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What I Learned From Watching Other People Run Across Burning Coals

A tribute to Tony Robbins’s most important innovation: fire walk YouTube

Getty/Ringer illustration
Getty/Ringer illustration

Tony Robbins has never been my self-help guy. I admire a lot of people who follow him — including Serena Williams, who has been listening to his tapes since childhood — but I find it all a little cheesy in a specific, bro-y, CrossFit-y sort of way. I’ve never been able to get past the infomercials and the Shallow Hal cameo; Robbins has always seemed like some ’90s DJ Khaled prototype, designed to improve the Fortune 500 corporations that employ him. He also really seems to like Jock Jams pump-up songs more than I am comfortable with.

The new Netflix documentary Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru is another paean to the high-energy, slightly aggro Robbins experience — though I’ll admit that it is slightly more convincing than Shallow Hal. Brother’s Keeper director Joe Berlinger apparently went through some sort of road to Damascus moment at a party and accepted Robbins as his life coach; the resulting film is his gospel. Meaning: It’s a lazily positive concert experience designed to fully immerse the viewer in the crown jewel of Robbins’s seminars, Date With Destiny, a $3,500, 12-hour-a-day, six-day, live seminar that is sort of like the Never Say Never of the motivational speaking world.

What do we learn from our front-row seat to the Tony Robbins Experience? That no matter how painful or dark things get, Victory is Near! And that while you might think you’re a skeptic, it’s incredibly hard not to tear up during a Tony Robbins speech. We also get to witness several interventions, which are the heart of the Date With Destiny. My favorite intervention is with Holi, a 40-something woman who has been disappointed by all men, except for her father. No man can ever live up to how her father treated her, she says. “Fuck your father,” Robbins replies. Within mere minutes, he’s explained that Holi creates unrealistic romantic expectations and persuaded her to dump her boyfriend on speakerphone in front of the whole audience.

It’s extreme. It’s very Tony — and I suppose the segment does demonstrate that on some level We Are All Holi and can learn from her. But again, the platitudes and the overt masculinity are all just alienating enough to keep me from fully embracing his methods. So I’ve found something that’s even more effective than watching Holi get her ass handed to her: YouTube videos of the Tony Robbins Fire Walk Experience.

The Fire Walk Experience is a cornerstone of Unleash the Power Within, Robbins’s other, shorter, more popular live seminar. Robbins and Berlinger chose not to feature it in this particular documentary because Date With Destiny “is a more emotional journey.” (Though, from what I gather, Unleash the Power Within is mostly reserved for corporate seminars — meaning paying customers.) I’ve watched about a boatload of these videos, and let me tell you: They are infinitely more inspiring than the conference room–centric, feelings share circle that is Date With Destiny. Why? Three words: the fire walk, which takes place on the last night and requires that people walk barefoot across a length of hot burning coals that can get up to 2,000 degrees. There are people chanting YES, YES, YES, YES in rhythm to a drum beat; there are primal instincts that people must overcome; there is the inevitable freak-out face as each person makes it across the coals and realizes they can do whatever other insane, elusive dream they’ve been clinging to — start a business, achieve emotional intimacy, lose the weight, whatever. Holi’s revelation is pretty moving, but what’s even more moving is watching man learn to live from literally walking on fire.

“It’s really just a frickin’ metaphor,” said Robbins when I met him briefly at the Four Seasons hotel in New York City to talk about the fire walk. (I had to wait an hour for him to finish fixing another journalist’s life. The other journalist seemed happy.) “The hardest part of anything is the first step. The hardest part of working out is just getting to the gym, the hardest part of the relationship is initiating, so the hardest part of the fire walk is the first step — you take that first step, you’re gonna take the second and third. I used to use skydiving but it’s hard to get 7,000 people above New York.” Apparently it is easier to get them over a bed of hot coals.

There are a lot of theories as to why humans can walk across burning objects and not die. Some early Christians believed people who successfully cross the coals were aided by Satan. (Some still do.) There’s a slightly more scientific water vapor theory that says the moisture on the soles of the feet creates a barrier from the heat — like licking your finger and touching a hot curling iron. Robbins’s theory, that you can do anything so long as you crush the little dissenting voice in your head, is one he learned from Tolly Burkan, the man who brought the fire walk motivational seminar to the American mainstream in 1977 — and the one who taught Robbins how to fire-walk in a seminar in 1983. “All I did was mirror [Burkan],” says Robbins of his first fire walk. “And then I picked up coals in my hand … and threw them across the yard.”

Burkan believes if you’re in the right mind-set, you will not burn. When your mind is willing, he says, there’s a physiological response, and your body knows what to do to protect itself from heat — like how your body knows to sweat when you get nervous. But those physical mechanisms only kick in if you trust in the fire. It’s all outlined in a two-hour program, a Robbins prototype called Attain Any Goal — you can watch it on YouTube now:

Let’s be very clear: yes, people have been burned. I’ve gone down the FIRE WALK FAIL rabbit hole, and I’ve seen people trip and fall face-first into hot coals. Burkan tells me that burning is “incredibly rare,” though just last month, about 30 participants were burned at an event in Dallas. (Five were taken to the hospital). And it has happened before, such as in 2012 at an event in San Jose where nearly two-dozen people were treated for second- and third-degree burns.

But people keep doing it. Here is a video of The Today Show’s Jeff Rossen fire-walking live on air just days after the Dallas incident without so much as a sweat bead. Here is a video testimonial from Maria Menounos explaining how it helped her become the “master of her own destiny.” A 1992 New York Times article claimed that then-Knicks coach Pat Riley had studied the fire walk. That image you have of hundreds of corporate employees with ties on their heads, trousers rolled up to their knees, or pantyhose laid to the side, isn’t wrong — Fortune 500 companies swear by it. Geraldo Rivera has done it. Supposedly Bill Clinton has done it. Diane Sawyer has done it (though she requested an extra-short coal path):

The Mythbusters tried to myth-bust it and instead just ending up doing it:

And in a guru-meets-guru supernova, Oprah’s done it on her OWN show Oprah’s Next Chapter, which was the single greatest, most inspiring moment ever televised and then put on YouTube.

I’ve watched this Oprah video maybe 12 times … this week. She did this fire walk in 2012, about six months after the final episode of her talk show aired on May 25, 2011; she’d started OWN, which was struggling in the ratings. It was the time of her greatest failure, and I can’t help thinking that she felt a little bit lost. Oprah, feeling lost — if it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone, you know?

OK, now start the video at 2:20. Tony lays out fresh coals for her. She looks so scared! But then he says, “I want you to know there’s nothing to fear.” (Then he reminds her the worst possible outcome is that she could burn her feet and die, which seems unhelpful? But liability, I guess.) He tells her to make her move, and say Yes! And then she starts yelling YAS. YAS. YAAAS in that “You get a car! And you get a car!” voice. Something primal takes over — you can see it in in her eyes. She just goes for it, roaring like an animal as she sprints across the embers.

I love it. I don’t know how it happened, but I went from watching this video over and over again for entertainment, to somehow finding it, and Tony, incredibly inspiring. Oprah is self-help and she can still need this experience. It makes me feel better about needing something myself.

One recent Sunday morning, on the last day of a debauched group trip to a lakeside cabin, I found myself locked in the most intense conversation with a platinum-haired, Israeli Burner who loved to day rave. We were the only two people awake — hungover, and in the early stages of the Sunday self-loathing — so the conversation quickly turned to the need for self-improvement. “I went to a Tony Robbins seminar in New Jersey and walked across hot coals. It changed my life,” she said.

She described the experience, and it was even more vivid than my YouTube videos. Nightfall, midwinter, a light snowfall. She was bused to a parking lot somewhere near the conference center in New Jersey. She could smell the burning embers before she saw them — 22 lines of glowing coals. There were thousands of people lined up, but when she got to the front of her line, she was still terrified. She hesitated. She didn’t know if she could do it. Suddenly someone took her hand, and said in a familiar booming baritone “Are you ready?” It was Tony Robbins, she whispered, still in awe. She nodded to him, took off across the coals, burned her foot, lost 30 pounds, and started her own business all in the next year. Oh, and they were given little cups of tea.

She asked me if I ever thought I’d do it, and I said probably not. At this point in my YouTube research, I continue to think fire walking is insane — not as insane as rewilding or ayahuasca trips, but fairly unhinged. I also think Tony Robbins is too much and that I don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to experience his magic. But ultimately, I see how both of these things are effective. What the fire (and Robbins and my Burner friend and Holi) teaches me is that change can be fast. It doesn’t always require months or years of therapy or being unhappy. Sometimes it only takes seconds running across some coals like a crazy person. All you need is one action, one step, one burned (“blistered”) foot that teaches you “Fuck. Yes. I can do this.”

But the best lesson I’ve learned from all this is that I don’t have to walk across those coals. Just like some people will be motivated in some small way by watching I Am Not Your Guru, I got everything I need to know about motivation from watching Oprah psych herself up, launch herself across those coals, and then freak out because she can do anything. Watch that video, and I swear you can too.