As the Zhang family of Plum peacefully practiced Falun Dafa on a recent weekend in Schenley Park, about 10,000 Chinese protesters performed the same yoga-like movements on sidewalks near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The throngs were part of a huge demonstration seeking legal protection from the Chinese government to practice Falun Dafa, an offshoot of Buddhism that involves achieving enlightenment through a series of exercises and performing good deeds in what they see as an increasingly wicked age.
The devotees also called upon the government to lift a ban on the writings of Li Hongzhi, a native Chinese now living in New York who introduced Falun Dafa in China in 1992, although the practice has its roots in the same Chinese meditative disciplines as tai chi, qi gong and yoga. Falun Dafa has been labeled a sect and a cult, with Li claiming the practice wields supernatural healing powers.
The aim of the Zhang family, however, is not to stir controversy, but to promote Falun Dafa as a way of seeking inner strength and good fitness and health. They reject the charge that the discipline is a "sect" or a religion, although it clearly has religious overtones.
Falun Dafa -- it is also known as Falun Gong -- is the law of the revolving wheel, advertising itself as "an advanced system of cultivation and practice." Its three main tenets, "Zhen, Shan and Ren," translate into truth, compassion and forbearance, respectively.
"Fa" means law or principle, "Lun" means wheel and "Gong" refers to cultivation energy -- what the practitioner must develop to achieve enlightenment. Some followers promote peace and moral uprightness and do not eat meat, smoke, drink or have sexual relations outside of marriage.
Jian Zhang, 43, his wife, Weihua, 44, and about 20 other people meet Saturday and Sunday mornings on Flagstaff Hill in Oakland to practice the simple and elegant moves of Falun Dafa. They begin the session by listening to music and recordings of Li's readings.
They then move on to five sets of movements. Four are done while standing and one while sitting in the lotus position, with legs double crossed. With each movement, the arms move slowly around the body; some positions are held for several minutes.
The way practitioners perform the exercises varies with each person's goals.
"This is just a way of developing your inner strength," said Stan Jones, 49, of Troy Hill, who teaches tai chi at Community College of Allegheny County. Jones practiced with Zhang's group for the first time April 24 and said the movements and meditation helped him ease stress that sometimes caused him to experience road rage.
Jian Zhang, an environmental engineer for IT Group who has a Ph.D. in physics, emigrated from China in 1983. He started practicing Falun Dafa two years ago as his New Year's resolution for 1997. Among health problems he suffered at the time were allergies, frequent headaches, stomach aches and stress. He said many of these problems have disappeared.
His wife and two daughters, Shelley, 16, and Kathleen, 8, began practicing Falun Dafa a month later, after they attended a conference in New York led by Li. Weihua credits the discipline for relieving circulatory problems she had in her left leg.
"I almost forgot what it's like to be sick," said daughter, Shelley, a student at Plum Senior High School who practices with the family each morning.
Li, in writings available on many Falun Dafa Web sites, says Falun Dafa is characterized by the cultivation of the Falun or law wheel, located in the body's lower abdomen. As an intelligent, spinning body of high-energy substance, the Falun absorbs energy from the universe and relieves the body of bad elements.
Practitioners can cure diseases and "cultivate supernatural powers and other magic skills," according to Li. By eliminating "karma" or negative energy, Li claims, people can purify their bodies and eliminate many health problems.
Few local health professionals have extensive knowledge about the effects of Falun Dafa, although other meditative practices, such as tai chi and yoga have been shown in studies to lower blood pressure, improve balance, ease stress, strengthen the immune system and promote overall health.
Several treatment programs, such as the Simonton Cancer Program offered at the Mind Body Wellness Center in Meadville, and the Dean Ornish heart disease reversal program offered by Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, incorporate meditation, yoga and tai chi. These disciplines can help relieve chronic stress that can lead to serious health risks, such as high blood pressure and clogged arteries. Hospitals also offer tai chi and yoga classes to promote overall wellness.
Some people with arthritis or fibromyalgia, an auto-immune disorder, report tai chi helps reduce joint pain.
"You may get improvement in a lot of ailments," said Dr. Paul N. Cervone of Belle Vernon, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Monongahela Valley Hospital in Carroll who has a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He said Eastern approaches to health and fitness have very real benefits from which Westerners can learn.
Such practices, he says, increase physical strength and concentration, as well as improve one's attitude and ability to relax. By strengthening the immune system, the exercises may ease allergy problems and other ailments, Cervone said.
Richard Lengyel of Ross, a member of the National Qigong Association who teaches Chinese medicine and herbology at CCAC, said practitioners of Eastern medicine believe that if the flow of energy called chi, or qi, is not in balance, disease can enter the body. Such practices as yoga and qi gong re-establish this energy flow, which can, he said, cure asthma, allergies and even more serious conditions.
Along with more traditional faiths such as Christianity and mainstream Buddhism, Falun Dafa has skyrocketed in popularity in China over the past few years as Communist ideology has weakened. The group has an estimated 100 million followers.
Falun Dafa poses a particular challenge to leaders, because they welcome the group's emphasis on peace and forbearance, but are also wary of its rapid spread.
According to information on Zhang's Falun Dafa Web site and other sources, Li, 48, spent his early years as a grain clerk in Jilin Province, China, studying qi gong.
By the late 1980s, Li had moved beyond qi gong's focus on healing and fitness to creating what he described to the Wall Street Journal as "teaching a universal principle."
Lengyel, the National Qigong member, said the primary difference between qi gong and Falun Dafa is that those who practice qi gong draw guidance and direction from within themselves; followers of Falun Dafa look to Li for spiritual guidance.
"We don't need a high priest," he said.
Whether Falun Dafa is a religion or a form of medicine is an important distinction, said Dr. Adam Sohnen, an internist at St. Francis Medical Center who has done a lot of research on alternative health practices.
Medicine is falsifiable, meaning any claim medicine makes has to be supported by continued evidence. If it cannot be supported, the practice is dropped by Western practitioners.
Religion starts with an article of faith, and everything flows from that. "You cannot measure it, you cannot test it, you cannot falsify it," Sohnen said. "People who practice this have to understand that they're dealing with a religion and not a science. If they claim it is not a religion, all of a sudden they step into the realm, that which is falsifiable; they are potentially putting themselves into trouble."
If people follow Falun Dafa as a "religion," and have a specific goal, such as correction of a health problem, they may believe they are spiritual failures if they don't reach that goal. "It's a very big failing of any activity that hopes to promote spirituality."
The Zhangs say they are just trying to improve their overall health, and that they're experiencing mental as well as physical benefits.
Weihua also was an environmental engineer for the IT Group, but said her position was eliminated in mid-April. She said the discipline helped her accept losing her job.
Daughter Shelley says applying the disciplines help her do school work more efficiently.
Two years ago, the family barely found time to sit down and eat a meal together. Now they spend at least 10 hours a week together practicing Falun Dafa.
"Our life has totally changed," Weihua said.