CBS Health Watch: Three part series on Falun Dafa

Three part series on Falun Dafa


by Lara C. Pullen, Medical Writer
published in CBS Health Watch , April 15, 2000

How to Cultivate Yourself: Falun Dafa

Lara C. Pullen, Medical Writer

"My doctor can't believe how much it has changed my health."

With these words Gail Rachlin, a 50-something New York City Falun Dafa practitioner, enthusiastically begins her description of the positive impact that this new interpretation of the ancient Chinese practice of Qi Gong has had on her well-being. Her exuberant response is echoed in the voices of other practitioners, many of whom claim medical cures that border on miraculous.

Unlike many forms of alternative healing, which frequently involve a treatment that is administered by one person to another, Falun Dafa is a method of self-cultivation, according to practitioners. Thus, to receive the benefits of Falun Dafa, you cannot go to an office and have a "master" treat you. Instead, practitioners must develop their own "heart and character" through practicing the exercises and reading the books written by the Falun Dafa founder, Li Hongzhi.

Falun Dafa is just one of the latest schools to have developed from an ancient Chinese practice. Qi Gong masters have existed for centuries, reportedly manipulating energy such that it enters the body to improve health and fight disease. In the West we are probably most familiar with these reported energy pathways as the targets for acupuncture and acupressure.

Some of the many forms of Qi Gong specifically highlight healing. Training in these styles has resulted in masters who claim the ability to heal through manipulation of energy pathways without physically touching the patient.

Closely related to Qi Gong is Tai Chi, a series of ballet-like movements that hone balance and strength. If you have visited any Chinese community anywhere around the globe you have probably seen Tai Chi practiced by the older people in the parks at daybreak.

Side bar text:
Falun Dafa developed from an ancient Chinese practice.


Chinese Crackdown

Falun Dafa was created in 1992 in China and has since spread rapidly. The Falun Dafa organization estimates that there are now 75 million practitioners in China and 25 million elsewhere in the world, including the United States.

But of late in China, things have not gone well for the group. Falun Dafa recently was banned by the Chinese government, and several of the sect's leaders in that country have been jailed. China's leadership refers to Falun Dafa as a cult and accuses its leaders of intending to subvert the government.

Russell DesMarais, doctor of chiropractic, founded the Turtle Island Health Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, which was the first integrated alternative natural healing center in the Midwest. While he does not practice Falun Dafa, he is certified as an international Qi Gong doctor and master teacher. DesMarais says that it is Falun Dafa's focus on independence and its ability to unite a large number of people behind the common cause of self-improvement that has provoked the anxiety of the Chinese government.

Certainly, the Falun Dafa ban has provoked a great deal of interest in the international press and has caused estimated US membership to quadruple in 1999. DesMarais sums it up: "Qi Gong has been let out of China, and nothing will stop it now as a worldwide movement."

So, what exactly does this movement involve?

Above all, Falun Dafa emphasizes the cultivation of three fundamental principles:

The belief system is explained in two books that can be downloaded for free from the Falun Dafa Web site. Many of the themes will seem familiar to first-time readers, because they reflect common messages found in Christianity, Buddhism, and Taoism.

Training Heart and Body

Side bar text:
The integration of mind/body/spirit into healing is becoming a powerful force.

The philosophy of Falun Dafa is accredited with promoting a good heart and healing the individual, emotionally and spiritually. The exercises, or Falun Gong, are aimed at reinforcing the messages of the book through training the body.

A full set of exercises lasts approximately 2 hours, although abbreviated routines can be performed. In general, the exercises involve holding the body in positions that are said aid the movement of energy into the body. The positions are thought to promote contemplative thought and strength. Some of the exercises may be difficult at first, but these exercises are performed successfully and routinely by young and old individuals alike.

In addition to spiritual and physical healing, Falun Dafa is said to cultivate a sense of community. While study of the book and practice of Falun Gong can be performed alone, practitioners believe that group practice aids in the momentum of the practice and accelerates the healing process.

Mitchell B. Stargrove, an acupuncturist who teaches the history of medicine at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, does not practice Falun Dafa, but he knows of it through his teaching of the principles of Qi Gong. He points out that the mind/body/spirit components of Falun Dafa are widely accepted as an excellent approach to the cultivation of health.

At the most basic level, if you "just have people alone doing deep breathing and movement, you will show health benefits," he says.

Milam Freitag, PhD, a clinical psychologist with a San Francisco private practice that focuses on HIV-positive clients, also does not practice Falun Dafa, but he agrees that the integration of mind/body/spirit into healing is becoming a powerful force. He explains: "There is an emerging realization that it is not all about looking at the liver in isolation. You have to look at the whole person: exercise, meditation, social support system, and mindful living."

For some, Falun Dafa may be the vehicle for healing on all of these fronts. Meetings are held regularly throughout the United States and in many parts of the world. One more thing: Falun Dafa is free. As many practitioners explained to me: If money changes hands, it is not Falun Dafa.

A Very Alternative Approach to Healing

Lara C. Pullen, Medical Writer

Dr. Jingduan Yang may or may not be joking when he explains the rates that he will charge his future patients. Dr. Yang's background is unusual in that it includes an MD (he is currently a psychiatry resident at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) as well as training and experience as a practitioner of Chinese medicine. He claims that once he opens his own private practice he will have three different fees.

He will charge individuals who want Western treatment and pharmaceuticals $200. He says this is justified because they will be depending entirely upon him for their treatment.

If a patient comes to him seeking acupuncture or other traditional medicine, he will charge them $100. Dr. Yang justifies this by saying that the patient will be shouldering half the responsibility for their own wellness by watching their diet and making prescribed changes to their lifestyle in order to heal.

If, however, a patient visits him and wants to learn Falun Dafa, Dr. Yang will teach for free, for however long it takes, because he knows that the patient has assumed complete responsibility for his or her own health and is on the road to wellness.

Falun Dafa was developed in China in 1992 as a new school of the ancient Chinese practice of Qi Gong. Practitioners of Falun Dafa cultivate three fundamental principles: truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. In a practical sense, this translates into a consciously good-hearted lifestyle combined with exercises reported to draw energy into the body. As implied by Dr. Yang, Falun Dafa is not something that is performed on another (like acupuncture): Rather, it involves living a philosophy and performing a series of specific exercises.

Side bar text:
Falun Dafa involves living a philosophy and performing a series of specific exercises.


Practitioners Quadruple

In the fall of 1998, there were few practitioners in Minnesota. Dr. Yang was then a teacher of Chinese medicine at the Minnesota Institute of Acupuncture and Herbal Studies and had trouble connecting with other Falun Dafa practitioners to learn the exercises and discuss the book.

Now he remarks on the number of practitioners throughout the United States. The Falun Dafa organization estimates that there was a quadrupling of US practitioners in 1999.

Dr. Yang agrees that "the medical healing power produced by Falun Gong [the exercises of Falun Dafa] is hard to understand because it belongs to another paradigm." He explains, however, that the cultivation of mind and spirit that Falun Dafa teaches is consistent with the modern understanding of health.

Few practitioners of modern, scientific medicine would dispute one of Falun Dafa's central premises--that to be truly healthy, you must be healthy biologically, psychologically, and socially. Still, Falun Dafa is a long way from gaining anything remotely like medical acceptance in the United States.

Milam Freitag, PhD, treats HIV-positive clients in San Francisco. As a psychologist, he follows the growing research on the mind-body connection and its relevance to health. While he does not practice Falun Dafa, he sees the practice as part of a growing trend to seek out an approach to living that is healthy and conscious.

The mind can impact the health of the body in many different ways. Freitag explains one mechanism this way: "Cumulative stress decreases the activity of the immune system and eventually takes a toll on our health."

An HIV-positive patient who begins psychotherapy realizes that the therapy is not going to change the reality of the disease. Instead, Freitag describes his role in the healing process this way: "[I try to help them] quiet the mind some and come back to a less frightened place. Worry does not help people. Helping my clients to realize this is often a big step."


Extravagant Health Claims

Sen Yang (unrelated to Dr. Yang), a 39-year-old Chicagoan, was faced with a similar health reality when he was diagnosed 20 years ago with serious, chronic hepatitis that required him to suspend his schooling for a year. He explains: "A doctor told me directly, 'There is no way to really cure your disease. You will have it for the rest of your life.'"

Today, a healthy-looking Yang regularly attends Falun Dafa meetings with his 9-year-old daughter. He began practicing in 1995 and perceived "a warm current moving in his body" after reading books on Falun Dafa. This physical sensation encouraged him to continue with the exercises and the philosophy, and his health improved rapidly. He recalls: "At the beginning my physical condition changed very fast. When walking, I felt [that] my body was so light that I could almost float up."

Two years ago, Yang's blood was checked during a regular physical exam, and all of the 32 test results came back normal, including four that were specifically designed to test liver function.

When asked about these apparent "miracle cures" that are so common among Falun Dafa practitioners, Dr. Yang discourages the line of questioning by saying: "It is very wrong to think that Falun Gong is designed to help heal an illness."

While he concedes that many practitioners are initially drawn to Falun Dafa because of a health problem he emphatically states that a miracle will not occur with all people. He likens Falun Dafa to a school full of students. Some students learn faster than others and will get better grades, but like any good school everyone should improve.

Zhi Ping Kolouch, a 43-year-old Falun Dafa practitioner as well as acupuncturist, also emphasizes the spiritual and physical components of the practice. She sums up what holistic medicine has always known and modern medicine is just now starting to consider, "If a person is miserable inside their heart, then they will get sick."

Side bar text:
Falun Dafa is a long way from gaining anything remotely like medical acceptance in the United States.

Seeing Falun Dafa Up Close and Personal

Lara C. Pullen, Medical Writer

After recently spending 2 weeks researching the wildly popular form of Qi Gong known as Falun Dafa (see two other related CBSHealthWatch by Medscape articles), I decided that I should see a meeting for myself. I convinced two of my friends, Mary and Martha (all of us 30-something), to join in this excursion to Chicago's Chinatown. The Falun Dafa organization estimates that there are now 75 million practitioners in China and 25 million practitioners elsewhere in the world.

The increasing popularity of this movement is notable, but what most impressed me during my research were the people I interviewed. From Gail Rachlin on the East Coast to Zhi Ping Kolouch on the West Coast and Sen Yang in the Midwest, this had to be the nicest group of people I ever had the pleasure of talking to. They always returned my calls and emails promptly and were warm and enthusiastic.

In addition to their attitude, I was intrigued by their stories. Gail Rachlin, 50-something, claims that Falun Dafa allowed her to go off of antidepressants. Zhi Ping Kolouch, 43, credits it with maintaining her jet-black hair and healthy heart. Sen Yang, 39, says it cured his chronic hepatitis.

Of course, these claims of cures should be taken with a grain of salt. They are anecdotal at best and have yet to be tested scientifically. I remember the words of Mary Frances King, MD, of DuPage Family Medicine in Naperville, Illinois, who cautioned: "I think it is helpful as long as there is no harm to it and it does not prevent someone from seeking medical help from traditional medicine if it is needed."


Beginners Grouped Together

Side bar text:
Claims of cures are anecdotal at best and have yet to be tested scientifically.


At 2 in the afternoon on New Year's Day, I met Warren Tai and his wife, Maria, in the parking lot behind a bank in Chicago's Chinatown. I left my coat downstairs where the rest of the Falun Dafa practitioners were gathering and headed upstairs with Warren, my arms full of rugs for kneeling. We were joined by my friends Mary and Martha, as well as a pleasant Chinese man whose English was poor.

As the five of us (four beginners and Warren) sat on our rugs, Warren began to explain the principles of Falun Dafa and to patiently teach us the exercises. The first was a meditation exercise that required sitting in the lotus position. Martha could barely do a complete lotus position; I could barely do a half-lotus; and Mary could barely cross her legs. Despite our humorous inadequacies, Warren did not smirk.

Warren told us that with time we would all be able to do it, but that the effects of the meditation could be felt just by sitting cross-legged. He slowly guided us through simple hand movements that involved moving the arms around the body as if defining a circular space. The resting place for the hands, in between the circular movements, was in front of the abdomen, with the fingers forming a triangle.


Easy to Learn

We could hear the sound of traditional Chinese music coming from downstairs as we stood up and began to learn the standing exercises. These exercises all involved holding the arms at various positions, some of which paralleled the arm positions that Warren had shown us for the sitting exercise.

The movements were soothing and easy to learn. From the excited look on Martha's face, I could tell that she was just as eager as I was to join the rest of the group and do the exercises with the music.

When we went downstairs, we saw that the group consisted of about 15 people. (I was told later that this was a low-attendance day.) Most of the practitioners were Chinese. They ranged from 25 to 75 years of age.


Standing Exercises

The main group had already done the sitting exercise and was ready to start the standing exercises. Warren placed himself in front of us to guide us. The traditional music started and we began to move our hands. The first exercise was a stretching exercise that felt wonderful.

The second exercise, called the Standing Stance Exercise, involved holding the arms in the air in four positions designed to open energy channels. Holding the arms for 10 minutes in each position was very tiring for me even though I am used to carrying around a toddler. Mary was unable to hold all of the positions for the full length of time. Neither Warren nor anyone else seemed to mind or even notice when she rested and stretched her fatigued arms.

The third exercise was designed to mix energy from the universe and the human body. The movements, not surprisingly, mimicked swirling.

The fourth exercise was designed to circulate energy over the body. This was my favorite exercise and I imagined myself bathing in the energy that I had just drawn to me.

When it was over, we all were quiet, seemingly basking in the feeling of the exercises. Warren then shepherded us upstairs for the English-speaking discussion of the Falun Dafa book. Warren had water for everyone and extra copies of the book for us to use in reading along. The books were for sale, but Warren was emphatic that there was no need to buy the books because they could be downloaded for free from the Falun Dafa web site.

One of the principles of Falun Dafa is that the teachings are priceless and therefore no price should be attached to them. All aspects of Falun Dafa can be had for free.

Side bar text
The movements were soothing and easy to learn.


Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance

The discussion group focused on the cultivation of the three tenets of Falun Dafa: Truth-Compassion-Forbearance. I found the English translation of the text awkward and somewhat difficult to understand, although the overall message seemed comfortable and familiar.

I left the meeting feeling energized and content, although I felt no mystical pull toward the words of Master Li Hongzhi (the founder of Falun Dafa). When I checked in with my friends the next day, they agreed that it was a wonderful experience and one well worth repeating.

We discussed the simplicity and energizing quality of the exercises and Mary added: "My thighs got a major workout and I don't even know why."

The Falun Dafa Web site (http://www.falundafa.org) contains texts from the Falun Dafa books as well as a well-organized list of regional volunteers.

This is a three-part series on Falun Dafa:

How to Cultivate Yourself: Falun Dafa
A Very Alternative Approach to Healing
Seeing Falun Dafa Up Close and Personal


(c) 2000 by Medscape Inc. All rights reserved.

Lara C. Pullen is a freelance medical writer.


Originally published in http://healthwatch.medscape.com

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