Followers of Falun Gong practice their exercises on Sunday afternoons in the Illini Union.

Four years ago, assistant food science professor Feng was sick with an intestinal ulcer. He tried jogging and medicine, but neither worked. Still stressed and ill, Feng looked to an alternate therapy, Falun Gong.

A type of qi gong, exercises to cultivate physical and mental health, Falun Gong has roots in ancient Chinese culture. Similar to Tai Chi, Falun Gong focuses on meditation.

And its relaxing exercises have worked for Feng.

"Now I'm very healthy, the best in my life," he said at a group practice at the Union.

On Sundays, Feng and other Falun Gong followers practice their exercises in the Union. As the afternoon sun filters in and creates a soothing glow, they close their eyes, stand in a circle and try to clear their minds. To strains of soft music and even-voiced instruction, they slowly raise their left arms in unison. They will spend the next hour doing similar stretches, some while standing, some while sitting in lotus position.

"Group practice is good," Feng said. "We have a strong energy field."

Falun Gong was introduced to the public in 1992 by its founder, Li Hongzhi, who says breathing exercises and arm movements aren't enough for holistic health. Followers, if they want to be truly healthy in spirit, as well as in body, must live with virtue.

Hongzhi stresses zhen-shan-ren, meaning truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. If followers purify their hearts, health benefits will follow, says Hongzhi.

Most of Hongzhi's teachings are based in a morality that includes compassion for all living things, civic duty, kindness, tolerance, moderation, patience, honesty and charity. He also emphasizes self-control and wants his followers to let go of greed and jealousy.

In his text, Falun Gong, Hongzhi writes, "The things we require you to lose are the attachments of everyday people and the mindset that doesn't let go of those attachments."

Whether it's a thirst for money, a drive for power, or a craving for nicotine, Falun Gong teaches followers to cut it off.

"If you can break with the things you consider important and part with the things you think you can't part with, that is loss in the truest sense," Hongzhi writes in his text, which is free on the Internet.

Also at no cost, Hongzhi is said to endow in a follower's abdomen a mystical, rotating "law wheel" that cures disease and prevents aging. Falun Gong [...]has gained millions of followers around the world.

Followers of Falun Gong seek spiritual enlightenment and healthier, happier, more productive lives.

It has also gained criticism and persecution from the Chinese government. [...] President Jiang and his regime outlawed Falun Gong seven years after it was introduced. In that time, followers had grown to outnumber [the] Party members. Unable to tolerate this allegiance, [Jiang] declared Falun Gong [illegal] and accused members of trying to overthrow the government.

Although popular, Falun Gong has no political aims. Followers want only spiritual enlightenment and healthier, happier, more productive lives. In fact, Hongzhi advocates letting go of attachments to this world, including money, possessions, and power.

Hardly the stuff of coup d'etats, his teachings shouldn't be a threat to the Chinese government. But for a regime weakened by corruption and lost credibility, Falun Gong has made the government paranoid. So, despite peaceful protests for official recognition, the government has continued to brutally suppress the practice.

"I think they're afraid of the principles of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance," said Zhang, a University graduate student who practices Falun Gong.

Since the 1999 ban, practitioners have demonstrated almost daily in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They quietly perform their exercises and hold banners that read "Stop Persecuting Falun Gong." All they ask is to practice without interference.

So far, that freedom hasn't been granted. Police harass, beat and arrest public demonstrators, who are taken away in police vans and routinely detained without trial, according to the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York City.

When prisoners are tried, it's often only for show. They're charged with promoting cult activity, aren't allowed to plead innocence, and are often sent to labor camps and tortured. Subtler methods of persecution include firing followers from their jobs, imposing harsh fines, and confiscating property.

Falun Gong books and videotapes are outlawed, and the government destroys such contraband with bulldozers.

Falun Gong Web sites are blocked in China. But because practitioners outside China get information and make contacts on the Internet, the Chinese government can identify them and interfere with their lives.

Li, a Chinese refugee who recently moved to the United States from Singapore, knows what it's like to be targeted by the government. After leaving China, Li and her husband worked in Singapore for four years, where Falun Gong is legal.

Falun Gong has been outlawed in China.

The Chinese government discovered she was a follower, however, and interfered with her passport. She couldn't stay in Singapore but didn't want to return to China. Li now seeks refuge in the United States, where she freely practices with other followers every Sunday afternoon in the Illini Union.

Chen, 36, came to the United States last year and practices Falun Gong every morning. She and her family also attend the Sunday practices in the Union. Chen has sent Falun Gong newsletters to her relatives in China, but most packages were intercepted. Even when one made it through the censors, Chen's sister was too afraid to open the book.

Because the Communist government owns all media in China, many citizens are misinformed of the true situation and believe government propaganda [on] Falun Gong [...].

Zhang was born in Changchun, China, the birthplace of founder Hongzhi. There she learned about him from a friend and heard one of his lectures in May 1994. She said she immediately knew the practice was something good to pursue.

Zhang said she was destined to go to that lecture. Belief in predestiny is common for Falun Gong practitioners, who believe enlightened beings control the universe. She also believes what she does in this life will affect her in the next. Any suffering people experience is due to what they've done wrong, she said.

"That's why people have disease and tribulation. It comes from karma from this life and the previous one," Zhang said.

Doug Goodwine, an "open-minded Christian" who does construction work for Champaign, originally looked to Tai Chi and yoga to help his back injury. But what started as physical therapy ten years ago turned into a spiritual quest, he said. Goodwine began taking classes in November at the Springer Cultural Center in Champaign, where Feng taught Falun Gong.

Despite sincere testimonials, most skeptics, especially President [Jiang], are hard to convince. President Bush and the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have joined the world in condemning his abuses against followers. [Jiang] will most likely continue the crackdown, however, rather than reverse his strong policy.

Followers remain peaceful, even optimistic.

"I believe the persecution will stop," Zhang said. "The power of these principles can stop any evil. The teachings are so profound. If you truly want to understand, read the books by yourself and practice and share with others."