The meditation and exercise practice called Falun Gong can lead to arrest and prison in China. But it is said to have quite the opposite result in the United States, where a small but growing number of immigrant parents say it's helping kids stay out of trouble.
Concerned about violence, casual sex and drugs in American culture, they see Falun Gong as a way to keep their sons and daughters on the straight and narrow.
Children are receiving instruction in small, informal groups at a Howard County park, in a rented Silver Spring elementary school cafeteria and elsewhere. About 30 students, ages 3 to 17, attend a new Falun Gong school in Rockville, said to be the first of its kind in the world."[The majority of] people try to introduce Falun Gong to adults. Because I'm a mother, I'm thinking differently," said Judy Chao of Columbia, who helped establish the school and believes the practice has improved the behavior of her own children.
"If we start them young, we probably don't need policemen anymore," she said.
Falun Gong combines meditation with a series of slow, controlled movements similar to those used in tai chi. It is based on qigong, the ancient practice of perfecting mind and body with exercise and spirituality.
A former Chinese government clerk named Li Hongzhi developed Falun Gong and began teaching it in 1992. Li and his followers insist the practice is not a religion or a political movement, but it has been wildly popular, alarming the Chinese government. The movement claims 100 million practitioners worldwide.
In April 1999, 10,000 followers surrounded the Communist Party's Beijing compound in a bid for government recognition. The government responded instead by banning the practice. Chinese officials call Falun Gong a dangerous cult, pointing to the attempted suicide of five purported followers who set themselves ablaze in Tiananmen Square in January. Falun Gong supporters have questioned whether the five were actually followers.
Amnesty International estimates that tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been detained, some of them sent to mental hospitals and labor camps for up to three years. Human rights groups estimate that more than 100 practitioners have died from torture and beatings while in police custody.
The difficulties that afflict followers in China are in stark contrast to the scene on the grassy shores of Columbia's Lake Elkhorn one recent morning.
Sitting in a circle, eyes closed, legs folded in the lotus position, arms suspended in midair for minutes at a time, nine men, women and children practiced Falun Gong in peace.
A bright yellow banner strung across a picnic table announced what they were doing to passing dog-walkers and summer camp kids, who didn't appear to pay them much attention. Followers set out brochures, listing 56 chapters across the United States, including 14 in Maryland, Virginia and Washington. They had bumper stickers on their cars.
But the freedom that followers enjoy in the United States comes with a price, immigrant parents say. Many worry about the downside to American freedom, fearing the permissive culture will lead their children astray. They look to Falun Gong to keep that from happening.
"I can tell you from the TV and everything, all these teen-agers [have] problems," said Chao, 48, a graphic designer who came to the United States from her native Taiwan 30 years ago.
"I really don't want them to get into that," she said. "I see they go to school and [are] exposed to this. ... I really want them to know right from wrong."
With Falun Gong, she said, "good philosophy" is being put in their heads. "For their whole life, they will benefit from it."
After an hour of exercise and meditation, Chao and the others who meet at Lake Elkhorn every weekday morning usually spend a second hour reading from a book of Li's teachings. It stresses three principles: truthfulness, compassion and tolerance.
"Every human should follow those principles," said Mallik Basoor, a software engineer from Savage who participates with his wife and 14-year-old son. Basoor, an Indian immigrant, said Falun Gong suits his native culture and the goals of his son, Tejaswi.
"He said he wants to be a good man in life, not attach too much to worldly things," said Basoor, 44. "He wants to be a good person, good moral character. ... He doesn't have a girlfriend. He doesn't have any habits like smoking or anything."
Kokuei Chen, 15, of Columbia has been practicing Falun Gong with his mother since last summer.
"It teaches higher moral values for everyone," said Chen, a Taiwanese native.
He said Falun Gong has led him to stop watching violent TV shows and has helped him turn away from potential fights with classmates at Long Reach High School, where he will be a sophomore in the fall. "My friends were goading me into fights and stuff," he said. "I just ignored them until they cooled off."