AT just 18, Sheena Crowley was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Throughout her twenties, she battled the agonising condition. By the time she was 30, her doctor was telling her to prepare for her future by installing wheelchair ramps at her home and modifying her kitchen.
“He said that in six months’ time I wasn’t going to be able to move, and scheduled me a meeting with someone to arrange a wheelchair and give me advice on the house,” Sheena says. “He told me that the less I moved the better.”
“So I took up kung fu.” She smiles.
Now, 23 years later, Sheena is far from immobile. In fact, she runs her own business, Gingko Mind & Body Wellness, and teaches Slow Motion Fitness classes, based on the ancient Chinese discipline of Qi Gong.
Her journey into Qi Gong practice started with those weekly Wing Chun Kung Fu classes with instructor John O’Riordan.
“I don’t know what made me think of starting Kung Fu, but I did,” Sheena recalls.
“I trained with John once a week, and it took over my life. It still hurt me, and even now it still does; walking can be painful. But you come to realise that pain is just there to give you a message. The more I did, the more the peripheral pain lessened.
“You balance the external work of kung fu, that’s very demanding on the body, with the soft, internal work of Qi Gong.
“For a long time, to me it was just like the pleasure at the end of your training session, but then I became sick, so I turned to Qi Gong fully.”
Sheena’s father, Michael, was a well-known figure in Cork as proprietor of Crowley’s Music Store on McCurtain Street. The much-loved iconic store had catered for generations of Cork musicians. One of its numerous claims to fame was that Rory Gallagher bought his first guitar there.
Following Michael’s death in 2010, Sheena found herself trying to rescue the floundering business.
In 2013, it was a sad moment for the city when she finally conceded and shut the doors on Crowley’s. But the personal toll was devastating; stress had a profound impact on her health.
“It took nearly three years to close the business and I was hanging on for dear life,” Sheena says.
“I was trying to save it because I loved it. I worked from early in the morning until late at night.
“My kidneys were shutting down, my blood pressure was going through the roof. When I went to the doctor, I was just offered medication.
“My kung fu instructor came to my house every day for a month, and we did Qi Gong, and I started to feel a difference.”
While Sheena, who went on to study as a Qi Gong instructor in the Philippines, isn’t “anti- medication,” she sees our current over-burdened healthcare system as symptomatic of the blind eye our fast-paced lives make us turn to our health.
The benefits of knowing our bodies and caring for them are, she says, preventative: “I think we need a system of therapies that people can turn to before they get to the stage of going to the doctor.”
Qi Gong, she says, is all about slowing back down and restoring the connection between mind and body.
Your Qi (pronounced ‘chee’) is your life-force energy, Sheena explains. By learning about balancing Yin and Yang, practitioners learn to cultivate their Qi, which exercises impact on different bodily organs, the foods to support your body type, and the interactions between different emotional states and the healthy balance of different organs’ energy.
“These were exercises designed by Chinese philosophers and monks 5,000 years ago, and that turned into kung fu, and then tai chi came from that,” she says.
“The exercises are designed to maintain your health and to give you responsibility for your body.
“In Qi Gong, we believe that stress and emotions make up 90% of why you’re sick.
“Your spleen is affected by worry, the liver is anger; our emotions are much bigger than we understand, and we invest in them so much and we keep going back to them.”
It seems that in recent years there’s been a backlash against alternative therapies; we’re in an era when science and rationality, however dogmatically they’re asserted, are prized above all else.
Sheena knows that for many Irish people, talk of the body’s flow of energy and of balancing the elements and Yin and Yang can be off-putting.
“I’m reluctant to talk about moving energy around the body, because people are very resistant to things like that in the West, but it’s scientifically proven that the body has an electromagnetic field,” she says.
“The heart has an electromagnetic pulse.”
“The people who are cynical about what I do tend to be the ones who don’t know anything about it.
“How can you dismiss something when you don’t even understand how it works? I think it’s sad that there’s so many naysayers.”
In China, there are 38,000 Qi Gong styles, people can be seen practicing it in parks and public spaces, and the traditional system of medicine is based on the same concepts of Yin and Yang and the elements. But in Ireland, these are new ideas to many.
“I call my classes Slow Motion Fitness because a lot of people haven’t heard of Qi Gong and I thought ‘slow motion fitness’ would give them a sense of what it is,” Sheena says.
“But also, I’m not a purist. I also trained as a personal trainer and so I use some western methodologies mixed in.”
Gingko Mind & Body Wellness classes run in Douglas Community Centre, Ballinlough Youth Centre and Ardfallen Methodist Church Hall, as well as one-on-one sessions, begin in early January. Info: www.facebook.com/GingkoMindBodyWellness/