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Friday 1 August 2014

“Real” Magick in RPGs, Continued..

So, getting to some actual “things magicians do”; we begin with an unusual point: yoga.

Yes, yoga, but maybe not the yoga that you think!  Some of you who read a recent Cracked article might have noted that what we think of as “yoga” today, the series of stretching exercises, is in fact a pretty recent invention.  It wasn’t quite invented by Iyengar, like the article suggests, but pretty close.  It was really popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the idea of Yoga being “Hatha Yoga” (the stretching exercises) became so deeply popular that even most Indians believe that its really an ancient practice.

To put this into context, the stretching exercises of hatha yoga are sort-of spiritual, but only in the way that “doing pushups for jesus” is sort-of spiritual.  And what’s happened with Yoga now is like as if people started believe that ALL “prayer” was doing push-ups.

In fact, there is a real yoga, or several real “yogas” to be more accurate, and almost all of them ironically involve not moving at all. Most of them actually require you to stay as incredibly physically still as possible.  The physical stretches, the sun salutations and downward-dog and all that stuff was just the warm-up stretches that people might do at other times, before and after spending hours and hours of trying not to move the slightest little bit.

So what the fuck does all of this have to do with western magicians? The answer is that a great deal of western magicians are into yoga; this is because late 19th/early 20th century magical groups were seriously into yoga (starting with the Theosophists, going into the Golden Dawn, and culminating with Aleister Crowley, who was an expert on the subject and wrote volumes about it). The yoga they were into, however, was not the “stretchy” kind, but the old school yoga, the Raja (“royal”) Yoga.

Remember, first of all, that 90% of self-styled “magicians”, including those who talk about yoga, won’t actually do any of it at all.  New Agers and neo-pagans are, ironically, more likely to actually do stretchy-yoga at least, than ceremonial “hardcore” magicians, who will mostly fulfill the facetious definition that Crowley made for how to describe a Theosophist: “They talk a lot about yoga, and do no work”.

Meanwhile, many of those magicians who actually both tell you they’re “into yoga” and actually DO yoga, will not do any yoga the standard person (or player character) is likely to recognize.  There are tons of “ceremonial magicians” who are “yogis” that couldn’t stretch to save their lives, that have wrecked joints and back aches and couldn’t touch their toes if you offered them a million dollars.
Which is really a shame, because part of the philosophy of Raja Yoga (the  non-stretchy kind) is that body, mind and soul should be connected.  While hatha yoga (stretchy yoga) exercises aren’t really “magical”, they are quite good at helping you to have a sufficiently efficient body to make those connections. So what you’re likely to find, if we want it to be an “NPC breakdown” is the following types (in increasing order of rarity):

1: neo pagans and new agers who do stretchy yoga
2: ceremonial magicians who talk about “yoga” but do nothing at all.
3: ceremonial magicians who do non-stretchy yoga but aren’t really getting anywhere because they’re thinking of it as a mental exercise
4: ceremonial magicians who turn on to the fact that maybe connecting mind and body requires actually exercising the body, and do both the stretchy and non-stretchy yoga.

What the fuck is the non-stretchy yoga supposed to do, anyways?

To put it in basic terms and without elaboration (because this blog entry is about how to use this shit for RPGs, and not how to actually do it), Raja Yoga is all about creating intense concentration.  The first step in this is “asana” (“posture”), which involves keeping the body incredibly still.  The classical western-magical test for this is to be able to hold a position so still that you can rest a saucerful of water on your head for an hour without spilling a drop.

Asana is meant to still the body, while “pranayama” controls the breath; people who practice this can eventually lengthen their breathing cycle (inhalations and exhalations, and the pauses in between) so that a reasonably capable student can spend 20 seconds breathing in, holding the breath for 30, and breathing out for 40 seconds, then holding the breath for 30 again, meaning he’s doing one full breath every 120 seconds.

Next comes Dharana, where the magician focuses his mind, blanking out all thoughts except for a single object of concentration, able to focus totally without distractions.

All of this is meant to lead one to a state of Dhyana, awareness, where you enter an altered level of consciousness that can be used on the one hand to vastly improve your senses and perceptions, and on the other to enter into states of trance that allow you to communicate with spiritual entities (when combined with other magical practices).

Of course, this sort of shit takes months or years of work, and most people just give up on it.  But if you should want your PCs to run into a “real” magician/yogi in the game, or to play one, prolonged effort of this kind should lead them to be able to resist extremes of cold and heat (bonuses to saving throws?), hold the breath for long periods of time (endurance?), and have incredible powers of concentration (useful for the performance of ritual magic later, where concentration is absolutely essential to the ritual working successfully).

There are other kinds of non-stretchy yoga too; Kundalini yoga being a popular one.  Contrary to the common assumption about that, it has incredibly little to do with sex.  Of course, a great deal of people the PCs run into will probably talk about kundalini yoga as if its all about getting some “sacred sex” going and trying to do so with the player characters.  Others who are into kundalini yoga will go on and on about “chakras”, talking about them as though they’re real physical centers in the body, even though the yogic texts make it clear that they’re meant to be allegorical. But to make a long story short, someone who’s really practiced kundalini yoga will be using these allegories of the “chakras” to create a kind of harmony between mind and body, emotions and thought, and can use these abilities to do things like ignore considerable amounts of physical pain, speed up the healing process, develop increased memory, and again improve their sense of awareness.

I suppose if you want to, you can treat “prana” (energy) in your game as something a bit more literal than allegorical, or in any case you can emphasize the psychosomatic effects of the same, and someone who is trained in kundalini yoga could be able to help cure someone with an “energetic disease” or, in theory, cause one.

More on this stuff later.


Currently Smoking: Stanwell Deluxe + Image Latakia

(originally reposted May 6, 2013, on the old blog)


  1. As always, great article!

    I don't know if you've ever seen this, but this dude created a yogi class of S&W that's pretty close to what you're describing:

  2. No, I hadn't seen it, thanks!