The German gymnastics movement behind Pilates?

Is this woman doing the Pilates Thigh Stretch?

The Turnverein Movement and Pilates

While studying at USC in Los Angeles, Ca, I was working on a term paper focused on the history of physical culture of Los Angeles. Californians have long had a love affair with the outdoors and physical culture and starting in the 19th century, Los Angeles became a temple for the “cult of the body”. This fitness culture has influenced America as a whole.

Image from the Turnverien Club in Los Angeles.

As I was doing research for this project, I happened upon some archival pictures of the Los Angeles chapter of the German Turnverein Club during the 1870s. After some more digging, I found that this club still exists. I contacted the director, Carole Krueztner Brenner, and she invited me over to go through their historical documents and pictures. I knew this would be a great find for my paper, but I had no idea that I would be able to connect this club with the Pilates method that we now practice today! The German Turnverein Movement had an influence on Joseph Pilates and the development of his method.

The German Turnverein Movement

Known as the “father of gymnastics” (Turnvater in German) Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (August 11, 1778 – October 15, 1852) was a gymnastics educator and a fervent nationalist interested in a united state of Germany. He founded the first Turnverein gym in 1811 in Berlin as a consequence of seeing his homeland defeated by Napoleon. This movement was both a systematic exercise method, as well as a political movement. Jahn knew that a strong new independent state of Germany would depend on strong, young minds and bodies and adopted the motto, “sound mind in a sound body,” taken from the Latin phrase “Mens sana in corpore sano.” The belief in the reciprocal connection between the mind and body can be traced back to the times of classical antiquity (Grover 1989) and is a continuous theme throughout the Turnverein movement.

In 1848, many Turners (followers of Jahn and his ideologies) were on the losing side of a German revolution. As a result, many left Germany and immigrated to the United States. They brought with them their German language, foods, culture and Turner principles. They began to establish Turnverein clubs all over the United States. The first club was established in Cincinnati in 1848. Other cities soon followed: New York (1851), Chicago (1852), Sacramento (1854), San Francisco (1856), and Los Angeles (1871). By the turn of the 20th century until World War II, there were hundreds of clubs nationwide with thousands of members. These Germans did not introduce Americans to the concept of physical culture, but they played a crucial role in popularizing physical development and the cultivation of health between the 1880’s and the 1920’s (McKenzie 2013). Especially during the late 1800’s among universities, and the general population, there was a new emphasis put on a muscular, active male body. Later on, women would be included in this movement of physical and mental health (Grover 1989).

The Turners had a profound influence on introducing physical education, through German gymnastics, into the school system. In 1865, Turner members founded the North American Gymnastic Union. This union had an important role in perpetuating German gymnastics and training physical education teachers in the United States (Grover 1989). In 1866, The North American Gymnastic Union established the Normal College of Gymnastics in New York City. At first, the curriculum was only a four-month certificate program, it then grew to be a 4-year baccalaureate degree. These colleges were responsible for training the majority of physical education teachers in gyms, Turnverein clubs, public schools and colleges. The Normal College of the American Gymnastic Union went on to become the Indiana University School of Physical Education, the oldest continuously operating school of physical education in the country (Pumroy and Rampelmann 1996).

The Turnverein Movement’s Influence on Joseph Pilates and Pilates Today

As I was examining all of the books, brochures and newspaper articles at the Los Angeles Turnverein Club, I could not help but notice how similar many of the Turnverein exercises and philosophies are to the Pilates method of exercise. Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1883-1967) was born in Monchengladbach, Germany. He was a gymnast and a boxer who developed an exercise method called “Contrology” (Pilates and Miller 1960). Today, we know “Contrology” as Pilates.  According to legend, Joseph’s father Heindrich Friedrich Pilates was also a gymnast and owned a gym. A Turnverein Club existed in Monchengladbach from 1888-1904. Heindrich Friedrich Pilates name appears in the registry of the Turnverein Eintracht in 1892 (Pont and Romero 2013). In 1886, the Pilates family was living just down the street from this Turnverein. So it would make sense that this is the gym that the family went to for gymnastics and social gatherings.

It is undeniable that Joseph Pilates used the Turnverein exercises of his youth to develop his own method of exercise. The similarities were staggering when making a comparison of exercises found in the various German Turnverein books (from the mid-1800s) that belong to the Los Angeles Turners Club, Joseph Pilates performing similar or the same exercises in his book Return To Life in 1945, and modern-day Pilates instructor Benjamin Degenhardt performing the same exercises in 2013. The drawings are from a book published in 1867.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Karin Huebner, Academic Director of Programs at the USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study; Carole Kulzer Brennan, President of the LA Turners Club; Michaela Ullman, USC Special Collections Librarian; and Benjamin Degenhardt 360 Pilates.

Nicole Marcione has been teaching Pilates since 2005. She is currently pursuing a dual-PhD in Kinesiology and Gerontology at Purdue University. Her research focuses on Pilates and Older Adults. She received her BS in Gerontology from USC.  While living in Italy, Nicole discovered Pilates and instantly fell in love with this incredible method of movement. This combined passion for bodywork and movement made her decide to become a Pilates instructor as soon as she moved back to the US. Nicole loves working with older adults and knows from first-hand experience that Pilates is the perfect method of exercise for optimal aging. Nicole trained at The Pilates Center, completing the Advanced Teaching Program and Master’s Program. She has been an advisor to many of TPC’s trainees. Nicole has also studied extensively with Jay Grimes in his programs “The Work” and “Teaching The Work” at Vintage Pilates. She taught and served as the Teachers Program Coordinator at Vintage Pilates before moving to Indiana in 2014.

This content was originally published here.