Jason Wu greets every day in San Francisco's Civic Center with meditation and the slow, graceful exercises of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned in China and considered dangerous by some expatriates.
Since he began practicing Falun Gong in 1996, the 70-year-old said, he has felt more energetic and healthy and has had no need to see a doctor.
A belief system that incorporates the breathing and exercises of gigong, which has been practiced for millennia, Falun Gong gained the sympathy of elected officials across the United States after the Chinese government moved to silence it in 1999.
But many American counselors, qigong teachers and lay people liken the movement to a cult. They say it can endanger adherents and that it actually benefits from the controversy surrounding it.
Followers say such criticism originates in Chinese government propaganda. The Chinese government allegedly put Falun Gong followers in prisons and labor camps in 1999, and founder Li Hongzhi fled to the United States.
San Francisco's Board of Supervisors considered a resolution admonishing the Chinese government in 2001 for repressing the movement. Congress passed just such a resolution last year. And in July representatives of new Chinese-oriented media outlets with financial ties to Falun Gong testified on Capitol Hill about the influence of China's government overseas.
Falun Gong does not maintain a membership list, but it claims 100 million practitioners worldwide, with the bulk in China. The Chinese government says the movement has only 2 million followers in China.
For people in China, where religious activity is strictly controlled, Falun Gong seemed to fill a spiritual void when it was founded in 1992. Its core texts, Zhuan Falun and Falun Gong, teach people to be truthful, compassionate and tolerant.
Adherents in the Bay Area, who are estimated in the thousands, practice the exercises at more than two dozen public sites every day. They are mostly Chinese American and have a range of professional backgrounds.
Wu, a retired electronics technician, bent and glided beneath a double row of trees as traditional Chinese music and instructions in Chinese tinkled from his portable stereo. He handed out flyers detailing Falun Gong's teachings and five main exercises and denouncing China's government.
"The number of Falun Gong practitioners simply grew too large for the Communist leadership's liking," Wu's flyer reads. "The persecution was ordered by Communist leader Jiang Zemin, who feared losing control over people's minds."
Critics say that even though the movement doesn't keep formal membership lists, its demand for loyalty makes it a cult.
"They're told not to think negative thoughts, and are given fears if they consider any other reality," said Steven Alan Hassan, a Somerville, Mass., cult counselor. Founder Li Hongzhi "comes very much out of the cult extreme, the authoritarian stereotype."
David Clark, a Pennsylvania cult counselor, said Falun Gong's fight against the Chinese government is a "clever marketing mechanism." He and others dismiss Falun Gong's assertion that the Chinese government is the force behind criticism of the movement.
"It is a way of gaining access to get people to join the cause," Clark said. "There's a certain level of nobility wanting to defend the rights of people who are hurting."
Qigong teachers and even those who do not consider Falun Gong a cult are concerned about followers' belief that their faith will help cure illness.
"The main risk associated is the medical neglect potential. That reflects in part the idiosyncrasies of the individual practitioners,'' said Michael Langone, executive director of the International Cultic Studies Association in Florida. He said Falun Gong is not strictly a cult because members are "free to come and go as they please."
Many followers believe that retribution for past deeds is the root of sickness. They believe Western medicine treats symptoms and does not address the root causes of illness -- for which some practitioners believe they should rely on the healing powers of Falun Gong.
"Average qigong treatments and hospital treatments only defer to the remaining half of life or later those tribulations that are the fundamental cause of illnesses," according to Zhuan Falun. "The karma is not removed at all."
Samuel Luo, 34, launched Falungonginfo.org, which denounces the movement, based on his mother's and stepfather's experience.
"I consider myself a victim of the Falun Gong because my parents were hurt by it, and the harmony of our family has been seriously damaged," said Luo, a San Francisco massage therapist who practices tui na, traditional Chinese bodywork.
Peiling Cao, 64, Luo's stepfather, is often bedridden for days with gout, but it took years of pleading from his children before he recently agreed to see a doctor.
"If you do bad, then it generates karma that will make you become sick," said Demi Chou, 59, Cao's wife and Luo's mother. "Whenever I run into a health problem, I look inside to see which way I'm not doing well. If you really go with the principles as the master teaches, you will resolve it."
In an interview attended by Falun Gong leaders, Chou said she fervently believed in communism for decades. Her life was lacking something until she found Falun Gong. She credits the movement with helping her become an energetic, kind and patient person and said she has not seen a doctor since she began practicing in 1998.
Her son speaks at conferences, writes newspaper editorials in Chinese-language newspapers and reaches out to others concerned about the influence of Falun Gong. He was scheduled to speak in July on a Falun Gong panel at the International Cultic Studies Association's conference in Spain, but organizers canceled the panel after a representative of the Falun Dafa Association of Spain threatened to sue for defamation. Criticism of Falun Gong could be used by the Chinese government to persecute followers, the lawyer said.
Follower Eric Huang, 55, a computer hardware engineer who lives in Sunnyvale, said the faith doesn't prohibit seeking medical treatment.
"In Falun Gong, we feel sickness is related to karma and is a form of retribution," Huang said. "This is a matter of faith. It cannot be explained by science, until science reaches a certain state."
Falun Gong teachings
-- On people who are sick: The root cause of their problem and all their misfortune is karma, that black-matter karmic field. ...Those bad beings are also yin in nature, they're all black, and that's why they can come onto the body -- the environment suits them. That's the root cause of people's health problems, it's the chief source of them. Of course, there are two other forms. One of them is really, really small, high-density tiny beings. They're something like a cluster of karma. The other is as if it's transported through a conduit, but it's pretty rare, and all of it is accumulated through the generations.
-- On hospitals: If hospitals couldn't heal, why would people believe in them and go there for treatments? ... It's just that their treatment methods are at ordinary people's level while illness is beyond the ordinary, and some diseases are pretty serious.
-- On ancient Chinese medicine: It was ahead of today's medical sciences. Some people think, "Modern medicine is so advanced -- CT scans can examine the inside of the body, and we can do ultrasound, imaging and X-rays." Sure, modern equipment is pretty advanced, but I'd say it's still not as good as ancient Chinese medical science. ... It'll be years before today's Western medicine catches up.