Almost two dozen people were injured recently while fire walking at a Tony Robbins seminar at the San Jose Convention Center, with many of those hurt suffering second- or third-degree burns.
An article in the New York Times about the incident is likely to ignite the same kind of knee-jerk reaction that happened after William Broad’s piece on the dangers of yoga (“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” NYT 5 January 2012).
If you are a proponent of fire walking—and clearly many of the seminar participants quoted in the New York Times are—then circling the wagons to protect the reputation of a man who has helped you “Change Your Life” is understandable.
No matter what you believe, though, it’s always useful to examine your own assumptions about the world, including activities—like fire walking—that have given you enormous emotional benefits. This attitude of constant questioning is an integral part of yoga—where it’s known as svādhyāya, self-study or reflection—as well as Buddhism, as seen in this quote by the Buddha.
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” ― Siddhārtha Gautama
If you turn a critical—but compassionate—eye toward the injuries that occurred at the Tony Robbins “Unleash the Power Within” seminar, there are many important lessons that apply not only to yoga, but also to life in general.
First, though, let’s put the injuries into perspective. Around 6,000 people attended the seminar, with less than two dozen injured. As Danny Davis, quoted in the New York Times put it, “The media wants to concentrate on the bad news, when so much good goes on,” and then added, “It was 20 people out of 6,000,” with a shake of his head.
Some busy yoga studios, like Yoga Tree in San Francisco, have upwards of 7,000 students a month. If you asked Yoga Tree’s owners whether it’s acceptable for 20 students to be injured each month while taking yoga classes, I doubt they would brush it off casually with a shake of the head, especially if many of those hurt required a visit to the hospital.
While fire walking may seem more dangerous than practicing yoga, as William Broad pointed out in his New York Times article, there are many yoga poses that can cause severe injuries if done incorrectly. And that’s the key word—incorrectly—which brings me to the yoga lessons learned from injuries at a Tony Robbins fire walking seminar.
Preparation is the Key to Life (and Yoga, Fire Walking, …)
In my yoga lineage, that of T. K. V. Desikachar, learning how to prepare your students is an essential part of yoga teacher training. This includes two types of preparation—same-day, and long-term.
Same-day preparation emphasizes the need to do several poses before attempting a peak pose, such as Salamba Sarvangasana, or shoulder stand. You would never start your class with shoulder stand, because the body, breath, and mind all need to be prepared in order to benefit fully from the pose.
Many times, though, long-term preparation is needed in order to achieve the peak pose. If you have tight shoulders or a weak back, both of these need to be addressed before even considering shoulder stand. If you ignore the need for preparation—either same-day, or long-term—you are not only putting yourself at risk of injury, but will likely miss out on the full benefits of the pose.
According to the New York Times article, the Robbins group does spend “a couple of hours” preparing participants to walk over the hot coals. With an extreme activity like fire walking, this is absolutely necessary to ensure their safety. Given that 20 people were injured, however, a couple of hours may not be enough preparation for all people.
What’s Good for Others Is Not Always Good For You
Many yoga students, and I expect many participants at the Tony Robbins seminar, are plagued by the desire to do exactly what everyone else is doing. “If they can do shoulder stand [or walk on fire], then I should be able to do it, too,” they tell themselves. This, though, is the “old tape in your head,” as one Tony Robbins participant describes the habitual patterns that afflict us all from birth.
Ego has no place in yoga class, or fire walking. There is nothing wrong with having a desire to walk across hot coals, or to do a yoga pose like shoulder stand. You should, however, go into these activities with a clear mind. Don’t let your fear of growing old, or looking like a wimp, convince you that you are prepared to step into that fire pit, or flip yourself upside down on the yoga mat.
You also need to deal with your emotional issues enough to accept the fact that you may not achieve everything in life. Your body may never be ready for shoulder stand, no matter how many years you work toward it, especially if you have a neck injury or an illness that prevents you from doing inversions.
Yoga is not just about doing exciting poses—or dangerously hot walks. It is also about knowing when to let go.
The Teacher Is Always Accountable For Students’ Safety … Always
If you run a yoga class—or a zip line course, fire walk, or ballet studio—you, as the instructor or leader, are ultimately responsible for the safety of your participants. If you are comfortable with several people being injured while under your supervision, then I definitely don’t want to be in your class.
A callous attitude about the safety of students should never be tolerated in yoga classes, or during other potentially harmful activities. Some participants in the Tony Robbins seminar absolved him of all wrongdoing. If some people were injured, Safaa Kaderia told the New York Times, “it’s not his fault.”
A better approach, however, would be to take a look at why people in a highly publicized seminar were injured, and how to make the event safer for everyone. This may involve developing a better system for identifying people who are not prepared—such as those not ready to walk across coals that can reach 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, “give or take 100 degrees.”
There are times, of course, when a student ignores a teacher’s warnings. This sometimes happens in yoga class, often when a student is driven to tackle a pose he’s clearly not ready for. In this case, the instructor needs to be comfortable enough to prevent a student from participating when he is in danger of injury. If this means refunding their money—up to $2000 for the Tony Robbins seminar—then that’s a small price to pay to keep a student out of the hospital.
Photo: Fire Walking to Inspire