The content of the Waldorf gymnastics lessons was not, however, intended to serve such a purpose but was to fit harmoniously into the Waldorf curriculum and support the development of the children at their respective ages. These were the requirements for Count von Bothmer who, as a former officer, was more influenced by horse riding, fencing and dancing.
It was important for Steiner to include another movement subject in the canon of subjects in addition to eurythmy. “In eurythmy it would be a matter of finding a way of expressing the soul’s dynamics artistically; in gymnastics it would be a matter of representing the human being in relation to the world with reference to their equilibrium and movement.”1 In eurythmy, the basis of all movements is the soul and spiritual experience of language and music, which find their artistic expression in the gestures and spatial forms. But what forms the basis of Bothmer gymnastics?
In the first four years of his work as a gymnastics teacher, Count von Bothmer, in collaboration with his colleague Hanns Strauß, developed twenty-seven gymnastic exercises (some with several variations) for classes 6 to 12. For classes 3, 4 and 5 he created round dances and gymnastic jumping exercises. He was inspired by his intensive study of ancient Greek culture.
Steiner assisted Bothmer’s intensive development work and advised that actual gymnastics were premature in class 1 and 2. Until the age of nine, children should be taught movement games as an independent subject, and gymnastics should begin in class 4, with class 3 being seen as a transitional period.2
Now we can ask ourselves what such individual exercises are actually good for and what they are supposed to achieve. Let’s construct some simple geometrical shapes in our mind’s eye to get closer to the answer. Let’s start with a vertical line.
Did you draw it from top to bottom or from bottom to top? Then add a horizontal line at any point on the vertical. There will be countless possibilities for intersections. Thirdly, add a diagonal to the two straight lines, which should intersect both the vertical and the horizontal. If we now still try to get a feeling of the quality of the perpendicular, the horizontal and the diagonal, we immerse ourselves in the conceptual substance of Bothmer gymnastics, and not only with our heads but we also feel it in our limbs.
Do you still remember your first vault and perhaps also the fact that, despite the springboard, there was no way of overcoming this obstacle? Or dodgeball, where it was rarely possible to pass the ball to a teammate in such a way that they could catch it. But those who have learned through the exercises of Bothmer gymnastics to deal with the spatial forces and jump off at the right moment, to support themselves with their hands on the horse and to let go again, can overcome it. The ball also lands in the hands of the other player if we have practised to follow it inwardly and to already be with the other person in our own intent before the ball arrives. Bothmer gymnastics can lend a quality to physical education through the constant inclusion of space, through which the athlete consciously detaches themselves from their body.
Bothmer gymnastics reveals the laws of life. Multidimensionality becomes visible in every exercise. The person practising places themselves in the space and uses its forces. A process emerges that is shaped by opposites such as up – down; front – back; right – left. At the same time, they form shapes that are released and change again in the next instance at the point of reversal. “In the functional cycle of cardiac activity, this is that tenth of a second in which the blood passes through the moment of death when it stops. This I-moment of cardiac activity is concentrated plastically in the reversal point of the two blood flows in the apex of the heart.” This is how Armin Husemann describes it in his book The Harmony of the Human Body. Such moments are also experienced with the whole body in the Bothmer exercises when moving in the heights, widths and planes of space.
In the special needs course we also find references to the “magic of movement” because something spiritual moves the body, as well as the observation that the secret of movement is counter-movement. If we relate this to muscle activity, a constant interplay of the agonists / flexors and the antagonists / extensors becomes clear in the exercises with the aim of finding a balance. It is not the intention of the Bothmer exercises to strengthen individual muscle groups in particular, but to get the whole person moving in a living way.
An example from my lessons:
In a class 7, there was a pupil who had fled Syria with her brothers and had been accepted into the school. I taught periods of Bothmer gymnastics there and this pupil carried the whole class along with her enthusiasm for the exercise “fall into space”. Over and over again she wanted to practise it and it was visible in her whole expression that she “grew beyond herself”. The uplifting power that she discovered in this exercise and that she could use for herself made her “shine”.
Just by doing, the children or even the adults sense what is important. It is no secret that the soul reveals itself in movement. After all, we all have the amazed and beaming eyes of a small child before us when they stand up for the first time. In the same way, we know people who lose contact with their own uprightness and their surroundings through their bent, shuffling gait.
Bothmer gymnastics can tune the body like an instrument and thus create a resonance space in which and with which it is possible to establish relationships that go far beyond the human, earthly sphere.
“Human being that you are
Language of God
Be Like the sun
Rest in the middle of your movement”
Inscription on the base of the sundial of the Vaterunser Chapel in Ibental
The experience and training of our own physique in its relationship to space and the experience of the action of its forces is the essence of Bothmer Gymnastics. It thereby serves even the development of the personality. It can be a training path that strengthens the forces of the I, teaches us to find our own standpoint, to look at situations from all sides and also to leave them again without getting out of balance. Staying flexible in the spirit and in movement, connecting with the cosmic-spatial forces, has a healing effect and will become increasingly important in the future. Therefore Bothmer Gymnastics should have its place in every Waldorf school and on every teacher training course.
Note: In 2022, Bothmer gymnastics will be 100 years old. We will celebrate this event with a big festival of movement from 5 to 7 August 2022.
1 Rudolf Steiner: Faculty Meetings, 17 January 1923.
2 Rudolf Steiner: Discussions with Teachers, 6 September 1919, afternoon.
About the author: Gudrun Rehberg, class teacher for many years at the Christian Morgenstern School in Wuppertal; six years as a special needs teacher and movement therapist at the Windrather Talschule in Velbert; visiting lecturer at the teacher training seminar in Witten / Annen; now self-employed as a recognised anthroposophical body therapist with her own practice in Wuppertal.