New year revolution — Frank McNally on doing yoga, playing poker, and keeping everything in balance

Mindfulness is a winning technique, apparently

Back in late autumn, I was supposed to give a talk to the transition year students in a place called Oatlands College. But on the eve of the Monday in question, Storm Debi raged across Ireland, causing widespread damage to school timetables.

Sure enough, next morning, even as I jotted down some last-minute notes, an email arrived to say the students had been told to come in late. Could we put the talk off until January, the school asked, something I was only too relieved to do.

Fast-forward to last Sunday night, the eve of my rescheduled appearance. And as if to justify the worst climate alarmism, Storm Isha was now lashing the country.

Might the talk be called off again, I wondered with renewed hope. No, it turned out. Isha had blown itself out by Monday and Storm Jocelyn had yet to organise itself. Neither I nor the students would have a second reprieve.


Still, bored as I’m sure they were listening to me, I as usual found exposure to a class full of bright young minds uplifting. Not for the first time, it made me think that even now, it might not be too late to go back to school of some kind and improve myself.

It also struck me, being an ex-farm boy, that “Oatlands” was a very good name for a school. By the time I left, I was humming an old Neil Young song in which spring tillage is a metaphor for personal renewal: “In the Field of Opportunity/It’s ploughing time again.”


In this general spirit, I did my first ever yoga class earlier this month, something I’ve been putting off for years. On the other hand, speaking of schools, I recently joined a poker one, also a first, which threatens to wipe out any benefits yoga might have.

I’m not very good at either discipline yet. In the case of yoga, I at least had the advantage of having done pilates on and off for a decade. And pilates is a sort-of yoga’s greatest-hits compilation. But the emphasis on “flow” in yoga proper remains challenging, as does my terrible lack of flexibility.

As for poker, the flow element is simpler there. Buy-in for the game is a modest €20 but I usually have to do this twice a night. And so far, the money invariably flows one way, in the direction of the other players.

At the start, I could sometimes bluff convincingly enough to fool even experienced face readers. But that was because they mistakenly assumed I had some understanding of the rules. Increased familiarity with these has somehow made success less likely in my case.

Anyway, searching for enlightenment on both my latest hobbies the other day, I found an American online article entitled “Yoga and Poker”, which if nothing else reassured me that my experiences are universal.

Like me, the writer used to question if the two pursuits were incompatible: “Poker, with its reputation for late nights, cigar smoke, foul invective, drunkenness, and . . . financial loss; and yoga, designed to purify the body and clarify the mind.”

That’s an accurate description of our poker school all right. But even my weekly €40 losses seem to be a global standard. Of his former self, “a really bad poker player,” the writer recalls: “People would invite me to their games just to take away my 40 bucks, because they knew that I’d lose.”

Not only did yoga make him a better poker player, however – mindfulness is a winning technique, apparently – it also helped him enjoy the game more, regardless of results.

“Poker, like yoga, and like everything in life, is an activity with no endpoint, no real goal,” he concludes. “It is random and fun and should be enjoyed in its true nature, even if that nature involves getting consistently, and for no good reason, raised on the flop by a sweaty, alcoholic weirdo.”

It’s uncanny. We could be playing the same game.


Perhaps the poker-yoga relationship is a yin and yang thing: two forces balancing each other out in an indivisible whole. In any case, balance is a good thing, usually, as I was reminded by a hike some friends and I did over new year on Howth Head.

It was supposed to be a bit longer than it turned out, but the weather was terrible that day, so we quickly adjourned to the local Wright Findlater restaurant for a long lunch, which then – the weather being terrible still – somehow blended into a soirée that continued into the early hours.

As one of our number, new to Irish ways, summarised afterwards: “One hour of hiking, 12 hours of partying?” Put like that, it sounded bad all right. We promised to improve the ratio as the year progressed.

Anyway, the point of my story is that the aforementioned Wrights are a famous Dublin fishmonger family. But balance can be a good thing even in seafood. And I was delighted to notice recently that among the many Chinese businesses on Parnell Street, Dublin now also has a fish shop called “Rongs”.