Lorna Siggins meets an upbeat teacher of qi gong, a Chinese mindfulness practice that operates on a system of 12 essential movements.
Shaofan Zhu has an infectious senseof fun, and no more so than when he is about to demonstrate a slow and careful movement.
Palms on our knees, we are fully focused on sinking ever so slowly into a graceful squat, as he does effortlessly, when he bursts into peals of laughter. The class erupts in unison.
Slow mindful movement doesn’t have to be a maudlin experience.
He was similarly animated, shortly before the qi gong class, when recalling his first visit to Ireland at the age of 26, with his Swiss girlfriend.
The two of them hitched west from Dublin, bound for the Aran islands. It took several days, he says, as he jumps up to show how he had a big piece of cardboard with ‘Galway’ pinned to his chest.
Every time a driver made a hand signal, he and his girlfriend would chase after the car, thinking they were in luck and feeling bewildered when the vehicle did not stop. It took them a while to realise all Irish motorists did not share what seemed to be the same weird sense of humour.
He laughs as he recounts how they both discovered that these hand signals were polite ways of explaining that the driver was turning off.
Ann Keenaghan first met Dr Zhu several years ago on a different journey. Both were sharing an aisle on the final leg of a flight to China.
Keenaghan, who formerly worked as co-ordinator of the state-run Money Advice and Budgeting Service in Co Cavan and now lives in An Spidéal, Co Galway, was visiting her son, Seán Óg and his wife, Guo Min.
Eight hours into the flight, she began chatting to him, and asked him about his bracelet stone. He said it was jade, and considered to be the most powerful crystal in China, with a particular energy for healing.
Keenaghan had already studied aspects of Chinese medicine, and had taken a qualification in kinesiology, as in the study of body movement. She was also leading a meditation group one evening a week. Dr Zhusaid he was not only a medical doctor, but a master in the practise of qi gong.
Qi gong is a slow mindful movement practice, which is rooted in Chinese medicine, philosophy and martial arts and aims to cultivate and balance ‘qi’, pronounced ‘chi’, or ‘life energy’. It combines 12 movements including several slow movements within each one which focus on the 12 energy meridians or pathways in the body.
From southern China, Dr Zhu recounted how he had practised and won gold medals in martial arts from an early age, and then trained in more flex therapy and traditional Chinese medicine at the University of Chengdu.
Myoreflex is a type of therapy which combines western medical knowledge and neurophysiology with traditional Chinese medicine.
Keenaghan decided to travel to Switzerland, where Dr Zhu runs a training school and medical practice. She learned how he had studied a type of qi gong known as ‘emei’, practised by monks on one of China’s sacred peaks, Mount Emei and taught by the Fei family of Nanjing, China.
“When the ‘qi’ , or energy is flowing naturally and freely, we are in full health but that is seldom the case,” Keenaghan says.
“The energy maybe blocked due to injury, illness or emotions such as fear, sadness, grief, anger or from stress on the system, whether on the body or the mind, and getting the ‘qi’ moving helps to release the blockages, nourishing organs, the mind and spirit,”she says.
“For those who feel they cannot just sit quietly and meditate, the 12 movements practiced in the right way allow the body to become relaxed and the mind to become calm,” she says.
Keenaghan recently hosted a visit by Dr Zhu to Galway for a third time, where he ran a workshop with her in Salthill.
There, Dr Zhu said through his interpreter how qi gong is a natural activity for ageing well. He has particular views on the western obsession with high achievement in senior years, as if being able to compete physically is an elixir for everlasting life.
“It is natural for the body to age, and qi gong can prevent a lot of the symptoms of stiffness that we might get. Pushing our bodies to a physical level only can lead to burnout or injury or other health issues, and it also reflects a disconnect between mind and body,” he says.
“Think of four essential tools — a screwdriver, a hammer, a nail, and scissors,” he says.
Keenaghan, who runs the Ionad Bhríde healing centre in An Spidéal, plans to introduce the practice in schools. She hosts one-to-one appointments and weekly group classes in the Connemara Coast Hotel, Furbo, Co Galway.
For details email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.annkeenaghan.com