Firewalking a 4-step program
Chapel Hill man’s motivational speaking rests on bed of embers

Published in: Chapel Hill Herald
Page: 1

Date: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

   CHAPEL HILL -- As part of his recovery from a serious 1997 car accident, John Anderson took up karate.
   Initially, the workout sessions left his knee, which had been mangled in the wreck, throbbing and swollen. He moaned and he groaned and he grimaced a lot, until one day he simply decided to change his outlook.
   His 180-degree turn to positive thinking did wonders, Anderson said, and was the first step to what he has become: a motivational speaker who uses firewalking to teach people how to overcome obstacles.
   Anderson, who lives in Chapel Hill with his family, has started a new business, called Ucandoit Inc. He employs a novel four-step program involving wood, broken glass, wooden arrows and, ultimately, a 12-foot jaunt across smoldering coals.
   Those who successfully navigate this motivational gauntlet leave with an enormous sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, Anderson said. And to brag, they also get a "I walk on FIRE" bumper sticker.
   "The fire is a metaphor for your fears," Anderson, 50, explained recently. "It's 1,200 degrees. When you approach that fire and feel the heat coming off of it, it's scary."
   Anderson works as a network engineer at Nortel, but he hopes to get his business running successfully enough that he can phase out the computer work and become a full-time firewalker instructor.
   He's already certified, having gone through a four-day seminar taught by firewalking guru Tolly Burkan, whose protegés include noted motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
   For $100, Anderson offers a 4- to 5-hour group seminar where he runs participants through a serious of obstacles, each designed to get them a step closer to confronting and surpassing their fears.
   He bases his teachings on simple concepts: "pay attention," "expect the best" and "go for it."
   First, participants break boards or bricks with their fists. Seems simple enough.
   Then comes the broken glass. Anderson believes that, with a positive attitude and total concentration, anyone can navigate a pile of glass shards, simply by feeling the way through and avoiding the sharpest, most jagged points.
   On a recent morning at his home, Anderson uses his 14-year-old daughter, Claire, to demonstrate the ease with which a person can walk across glass. Although just a teenager, Claire is clearly a veteran of the glass pile; she walks slowly but steadily, her bare feet feeling the way cautiously, her face solemn with nary a grimace. She emerges from the pile unscathed, smiling.
   The glass is stage two and prefaces perhaps the most grotesque of Anderson's exercises. For stage three, Anderson uses a wooden archery arrow. One end is against a wall. The other is in a person's throat, lodged in the trachea. The trick is to exert enough pressure on the arrow to snap it.
   This is the exercise that scared Anderson the most, he said. But on a recent morning, he quickly snaps two arrows with ease.
   "That's pretty intense, sticking an arrow in your throat," he acknowledged. "But there's a logical explanation. Your trachea can withstand 75 pounds of pressure, and that [arrow] is only 35 pounds of pressure."
   And then there's the fire. For this, Anderson burns one-fourth of a cord of wood, enough to create a 10-12-foot swath of burning embers. He teaches people to walk steadily and softly, head and shoulders leaning back, while repeating, like a mantra, the words "light as a feather."
   A few people have gotten burns, he said, but none too seriously. Most people are successful, Anderson claimed, if they have the right mindset.
   "Your mind is a powerful tool," he said. "If you believe you're going to get burned, you probably will get burned."
   For Claire, the first successful firewalk brought a tremendous feeling of accomplishment, she said.
   "I felt like I could do more than I could before I walked across it," she said, adding later, "I've told my friends at school and they think I'm crazy for doing it."
   Anderson's business is still in its infancy. He hasn't turned a profit yet, but hopes to do so eventually. He is starting to advertise and is waiting for spring to arrive. Ironically, this firewalker can't stand the snow or cold weather.
   He carries no liability insurance, but insists that all customers sign an extensive waiver. He estimates that he's taught 40 people to walk on fire during a series of seminars over the last year, and he said there have been very few, minor injuries, aside from one person who suffered a serious burn when an ember got lodged in an unusual part of the foot.
   Anderson generally charges $100 per session, but is inclined to offer a discount to those who want to do it more than once. And there are such people, Anderson insists. "Once you do it," he said, "It's so exhilarating you want to do it again."
   Anderson's company can be found on the Internet at

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