Anyone who practices yoga will know that the headstand is not an easy posture to learn. Most people are terrified of it, including me (and I’m a qualified yoga teacher.) So it is with awe that I discover that the man I am chatting to at tea not only does a headstand every morning of his life, but can do one on this very kitchen table, if it is required. Although he does worry that he might disturb the chocolate cake.
The man is Jonathan Guinness, 3d Baron Moyne, who recently celebrated his eightieth birthday. Not for a moment would you think he is eighty. He is handsome, with the brilliant blue eyes of his late mother Diana Mitford, and is possessed of a slim figure, dressed in casually stylish clothes and quite enviable posture. I find myself flirting with him, and feeling pleased that he is giving more attention to me than to Jerry Hall, who is seated opposite us.
Being endlessly fascinated by people who can keep not only their health and vitality but also their looks, as they age, I interrogate him about his yoga practice.
Never having been athletic, he took up yoga after he and his late partner Shoe were given a free lesson at the Sivananda Centre in London in 1979.
‘We loved a freebie!’ he laughs.
Since then, apart from one brief period when he had Sciatica, he has practiced religiously, every morning immediately upon waking up, while still in his pyjamas. I ask him how he found the will power to do the daily practice.
He says he simply made up his mind to do it.
‘ I just thought now is the time! I was about to turn fifty, and I had got to do something to get fit. I had already taught myself to stand on my head, from a book.’
There are many different styles of yoga, which can be very confusing for people. Jonathan has tried most of them, including the Ashtanga style favoured by the likes of Madonna and Sting.
‘ I find that the actual format of the Sivananda session is the best. Although there is a case for saying that Ayengar is more exact. In the year 2000, Shoe came across John Scott, who was a great Ashtanga teacher, so I had a week with him. It was wonderful, really strenuous. I incorporated some of it. But I slipped back to my Sivananda routine pretty soon.’
It is a routine that he seldom varies.
‘I feel that one has to have a routine that incorporates most of the postures. My favourite one is probably the Downward Dog. I tend to pause on the Down Dog!’
We agree that people have days when they don’t feel like doing yoga.
‘ Shoe used to do yoga as well, but there were days she didn’t do it. I don’t expect too much of myself, but I do it every day, never leave it out. I would feel terrible if I didn’t do it at all!’
He claims not to be very disciplined in general.
‘It just is such a good feeling. I wake up every morning feeling really quite rough. Then I do that and I am human again.”
He also incorporates breathing exercises and meditation into the daily routine.
‘The meditation techniques work, they really do. When I do the Bastrika breathing, I suddenly get the feeling that you see in the pictures of yogis with flames coming up through them!”
There have been many noticeable benefits from the practice.
‘There is no question that it does help the circulation. And above all it helps the mind, it makes the mind clearer.
There is the same feeling as you have at sea when the waves stop and it becomes like a lake. It is wonderful. It is very good for you, I think. And I think compared to a lot of people I am happy. I don’t get intense feelings of either happiness or depression, I am on a fairly even keel. I can still have fun at my age, thank goodness!’
He is not sure if he believes, as the yogis do, in re-incarnation. But he would like to.
‘Oh, I like life! I don’t want to lose life forever! So I would come back if I could. I hope in reasonable shape!’
Has he always been very healthy?
‘I really mustn’t grumble. I had appendicitis, which did nearly kill me, that was when I was about ten. Otherwise I have been okay.
But there is a lot more to medicine and health than whether you live or die. There is whether you are living well, and can get about easily.’
He watches his diet, but not too strictly.
‘Vegetarianism is not my thing, but I try to eat red meat only twice a week, and a fair amount of fish and quite often I will have the vegetarian option on a menu. I do drink alcohol, but not terribly much.’
Jonathan keeps his mind busy. He has written three books and is currently working on two more. He has survived two wives and his late partner, and has fathered eight children. He gets great pleasure out of his children he tells me.
‘It is so interesting seeing them grow up! And to see how different they all are!’
He believes that yoga helps with relationships, as well as with the body.
‘I think that yoga practice helps one not to expect too much. If you expect too much, you are not going to get it. And somehow, if you can float off and meditate a bit, or do the postures, you get things into perspective.’
I ask if he would recommend yoga?
‘I would recommend it to anyone. I would say to people just have a go, even if you think you wont be any good.
People like to be good at things. But yoga is not competitive. Don’t think about whether you are any good or not. Set that competition aside for a bit, and take a rest from it!’