Falun Gong is a form of exercise and meditation with movements similar to those seen in t'ai chi and qigong. The exercise is associated with Falun Dafa, a modern spiritual movement originating in China in the 1990s. Falun Gong has tens of millions of adherents, according to the Falun Dafa organization.
The Chinese government branded the movement an "evil cult" in 1999 and banned the practice. Falun Gong followers have faced persecution and there are reports, which the Chinese government vehemently and repeatedly denies, that authorities have arrested and executed tens of thousands of followers and have used their organs for transplants. Advocacy for the followers has increased the popularity of Falun Gong in the Western world.
Many Westerners practice Falun Gong in parks, college campuses, and on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., likely unaware that this is based on a bizarre belief system and that many t'ai chi and qigong masters put down Falun Gong as pure folly.
Although based on the centuries-old practices of t'ai chi and qigong, Falun Gong was invented in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. And whereas t'ai chi strengthens the body, Falun Gong claims to strengthen the soul for salvation by adopting energy from different dimensions in the universe.
The premise of Falun Gong is that by doing the light stretching exercises, a practitioner cultivates an intelligent golden-colored entity called the falun, which resides in one's gut in a different dimension and spins continuously, absorbing energy from remote regions of parallel universes to make the body invincible to disease.
Li, the elusive Falun Gong founder, who perhaps lives in exile in Queens, New York, maintains that magician David Copperfield has some serious falun that allows him to walk through walls and perform magic. In his book "Falun Gong," Li writes:
"David Copperfield, a magician in the US, is a master of supernormal abilities who once performed the feat of walking through the Great Wall of China. When he was about to pass through the Wall, he used a white cloth as a cover, pressed himself against the Wall, and then proceeded to go through it. Why did he do that? Doing it that way would lead many people to consider it a magic show. It had to be done like that since he knew there are many people in China with great supernormal abilities. He was afraid of interference from them, so he covered himself before he went in." (Quoted from the original, English edition from the 1990s, which is no longer available from Falun Dafa's website)
Li goes on to explain that someone with a properly functioning and spinning falun can live for hundreds of years, withstand all sorts of pain and cheat all types of disease.
What about the exercises?
Falun Gong is purposefully different from qigong and t'ai chi. With qigong, all movement is precise. T'ai chi is deliberately slow and methodic to maximize the flow of qi, or chi, loosely defined as vital energy, the core concept of qigong. Falun Gong practitioners don't worry about precision. The stretching is not meant to be strenuous to cultivate qi; rather, it cultivates universal energy, spinning the falun in the clockwise position.
Falun Gong comprises four standing poses and one sitting, meditative pose. The sitting pose, called the "Way of Strengthening Supernormal Power," 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 exercise "Penetrating the Two Cosmic Extremes," for example, can be 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 t'ai chi, with arms being stretched from side to side, like a hunter pulling back on a bow and arrow. The "Falun Standing Stance" exercise can build strength in the arms and shoulders, for the arms stay suspended for several minutes above the head in a U shape. Finally, the "Falun Heavenly Circulation" exercise involves running one's hands up and down the entire body a few inches from its surface.
An added element separating Falun Gong from qigong and t'ai chi is xinxing, a code of morality one must practice or else the exercises are said to have no benefit.
Scientific support of Falun Gong
No high-quality studies have been published on the health benefits of Falun Gong, other than essays lamenting its popularity. A 2003 commentary in the Journal of Cultural Diversity warns about the preference of strict Falun Dafa adherents to not take medicine, because medicine reveals doubt in the power of the falun.
In 2005, scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston published a study in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine concerning six people practicing Falun Gong (which they defined as an "ancient qigong"). These people had slight improvements in immunity and metabolic rates. No follow-up study has been performed.
One could imagine that getting out in the fresh air to do relaxing exercises with like-minded individuals would have some physical and mental health benefits. But one should not assume that the modern, watered-down exercises of Falun Gong are a useful alternative to the disciplined movements of t'ai chi, documented to have numerous health benefits, including improvements in balance, flexibility, stamina, blood pressure, general heart health, mental health, and symptoms associated with stroke, fibromyalgia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
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Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.