For Alice Yim, Falun Gong has been a life-changing experience. She has become less materialistic, more patient and generally happier with herself since practicing this new variation of qigong, a traditional Chinese exercise technique.
Falun Gong's main precepts - "truthfulness, benevolence, forbearance" - and its belief that a spiritual orb spins in your lower abdomen, have been like a guide to life for Yim, 22, a student of fashion design living in San Francisco.
"After I finished the (Falun Gong) book, I felt like I was reborn," she said. "Lots of things I have been questioning through my life - all of a sudden I just found the answer. It's hard to explain."
But to the Chinese government, Falun Gong is a dangerous cult and subversive political movement. Alarmed by claims it has attracted 100 million followers worldwide - more than the membership of the Communist Party - Beijing has launched a broad campaign to discredit and ban Falun.
It has denounced the group's founder, Chinese expatriate Li Hongzhi, who lives in New York City, and has held mass book-pulping displays.
Falun practitioners, who number about 500 in the Bay Area, say they are not a sect or even a spiritual movement but just normal people striving to lead better and healthier lives.
However, even local qigong experts doubt Falun - which means "law wheel" and was introduced in China in 1992 - is a legitimate form of qigong. They question the followers' fervor for the ideology, devotion to Li and renunciation of all doctors and medicine.
"Generally, qigong promotes people to be independent and to take their lives in their own hands, not to be controlled," said Effie Chow, a registered nurse, acupuncturist and president of the East West Academy of Healing Arts in San Francisco. "I think it's hard to embrace a practice that restricts people from freedom." "Qi" (pronounced "chee") is considered the vital life force that can be harnessed externally, as it is for martial arts, or internally, as it is in qigong. According to Chow, it is a philosophy for mind, body and spirit that can have powerful health benefits.
Similar to yoga, qigong has hundreds of forms, but most combine breath work, meditation and simple tai chi-like movements. People practice on their own, in parks with a group or by going to see a qigong master for treatment. Chow said she had used qigong to help people recover from accidents, strokes and chronic diseases.
Chih-Ming Hu, a Cupertino software engineer, has been doing qigong more than 40 years. After trying six types, he settled on a form called heqi, which he said had helped cure him of his insomnia and hay fever after practicing it for several years.
In May, his cousin persuaded him to try Falun. But after six weeks, he gave up, primarily because his insomnia came back but also partly because the followers' devotion to Li made him uncomfortable. "A lot of Falun Gong practitioners worship Li Hongzhi too much," Hu said. "They think he has superpowers, like God. Even my cousin said that Li is the greatest person since the founder of Buddhism."
And although he doesn't doubt followers' claims that Falun has improved their health, Hu is also highly skeptical of Li's writings.
"He talks about physics and the universe," said Hu, who has a doctorate in physics. "He said the dimension of the universe is infinite. (But) we know it's four-dimensional."
Nancy Chen, a UC-Santa Cruz professor of medical anthropology, said Falun differed from other qigong forms by emphasizing spiritual training over exercises and breath work.
"Most people who are interested in Falun are drawn to it because they need healing of one sort or another," said Chen, who is working on a book about qigong and politics in China. Often, she said, they find it.
"They have all these miraculous healing narratives," she said. "Like, "I had terminal cancer or chronic asthma or chronic back pain, and it was healed miraculously.' You'll hear these stories pretty much throughout the country."
Falun grew rapidly after Li introduced it.
"People convert very quickly," Chen said. "Many people become firm believers in Falun within in a matter of weeks or even days."
Margaret Singer, a Berkeley psychologist and cult expert, sees cultlike qualities in Falun, noting particularly Li's book telling followers they can learn supernatural powers.
She said 15 to 20 people from the Bay Area and New York have called her, concerned that their relatives who practiced Falun had become peculiarly withdrawn.
Cult or not, Falun Gong represents an entity China cannot control, a point driven home in April when more than 10,000 followers suddenly amassed outside Tiananmen Square in Beijing in a peaceful sit-down protest.
While qigong is popular among many Chinese people, and even among top Chinese leaders, Falun was viewed as a threat.
"The Chinese government has a long-standing historical concern for heterodoxy (the unorthodox)," said Chen. "They're very concerned about organizations outside the official views of the state."
Falun practitioners gather in parks around the Bay Area; their Web site lists dozens of meeting times and locations, and even offers Li's book for downloading.
The exercises are simple. With feet hip-width apart and a tape of Chinese music playing in the background, they raise their arms over their heads and hold the position for several minutes. Like beginning ballet dancers in slow motion, they continue, holding their arms at various positions. But the exercises are a small part of Falun Gong. The most important aspect, practitioners say, is studying Li's book and applying his teachings to becoming a better person. Followers speak breathlessly about how it has changed their lives for the better.
"When I read (the books), I knew this was the truth," said Will Barkley, a 62-year-old mechanical designer who lives in Clovis, near Fresno, but works in the Bay Area. "It's like Master Li has been there and done that when it comes to the mystery of the cosmos."
After rejecting the Christianity he grew up with, Barkley said he had spent most of his adult life searching for proof of spirituality. Practicing Falun, he said, has cured him of road rage and taught him to be more patient.
"I'm not a follower generally," said Barkley, who started practicing Falun eight months ago. But in this case, "I would say I'm a believer."
Devout practitioners don't take medicine or see any type of doctor. Although Li never explicitly proscribed it, that is how they interpret his writings.
"Getting sick is like a way to pay your debt," said Yim, who has read Li's book more than 30 times. "I committed a wrong deed in the past. I'm willing to accept the pain that I have caused to other people. That's why I don't see a doctor, because I don't see it as sickness."
She was introduced to Falun by her mother in Hong Kong three years ago. She says it's not a religion. "We don't go to church," she said. "We don't do any ceremony. We don't pray for one person. All we do is keep up with yourself."
And she says followers don't worship Li. "We are not like giving him money or praying to him or burning incense for him," she said. "We don't do any superstition thing. We see him as a teacher. I respect him very much."
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