It’s hard to find respite from the world, but it’s even harder to find a way to get away from ourselves.
There’s always myriad little threads of thought going around, many of them unpleasant or worrying, all of them in our own inescapable inner voice. We’ve all, to some degree or other, had the experience of wanting to take a holiday from our own head.
The suggestion to take up yoga and meditation is unbelievably common from therapists and doctors as a way to take a little daily mental holiday, particularly for people with issues around anxiety and depression, like me.
The idea is that it teaches not only patience, but the ability to let your own thoughts pass through your mind uninterrupted, rather than continually getting hung up on seeing every single thought from every single critical angle.
While those ends would undoubtedly do me the world of good, I am wary of the new-age woo pseudoscience that often seems to go hand-in-hand with yoga and meditation.
Shallow and short-sighted though it may be, I just can’t turn off my critical faculties long enough to get out so much as a ‘namaste’ without wanting to shatter the nearest fire alarm with my face and run into the night screaming “Forgive me, Immanuel Kant!”
This puts me in a bit of a bind: I want to experience the benefits other people get from their daily yoga, but I need it to be packaged in a way I can actually stand. It was only when I started talking to people in more detail that I realised – ‘hang on…I get all of that from watching crap football matches’.
Most Saturdays and Sundays, I’ll be at some game or other as a neutral fan or as a reporter, and it’s only there, in the stadium, with a really boring match unfolding in front of me, that I am able to spend minutes at a time slipping into idle thoughts.
My eyes reflexively track forwards’ runs and defensive shapes, before jolting back into full consciousness after a promising passage of play, and then I realise I have absolutely no idea what happened whatsoever in the six minutes leading up to that wasted half-chance.
At that point the cycle begins anew: analysis once again becomes thoughtfulness, and then thoughtfulness becomes thoughtlessness, which sticks around until the swell of noise as a striker goes through on goal jerks you back into analytical mode.
The word ‘hypnotic’ is always deployed in football to describe elaborate, fast-paced attacking, but it should more properly be used for games devoid of action. There is a lot happening – the relentless shuttling of players around the pitch, looking to take up an advantageous position – and yet, at the same time, nothing happening. If that isn’t some sort of Zen then the mystics are missing a trick.
There must be thousands of people out there who, like me, would never dream of setting foot on a yoga mat, but who go to the game every week and enter that wonderful trance. Even those who are not sitting studiously, but joining in with the rhythm and repetition of familiar terrace mantras, are surely experiencing the kind of weightless, carefree state that churches and yogis aspire to create.
This is what makes football different from other forms of entertainment, and there are certainly similarities in the evangelical fervour of a football fan and that annoying yoga convert who occupies every workplace in the country. A football fan lost in the same chant he sings every week has more in common with a Hare Krishna than she does a theatre-goer; this is more gospel choir than armchair fan.
Bad football’s meditative quality also helps explain why we so gladly lap the game up, even when we know there’s a decent chance the game will be utterly awful. When it’s good it’s exciting and passionate; when it’s bad, it is therapeutic and tranquil. It is vital therapy for a huge number of people who would never dream of seeing a mental health professional.
We all want the glitz and glamour of glory, we all want exciting football, and we all want to be entertained – but for me at least, even bad football is capable of serving an important mental function.