THEY GATHER in the early morning hours at parks and plazas across the Bay Area. In silent unison, they glide from one pose to another, their eyes closed in peaceful contemplation.
But for many Falun Gong practitioners, the peace they say the exercises give them is tainted with the knowledge that in China thousands of people have been jailed -- possibly even tortured -- for practicing the art.
For two years, the Chinese government has tried to crush the Falun Gong movement, which leaders have called an "evil cult." But practitioners here say they don't understand all the hubbub over a practice that is more like a low-impact workout than a religious sect.
Loretta Lam of San Leandro ran afoul of the government crackdown when she visited China last year. She spent four days in jail when police raided her friend's apartment and found printouts from a Falun Gong Web site.
Undeterred by her experience, she organized and now participates in the weekend sessions at the San Leandro Marina. She said practicing Falun Gong has made her happier, more clear-headed and cured her bad back.
"I always smile now. Before (Falun Gong), I was very stern," Lam said. "After practicing Falun Gong, I found I could gain weight, and I have a better appetite. Also, I sleep less but still have lots of energy."
Most practitioners make a daily routine of the tai chi-like movements that Falun Gong prescribes, meeting at spots throughout the Bay Area, usually early in the morning, before work or school. They say there is no organization to their movement, no member list, no hierarchy and no political aim.
Until the Chinese government cracked down on Falun Gong, most people in the Bay Area might never even have heard of it. But its popularity in China spread so quickly that it alarmed Communist Party bosses, who practitioners say felt threatened by the sheer number of followers.
The severity of the Chinese government's two-year purge is in stark contrast to the United States, where the practice is met either with bemused indifference or with cautious praise.
Several cities, San Leandro among them, have declared "Falun Dafa" days in recognition of the plight of Chinese practitioners, but most people still don't seem to know a lot about the practice.
Falun Gong is not an ancient art. It is a blend of Chinese philosophies and religions, first introduced in China in 1992 by former grain clerk Li Hongzhi.
Hongzhi mixed the prime tenets of Buddhism and Taoism and borrowed heavily from the widespread practices of tai chi and Qigong to establish the premise of his book, Zhuan Falun.
Zhuan Falun lays out the principles of Falun Gong, the three most oft-presented being truthfulness, benevolence and forbearance, or Zhen-Shan-Ren. A set of five exercises is given that is meant to cultivate what Hongzhi calls the Falun or "spinning law wheel."
The Falun is described as a rotating, swastika-like emblem that is supposed to spin in practitioners' bellies, gathering energy from the cosmos and relieving practitioners of "bad elements," which supposedly cause disease and mental strife.
The emblem is a centuries-old Buddhist symbol, not to be confused with the Nazi insignia.
With the proper dedication, Hongzhi wrote, practitioners can gain the ability to perform "supernormal" feats, such as freezing evildoers in place with the power of their minds.
Lam said Falun Gong practitioners are forbidden from talking about their abilities.
"If we have supernormal abilities, we cannot tell people," she said. "If every practitioner used it (at once), this earth will shake."
But Lam said it would violate Falun principles to use that power against another person.
"I will not fight and hurt somebody," she said. "We are taught to never fight back, never talk back. If someone hits you, you never (look for) revenge."
According to recent news reports, pressure by the Chinese government has reduced the number of people practicing Falun Gong in China. In the Bay Area, the number of people practicing has stabilized at about 300, Hayward practitioner Pei Li said.
Li said the challenge of Falun Gong practitioners in the United States is to expose the Chinese government for its crackdown, while still maintaining a detached attitude toward politics.
"We do not have any political intentions, we just want to reveal the truth," Li said.