Instructor Rael Isacowitz: Passion of Pilates

A Q&A Interview with Renowned Pilates Instructor Rael Isacowitz

Pilates students listen to their instructor.
Pilates students listen to their instructor. Liam Norris/Getty Images

Rael Isacowitz is one of the great Pilates master instructors of our day. Through his teaching, writing and DVDs he has inspired Pilates instructors and enthusiasts around the world, myself included. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him.

Isacowitz tirelessly answered each of my questions with grace and passion, despite the fact that he'd been working since 4:30 in the morning and it was 5 p.m. at the time of our interview.

We talked about him and how he developed his style, along with everything from launching beginners and mentoring instructors, to men in Pilates, to the specialization of Pilates, to equipment and more. I hope that you will be touched by the magic of "Rael Pilates" as you read this interview.

Who and/or what have been the biggest influences on the development of your Pilates style as you have evolved it?

I always credit Kathy Grant with being my greatest influence. I've had the pleasure of working with most the first generation teachers, but Kathy and I have had a very special connection for the past 20 years. She has been my guide and mentor in Pilates.

Also, swimming, yoga and dance instilled a tremendous passion in me for movement and art, and a reverence for the human body. I'd like to add that probably my students and clients have taught me the most.

What would you say makes Rael Pilates unique?

First and foremost I have to say the strong passion, the soul, the spirit. I've been fortunate to attract amazing people to work around me and that has furthered the passion, and it is that passion that has attracted the people I work with. It is an ongoing cycle.

Then, the approach itself is unique.

It is an amalgamation of art and science. I'll expand on that later, but that's a very unique part of my style: art and science working synergistically together. There is always a sense of art in the work, and always a basis of science.

Finally, there is a tremendous focus on precision and quality. I know that many people say: Well, precision, that's one of the principles of Pilates. And it is one of the principles, but I am just not sure how seriously they take it. Maybe by nature I am an insufferable perfectionist and that is why precision is very important to me.

Joseph Pilates described his method as the complete coordination of body, mind and spirit. But we don't hear very much about spirit. Could you expand a little bit about how you see the role of spirit in Pilates?

That is a really interesting question and a difficult one. When speaking of the body, that's an easy level to address because it's the most tangible. That is the exercise part of Pilates, but in a way, the least potent.

As we go deeper we get to the mind. To me, what the mind is about is the principles: awareness, breath, balance, control, center, concentration, efficiency, flow, precision and harmony. You cannot do this work mindlessly. It's mind/body all the time.

The spirit is the quality that we breathe into the principles. If we concentrate and perform the movements with precision it doesn't mean that it has a spirit to it. It is naturally quite mechanical - you are concentrating and going from point A to point B. The spirit is where we inject the quality, the personality, the dynamic, the color - and really, the heart. It's individual and it's certainly not a religion. When I speak of spiritual it is more the depth that I go into, and giving each movement a very distinct quality and character. That is the spirit of the work.

Much of your focus is on training teachers and teachers of teachers, and we will talk about that, but if you could launch beginner students into their Pilates training with one main insight about Pilates, what would it be?

I think about the importance of the mind in Pilates and how it is used in a never-ending exploration of knowledge and discovery. Approaching Pilates as just exercise, in my view, it loses much of its potency.

The importance of the mind can never be stressed enough because that is one of the differentiators of Pilates from other forms of exercise. Lets face it, the movements of many Pilates exercises are not very different from other forms of exercise. Single leg stretch, teaser, double leg stretch - people have been doing them in many different regimens for years. What makes Pilates different is the mind, and the spirit as well.

When you go to a gym and people are watching TV, and reading, and have headsets on; what they are doing is everything to separate the mind from the body. What we are doing is creating an environment that is conducive to bringing the mind and the body closer together - and the spirit. That is what makes Pilates so interesting. That is why I can do a pelvic curl for 31 years and love it each time I do it. It could be terribly boring, but it never is.

So that's what I would communicate to a new student: Never underestimate the importance of the mind and spirit in Pilates.

The choreography of the exercises, you can learn that anytime. And, of course, it is about mastering and becoming better and better at the movement. But it is the mind that is going to keep you interested for years and years to come.

Men have been prime movers in Pilates throughout its history. But since the Pilates boom women in Pilates have outnumbered men. I wonder how you see men in Pilates today? What advice might you offer men, and to instructors wanting to increase their male clientele?

I'm so pleased you asked that question. It's such an important issue. What you say is absolutely true: Men have been involved in Pilates since its inception. According to Kathy Grant, Joseph Pilates intended it to be for men, not for women. You can see in early footage that if there were 30 people in a class, 29 of them were men. In most of the archival material he is teaching men (other than when he is teaching Eve Gentry, and some of the other wonderful female movers).

Women have kept the system alive. There is no doubt about that. For some reason men stopped doing it and there started to be more women involved than men. It may have been because it started to be embraced by the dance world. I don't really know. The upside is that women kept Pilates alive. The downside is that the pendulum has swung from maybe being too far in one direction to too far in the other. I think the work lost some of its masculinity, some of its athleticism - which means the work was changed.

In the early days of my teaching in London, one of the most popular workshops I was asked to teach was how do we deal with the male client?

Men started coming into studios and instructors realized they are like foreign beings. To treat them as women wasn't working, but they didn't know how to work them out as men. There is a female energy and a male energy and they both should be honored. I think the crux of this is that men and women are different and we need to recognize those differences. They are different in their psyches. They are different in their needs. They are different in the cuing we as teachers use. They are different in the imagery and the touch we use. Although we are using the same system, the programs and approaches are different, and I think that is important.

I say to all the men I work with that they will find a wealth of inspiration and fitness in Pilates that is going to help everything they do. For men, that's a very important thing which they can relate to. Men typically will not do exercise for exercise sake. They will do it for a sport or athletic activity, to make it better, but they are really goal oriented. Whereas a woman will do it just because she enjoys exercising and moving.

I often say in my workshops that women are more sophisticated thinkers. Extremely intricate movements come very naturally to women. You speak about spinal articulation or the importance of moving the spine in intricate segments - a man finds it difficult to understand this. So we need to find different ways of explaining and structuring a workout.

There's got to be a really good balance between the masculine and the feminine energy. I'm delighted that more and more men are getting involved, and I'm hoping there will now be a balance - though sometimes I fear its going too far in the other direction and becoming so exercise driven. I taught at IDEA World recently and it was fantastic, but there was a little fear within me that Pilates was going to be used as just another exercise routine rather than a system unto itself. Some of my colleagues see it as exercise and that's it. That is fine, but I do not.

Kathy Grant would talk about how women have changed Pilates so much and that we need to bring back the masculine feel that Pilates had, but I think it's got to be both. Women have injected a tremendous amount of finesse, grace, and sophistication into the work that I don't think comes easily to men. Men can bring to it the athleticism and intensity that is sometimes lacking in the work.

The first step is for instructors to recognize that the gender difference is a very big difference, and one that should be respected and embraced. The next step is learning how to deal with the differences.

When I first saw your Rael Pilates System 7, 17, and 27 DVDs, I was impressed by the sense of artistry and passion for Pilates that you communicated in those DVDs. The name of your company, Body Arts and Sciences International (BASI), evokes art as well. How do you see Pilates as a body art?

I get letters from all over the world thanking me for those DVDs. I keep the letters because they mean so much to me.

I happened to watch them a couple of days ago and I hadn't watched them in a long time. There are things I would do differently, but by and large I feel so good about them because I do feel the artistry and the passion are timeless. I never approached it as an exercise video or DVD. I wanted to convey a message.

The art and science is there all the time for me. For every movement you need to be able to legitimize it both artistically and scientifically. It's got to have a beauty about it. Of course, that is somewhat subjective. In terms of the science, we are updating the science all the time. My background is in science with extensive study in exercise physiology and biomechanics. It's a balance of knowing the most contemporary scientific knowledge, and keeping up to date and on the cutting edge all the time. I feel I owe that to the people who study with me. I am striving all the time to be the best that I can be in terms of art and science.

You are one of the instructors in the new "Passing the Torch" Pilates mentor program through Balanced Body University. How do you see that mentor/student relationship? What do you most want to pass along?

I have always said that I am as much a pupil as I am a teacher. You can never teach something and not be a pupil.

I am always learning from my students. I am humbled by their confidence in me, and their devotion to me. I never take that for granted. So in being a mentor I am as much a student as I am a mentor.

BASI started a mentor program in 2006. I had wanted to teach the very advanced work for a long time, but I didn't feel people were ready for it. Then, in 2006, I felt they were ready and we came out with a mentor program. I've taught 3 of them and every one has been different and profound in its own way. What was evident in each was that we travel a profound journey together.

People went through growth experiences and transformed themselves in a very short period of time. That can sometimes be very difficult. Maybe they realize that they are not where they thought they were. Maybe they realize there is so much to know and they see it as discouraging. Sometimes they thought they were doing advanced work and now this whole new realm of material is opened up to them and their bodies are not where they want them to be.

You have to search within yourself to do a course like that.

Each time it was really just guiding people through that journey and that's what I plan to do with the Balanced Body course. The applications I've received so far have brought tears to my eyes. This is going to be a fantastic group. I have been doing the master level work for many years, but no one wrote about that. They want to experience a depth in the work that they cannot find and they hope that I can guide them to that place. I hope I can. I will be a catalyst for them. That's what I see mentoring as.

People are coming from all over the world. I think to myself how honored I am that people would make this momentous effort to come and share some time with me. I will give the best that I can give. We will go over the exercises, the advanced work, and new innovations like the Avalon, but most importantly I want to impart the passion and the spirit of what I do.

Lets talk about the Avalon equipment you developed. How does it enhance the workout? Did you develop it because you felt something was lacking in traditional Pilates equipment?

The Avalon equipment grew out of years and years of working on the Pilates equipment. I stress that the Avalon equipment is not a new invention. I didn't create a new piece of apparatus. What I did is I took the original equipment and recognized where I felt it could be improved.

Not that it was lacking, but rather needing expansion.

The piece I started with was the arm chair. For years I have felt that the arm chair is undervalued. I can understand why it wasn't that popular because you couldn't do that much on it. So I thought, why not take this and expand what you can do on it?

The same box that you use on the reformer can now be used on the Avalon, and exercises can be performed while sitting, kneeling, prone, supine and facing all directions. From a piece of equipment that was used for 5 or 6 exercises the arm chair can now be used to workout the entire body. It's as versatile as the reformer, cadillac or any of the other pieces. You can do things on it that you cannot do anywhere else. And the adjustability is amazing.

So it's taking the equipment and evolving it. For example, if you look at the step barrel, the step barrel is great, but there were certain things that were harsh about the step barrel.

It has such an acute curve that if you were doing a passive extension the shape of the barrel could not support the shape of your spine. I rounded the edges. Why not make it comfortable?

On the barrel in the studio we would sometimes add leg weights or arm weights and I thought, why not integrate springs into the barrel?

And a handle that is adjustable? That handle on the barrel would never be in the right place. Now you've got a handle that can move in multiple directions and settings to accommodate an enormous repertoire of exercises.

You can do all the classic work on the Avalon equipment, but it's also opened the possibility to new and innovative repertoire. Why not let it evolve? If we evolve we don't throw out everything that came before. We honor, respect, and integrate it. Evolution is a good thing.

Your book, "Pilates," is one of my favorite Pilates books. Do you have another book in the works?

I do have a new book in the works: "Pilates Anatomy." I invited Karen Clippinger, one of my closest colleagues and friends, to co-author the book with me. We have been hard at work for about a year and the text is at the editor now. We recently did a photo shoot for the anatomy book, but it's going to take the anatomical illustrator a year to do all the drawings. Every picture has to be turned into an illustration that is done by hand.

All the muscle groups are drawn in, it is a true art.

We are covering all the mat work. In the midst of the book we were going back and forth about which version of the exercises to show. Originally we were going to use my book, "Pilates." We went through a long process of questioning whether that's the best way. At one point I suggested that if we were going to use any other source I wanted to use the original source. So we went back to "Return to Life." Every exercise we do exactly as it is done in "Return to Life," and we analyze those exercises anatomically. We offer variations from my book and explain what the variation does that is different from the original. "Pilates Anatomy" is scheduled to come out spring, 2011.

Pilates is becoming specialized with many other disciplines applying it for specific, rather than generic purposes. How is this trend affecting Pilates and instructor training?

I see Pilates being used in two ways. Typically it is used as a form of cross training - a conditioning system. Then there is the use of Pilates for specific goals in specific environments with certain populations, like physical therapy or with athletes. The unfortunate part about that, I feel, is that Pilates is splintered and broken down. Physical therapists saw the value in Pilates, but the way it's being implemented, it loses much of the value in the process (not all the time, but a lot of the time). Putting a reformer in a clinic, doing 3 leg exercises, and that's it... is not Pilates, in my opinion.

I feel Pilates needs to be taught as a system. I decided to come out with a post-graduate program for people who have done the comprehensive Pilates training but want to specialize in a specific area. I've partnered with people who are very qualified to offer post-graduate training in certain areas like working with children, the elderly, or using Pilates for therapeutic needs. We're calling on Pilates instructors to further their education, but not before they've even done their comprehensive training and gained significant experience. It's geared to be post-graduate study at its best.

Thank you, Rael!

There are many more opportunities to expand your Pilates education with Rael through his company, BASI Pilates. At the BASI Pilates website you will find information on teacher trainings, workshops, and mentorship programs. In addition, BASI Pilates has recently launched an online Pilates software resource, Pilates Interactive. While Rael is quick to point out that it is not meant to be a replacement for live instruction, Pilates interactive offers the breakdown and cuing for over 300 exercises. Rael's Avalon equipment is manufactured and sold through Balanced Body.

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