BY MAGDA KNIGHT
I never used to go to the gym. Now, somehow, I do. I’m happy to call myself a health-goth, but as I’ve eased into what the gym means to me, I’ve discovered great joy in seeing it as a blend of physical and deeply internal progression… and I’ve incorporated so much magical practice into my physical self-training, too.
Physical activity (in whatever way your body can accomplish, given that we all have different mobilities and abilities and some of us manage a disability or chronic illness) is a celebration. When we carry out magical acts, don’t we do it to flourish — rather than to shrink and feel small? We can pour ritual into how we use our bodies, and we can use our bodies to add a deeply physical element to connect us with our spirit, too.
Going to the gym can be a way for magic positivity and body positivity to dance together to a shared rhythm. I’m not going to the gym in order to watch numbers on a scale go down, but to acknowledge and love the body I’m in — and to work it in the same way that I work my spirit when I carry out any magical practice.
In this piece I’m going to look at ways in which some elements of going to the gym might be incorporated into magical work. And I have to share a revelation that’s very dear and important to me – that I’m not alone in this thinking (nor am I an expert).
I’m on a journey, as are we all.
When I first mentioned I wanted to write something like this, a sort of love letter to physical exercise and magic, I was amazed and gratified to discover how many people had already made the connection. So many people related, and they shared their own wonderful perspectives on how they flow magic into their physical activity. So this piece is a celebration of all the transformational ways in which physical and magical work can be made as one, and a testament to all the wonderful people who are finding their own paths to make it work. Some of what’s written here may echo with you, but there is so much more to say and discover, and your own personal journey is so, so important.
My personal journey is only important to me. As it should be.
Dear heart, if you are reading this, do it your way. Your personal journey is everything.
When does the ritual begin? When going to the gym (or using some household items while watching a YouTube fitness video, for example), you don’t need to set out your magical space. That’s already done for you. You’re perhaps more likely to start getting your magic on when you don your ritual attire.
Clothes that make you feel comfortable in your body and like you don’t have to think about them? Check.
Anything else you need to wear for ritual purposes?
Unless you wish it.
Gym-wear can be viewed as ritual attire because it may be something you don’t wear on a regular basis. You wear it for the gym. If desired, you can select clothes that match or enhance your gym persona. I feel good about myself and my physical practice if I wear specific colours to the gym – black and red are the colours I’m drawn to. You may feel like light, bright colours inspire you more. Colours and designs are important if you think they are. If you don’t, they’re not.
At the moment, the gym is the one place where I feel safe wearing tight clothes. It’s almost as if I’m naked, fully in my own aspect, with nothing to hide. Regardless of my physical appearance and what normative society might think about that, in my tight clothes in the gym I feel empowered to walk tall. And this is just my own deeply personal viewpoint – the only truly important thing about your ritual gym attire is that it makes you feel right in yourself!
As you progress in your personal development, you may choose to add to your ritual kit. I’ve recently added sportswear gloves for lifting weights, to avoid blisters. When I put those gloves on, I’m ready to go. But I didn’t get them straight away. And I still don’t wear any special sportswear on my feet – just some average sneakers that do the job and feel fine to wear. Another practitioner might feel that specific gym footwear is essential. They may feel they need the swoosh emblem of Nike, winged goddess of victory, or they may feel that sportswear earbuds mean business and the use of sound helps them immerse themselves more deeply in their practice.
As I write this, it is cooooold outside. Winter weather. So, to negate the metaphorical demon of inertia sitting on my shoulder, I put on my gym attire every morning beneath my clothes. That way I’m already halfway there, and can go to the gym as an impulse, with even fewer barriers to stop me. The clothes still feel magically infused because I don’t think about them with other clothes on top. They only become ritual attire when I strip down to attend a session and they’re all I’m wearing.
Choosing and putting on your attire can make you feel like you’re energised and ready to begin the work. Your attire might be gym kit, or a swimsuit, or anything else. It’s charged with energy, and each time you engage in physical practice, it’s charged even further.
Pre-gym ritual preparation
One thing you’re very likely to bring to the gym is water. You may drink more than one bottle, but your first bottle can be charged before you leave the house. I love to cup the water, surround myself with golden light that builds with my breath, and pour energy and gratitude and intent into the water.
I give thanks to the water that will nourish me later, and each sweet sip will taste like nectar.
Entering and leaving the sacred space
In my gym, you have to walk through pods controlled by a key fob or access code if you wish to enter or leave. The door slides open, you enter the pod, then wait for the next door to slide open again to enter the centre proper. In my heart these doors represent the opening and closing of the ritual. The action that defines the transition between the mundane and sacred space. The signal that magical practice is about to take place, and the definitive moment when it ceases.
With the aid of these pods one enters the gym activated, and leaves the gym grounded.
Not all gyms have such obvious portals or gates for magical working. Entering and leaving through a simple door (or designing a space for working out in, say, your living room) can also open and close a sacred space, when done with intent.
I don’t use changing rooms myself, but a practitioner can incorporate elements like changing or showering to begin and end their magical working in the gym.
Magic or mindfulness?
Is going to the gym a sweetly internal and holistic act of mindfulness, or a powerful magical rite? Perhaps it comes down to your practice and preference. Mindfulness certainly plays a key part in attaining a magic state in the gym. There might be a moment where you’re flooded with reverence for your body as you explore the liminal space within or just outside your comfortable limits, feeling the effects of air and blood move around your system, considering whether to spread sensation around your body to relieve a tired area, or pour your focus into those parts of the body which are working the hardest.
You may have a million thoughts, or none, yet physical activity helps a person connect to the moment and respect how mind, spirit and body are all part of a whole.
There are numerous ways to explore the gym as a magical working, too. You can use the endeavour as an offering: “I will do this next rep, or this session, as a gift or sacrifice.” One friend, Genevieve, tucks a cloth into her bra as she trains, with the intention of using that cloth in a later specific working. I love this. As she incorporates running into her practice, while running she also internally repeats a mantra aligned with the working for which she will use her cloth. You can imbue paper with your effort in this way too, and use it later for statements of intention or other written magical work. If you don’t wear a bra, you can stuff cloth or paper into your sock or footwear.
If you’re in a wheelchair or doing seated work, you may wish to place personal items like paper, cloth or threads beneath you as you sit. Some might see this as somehow disrespectful of your work, since you’re placing it beneath your area of elimination. Me, I’m always minded how Cloacina, beloved Roman goddess of the sewers, was acknowledged as the goddess of transformation and purification.
If I’m wearing my stalwart gym gloves for a whole session, I can slip a sigil in there. It’s being activated, charged and released through doing the gym session. I can seed it with intention then forget about it, because I can’t feel it in my glove. And if it gets sweaty or smudged? Well, that’s wonderful! Its outer form is becoming increasingly distanced from the conscious effort of creating it, working its way even further into the subconscious. Physical activity is such an aid in getting that balance between intent and no-mind, helping the conscious and subconscious work together.
I’ve been known to paint sigils on my body where they won’t be seen and let the physical activity sweat them out. Charge and release.
I also use thin-coloured ribbons in many of my workings, so there are times when I might charge a length of ribbon by wearing it wrapped round my ankle out of sight, or in my hair if it’s tied up.
If you work with entities or the Tarot, you can use reps or time on a treadmill to focus on a cherished entity or card in your mind, considering it from new angles. I am personally of the feeling that gym work creates space for new thoughts to flow, along with the increase in oxygen and blood movement. New thoughts may arise during the work itself, or — if your mind doesn’t work that way — you can zone out with the repetition of movement and create space for creativity and new ideas to flow into afterwards.
Meditation, contemplation, visualization and path-working
Meditation is a means to increase awareness of your body and still the monkey-mind, often using your breathing or your body. To me, any form of physical activity can get close to being a movement-based meditation. I’d be more likely to find a private gym bathroom cubicle on a non-busy day to meditate in a sitting position. I love using the rowing machine as a meditation tool because you’re nicely and safely strapped in with no chance of falling over, and no-one’s going to care if you close your eyes while you do it.
Pathworking is your chance to go on a journey through an inner landscape. I find the treadmills and rowing machines quite conducive to this. With a treadmill, you already have the forward movement, either walking or running. You have the chase, the hunt. You have yourself as a protagonist on an inner journey. It’s amazing what the mind can throw up when you seek to explore internal terrains while on the move.
Sometimes I use the treadmill and my timings on it (“for x seconds/minutes I’ll walk, or run, or rest” as an exploration of Tarot or the Tree of Life. Placing a focus on first one destination on the path, then the next. Allowing free reign to what comes up. Allowing the body to take charge, and the subconscious to seep into conscious workings.
Contemplation is ideal for the gym, as so much of the practice enables you to focus on specific images, qualities or deities. On the treadmill I might focus on the face of a cherished entity, holding it, loving it, exploring it, conversing with it, offering my thoughts to it, sometimes watching it shimmer with disco sparks in time to the tinny universal music (unless I’ve brought my own music along, which can take things to the next level. Diamanda Galas, anyone?)
Visualisation is my absolute favourite activity for the rowing machine. Maybe the ‘rowing’ nature of it leads my thoughts to water, but more than anything else, I love to strap in, set no timer, close my eyes and just row, row, row. Slipping into the stream of things. Heading with Charon down the river Styx, or swimming with mermaids in the Mariana trench, or letting the thoughts and images flow. Such release! And what comes to the fore can surprise me, or, be used at a later time in my creative work, or remind me that the divine is just around the corner, waiting for us to reach out and welcome it.
Building witch energy
Most importantly, I think physical training of any kind is such a concrete way of acknowledging and building intent, discipline and work. I see intent and discipline as being like muscles. To intend to go to the gym, then to indeed go to the gym, then to exert effort in line with your true will… each time you do this, you’re building witch energy.
“I can do this. I will do this. I am doing this. I did this.”
That’s so powerful, loves.
And if we’re talking about results magic, you get rewarded for your effort at the end of every session. A delicious feeling in your body that’s one part endorphins, two parts sense of personal achievement. Immediate rewards from magical practice is such a boon when it comes to placing a focus on connecting with your will and your environment, mundane or otherwise.
Another friend, Katrin, puts it like this:
“Back when I had a weekly yoga class to attend, this was a big motivator for me - just proving to myself that I could get through this hour+ of forced concentration on nothing but my physical activity. I'd tell myself at the beginning of every session that I was going to be a Good Witch. That is, a witch who is reliable, keeps promises, does what she says she'll do. It did help my mindset in general - I'd kept my promise to do the exercise, so I'd proved to myself that I could be reliable in other ways too. And to me that's always been a huge part of what magic is about - the commitment and self-discipline and consistency.”
And what about grounding in a ritual? The minute you stop and your body thanks you is, to me, a moving and grounding experience. The drink of water, the quick towel-down. Taking that moment to connect my feet to the earth, the floor of the gym, the world. And then heading back through the gym portals to fully close the sacred space.
Ritual and symbolism
Perhaps everyone who goes to the gym has their own versions of symbolism and ritual, whether or not they choose to view it in these terms. As mentioned earlier, the doors to a gym can gain ritual significance. The opening and closing of a padlock on a gym locker can act as a charged seal. If one works with the magical meaning of numbers, one can incorporate this into personal practice, with reference to equipment settings and time spent on them. Or one can go round the equipment widdershins. When you go to the gym, you can seek and find your own symbolism, your own magical moments.
A friend I was discussing this with mentioned how Ramsey Dukes/Lionel Snell turned washing a car or washing dishes into a magical act by breaking it down into tiny magical moments (turn on the tap, sense how the water feels on your hands, consider how it feels when washing up liquid is added, and when the dishes are place in the sink).
To break one large activity down into tiny magical acts gives intent and full participation to each moment. It both activates the soul to the magic of the ritual, and shuts consciousness down so that the subconscious can get to work on the overall intent.
Your time at the gym is filled with tiny magical moments; time and activity broken down into small acts of meaning and beauty. “Just another ten seconds,” you say as you hold a plank, or work a treadmill. “Just four more reps.” It’s just you and the moment, and the pact you have made with yourself to do the work.
Grimoires and books of shadows are free to all
There are so many articles on the internet. So many how-to videos and shared conversations. Navigating the wealth of information and opinion to find something that helps rather than hinders your personal work can be a challenge, but it is there.
As there is an increasing degree of diversity among people going to the gym, more diverse forms of support and encouragement are seeping onto the internet, and our online Akashic records are heaving with information from people offering the kind of support they wish they’d had access to themselves when they were first starting out. Workouts for trans women and femmes. Wheelchair exercises. Body positivity at the gym. The support available is so much more broad, deep and inclusive than it used to be.
Self-initiation and initiation by others.
What I most love about going to the gym is how personal it is. How true-to-thee-and-thee-alone your goals are. How internal your journey to growth is. There is, perhaps, a sense of initiation and levels of achievement through dedicated practice (and, dear one, you are obviously the only one who can define what ‘dedication’ will look like in your personal practice. No-one else has the right).
So much of gym practice relates in my mind to self-initiation. When you turn up, you do the work. There is no-one who can tell you otherwise. When you achieve personal goals, whether they are beautiful yet tiny in-the-moment goals like “I will do this for another 30 seconds” or greater goals that made you state your intent to go to the gym in the first place (like “I will go caving this year”), it is possible to view such achievements as levels of initiation.
You have your own internal gym compass. You know in your heart when you’re acting in such a way that it’s pointing north, and you know deep within when you’ve reached a destination on your journey.
There is also, potentially, the idea of being initiated by another. That’s where personal trainers come in. You’ll see a number of them in the gym, all initiates who are ready and willing to share their knowledge with the community. Their ritual insignia is the branded T-shirt. They have done the work. They are there for you.
I take the path of the solo practitioner, but I have a statement of intent (“I will get strong enough to go caving”) and to achieve that goal I may save up money so that I can pay for an initiate’s guidance on practice and personal development. Any path is valid if you feel like it is the right path for you.
A sacred space must be a safe space. Not an easy space, for there is work to be done. But a safe space.
When you conduct a magical working in a sacred space, it’s your time to channel your intention in a positive way. You’ve got no time or need or desire for negative thoughts pulling your spirit in directions it doesn’t want to go.
My thoughts on the gym as a safe sacred space are deeply subjective. They are limited by my personal experience as an abled cis white woman conducting physical activity in public. My only areas of potential concern are my lack of physical practice, and my age (I’m in my mid-forties, which has its own challenges, but woohoo to being past my Saturn Return). However, I want to take a moment to talk about other initiates in the gym, and my own highly subjective view of the gym as, yes, ultimately a safe space.
I know others will have deep and valid concerns about being judged by others in the gym. I cannot and must not disregard that. I can only share my own perception of doing my own personal practice surrounded by extremely regular and well-practised gym-goers. In my heart, these initiates - who are doing their own work and not there to mentor me - hold no threat. In fact, they come across as utterly neutral towards anyone but themselves (as it should be) and I also see it as a generous gift that they are carrying out their practice in public so that I can learn from it. If someone cannot afford a personal trainer, they can look to the practice of those who are more experienced, or those who can and do utilise a personal trainer, and learn from their techniques in things like floorwork or free weights.
Again, it is so subjective. But when I walk into the gym, I feel such a powerful sense of neutrality. The space feels clean. A blank slate to write on. Initiates have no time to judge me – they’ve got their own business to attend to. They are doing their own work; all their intent is going into that. If anything, I tell myself that they already see me as a ‘winner’, regardless of my physical aspect and how I present myself, because I have shown up. And showing up is, I believe, something they understand and respect, having been through those early days of beginner self-initiation themselves.
Of course, it shouldn’t matter if they respect me or not. I’m not there to win the respect of other gym-goers or anyone else. In going to the gym I’ve made a personal pact with myself, and I have my own business to get on with. And yet… if there is fear in going to a gym, it may be useful to explore ways to negate that fear, if it is stopping you from doing something you really want.
If I ask an initiate for brief advice (for I do not wish to unnecessarily interrupt their work), I see very little judgement in their eyes. If anything, they are informative and supportive, recognising I wish to learn and improve. One of us, I imagine them saying. One of us, one of us…
All around me, I am surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds and ages. We are people. We are humanity. To go to the gym may require privilege in certain areas including ability, time and money. But there are no definites. Someone who is struggling with poverty may be considered by society to be ‘too poor to afford the gym’, or ‘too poor to afford the added expense of a pet’, or ‘too poor to afford visits to the nail bar’. But every time society deems something a ‘luxury’, an actual breathing person – not a number or statistic, a person – may consider that ‘luxury’ to be essential to functioning on an everyday basis. They may equate gym or pet companions or getting their nails done with feeling truly like themselves in tough times. There’s no room for judgement in the gym. When I walk in, I feel like everyone is there. And like I have just as much right as anyone else to enter. And we have one thing in common: we have a personal intent, and we are doing our best to realise it.
Coming back to my friend Genevieve again, she mentioned once reading an article about viewing the gym as a liminal space where you do not need to conduct physical practice. You might find it easier to view the gym as a space where you can shower, read, check your phone, meditate… and not feel obliged to do any physical activity at all. This wouldn’t suit my own practice as defining the gym as ‘a place to get physical’ helps to shape and build my ritual work.
However, someone else might breathe a sigh of relief in hearing that ‘going to the gym’ could be treated quite loosely if desired. Perhaps those who have chronic pain or find lengthy focus on one activity a challenge might love the idea that they can go to the gym and do what they want there. In a nice big gym, you’ll see people doing the most random things anyway. You won’t stand out. There are people already looking at their mobile phones, perhaps checking their fitness app or looking for health advice or video exercises. There are people chatting to their friends. There are people staring into space, either considering their practice or having a rest and not thinking anything at all, especially with the rise of interval training where you do a bit of activity then stop.
If you want to go to a gym and just chill, I don’t think anyone will stare at you. They’ll be too busy staring into themselves.
But: If you have had negative experiences in the gym, I am so sorry. It is vital that gyms must evolve as safe spaces, as awareness of body and identity positivity grows. It’s important.
Drawing out the toxicity of gym culture
I honestly didn’t know where best to discuss this. First or last? Wherever it’s placed, it matters.
If you’re planning to use the gym or any other physical activity for any self-healing, the last thing you need is toxicity. That poison needs to be addressed. To this day, medical practice has the wand of Caduceus as its symbol – two snakes coiled around the winged staff of Hermes. Without getting too deeply into snake mythology, so many of us think of the snake as a symbol of transformation and healing, its venom used as medical treatment. The snake can also be viewed as responsibility. The snake represents freedom and choice, and with that comes the responsibility to own your choices. Just as the medical profession owns its responsibility to take care of others.
When you work magic, you have such freedom. And you are making a choice. And you are taking responsibility for your practice. And there need be no toxicity with any physical exercise you conduct on your own, whether it’s swimming or going to the gym or walking in the woods or streets.
My friend Ken has, in his own practice, recently been exploring how the Homeric tradition of competition was toxic at its core, as someone had to lose in order for another to be declared the winner.
When you exercise on your own, there is no-one to vanquish. You are already winning. But negative thoughts can creep in, and how can they best be dissipated? I don’t like to think of it as vanquishing negative thoughts – the very word ‘vanquish’ suggests there is a battle involved, and someone might lose. My subjective approach is to avoid self-talk of vanquishing or banishing negative thoughts around my practice – like, say, punishing myself mentally because I didn’t go to the gym when you said I would, or not going because I didn’t want to be ‘seen’ in a public space, then feeling ‘ashamed’ of ‘letting negative thoughts get the better of me’.
Wow. Look at all this self-punishment.
This talk of losing.
The kind that doesn’t make me stronger.
When I think like this, I stop. Listen. I consider how I’m using language and doubt to retreat into the idea of treating exercise as punishment, not celebration. I’m putting myself in the frame of mind where the gym is a battle and I could lose.
Naturally, ‘winning’ is by no means the only form of toxicity that can seep through gym culture. Sexism, sizeism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, racism… it’s all a potential issue, and a valid concern. Yes, increased gym attendance means there’s far more diversity in gym-goers, which can help. But the way in which culture views physical exercises and is prone to judging people who do it is still far from ideal.
Whatever you fear most… please know that you are not alone. There are others out there that feel the same way you do. However, there is a chance you are more likely to find people in the gym you can immediately relate to, who make you feel safe and part of a greater whole. And you can find information online written by people who share your experience, and can offer support that relates directly to your concerns and needs.
You are not alone. Together, people are working to draw the poison out.
It’s going to take time. And energy. And courage. And if you choose not to go to the gym, because you need to feel safe, that is important. You need to feel safe.
Perhaps there are other forms of physical practice you can explore. Give yourself the right to seek ways to freely and safely love your body and do the work.
Attaining a magical state of mind.
What a magical state means to you is such a personal thing. You may be seeking a release from the burdens of the world, or a connection with your body and all the elements of the beautiful creature that is you. You may be seeking a moment to charge and release and intention, or a conversation with the divine. You may be seeking a specific goal, that defined line between not being able to do a pull-up or half marathon, then one day being able to do one.
There is no set rule as to whether you have or haven’t achieved a magical state when you go to the gym. But you know what? When you feel it, you feel it. You might feel it for a moment, or it might carry you for days. All those magical moments add up. They remind you that your work and your intentions are important, and that you can work towards them, and that you can achieve a state where you and your intentions are one, not separate things held apart by doubt.
Ritual physical activity doesn’t need to occur in a gym.
Pool sessions, caressed by water. Chair-based exercises, acknowledging what your body needs to be safe as well as worked. Whatever your practice, you can choose to perceive and shape it as a magical act. The gym can be a sacred space, but it’s just one option for ritualising your physical activity.
If you attend hula hoop classes, grasping that hoop is a magical act, as you feel the energy coursing through you – you’ve put some of your soul into that hoop, so that when you grasp it, it gives you soul energy right back.
When you climb into the familiar saddle of your beloved bike, the one you love so much you may have named it, you know it’s your steed, your companion, helping you progress to where you want to go.
You have your body. You have your spirit. Your body and spirit have such great beauty. They are the very embodiment of raw and nuanced power.
Physical/magical work is an opportunity to acknowledge your body and seek to make it an extension of your spirit. It is a beautiful act, filled with love. And all acts of beauty hold magic at their core.
If you can move, you can explore a way to exercise.
If you can feel your spirit, you can work magic.
If any part of this made you think “yes, this is useful to me”, I am so glad. If it didn’t, I have much to learn. We must never cease to learn, try, test, explore.
You have your own, valuable, truth and perspective.
In the absolutely fucking immortal words of Wesley Snipes in Blade Trinity…
@MagdaKnight is the Co-Founding Editor of Mookychick. Her YA fiction and other writings for adults, children and changelings have been published in anthologies and in 2000AD. She thinks you're great.