It’s not until you have a desire to do yoga that you notice just how much the country’s stuffed with it. Every other building in the UK has people of all shapes and ages in Lycra, bending themselves silly and trying not to parp. And we’re all destined to do it at least once. It’s the jury duty of exercise. My time has come; I’ve summoned myself.
Why yoga? Well, you see, I’ve always wanted to be a zen guy. As a young teen I used my pocket money to buy peace symbol necklaces on family holidays. I had a best of Bob Marley CD. I painted my bedroom brown and burned incense. I even attempted to smoke incense through a pipe, which burned my throat terribly, though not as savagely as the cinnamon stick, or the ‘purple haze’ legal high my friend Jas and I smoked on a wall in our school uniforms, an old lady calling us naughty boys as the loosely rolled joint went up in flames like dry hay (probably what it was) and disappeared our fluffy moustaches, which at the time really harshed our vibes. ’Scuse me while I miss the sky. I’d like to recapture those hippy aspirations, in a healthier, less stupid way.
Where to find yoga round here? This requires the help of the splendid Godmanchester Living Facebook page. I’m addicted to it. Nothing shows the strengths, gripes, heart and hilariousness of a town like the community Facebook page. It’s a digital town hall where everyone’s invited. A place where the town’s residents rush to say they’ve stepped in dog mess, or to offer someone a lift to the hospital, or to thank someone for helping them park; to say someone shifty’s going round in a van, or to ask about the A14, or to state that a delivery driver has thrown their parcel in a pond, or occasionally just to say something a little bit uncomfortable. My favourite posts recently have been about 1. A turtle that keeps escaping, and 2. A friendly seal who lives in the nature reserve, though not everyone was delighted with the seal’s presence – ‘He’ll eat all the fish!’ Another personal favourite: ‘Is this anyone’s chicken?’ Godmanchester Living finds me a weekly evening yoga group in the neighbouring village of Hartford, which I often drive through en route to the nearest twenty- four- hour Big Tesco, and I pay for six beginner sessions.
The initial instructions advise against trying to access the building via a certain long, thin lane, so I do exactly this, eventually having to reverse all the way back. Extracting myself backwards down this muddy track without destroying my car is more tense than a game of Operation. The printout also advises me not to drive too far into the car park in the dark, else there’s a high chance I’ll go straight into the river. It’s a stressful journey. I’ll need some yoga by the time I arrive. Turning off my engine, thankfully with no water around the pedals, I’m just in time to witness an odd exchange between two women in gym kits who I assume are here for the same reason as I am.
‘Do you want me to guide you in?’ says the helpful lady in the already parked shiny white 4 × 4. She’s prim and manicured, in her fifties, perhaps, looking as if she’s journeyed out for a posh lunch but has capriciously veered right to a random church hall in the hope of a good old stretching.
‘No, I was a driving instructor for ten years,’ comes the curious and curt reply from the less glam, no- nonsense woman with hair like mine, in the hatchback, who does some kind of six- point manoeuvre to reverse- park into a random area of this large square of empty nothing. There aren’t any bays or lines, just ground. Perhaps she can see some markings that the rest of us can’t; I mean, she had been a driving instructor for ten years, a fact she repeats a further two times before we get into the building, then twice more once we do. ‘I said to her, I said I’d been a driving instructor for ten years, love, I don’t need help parking . . . Oh, hello love, sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude out there, it’s just that I used to be a driving instructor, so I’m quite used to parking . . . ’ If she was my driving instructor, not only would I know it, but I’d make damn sure I passed my test first time. I wouldn’t want to disappoint her.
Everyone else has mats under their arms, I notice. And towels. I feel quite naked just standing here in my running kit and bright red flip- flops. I’m nervous, and concentrate on smiling politely and chuckling whenever anybody (all older women) says anything. Bloody hell, I’m shaking. They all speak entirely in jokey complaints, the punchlines of which seem to consist solely of eye- rolls and saying, ‘I don’t know, eh?’ I hand over my payment to the instructor, Emmi, with shaky hands, like I’m paying for drugs . . . Got any downward dog? She lends me a mat. We spread ourselves out, as instructed, our mats our little personal islands in the sea, and spend the next hour desperately trying not to accidentally look at anyone else’s arse, which is tricky when you’re surrounded by them.
Emmi’s really chilled, as you’d expect, I suppose – it’d be worrying to have a really uptight yoga instructor – and makes us comfortable and encourages us to move at our own pace, wobbly and slow being the most favoured speed. She looks like she does a lot of yoga: that is, toned, bendy and possessing of a peaceful aura. I bought my gym kit a few years ago to grow into, which I’ve done rather too enthusiastically, especially since I gave up on personal training last year. I’m like dough wrapped in cling film, proving in a cupboard. I start to do some casual stretches, in preparation for the hour- long casual stretchathon about to commence, though I think I might be wrong to do so. But as Emmi says, there is no wrong way to do things here. I like it when someone says that. It makes me want to push the good faith implied in the statement to the limit; to fire up Netflix on my phone and get out a ham sandwich in the middle of the session. This is because I’m childish. ‘Sorry I’m late, traffic was terrible,’ says the harassed lady who bustles in late. ‘That’s okay, just grab a space, you haven’t missed much at all,’ says Emmi, peacefully. ‘I got stuck on that bloody ring road, just before the turn- off . . . ’ Harassed Lady continues, hoovering up any
burgeoning bits of zen with every word. I smile three or four times when I think she’s about to look at me, but each time it’s a false alarm. I’m shaking even more now. Still ages to go. Time is taking forever.
There are six or seven of us, the largest class Emmi has taught so far. On one side of the hall, which smells faintly of hymn books, sweat and coffee breath – all church halls smell the same, a smell I can only term, perhaps owing to a disappointing vocabulary, as a bit ‘churchy’ – is a big window looking out on to a graveyard. ‘Just ignore them,’ Emmi says, as we turn to face the rows of stones. Ignore them? Maybe we could learn from them. Can’t get more relaxed than them, really. In many ways, they’ve reached peak yoga.
There are so many joints popping in the room it sounds like we’re going gung- ho with a box of Christmas crackers. Despite the plinky- plonky hippy chill- out coming from the chubby little portable plastic CD player, the grey type with the flimsy carry handle and random bits of neon blue, the atmosphere in the room isn’t overly relaxed, if I’m honest. But then we are all beginners. The lady next to me keeps doing the rolling- her- eyes- and- tutting thing, which I do back to her, as if we’re asking each other, ‘What’s all this about, eh? What are we doing here?’ and the woman who used to be a driving instructor keeps stating that she can’t do yoga because of her sciatica. ‘If there are any parts that make you feel uncomfortable or that you don’t want to try, that’s absolutely fine,’ Emmi gently stresses, prompting a long response about troublesome elbows. My back hurts and my legs seem to be made of jelly. I nearly had a stroke trying on some skinny jeans in a Big Tesco fitting room the other day (at least, I think they were skinny jeans – perhaps they were regular jeans and I have fatty thighs). This feels a bit like that. The main sounds in the room, other than cracking, are oof! and bloody ’ell! I’ve gone all light- headed. I’m greying out! I need a lie- down. Hang on, I am lying down. Yoga, or at least my attempt at yoga, has managed to make lying down – my favourite thing! – seem difficult. Everyone starts having a conversation about how the class is at an inconvenient time, as if it’s compulsory community service yoga – ‘I’ll have to have my dinner at 9 p.m., I only finished work an hour ago’ – before someone’s car alarm goes off for the remaining half an hour. ‘Sorry, I think that might be mine,’ says the woman who belongs to the arse in front of me. Although she doesn’t check if it definitely is
indeed her BMW that’s wailing through the wall.
‘How’s everyone feeling?’ Emmi asks, receiving the awkward and inevitable response of complete silence. ‘That’s excellent.’ I’m feeling white and weak, like I’ve simultaneously lost all my blood sugar and had ten espressos. After five minutes of pretending to sleep, I gather my things, wave goodbye to the room and speed out the door as if late for an important meeting. Leaving the car park, I pull out straight into a traffic jam. The radio keeps switching itself on and off and I look at my watch while holding a half- full can, resulting in warm, flat Diet Coke spilling over my crotch. Good.
‘I don’t think I’m built for yoga,’ I tell my parents while getting some crisps from the cupboard.
‘Stop eating crisps!’ shouts Mum. ‘You won’t get slim eating crisps! Anyway, tea’ll be ready soon.’
‘What we having?’
‘I don’t know,’ replies Mum, ‘depends on what you’re making. What’s that on your shorts? Looks like you’ve wet yourself.’
‘I could get sausage and mash from the Co- op?’
‘Yes, that’d be nice. Dad likes that. Don’t forget to buy gravy. You like that, don’t you, Paul?’
‘Sausages and mash, you like that, don’t you?’
‘Yes, lovely, I like anything.’
‘Right- o,’ I say, scrubbing myself with a baby wipe, which makes matters damper. ‘Any sausage preference?’
‘Ooh, I quite like those Colombian ones!’
Mum’s stumped me with this one. I work out in the Coop that she must mean Cumbrian. It’s a good job she’s not a drug baron, ordering fifty kilos of finest Cumbrian cocaine.
‘Just these, please, mate,’ I say to the young chap at the counter. ‘How are you doing today?’
‘I’m alive and kicking, thank you, sir, can’t ask for more than that!’
‘I suppose not.’
As I fork mash into my mouth, I wonder . . . perhaps I’m just too het up to ever be zen. Perhaps I don’t try hard enough. Trying to be zen seems like an oxymoron, but I suppose even relaxing takes work. I used to seek out extreme challenges. Ultramarathons, that sort of caper. That year or two of endless jogging, nearly a decade ago, was I think the most relaxed and happy I’ve been, but it was a bit unsustainable, mostly for my knees. Maybe yoga is too relaxing to relax me. As I squeeze some more ketchup on to the edge of my plate, on top of the HP, English mustard and chilli sauce that’s already there (I love a condiment), I think that maybe I need to suffer over a fifty- mile jog with blood seeping from my nipples to feel truly chilled.
'Temple is a humourist in the classic British mode ... he has a genuine comic gift' Daily Mail
'A refreshingly unpolished memoir' - S Magazine
'If you're looking to ease yourself back into normality after lockdown, Born to be Mild should be top of your reading list' - Mail Online
'A handful of years ago, I moved with my wife to a house on a quiet street in a quiet town and lay quietly in a room for a long time.
I used to love an adventure, but when I hit my thirties I started to become afraid of the world, until I was too frightened to even go outside at all . . . it was just me, my phone and my social media feeds. Doesn't sound too healthy, does it? It wasn't.'
Rob Temple runs the social-media empire Very British Problems from the comfort of his own sofa, but what happens when the four walls of your living room become your world?
Everything goes wrong.
In this hilarious and life-affirming memoir, Rob sets out to reinvent himself as an intrepid traveller, a bee-keeper and yogi, all to become a little less Bear (Pooh) and a little more Bear (Grylls). Along the way there are good days and bad days, but with each failed adventure and small triumph, Rob discovers how the mild-mannered and anxious can still enjoy their own share of (gentle) adventure from time to time.