conductivity meant that mental state had nothing to do with the firewalking phenomenon. From this demonstration, he extrapolated that it would not be possible for humans to walk on the glowing, red grill without searing their feet.

My staff could not resist the challenge. Instantly, a number of them walked on the grill without harm. The grill was so red-hot their weight bent the softened metal and left impressions of the firewalkers’ feet on the grill. We keep the grill with its molded footprints as a souvenir to help debunk the conductivity theory.

Rules of conductivity can be applied to inanimate objects. However, human beings are dynamic, self-regulating organisms. Research into firewalking is really outside the physicist’s realm of training.

It has always been my belief that the crucial factor in explaining a successful firewalk is the person’s state of mind. The mental factor is what merits exploration. And even when a skeptical physicist walks on a coal bed without harm, he is helping to prove my idea that mental state is important. His belief in his own theory gives him the confidence he needs to successfully walk on the coals. That confidence itself is a mental state. I suggested to Dr. Leikind that we blindfold him and lead him in various directions near the coal bed so that he would have no way to prepare himself mentally before stepping onto the embers. He refused. He also refused to walk on the metal grill, so I assumed that at some level he too must have realized there was more to the phenomenon than the conductivity of the coals and simple physics.

In fact, Dr. Leikind eventually discarded his conductivity theory when he said, in 2000, "Any claim that the temperature of the coals is not important . . . is simply preposterous." He added, "It is my opinion that firewalking is an abnormally dangerous or ‘ultrahazardous’ activity."

Dangerous? Sometimes. Yet someone in America recently walked on coals measured at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit without injury! Obviously, physicists still do not fully understand the process.

Typical firewalks open to the public involve coal beds ranging from 1,200 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Dr. Ron Sato, faculty member of Stanford University’s Medical School and director of a nearby hospital burn unit, says that human flesh momentarily exposed to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit should sustain third-degree burns to the epidermis and dermis, charring the entire thickness of skin to a blackened carbon residue. Dr. Sato has treated people who have accidentally stepped on glowing coals and were so badly burned that they required skin grafts. When asked about people who voluntarily firewalk without injury, Dr. Sato says, "There’s no logical explanation."

Boiling Water in a Paper Cup

Two scientific experiments have helped me form my present theory. One is a simple demonstration used by school teachers. The teacher fills a paper cup with water and places it over a flame. The water soon boils but the cup does not burn because the water can only reach a temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit before it turns to steam. Since the water is in constant contact with the paper cup, the paper cannot get any hotter than 212 degrees. The cup’s kindling point is higher than 212 degrees, so it cannot burn as long as it contains water.

The other experiment was conducted by the United States government during the early days of research into space flight. When a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, friction heats the craft to extremely high temperatures. It had to be determined whether the person at the controls could still function if the interior of the craft became very hot. To simulate this situation, scientists created a heat chamber. Volunteers entered the chamber and the inside temperature was raised. It was discovered that though an egg was cooking within this atmosphere, the human subjects were unharmed. In fact, the measured air temperature within the nose of a subject was actually cooler than the air in the chamber itself.

Mind in Matter

These two experiments form the basis of my own theory. Human feet were not seared on Dr. Leikind’s glowing metal grill because the human foot was connected to a living, conscious being. The human body has mechanisms to cool itself: respiration, perspiration, and circulation. All play a part in this process and all are connected to the brain, which is influenced by the mind.

Obviously, you can have physical experiences when nothing physical is impacting you. Haven’t you ever woken from a nightmare drenched in sweat, with your heart racing? That’s an example of mind, not over, but in matter.

When a firewalker is in the proper state of mind, the blood flowing through his or her body is akin to the water in the paper cup. The blood is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As it moves through the soles of the feet, it continually cools the tissue and prevents it from reaching its kindling point in the same way that the water maintained the temperature of the paper at 212 degrees.

Of course there are limits, and it has never been our intention to push them. Rather, we have simply looked for an explanation of the phenomenon of firewalking as it has been practiced throughout thousands of years, and have sought new applications that can enhance the lives of those of us living today.

When humans walk on coals at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit without harm, they are able to do so because the body is obviously capable of cooling and protecting itself up to a certain point. We’re an amazingly tough machine, especially when you consider that engine blocks for cars are made by pouring molten metal into molds at 1,100 degrees!

My explanation also addresses why some people have been burned firewalking. In 1977, I set out to demystify firewalking and created the world’s first firewalking seminar. Since then, I’ve trained thousands of instructors. As of 2017, well over six million people have participated in a firewalking seminar. How many were seriously burned? About fifty. Injuries underscore that the role of the mind, rather than the coal bed, is the variable. When people are not in the state of mind that allows all body systems to operate at peak performance, capillaries constrict and prevent blood from moving freely through the tissue on the soles of the feet. When that occurs, the blood cannot carry heat away from the sole and cannot maintain the temperature required to prevent burning. The result can be blistering or charring. Aloe vera has certain properties that can physically restore circulation and, when applied immediately after a burn is sustained, blistering can frequently be prevented.

Dr. Andrew Weil, the renowned Harvard-trained physician and medical researcher, has investigated firewalking for years. He comments, "There is no way I can be convinced that mental state is not the key variable in firewalking."

When the subject of conductivity comes up, I think of the times when I have patted the coals with a shovel to even out the embers. The shovel is metal and extremely conductive. As soon as the hot shovel is placed in a bucket of water, it creates an audible "hiss." The shovel is not in the coals any longer than our feet.  So the coals obviously conduct the temperature just fine. It seems silly to consider the "conductivity" of a heat source; rather, the issue is about the conductivity of anything placed in contact with the heat source. The metal, being dense, conducts the heat from the source extremely well.  Human flesh, however, is not very conductive. 

When people burn, it may indicate that their states of mind have made them more "dense." A "fluid" mind state translates into fluidity of the body itself. So what needs to be examined is not the conductivity of the coals, but why human flesh is sometimes more conductive than at other times.

Because of my extensive research, I now counsel prospective firewalkers to avoid walking on the embers until they take a moment to look inside themselves at all the conflicting inner voices. Some voices will be saying "Don't walk!" and others will be saying "Walk!" I tell people to first listen to each inner voice, then pay attention to the state of your body. Which decision makes your body more comfortable? If the decision to walk makes you feel more comfortable than the decision not to walk, then walk. Because if you are relaxed with your decision, you are in a certain bio-chemical state. Whether the relaxation with the decision to walk is based on a belief in physics or a belief in a higher power, it matters not. Both beliefs create the exact same physiology in the body. Unless their bodies are comfortable with the decision to cross the coals, I suggest people wait for another time.

The body itself is an excellent reflection of mental state. If the body is tense, that is an indication of thought processes that will interfere with the physical mechanisms employed by the body to protect itself. When I say that you must be "relaxed," I do not mean the same kind of relaxed feeling you have when lounging in a hammock. I believe that people who ultimately cross the coals unharmed have a deep sense of knowing that they won't burn their feet -- before they even take the first step. Obviously, if you think you're going to get hurt, then you would not step into the coals. You aren't stupid.

After people tell themselves "I can do this and not get burned," and they feel "comfortable" with that certainty, they proceed to walk with "confidence." All these states -- relaxed, comfortable, confident -- indicate a certain chemical condition within the brain and body. Thus, firewalking becomes an exercise in examining the mind/body connection.

This is why firewalking is so popular today among athletes, executives and healthcare providers. Anyone seeking to explore the mind/body connection, and ways to apply this information toward enhancing human potential, will find value in firewalking.

New firewalkers are amazed at the discovery that they themselves are such incredible beings. Firewalking reveals that being a mere human is nothing mere. Our minds are the new frontier and firewalking is just the beginning in the process of self-discovery. The implications of "mind in matter" are truly exciting and can offer new hope to people with severe illnesses as well as anyone seeking to overcome limitations imposed by old beliefs: salesmen, students, athletes... the list goes on and on… it may even include you!

Post Script, 2013

Today, I refer to the 3 "P"s of firewalking: Physics, Physiology, Psychology. Physics describes how heat is transferred. Physiology describes how the body responds to heat. Psychology describes how people overcome the innate resistance to walking on glowing coals... because without taking that first step, there can be no firewalking.