The political leadership of China is not the only group alarmed by the spread of Falun Gong, a term used to describe both a set of slow, graceful exercises and the banned Chinese spiritual movement that practices them.
Teachers of qigong, a 5,000-year-old Eastern healing art that includes tai chi, acupuncture and other practices that have become popular in the United States, cannot understand the growing appeal of the exercises.
"I don't see how the Falun Gong exercises could work" to promote health, says Renxu Wang, a qigong master and retired Western-trained surgeon now living in Massachusetts. "Qigong strengthens the body. Falun Gong strengthens the soul for salvation . . . [by] adopting energy from different dimensions in the universe."
Perhaps we should start by defining some terms. Falun Gong is the exercise component of Falun Dafa, a political and spiritual movement that has been banned by the Chinese government at least partly because authorities are concerned that its spread could destabilize the government. Officially, Chinese leaders call Falun Gong a dangerous cult.
Falun Dafa's premise is that through a set of five exercises a practitioner cultivates an intelligent, golden-colored entity called the falun, which resides in one's gut (but in a different dimension) and spins continuously, absorbing energy from parallel universes, thereby making the body invincible to disease. Falun Gong's founder, Li Hongzhi, who lives in exile somewhere in Queens, N.Y., maintains that David Copperfield has some serious falun that allows him to walk through walls and perform magic.
While the vivid Falun Dafa imagery suggests a relationship to ancient forms of Eastern mysticism, the exercises were developed by Li in China in 1992. Which is to say, these exercises are no more ancient than step aerobics. Still, Falun Gong is beginning to attract people who have less interest in Chinese politics than in practicing the exercises.
At least a dozen indoor study groups meet in the Washington area, and there are many outdoor practice sites, including the Mall, Catholic University and the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The movement has reached into the suburbs, with practice groups massing at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring and the Julius West Middle School in Rockville.
Yet seekers of the falun may not realize that the exercises are very different from other forms of qigong, which have been honed over centuries of practice.
"There are many differences between Falun Gong and qigong," says Wang. First, there's qi (pronouned "chee"), loosely defined as vital energy, the core concept of qigong. Through controlled breathing, practitioners of qigong direct vital energy within the body to locations that need it the most. In Falun Gong there is no breath work. Energy comes drifting in from forces that exist in different dimensions of the universe.
Qigong movements are precise, in order to maximize the flow of qi. Falun Gong practitioners worry less about the precision of their movements, Wang says, and indeed many practitioners render the poses very differently.
Further, qigong is practiced in many different forms to address many different ailments and goals; Falun Gong is a single set of exercises billed as a cure-all practice.
While the American medical establishment has not weighed in on Falun Gong, it is slowly warming to the more popular qigong practices known as "internal qigong": tai chi, acupuncture and meditation.
"Qigong can elicit the relaxation response," says Herbert Benson, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston. "Saying the rosary will do the same." Benson says that qigong-induced relaxation can slow one's metabolism, lower the heart rate and enhance resistance to disease.
Since 1990 the NIH has funded several small studies on the effects of qigong exercises for sufferers of neurological disorders, arthritis and other ailments. One study found that people over 70 years old gained more strength and cut their risk of accidental falls by nearly half after practicing tai chi. Larger studies are in the works.
Some practitioners make expansive claims about Falun Gong. In addition to providing the claimed link to universal energy fields and superhuman powers, they say, the exercises can cure everything from cancer to lifelong allergies.
The sitting pose, the "way of strengthening supernormal power" exercise, is similar to qigong meditation exercises that have been shown to lower blood pressure. The standing poses mainly stretch the upper body, similar to qigong poses that have been shown to improve circulation. The Falun Gong "penetrating the two cosmic extremes" exercise is quite invigorating. With this exercise, one's arms move slowly up and down like pistons.
The "Buddha showing the thousand hands" exercise is most reminiscent of tai chi, with arms stretched from side to side, like a hunter pulling back on a bow. The "falun standing stance" exercise can build strength in the arms and shoulders, for the arms stay suspended for several minutes above the head. Finally, the "falun heavenly circulation" exercise involves running one's hands up and down the entire body a few inches from its surface.
Falun Gong practitioners admit the moves are watered-down versions of qigong exercises, but that doesn't matter to them. The exercises are not meant to be strenuous; rather, they cultivate universal energy.
"If you do it from your heart, you will benefit," says Hailian Zhang, 34, who leads weekly group exercises on the Mall. By "heart," Zhang means "xinxing," a code of morality one must observe if the exercises are to have any benefit. Adhering to xinxing is yet another aspect that separates Falun Gong from qigong.
The stories of satisfied practitioners play out like late-night television testimonials. A retired white-collar worker from Beijing practicing on the Mall several weeks ago spoke of how Falun Gong had cured his skin allergies and chronic diarrhea, even though he doesn't believe much in rotating, multidimensional faluns. A Chinese woman in her fifties spoke of how Falun Gong helped her regenerate bone that had been removed in surgery. A self-described Christian said Falun Gong has helped control his diabetes.
"You just do the exercises, and one day you wake up and realize you don't have a particular [health problem] anymore," says Keith Ware, a Washingtonian in his forties who practices and teaches Falun Gong at home and on weekend mornings on the Mall, often with his wife.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at NIH and the qigong expert on the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Policy declined to comment on Falun Gong exercises. However, many health experts and some qigong teachers remain open to the idea that Falun Gong can provide some health benefits by reducing stress and boosting relaxation.
Yet some, as you can imagine, question the whole business of energy fields.
"There's nothing wrong with graceful exercise as a relaxation technique," says Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist and editor of the Web site Quackwatch. "These practices can be mentally dangerous, though, when they instill false beliefs. False beliefs lead to bad decisions." He cites the possibility that a belief in the absolute power of Falun Gong could lead sick people to refuse standard medical treatments.
Movements like Falun Gong enter into the realm of quackery, Barrett says, when they consistently make health claims that cannot be verified scientifically. This includes healing by touch, raising the paralyzed, curing cancer at far higher success rates than conventional medicines, sending vibes across the sea to heal at a distance or living for several hundred years -- all claims that have been made for Falun Gong.
"Some movement is better than no movement," Barrett said. "Socializing can have health benefits, too. People can do these things in a variety of ways."