Article as seen in Pilates Style Magazine
Turning 65 aside, Rael Isacowitz is ever the Pilates force to be reckoned with. Here, he shares his plans for the future (which, yes, include slowing down…just a bit), what keeps him going and how he’s coping with the effects of COVID-19. Plus, a select few of his favorite exercises for the aging body.
By Rael Isacowitz • Edited by Amanda Altman
PILATES S TYLE In 2019, you entered into your fourth decade as the founder of BASI Pilates and opened a brand-new headquarters in Newport Beach, among many other accomplishments. What inspires you to keep improving?
RAEL I have always had an innate drive to make everything I do the very best it can possibly be. Some would call me a perfectionist. My mom and dad had incredible drive in their own very unique ways. From an early age I recognized this drive in them, both in their personal and professional lives. Yet, their drive never negated the human qualities of compassion, respect and humility. They were such inspiring role models for me. I owe them a great debt of gratitude.
With BASI, it always comes down to the incredible people that make up the global BASI family. They inspire me constantly.
PS You turned 65 in April. Do you see your birthday as a turning point in any way?
RAEL I see every birthday as a time to evaluate what I have been engaged in and where I am headed.
Sometimes it is a turning point, but usually it is just a correction in direction. For me, 65 seems like a particularly important milestone. On a practical level, society starts treating you a little differently.
It’s time to receive my Medicare card! I’m also taking stock of my business. At 65, whether I like it or not, my career is entering its sunset years. I must ensure there’s a strategy for BASI to continue to thrive for years to come. It’s incumbent upon me to create
a succession plan. Also, a plan for myself, for how I can start to recalibrate my life and find a better balance between my personal life and work.
PS Many people retire in their 60s, but you don’t seem to be slowing down in the least. How are you able to keep pace with your demanding lifestyle?
RAEL I keep pace by not thinking of everything I need to do at once, but rather compartmentalizing— one month at a time, one week at a time, one day
at a time. If I look at everything together, I become overwhelmed. I live by the words, “put one foot in front of the other.” That was drummed into me during my years in the military.
PS How do you navigate being a teacher of 65 when your body can’t do what it could at 25?
RAEL I can no longer identify myself solely as the person who can perform all the most difficult repertoire. I need to start seeing my value as
someone who can inspire and contribute in other ways, beyond the performance of exercises. It’s a huge transition, one that hasn’t been an easy one, and one that continues to be a challenge.
PS Has there been anyone or anything that has helped you along the path?
RAEL I give tremendous credit to my wife, Adelle. She has told me for years that it’s not humanly possible to continue performing at the same level I have been accustomed to in my 60s and beyond. I need to prepare to let go. She has been a rock in supporting me through it.
Also, many students and colleagues have played a big part in reassuring me and supporting me. They tell me, “We come to learn from you, not to see a show; we want to see you teach the exercises, to learn from your cueing and your touch, to glean knowledge from your life experience.” The hard part is accepting it and believing it myself. I have to be honest in saying that so much of my identity has been linked to athletic performance since my early years swimming competitively, and then dancing and practicing Pilates for the past four decades. You rely so much on your physical being, and when that changes, you’re forced to shift the paradigm.
PS Do you face any challenges at 65 years of age?
RAEL Absolutely! I face challenges, both physically and mentally. There is no way that I could put
my body through what I have for so many years and not have aches, pains and degeneration. My shoulders have always been problematic. I have had two extensive rotator cuff surgeries, and I have some back issues. However, I refuse to be defined by my ailments.
PS What does your personal Pilates practice look like?
RAEL I do a session almost every day. It’s a mixture of matwork and apparatus. A blend of fundamental, intermediate and advanced exercises, sprinkled with some master-level repertoire. My sessions usually last 1.5 hours. Fitting it in can be a challenge, but this is part of the discipline of the practice and my obligation as a teacher. (For some of Rael’s favorite exercises, see “A Handful of Movement “Gems” for Ages 65+” on page 43.)
PS One-and-a-half hours?!
RAEL I believe strongly that you cannot teach this work if you don’t do this work. That doesn’t
mean doing master-level work every day, it means setting time aside for your practice. This takes unwavering commitment.
PS Is it especially important to work with an instructor as you age?
RAEL Yes. Although you have more knowledge about your body, I think your body starts changing more rapidly and at times you’re unaware of those changes. As cognizant as I might be of my own patterns and my own habits, I can’t always know if I am compensating or if I am off-center. I think we do need an outside eye more and more to bring us back to the proverbial plumb line.
PS Aside from Pilates, what other activities help you stay balanced in mind, body and spirit?
RAEL Walking four to six miles with my dog, Shiloh, and Adelle is an incredible way to start each day—for body, mind and spirit. I also go kiteboarding, stand- up paddling, mountain biking and snowboarding in the winter. I love the outdoors. I meditate, but probably not regularly enough. Yet, for me, each Pilates session I do is a meditation in motion.
PS Tell us about your Journey Beyond Borders program. Then tell us how you have the stamina to teach these highly intensive trainings!
RAEL I have been traveling extensively since the early ’80s. I have lived on five continents, so travel is not new to me. There was a time I was traveling to eight countries a year, in addition to extensive domestic travel. I have made a concerted effort to cut back on my travel in the past few years, particularly international travel. Yet, here I find myself with a very demanding schedule through 2022 [pending the effects of the pandemic]. Without a doubt, the one and only thing that gives me stamina to do these trips and teach these trainings are the students who inspire me beyond words.
The incredible efforts that they make to be at these events are staggering and humbling.
PS What’s on the docket for BASI Pilates in 2020? What are you most excited about?
RAEL I am teaching more Legacy Programs than ever before, eight in total. The Legacy Program includes four phases Mentor, Master l, Master
ll and Honors. They are extremely physically demanding programs and I train for them as I would a marathon. In addition, I will be attending two BASI Learn From The Leaders conferences, in Germany and Australia (these events have been postponed until 2021 and will join Korea and UK for a four-country LFTL voyage with the theme “No Boundaries”). Plus, I will be presenting several
workshops in Austria, as the guest of Pilates Verband Austria (delivered online), and writing the third edition of my book, Pilates (Human Kinetics).
PS Why do you think it’s important to bring your Pilates knowledge abroad?
RAEL We are a global community. I do not see borders, rather I see one big family—a family that has given me so much in my life. I want to give back. It is not only my knowledge that I feel a drive to share, but more so my experience and my passion for what I do.
PS Looking back on your Pilates career, what are you most proud of?
RAEL Without a doubt, I am most proud of BASI Pilates education, and the incredible international BASI community. I am also very proud of BASI Systems equipment, BASI Interactive online, and the books I have written that have reached close to a quarter of a million people. PS
PILATES STYLE How have you been feeling?
RAEL For a brief moment in time, humanity is united in fighting a common enemy. This pandemic has forced us to work together as one people, one planet. It does not recognize borders, religion, nationality, gender. It is affecting every human being on this earth. This is both a grim statement and at the same time it can be an uplifting statement. This period is forcing us to slow down, take stock of our lives, our values, our families, the people that are precious to us. It is also forcing us to look at our planet that we so often take for granted. Most importantly, we cannot lose sight of the unfathomable suffering around us—and do all we can to alleviate it.
PS How can you relate this sentiment to the Pilates community as a whole?
RAEL I have always felt that Pilates is far more than an exercise routine—it’s a way
of looking at life and at the world. The exercises are a vehicle for change; to change each individual’s life and to affect our entire planet in a positive way. As Pilates teachers and as an industry, we have a huge role to play in inspiring people to
be positive and make positive changes in their lives. For me, Pilates comes down to one word: well-being. We’re here to spread well-being through the world. It’s a ripple
effect, and by changing one life we can change an entire world.
PS How is COVID-19 affecting your business?
RAEL COVID-19 is affecting the business immensely. I compare it to being in stormy seas without having anything to navigate with; we don’t have a map because this is uncharted territory.
We’ve had to close our studio and our courses worldwide. We’ve issued refunds—no questions asked. Fortunately, I have strategized well over the years and for now am able to weather the storm and keep things going. But I am well aware that things could change in a day.
PS Do you have any plans to take things virtually in an even greater capacity?
RAEL Yes, we have taken several of our courses online with amazing results. Although I have approached it with cautious optimism, I have been pleasantly surprised at how effective and profound the virtual classes have been. I am posting more classes, talks and webinars online. Most, if not all, at no cost. Ultimately, teaching Pilates is so dependent on cueing, human interaction, and human guidance, which will always be a requirement. However, we need to adapt to a new reality. I have always been open-minded to exploring new avenues, alternative teaching methodologies and utilizing technology to our advantage.
It is extremely difficult to single out exercises that would be beneficial for the 65-plus age group and that enhance the activities I do. There are hundreds—and I love them all! However, following is a small selection of exercises I regard as gems. Please note that this is not a comprehensive workout and the exercises do not appear in any particular order.
Taught in BASI Mentor Program
WHY I CHOSE IT All the activities I do demand balance. This movement is taught as an add-on to the Lunge Forward, which is a demanding stretch for the hamstrings and hip flexors. Yet, it is an exceptional exercise on its own for balance, control of the hip extensors, hip flexors and knee extensors. This exercise is a great example of functional strength and flexibility—a perfect balance!
KEEP IN MIND…
WHY I CHOSE IT Being a swimmer, this exercise has always made a lot of sense to me. Swimming is one of the signature Pilates exercises for developing function of the back extensors, together with the shoulder flexors and hip extensors. It focuses on trunk stabilization, as well as hip and shoulder movement.
KEEP IN MIND…
Taught in BASI Master l Program
WHY I CHOSE IT Stand-up paddling, surfing, kiteboarding and snowboarding all demand a very strong core. This exercise is an exceptional abdominal exercise that has some very unique qualities. In a sense, it is similar to Swimming, in that it uses challenging cross-pattern trunk stabilization (in this case, using spinal flexion while Swimming utilizes spinal extension). In addition, the hip flexors are being stretched out with each repetition, while the hamstrings (antagonists of the hip flexors) are being activated. This pattern is challenging and functional for many daily and recreational activities.
WHY I CHOSE IT I have always equated this exercise to the movement of stand-up paddling. It demands strong abdominal oblique engagement, together with upper-body support. Few exercises illustrate the power of the rotation of the trunk as well as this one. It is not a big movement, but it is extremely profound in its effect.
WHY I CHOSE IT Although throwing a shot put was my inspiration for choreographing this exercise, it has helped me with every athletic activity I have been involved in. It is a great addition to the Arms Kneeling Series.
WHEN I ’M NOT WORKING , I ’M: Outdoors, usually on the ocean.
THREE THINGS THAT ARE ALWAYS IN MY SUITCASE : Boardshorts, T-shirts, toothbrush.
WOULD YOU RATHER: TEACH OR BE TAUGHT ? I love both equally.
MY LIFE ’ S PURPOSE IS: To be a good father, a good husband, and to try and make the world a better place.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE I FACE : Not enough time.
BES T ADVICE TO NEW TEACHERS: Don’t rush the process—enjoy it.
THE THING THAT INSPIRES ME MOST IS: My students and the power of nature.
ONE THING PEOPLE DON’ T KNOW ABOUT ME : I love working with tools, particularly power tools.
WHY I CHOSE IT No fitness program would be complete without some version of a “push-up.” The Shoulder Push is an exceptional exercise for core strength, trunk stabilization, scapular stabilization and shoulder flexor strength. This particular plank position is very popular and highly recommended in many fitness circles.
Taught in BASI Master ll Program
WHY I CHOSE IT The lateral flexors of the trunk provide support for the spine and should receive due attention in any Pilates program. This exercise shifts the way we typically view lateral flexor exercises, such as Side Overs on the Box, in which the legs and pelvis remain stable as the trunk is lowered and lifted.
WHY I CHOSE IT
There is no doubt that as we age the focus of our work should be shifted to the back of our bodies. The essence of this exercise is stabilization—holding the entire body like a plank. I have always said, “the better your stability, the better your mobility.” This is a full-body exercise using the hip extensors, back extensors, shoulder horizontal abductors and scapular adductors.
Taught in BASI Honors Program
WHY I CHOSE IT Leg Pull Back is an exceptional mat exercise that works the extensors of the body: hip, back and shoulders. For this reason alone, I strongly recommend this exercise. In this case, it is done on the Spine Corrector. The body is held absolutely stable as the hip flexors of the working leg are worked concentrically and eccentrically. Strong and well-conditioned hip flexors are an essential ingredient for a strong powerhouse and healthy function!
All the athletic activities I do are forward and tend to tighten up the flexors of the trunk. Added to this, I spend many hours teaching and in front of a computer, which is a recipe for kyphotic-type posture. This is my “feel good” exercise.
RAEL ISACOWITZ received his bachelor’s of education from the Wingate Institute, Israel, where he later joined the faculty, and his master’s of arts from the University of Surrey, England. He worked as a dancer and dance educator on five continents and has been practicing and teaching Pilates for more than four decades.
In 1989, Rael founded BASI Pilates (Body Arts and Science International), a Pilates education organization.
Headquartered in Newport Beach, CA, BASI Pilates is represented in upwards of 40 countries and 120 host locations. In excess of 40,000 students have gone through the BASI Comprehensive Teacher Training Program and other BASI Advanced Education courses and workshops.
Rael spearheaded the development of BASI Interactive e-learning software and designed the original concepts for BASI Systems Pilates equipment. Rael has written two bestselling books, Pilates and Pilates Anatomy (Human Kinetics), the latter co-authored with Karen Clippinger. He has produced a series of workbooks, ranging from fundamental to the most advanced repertoire in the Pilates method. Rael has written for and been featured in numerous professional publications, including Pilates Style.
Rael is honored to be part of the great legacy of Pilates teachers and mentors. He has studied from and taught with luminaries of the Pilates world, including several of the Pilates Elders. Rael’s myriad contributions to Pilates as a teacher, author and innovator are recognized and respected throughout the industry. Passion for the art of Pilates, creativity and athleticism are hallmarks of Rael’s work—a unique synthesis of body, mind and spirit.
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