September 23, 2004 — Don’t be fooled by those seemingly mild-mannered Falun Gong folks trying to hand out flyers at subway stations all over the city – they’re hardcore fitness fanatics.
Their workout can kick your butt – and it’s tougher than any yoga-lates nonsense, as I discovered by infiltrating their ranks.
The yellow-shirted brigade is everywhere lately, blanketing the city with their disturbing sidewalk displays of bloody people in cages and photos of bruised, burned and starved torture victims. “This happens in China,” their signs declare.
Turns out hundreds of Falun Gongers from around the world have flooded the city to raise consciousness about their political persecution in China, where their practice is banned by the government.
It’s tough to figure out why the Chinese government has a problem with these folks – because they hardly seem political at all.
Falun Gong is also known as Falun Dafa, and it’s one of many varieties of an ancient Chinese practice called qigong, a blend of movement and meditation.
If you ask followers why they do Falun Gong, they’ll tell you it makes them more tolerant and compassionate (two of the virtues stressed by the practice; the third is forbearance, whatever that is).
Rarely do they cite rock-solid arms or abs or increased muscle strength – but you can see them for yourself after a look at these 70- and 80-year-olds who walk around like they’re still in their 40s. (Take that, Botox!)
The practice started only seven years ago, and it’s taken off, to say the least – reportedly over 70 million people in China are Falun Gong devotees.
So how hard can it be?
That was my attitude early yesterday morning at the U.N., where hundreds were gathered for a peaceful “protest,” which would appear to the untrained eye to be a giant tai chi class.
I looked out at a sea of elderly and middle-aged people in yellow T-shirts, figuring I’d ace my way through the five very simple-looking poses pictured on the pamphlet.
I run, practice yoga, and I can certainly hold my hands over my head as easily as the next girl.
“You might find it hard your first time,” whispered a young Israeli man named Ben next to me in line.
A recording of tinny flute music started up, and we all began moving our arms in synch – stretched in front, then out to the sides, then clasped in front of our hearts, for a series called Buddha Showing a Thousand Hands.
Next came the Falun Standing Stance: We raised our arms over our heads, and kept them there for a long, long time.
Ten minutes, to be exact. I tried to breathe deeply and get enlightened. Mostly I was just hot and tired.
Finally, we moved our arms – into another held-aloft pose that lasted for what seemed like forever (in reality, another 10 minutes).
By the fourth 10-minute stretch, I was sweating bullets and my hands were shaking – while on either side of me were little old ladies following along effortlessly.
Before we moved on to the third series, “Penetrating the Two Cosmic Extremes,” I dropped out, feeling faint and more than a little chagrined.
This isn’t a cult – it’s more like a really punishing yoga class.
To be fair, a little cultishness did creep in when I started questioning followers about the benefits of Falun Gong/Dafa.
I heard stories about people whose fatal diseases were miraculously cured by Falun Gong – and got a disturbing response when I thanked the Australians who helped to correct my poses.
“It’s all for Dafa,” one said sagely.
Mostly, though, it seems they’re just bad marketers.
The in-your-face sidewalk campaign makes the group look loony, but when it comes down to it, they’re not much different from an overenthused bunch of Pilates practitioners.
They should ditch the yellow shirts, open up a sleek studio in SoHo, charge everyone $20 a class and send it to help their politically oppressed brethren in China.
After all, when it comes to athletic fads, New Yorkers are more than willing to embrace a little brainwashing.