As a long time practitioner in the Golden Dawn style of magick and personal alchemy, one of the things I think is missing from that path is physical fitness. Given the vast influence the original order had on modern neo-paganism, it is no surprise that this unfortunate omission has become the standard in every tradition of the West that I am aware of.
New readers may not be aware that I am often in horrendous pain from a bad back. In the interests of full disclosure, I carry some extra weight and was never a physically fit person. Though, until the back injury, I was pretty athletic.
That said, I've been deeply deeply depressed twice in my life. Both times, exercise in the form of long walks aided my recovery. According to the Mayo Clinic exercise releases "feel-good brain chemicals" that aid depression. Exertion also reduces immune system chemicals that are not helpful in such situations. The increase in body temperature may also calm the mind. The linked article also mentions other benefits.
So, if exercise helps when one is depressed, what value is it in every day life? Can it prevent depression? What would the release of "feel-good brain chemicals" do for a person in a normal mood? Would such chemicals aid you in your magical studies, dedication or general joyous pagan mood? Take care of your body and you just may find yourself taking care of your spirit too.
Taking care of your body takes care of your magick too. One of the watchwords of magickal training is discipline. As such, a regular active routine can fit quite nicely into any esoteric training program. This double backs completing the circle as it helps your body too. If you make it part of your spiritual discipline, you are more likely to go out on those days you really would rather be watching television. This will not only keep you going but reinforce your discipline in other areas of your spiritual practice.
As someone carrying extra weight, I can testify that it can cause some body discomforts. These discomforts can interfere with meditation and the concentration necessary to do magick well. Even with extra pounds, regular exercise seems to allow my body to relax in a way that alleviates this problem.
Those feel-good brain chemicals are an aid to concentration, a calm mind and thus the focus necessary to study and do magick. For me, it aids my ability to fall asleep quickly and wake up more refreshed.
We often feel shame about our bodies due to a lack of fitness. I have long been an opponent of guilt/shame when it comes to magick. Those emotions can really mess up some otherwise technically proficient work leaving the results either lackluster or disastrous. Given our historically puritanical culture, I have often advised against sex magick, not because it is inherently bad but because cultural guilt sometimes gets mixed in. Sex magick should not be done if you have general guilt feelings about sex. The same applies to you. If you're ashamed of any part of yourself, your magick will suffer accordingly.
Recently, in reading Mark Stavish's Between the Gates (highly recommended) he makes similar comments. He says that positive attitudes are paramount in magick. However, any emotion contradiction trumps any positive attitude. Americans, especially women, have HUGE body issues emotionally. They feel unbeautiful, unloved and ashamed. This is very sad. It is also a huge magickal problem. If you do effective magick now but are ashamed of yourself, image what you could do if you weren't? I'm about to say some controversial things. However, the goal is to help you make your magick better.
There is a certain freedom hinted at and sought after in paganism. One of the most freeing aspects of our religion is the ability to work skyclad in appropriate situations. Many pagans have such deep body issues that they deprive themselves of this joyous activity. "I am free! I am woman (or man) ! As long as I can hide my physical imperfections." This is the equivalent of a Christian dressing up for church as if looking respectable and 'proper' makes one clean before the eyes of God. In paganism, the idea is different. There is nothing I can hide from the gods. I cannot hide my thoughts, my actions or my body. Exercise aids the thoughts, is a valuable earthy action and renders the body something that doesn't need hidden. It reflects a positive attitude and a thankfulness for the body the gods have provided.
Many women refuse to go sky-clad with men present. There are a range of excuses but they seem to boil down to two. The first is their own body issues and insecurities. Working to get over such things is part of the work one should be doing as a pagan. Being ashamed of any part of yourself is NOT conducive any sort of spiritual or magick work. These subconscious attitudes infect one's magick in all sorts of hidden ways. Getting over this sort of shame is crucial.
The second reason is fear of what the men will do. This has always led me to ask one question, "If you can't trust them, why in the name of all that is good and holy are you in circle with them?" Do you think a magickal circle is just a play thing? Do you think a circle is just like going to church and not quite believing what you hear? Magick is real. A well-cast circle with a solid working can lead to all sorts of personal issues spewing out for all to hear. These are cathartic moments. People learn about the bomb a parent dropped on you when you were six. People see your scars and see the snot running down your nose as you cry them out. You damn well should be able to trust the people you are with to keep their mouths shut and treat your painful emotions with the deep respect they deserve. What happens in circle stays in circle. I won't circle with people that do not understand where they are and the responsibility that entails. If I am in circle you can confess to murder and I am keeping my mouth shut. You're willing to expose yourself that intimately I have to respect that. You are exposing yourself that you may heal and grow. You can do that in front of them and you are afraid the men can't handle seeing your pubes? Really? If they are that kind of creepy, don't circle with them. If they are decent good men, then drop the robes and get to work.*
I have heard one valid reason for not dropping the robes as it applies to both men and women. My other-religion spouse would be mad/hurt/upset/confused/wouldn't like it. If you took the oath you made to that person before you took whatever oaths brought you into circle, you are obligated to work with the spouse on this one. You are also obligated to find away around the situation if you can at all, for your own personal growth. The magickal path is not easy.
Personal note: I put my legs where my mouth is, as of this writing, I walk two to four miles a day.
* This applies to a magick working circle, not a public devotional. Also, this is a higher standard than I would apply to a GD Lodge open in initation style. That is a formal ceremony and the trust there is of a much different form.