Kafka’s Calisthenics

Watch and learn the favorite exercise routine of early 20th century Europeans.

See the rest of Slate’s Fitness Issue.

People often comment on my father’s physique. Toned doesn’t quite capture it: He looks carved. Unusually muscular. He is also, by any measure, ridiculously strong. He has never, to my knowledge, belonged to a gym. He plays tennis a bit. He skis (beautifully), but only once or twice a year. There was a short tenure as a coxswain; it ended when he smashed the boat.

For as long as I can remember, my father has maintained the same workout regimen. Most mornings, as the rest of the house struggles to start the day, he begins a series of exercises—the “Müller technique.” Body swings. Stretches. Hopping on one foot. Lunges with arms windmilling, first backwards, then forwards. Sit-ups, push-ups, toe-touches. He does all this clothed in nothing but underwear. He is finished in 25 minutes, or less.

When I was very young, I remember watching my grandfather practice Müller as well, as he had each morning since he learned it at Jewish summer camp on the banks of Austria’s Lake Wolfgangsee. After I gave birth and found it harder to get to the gym, my father suggested I try Müller: “You can do it at home!”

Müller’s My System, published in 1904

Born in Asserballe, Denmark in 1866, J.P. Müller was, for a time, as famous as that other Danish export, Hans Christian Anderson. Maybe more. At the turn of the last century, Müller’s wildly popular cult of physical fitness swept Mitteleuropa, turning parlor-sitting dandies from Copenhagen to Berlin to London into ironmen. Müller’s My System was published first in 1904 as little more than a long, bound pamphlet graced with an image of the Greek athlete Apoxyomenos naked and toweling himself. The exercise guide, which promised that just “15 minutes a day” of prescribed * exercise would make “weaklings” into strong men (and women), was ultimately translated into 25 languages, reprinted dozens of times, and sold briskly well into the 20th century.

Müller was the Tom Paine of free body movement and fresh air. Like many a radical, he was resisted at first, called pornographic (partly because he often appeared in a loincloth—even while skiing in St. Moritz). His was a call to throw off the restrictive shackles of the Victorian era—a literal stripping away of restrictive layered clothes and corsets, a rejection of the “pallid, sickly looks” once prized as beautiful, and the “false dignity which forbids people, for instance, to indulge in so healthy and beneficial an exercise as running.” He admonished: “Do not let a day pass without every muscle and every organ in your body being set in brisk motion.” And bathing—the man had a fondness for cleanliness many of his contemporaries did not share: “This does not only refer only to people of the ‘working’ classes. I have often met ‘gentlemen’ in frock-coats and top hats and ladies in evening dress of whom you could tell by the smell of them, even at a distance of several feet, that they seldom or never took a bath.”

Born sickly himself, so small “I could be placed in an ordinary cigar box,” Müller nearly died of dysentery at two and “contracted every childhood complaint.” His own strength, in other words, was acquired, not inherited, through physical exercise.

Step-by-step instructions in My System

The Müller system is pretty much as I observed each morning growing up; it is something like a precursor to Pilates, it borrows from ballet, and it needs no equipment, other than commitment. It is strict but appealingly accessible. Unlike some of the other popular physical fitness gurus of the time—including the Prussian Eugene Sandow, who is known as the father of bodybuilding—Müller wasn’t interested in building muscle mass through dumbbells. And while My System wasn’t only aimed at men—in his original pamphlet, he explains that a woman needs to develop a “muscular corset” (that is, core muscles)—Müller, eventually, added to his bookshelf, writing My System for Ladies and My System for Children. There was also the remedial My Breathing System for those for whom, trapped in a Victorian sartorial nightmare, respiration had to be taught.

Aside from being popular, My System was also intuitively, precociously, on the mark. In an age of rampant tuberculosis infection, Müller insisted practitioners must both open windows and allow the sun to touch the skin. (At the time he published My System, Müller was working as an inspector at the Vejlefjord Sanitorium for Consumption.) This advice was, as Dr. Lee B. Reichman wrote in 2003’s Timebomb, among the few TB-preventative options available in the preantibiotic era. Müller also recommended common-sense daily living: eating and drinking alcohol “in moderation,” getting eight hours of sleep, drinking water, caring for your teeth, giving up the pipe.

Best of all, My System is open to all. Where many of the other gymnastics movements—and there were dozens upon dozens of others born in Europe around the same time—had aggressively nationalist, proto-fascist, and often anti-Semitic overtones, Müller was refreshingly secular and remarkably nonideological. Müller’s system could be enthusiastically embraced by Jew and gentile alike. That is probably what appealed to his most famous devotee, Kafka.

Franz Kafka was a fanatical Müller follower. He would do the movements, fully naked, in his window, twice each day, whirling his arms and twisting this way and that, practicing the same hops and isolations advocated with similar vigor by my family. Indeed, My System became an integral piece of Kafka’s obsession with the body. When Müller’s women’s pamphlet was published, in 1913, Kafka sent a copy to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, recommending she pick up a daily practice as well. “If they bore you, it shows you are not doing them properly,” he wrote.

Mark Anderson, the author of Kafka’s Clothes and a professor of German and comparative literature at Columbia, argues that the author was likely drawn to Müller’s unabashed commentaries on the crush of modern life. (“The town office type is often a sad phenomenon … prematurely bent, with shoulders and hips awry from his dislocating position on the office-stool, pale, with pimply face.”) The system also promised benefits for artists and writers (“geniuses who have no thoughts for their bodies”), and Kafka appears to have shared Müller’s pleasure in the naked body. (Kafka himself did a short stint at a nudist summer colony and often sunbathed nude at home—at least until his tuberculosis caught up with him.)

Most of all “for someone like Kafka who was allergic to nationalist group identity and belonging, the advantage of Müller is that he can do it alone at home—it’s his system,” Anderson elaborated on the phone recently, noting Kafka had likely been aware of the (not terribly welcoming) Czech Sokol nationalist gymnastics clubs. He continued:

It’s divorced from ideological context and that’s a great advantage, but, nonetheless, he still feels he is one of these neurotic, overintellectualized, urban Jews that need some beefing up. He feels too tall, too thin, too weak. His nerves are shot. He … very strongly believes that becoming a writer means becoming disciplined and toughening up his physical organism. He does a series of things to create a new identity. The gymnastics is one part of it.

Anderson sees Kafka’s body-identity struggle, and embracing of Müller, as loosely connected to the movement to create “muscle Jews.” It’s a reference to Max Nordau, a contemporary of Theodore Herzl, who prodded Jews at the turn of the last century to toughen up and cast off the pallor of the city, the study room, and the literary salon. At the 1898 World Zionist Congress, Nordau issued a call to arms to his brethren: “Let’s go! Pull your courage together! Do something! Work for yourself and make a place for your people under the sun! Don’t rest until you have convinced the indifferent and downright hostile world that your people have a right to live and enjoy life just like other peoples.”

Jews across Europe began working out. Hundreds of athletic clubs were formed, some of which—like Hakoah Vienna, which developed winning rowers, swimmers, water polo players, and a champion soccer team of the same name—were successful by any measure. It was in this heady context that my grandfather, a lifelong Zionist, learned his Müller as a 12-year-old in the 1920s, alongside other Jewish Austrian kids. Some of these other young athletes were also early Zionists, developing their bodies to work on kibbutzim in Palestine; some were merely seeking access to a burgeoning culture of German and Austrian athleticism. It’s not clear that Jews flocked to Müller more than any other gymnastics regime, but being a part of a secular gymnastics movement was a means of conveying one’s national as well as ethnic identity; ironically, given how the some gymnastics clubs would feed into Nazism in a few years, in Germany such Jewish athletic clubs were also seen as a means of being “German.”

Müller took great pride in his system’s popularity. In My System for Ladies, he notes that his first book sold “over a million copies” (later estimates pegged it at 2 million), and devotees included Crown Princess Sophia of Greece. Eventually he settled in London, dropped his umlaut, and opened the Muller Institute at 45 Dover Street, where he welcomed guests like the Prince of Wales. British soldiers were told to practice his exercises in the trenches of World War I. He gave hundreds of lectures on hygiene and exercise throughout the 1910s and early 1920s across Europe. A radio program, helmed by a devotee, broadcast his system from the mid-1920s until the mid-1950s.

By the end of World War I, Müller had begun to think the system was a kind of El Dorado that would keep the devoted alive well past the age of 100.

A statue of J.P. Müller in Denmark

It was not, as the tubercular Kafka soon discovered. Müller himself died in 1938. In memoriam, the town of Nykobing, Denmark, erected a statue of him, a bronze casting of his body as it was in the height of his physical ability. Nude but for a loincloth, he is towelling himself off briskly—an essential part of the system. (The skin is an organ!)

Müller and his system faded into obscurity, some historians say, because he turned to the occult at the end of his life, alienating would-be followers by drifting a great distance from the corporeal world he’d long cultivated. In truth, Müller the man was less important to my family than the books themselves, which my grandfather, Karl, collected. Karl taught my father “to Müller,” as the Germans put it, at age 5. My father, now a physician and in his 60s, believes that Müller’s emphasis on developing the core is exactly right; half of his exercises are now part of his standard back-pain recommendations for patients.

For me, seeing my father lace his fingers together and swoop his entire upper body first in one direction, and then the other, is something like a visual madeleine. I can see myself, age 7 or 8, in my parents’ old bedroom, watching my father hasten to finish his Müller, pushing his feet under the bed to hold them steady as he does sit-up after sit-up. Not much has changed, really, though the child watching now is my own.

Correction, Jan. 21, 2011:This piece originally indicated that J.P. Müller proscribed 15 minutes of exercise per day. Müller in fact prescribed that amount of exercise. (Return to the corrected sentence.)Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.