Firewalking: The Psychology of Physical Immunity

By Jonathan Sternfield

Taking a Stand In the Fire

I had the feeling that I had pushed to the brink of the world; what was of burning interest to me was null and void for others, and even a cause for dread. . . . After all, there was nothing preposterous or world-shaking in the idea that there might be events which overstepped the limited categories of space, time, and causality.
Carl Jung

To assess further the phenomenon of firewalking, we should carefully examine any evidence that brings into question conventional physical explanations. Without resorting to a whole battery of new experiments, we might scrutinize the claims of scientists that short contact with the coals is the reason why most of us can safely walk across a glowing firebed. Besides the low thermal capacity and conductivity of wood coals — a fact which is not open to question but whose effects seem in some dispute — the short contact theory is the most popular scientific explanation of how the firewalk is possible. Yet repeatedly, both my own experience and that of others strongly suggests there is something else going on.

If there were any reliable reports of long contact, they might at once dispel both the short contact and the low thermal capacity and conductivity theories. For few would deny that if a firewalker simply stood on glowing, red-hot coals, he or she should normally suffer serious burns within a matter of seconds at most.

Zusne and Warren emphasize this in their exploration of anomalistic psychophysiology: “One of the factors not stressed in reports on fire walking is that fire walking is walking, not standing still on embers or stones. There is no recorded instance of anyone’s ever having attempted to just stand on red hot stones or glowing embers for any length of time.”1


Herewith, let us record several such instances. We already have my own account of standing on a bed of glowing hot coals for several seconds, though I did receive a small blister. We also have Michael Sky’s report about his standing in the fire — and his witnessing others not only standing in fire but lying down on the coals without singeing skin, hair or clothes. Equally impressive is the experience of Joe Nuzum, a former foundry worker from western Pennsylvania who spent years working around incredibly hot fires and molten metals. Now he spends his time giving demonstrations of what he calls “Ninja Magick” and teaching martial arts. Among the rituals he teaches his students is the firewalk.

Nuzum says he first firewalked in 1975, when he was 16. Before he firewalked, though, he experimented extensively. Having heard about firewalking Tibetan monks, he began by holding his hand over a candle flame. “Once I realized the different states of mind I could enter into,,, he told me, “I found a way where I wouldn’t get burned. I went from getting burned almost instantly to being able to hold my hand in the flame for close to 45 seconds.”2

Nuzum says he also practiced holding his hands in the flames of burning papers, then eventually progressed to firewalking and from there to standing on red hot coals. “And that I’ve done for maybe 45 seconds,” he said.3

I have not witnessed this, but I have seen videotapes of Nuzum holding flaming coals in his hands for a period of 40 seconds. I have also read reports about him and discussed him with a psychiatrist who has both examined him and written about him. 4  In conventional physical terms, Nuzum’s performances are amazing and inexplicable. Nuzum attributes his fire immunity to “the protective qualities of the chi,” the field of bioenergy around the body that Eastern mystics tell us can be controlled by the mind. “There’s been a lot of fascinating things done with the chi,” says Nuzum. “It’s mind blowing.”5


Perhaps it is also time science confronted the activities of another amazing firewalker, a Washington state resident named Steve Bisyak. Bisyak is a Tolly Burkan-trained firewalking instructor who runs his own human potential seminars, Challenges Unlimited. And he is undoubtedly one of the most experienced firewalkers in the world. “I’ve firewalked over a thousand times now,” he said when I spoke with him in early 1991. “I’ve walked on a red-hot metal plate, red-hot coals and red-hot briquettes.

In Kansas City, in front of 300 people, I pretty much gave my whole lecture from the center of the fire. I was on a red-hot fire for minutes“6

Bisyak first saw firewalking on the “You Asked For It” TV show when he was nine. Fifteen years later, in 1984, he learned firewalking from Tolly Burkan. Even since then, he says, he has continued to “push the limits.” Today he holds the record for the world’s longest firewalk (120 feet) and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the hottest firebed ever walked on.

For the longest walk, he used 10 cords of wood with the highest BTU factors he could find (cherry, madrono and oak) stacked in a pile 126 feet long. For the hottest fire, he and 10 other walkers braved a coalbed 15 feet long, 12 inches deep, with three inches of flame on top. Its average temperature was measured at 1,546 degrees F. After his walk, not even the hairs on Bisyak’s toes were singed.

Bisyak has also done some tests with the firewalk — tests that lead him to conclude that the ability to walk safely over hot coals is all a state of mind. For example, in August 1990, he and three other volunteers were fitted with EEGs, blindfolded and, one by one, paraded around a grassy area. Then, unannounced, each was led onto a bed of red-hot coals. All four were badly burned.

“If you take the mind away from the situation, it’s guaranteed burn,” Bisyak said. “If you step on fire by accident, you get cooked. Other people who were there and in the right state of mind walked across that fire with no problem.”7

Moreover, the EEG, said Bisyak, indicated a common brain wave pattern for those who burned and another pattern for those who did not burn. “Alpha and beta [brain waves] are extremely wide; theta is fairly narrow; the very bottom of delta is pegged out wide. And without delta being pegged out wide, it was hot — meaning that if you were very peaceful and calm and relaxed, you got burned!8

After all his semi-scientific investigation, Bisyak has come up with a folksy formula for figuring a person’s burn possibilities prior to any firewalk. “One hundred, minus the percentage of attention,” he says, “equals the number of blisters — meaning if you’re 98 percent, you probably got two blisters; if you’re 75 percent, you got 25 blisters; if you’re 50 percent, you got cooked!”

Bisyak has also done what he calls the “nylon stocking test,” walking on hot coals wearing nylon stockings. “They don’t bum,” he says. “You can put the nylon on the coal bed, and it doesn’t last; it disintegrates — you can’t put it out! That’s what brings me to the conclusion that it’s a bioelectric field that protects us, something like the human aura.”9

Bisyak says he’s convinced that this field is activated by a combination of fear and faith. He’s also convinced that if it could be isolated, the same energy or chemical that prevents burns could also be used to treat serious burn victims. “Two out the three serious burns that I’ve had — and I mean where the whole bottom of the foot comes off — healed almost spontaneously. I was able to go out and play tennis the next day after walking on hot coals. There was no sign of damage at all.” 10

Bisyak’s testimony is also revealing in regard to the skeptics’ argument that a firewalker’s immunity can be attributed to the way in which the feet are placed on the coals. If we examine Bisyak’s experience and that of many other firewalkers, we must admit that hot coals are not only underfoot but also to the sides of the foot and on top of it as well. Bisyak at one point described his feet as “submerged” in glowing hot coals. Similarly, when I stood in the fire myself, my feet were buried in orange coals, and the surface coals covering the tops of my feet were in no way less radiant than when I entered the fire.

It seems equally clear that short contact with the fire cannot explain many firewalking in which the participants stand, dance or linger on the coals. “You have to be committed,” says Bisyak. “That’s the difference between what the physicists are saying and what the firewalkers are saying. If you’re not committed, you get burned.”11


Another committed man who is equally adept with fire is Dutch-born American Jack Schwarz. In his early teens in Holland, Schwarz began increasingly to realize voluntary controls over many of his normally automatic physiological functions. He concentrated on the control of pain. frequently pushing an unsterilized knitting needle through his arm to test himself, but soon he could also control bleeding and burning. By the time he arrived for testing at the laboratory of Drs. Elmer and Alyce Green of the Menninger Institute in Topeka, Kansas in 1971, Schwarz was regularly sleeping only two or three hours a night, eating only several small meals a week and had demonstrated fire immunity to himself and to his friends. 12

In the late 1970s, Schwarz got an opportunity to demonstrate his controlled fire immunity to a convocation of 55 doctors. At a meeting of the Los Angeles County Medical Association, psychiatrist Kurt Fantl introduced Schwarz, announcing that he would demonstrate a variety of astonishing, self-regulatory controls. The most startling among these was immunity to fire. First, Schwarz allowed the physicians to examine his hands, which they found to be normal and untreated in any way. Next, two medical students wearing asbestos gloves carried a burning brazier into the conference, and from the container Schwarz scooped out a double handful of red-hot coals. Walking calmly among the doctors, Schwarz showed them the fire in his hands, allowing them to feel the heat and observe his immunity to burning. Finally, he laid the coals to rest on a newspaper, which immediately burst into flames. When his hands were examined once more, they again appeared to be perfectly normal, with no signs of their lengthy contact with red-hot coals.13

When tested in the Green’s laboratory at Menninger in 1971, Schwarz again demonstrated his immunity to fire, as well as his control of bleeding and pain. Fire immunity, Schwarz found, was not automatic; in certain states, he could still be burned, in other states, his immunity seemed complete and absolute. To him, the critical factors appeared to be intention and need. And when intention and need are strong enough, he says, they activate “the power of the radiance of our body,” which he says can protect us not only from fire but also from other noxious stimuli. Schwarz also maintains that this body radiance creates “a living Faraday cage — a high voltage, low amperage energy field” that can even prevent one’s hair and clothes from burning.14

Jack Schwarz believes that his remarkable abilities are not so remarkable, and he repeats over and over again that his performances are potentials we all have. “At a laboratory once,” he said, “they told me, ‘Now we are going to test some normal people.’ I said: ‘I beg your pardon; I am the only one whom you have ever tested who was normal. I follow the principles which are normal principles for firewalking; the other ones have not bothered to, so they are still operating in a subnormal way.” Schwarz seemed especially adamant about this last point. “I make that statement not just to you,” he said, “but in every lecture I give: ‘Now, look, people, don’t sit there in admiration, and don’t tell me, “Yeah, but you were born that way.” You forgot: you were born that way, too.”15

FOOTNOTES- Chapter 7

1. Leonard Zusne and Warren Jones, Anomalistic Psychology. A Study of Extraordinary Phenomena of Behavior and Experience (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Eribaum, 1982), 64.

2. Joe Nuzum, personal communication.

3. Ibid.

4. Joe Nuzum, “Joe Nuzum – Ninja Magick,” a videotape; Dr. Berthold Schwarz, “K: A Presumed Case of Telekinesis,” International journal of Psychosomatics, 32:1, 1985, 3-21; Dr. Berthold Schwarz, personal communication.

5. Joe Nuzum, personal communication.

6. Steve Bisyak, personal communication.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Elmer and Alyce Green, Beyond Biofeedback, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), 235-6; Jack Schwarz, personal communication.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Jack Schwarz, personal communication.

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