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No time for cold feet - how firewalking made life better

Looking to set yourself new goals this year? Armagh-born Amy Kavanagh and Mark Corrigan, from Fermanagh, talk to Lee Henry about how they bared their soles for a hot new challenge.

Strabane man Stephen Brown is helping people overcome a multitude of fears by literally walking across hot coals.

The 39-year-old, who is a master firewalker instructor and founder of Firewalking International, explains firewalking is the act of walking across red-hot embers in your bare feet. And he claims it's not as crazy as it sounds.

In our minds, walking across a bed of hot coals burning at temperatures over 600C is dangerous and something that perhaps shouldn't be done, but making a decision that is frightening, and following through with it, is exhilarating. That's why firewalking is becoming ever more popular with individuals and businesses aiming to improve morale.

Stephen says: "My background is in adventure sports. I worked in that industry for 18 years and owned several businesses, then I discovered firewalking.

"I first fire-walked about eight years ago, in Belfast. I thought it would be a challenge and I loved it. I can remember, as clear as day, walking across the fire three times that night. It was really empowering."

After the experience, though, he wanted to find out more.

"I subsequently took a course, qualified as an instructor and launched my own business, Firewalking Ireland," he says. "As time progressed, however, I realised that I had the scope to do more work abroad, and there are now several brands operating under Firewalking International. It's growing all the time."

Firewalking has actually been around for thousands of years, with early Indian references dating back as far as 1200 BC. It has historically been used as a healing ceremony, religious ritual and a rite of passage, but these days it provides an opportunity to address fears, focus the mind, boost confidence and develop individuals and teams.

Firewalking International runs charity and corporate events around Europe and further afield, attracting many.

Stephen says: "I have had people of all ages and backgrounds attend my firewalks, the youngest being eight and the oldest 78.

"When those who come to us are standing there, facing the fire, it is their opportunity to become aware of what is going on around them and within them, and it's wonderful to watch the transformation that occurs when they take the plunge."

Stephen recalls the dramatic impact the experience has had on him: "A year or so ago, I received an email from a lady who attended one of our firewalks with her sister, who was due to undergo major surgery a few days later. The email went on to say her sister felt at ease about going into hospital and was dealing with her fears in a positive way, all because she had been brave enough to try something different, something courageous.

"More recently, we were running a 40-foot firewalk, when one of the participants, an office worker who had just completed her walk, came running over to me and gave me a big hug. 'I am so proud of myself,' she said. It was a beautiful moment and I have no doubt that feeling will never leave her."

And for those of us still nervous at the thought, Stephen adds: "I honestly believe that firewalking is for everyone. I love seeing people challenging themselves, moving out of their comfort zones, having fun and developing as individuals or team members. It's great to share in their experience."

We talk to two people who braved the firewalking challenge.

‘I was prepared to walk over hot coals to beat my illness ... now I feel like I can take on the world’

Armagh-born Amy Kavanagh (25) is a single customer service and admin officer now living in Monaghan. She attended Stephen’s course in Belfast.

I suffer from anxiety and depression, as a lot of people I’m sure can relate to. After years of letting my fears run my life, I was stuck in a rut. I eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to stand up and face them. I couldn’t hide from them any longer. I would have to do something to challenge myself.

Firewalking had always been on my bucket list as something I wished to experience one day. It seemed exciting and scary, but in some way beautiful — and after watching a fire performer busking once, I started to look at it as something that I might be able to do myself.

I Googled it a few days later and came across the Firewalking International website.

Stephen explained that it was all about self-empowerment, and you could tell that he truly wanted to help people. I took a course and haven’t looked back.

The first time I walked across those burning coals was definitely intimidating. There were lots of deep breaths, lots of trying to focus and centre myself. There might have been a false start or two — striding up to the fire only to take a sharp turn back to safety.

I remember my first step onto the coals. Even though I knew it would be hot, it surprised me that it actually was! When I got to the end, my feet back on the grass, this pure, unbridled giddiness overtook me. Standing looking at the burning coals and realising that I had done it, I was elated. The sense of achievement was just overwhelming.

It’s an immense emotional and physical challenge, the idea of putting your foot on to burning coals, but in the training we learned to build and prepare the fire, and that process was brilliantly grounding.

People who suffer from anxiety can sometimes feel that their fear is irrational. That is how I felt. The fear and anxiety present in my life seemed like a colossal wall between me and the rest of the world, between me and the life I wanted to live, and I just wanted to break through it. I longed to be free of those negative beliefs that held me back, and to live instead with joy.

Firewalking presented a very real and rational fear — the fear of being burned, of harming yourself — but it felt so bold and daring to take something like that on, and in the event it filled me with confidence and self-belief.

I hope to start organising firewalks in the future. On a personal level, it helped me a lot, and I would like to share that with others. At my work, I have had varied positions, from sales to accounting, but after learning firewalking I suddenly feel that my future is wide open.

My family are hugely supportive. They think it’s great that I am doing things that I love, things that I’m learning from and are a little bit different. My grandfather, though, is highly amused by the whole firewalking thing. “Gosh,” he said, “I’d never do something like that”. Each to their own, but I would highly recommend it.”

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