[Practitioners] of Falun Gong, a practice of meditation and exercise banned in China, gathered Saturday on the steps of the Iowa Capitol to celebrate the state's first official week devoted to the practice, also called Falun Dafa.

"We think it's a very big event," organizer Margaret Jiang said of Gov. Tom Vilsack's decision to dedicate a week to the movement, which is practiced in more than 50 countries. "It provides such great benefits for the mind and the body."

Started in 1992 by a Chinese government clerk, the movement claims to have a following in the hundreds of millions, largely concentrated in China.

Originally, it was supported by the Communist government, said Jiang, but when the movement grew in popularity it was outlawed in 1999, she said.

Since then, hundreds of people have been killed, tortured and exiled by Chinese leaders, [practitioners] say. [...]

"The people are under totalitarian control, and the government wants to keep that control," Jiang said.

Falun Dafa has been in international news in recent weeks as Iceland barred [practitioners] from arriving by plane during a visit from China's president, and 16 practitioners went on trial in Hong Kong.

The spiritual movement combines slow-motion exercises with [...] principles [of] truthfulness, compassion [and forbearance], Jiang said.

Practitioners on Saturday demonstrated an exercise, which usually consists of five sets of slow, continuous movements designed to bring energy from the heavens and from the ground and purify the mind and body, she said. The last set, meditation, was not demonstrated.

Visitors could also receive free instruction in Falun Gong on the Capitol lawn. Besides the physical benefits of exercise, many people believe it has holistic powers. Joy Zhao, a Minnesota resident, said she picked up Falun Gong when her father cured himself of a tumor.

"Him being OK - that was a huge relief for me, so I thought if it helped him, I would give it a try," Zhao said. She has practiced for three years. Jeanne Olson also said the exercise cured a similar tumor for her. Although she still believes in traditional Western medicine, she said Falun Gong focuses on overall health and prevention. A native of Indiana, she has practiced for about six years.

"When I started, I was physically unable to do the exercises," Olson said. "All I could do was sit and listen to the tape, and use the power of my mind."

A photo exhibit of Falun Gong can be viewed all this week on the first floor of the Capitol building.