Yoga or Pilates? Here's how to choose the one that's right for you
Both have the power to condition your body, enliven your spirit and improve your sense of wellbeing, says teacher and practitioner Ali Burrell. Understanding the similarities and differences will help you to decide which suits you best
The combination of Pilates and yoga has always seemed to me the perfect marriage. Both are transformational methods of mindful movement that can facilitate positive change in the body, mind and spirit.
In my opinion, their differences complement one another in the best of ways. Pilates is known as a 'workout', and yoga as a 'practice'.
However, the irony here is that in order to improve at anything, we have to practise, and when we practise well, both Pilates and yoga can be exceptional workouts. And as you will see, both are worthy of our time and attention for innumerable reasons.
Unless you're very familiar with both it may be difficult to tell how these two methods are different. In truth, there is a lot of overlap between yoga and Pilates. Let’s begin by having a look at each method individually, then we'll break them down into their similarities and differences.
Yoga means to ‘yoke’, or ‘to conjoin’, and so by definition yoga is the practice of uniting the mind, body and spirit through movement (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation.
This holistic practice is deeply rooted in ancient Indian culture. It was originally used as a means to move energy through the body, leaving the student feeling calm enough to sit in meditation after the practice. Developed as a pragmatic science by ancient seers centuries ago, yoga is a practice that any person, regardless of age, gender, physical ability, race, or religious belief can benefit from and use to realise his or her full potential.
The yoga postures, called asanas, represent the second limb of yoga on an eight-limbed path. On a physical level, the postures are designed to tone, strengthen and align the body. They increase both flexibility and balance and they promote blood flow to the organs, glands and tissues, keeping the body’s systems healthy and balanced.
In yoga philosophy, the breath is seen to be the most important facet of health, because it is the most readily available source of life force, or prana, that we have available to us.
Hatha yoga, the primary influence in modern yoga, utilises pranayama (the third limb of yoga), which literally means ‘the science and control of breathing’, to help the practitioner quieten the mind, embrace the present moment and manifest good health.
Achieving proper alignment in each yoga posture and moving into greater ranges of movement, all while staying connected to one’s breath, challenges our comfort level. It can lead to transformation from the inside out – practitioners of yoga will often see improvement in patience, physical strength, balance, flexibility, energy levels and sleep, as well as a reduction in stress and mental tension.
The many different styles of yoga, from the very gentle to the super dynamic, make it accessible to all. My teacher always says, “if you can breathe, you can do yoga”.
Pilates takes its name from its German inventor Joseph H. Pilates, born in 1883, who spent time living in both England and the US. He began developing his exercise system in Germany in the early 1900s.
Plagued by both asthma and rickets as a child, Pilates’ method sprang from his determination to strengthen his own frail and sickly body.
Above all, learn how to breathe properly
He called his method ‘The Art of Contrology’ (the study of control) and believed that it would help people to develop strength and fortitude in body and mind, not only accomplishing daily tasks with ease, but also living life to the fullest.
He took inspiration for his method from yoga and Ancient Greek and Roman exercise regimes, as well as dance and callisthenics, and taught his method in his studio in New York until his death in 1967.
Often called a ‘moving meditation’, because of the incredible focus of the mind on the body, Pilates is a non-impact exercise system that emphasises alignment and body awareness. Pilates exercises can change people’s bodies, sculpt muscles and improve flexibility and posture.
Due to its focus on the stabilising muscles of the torso, which support the spine, Pilates helps practitioners to develop unmatched core strength and an increased efficiency of movement.
Pilates can be practiced both on the mat and on specialised machines developed by Joseph Pilates. Known by fancy names such as the Reformer, the Cadillac and the Wunda Chair, they utilise pulleys and springs to offer both support and resistance that will build strength and increase overall flexibility in the spine and the limbs.
Pilates is based on six principles which enable the practitioner to learn to move with maximum efficiency, while minimising stress on the body. They are: Breathing, Concentration, Centering, Control, Precision and Flow.
Because Pilates is gentle and challenging at the same time, it is safe and effective for nearly everyone, irrespective of age or fitness ability, from pre- and post-natal mothers to the super-fit.
It is a phenomenal cross-training tool, and many professional athletes turn to Pilates to optimise their performance. The medical community also recognises Pilates as a modality that assists with physical therapy, to facilitate healing and protect practitioners from future injury and back pain.
How are yoga and Pilates similar?
Both yoga and Pilates are mindful movement practices that cultivate greater body awareness and help to deliver us from our busy minds back into our bodies. They encourage a focus on the present moment and the journey of the movement itself, rather than the outcome or the end goal, which may be anything from a stronger, well-toned body to peace of mind.
In both practices, learning to become aware of the breath, to breathe both properly and deeply, and build respiratory stamina are of paramount importance.
Another similarity is that many of the exercises/poses look alike. This is because Joseph Pilates studied yoga and borrowed many poses from yoga, gymnastics and dance when he was developing his method. Also, modern day yoga took inspiration from gymnastics when adding to its repertoire of poses, so the two practices share many of the same exercises/poses and aren’t actually that different from the outside.
What are the differences between yoga and Pilates?
Probably the most significant difference between these two disciplines lies in their intent. Pilates is a relatively modern and logical system of exercise specifically designed to enhance and balance physical and mental wellbeing. Yoga is an ancient spiritual teaching, where the posture practice is only one aspect of a whole system.
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Yoga philosophy presents the means of waking us up from our spiritual amnesia so that we can remember all that we already know. Whilst both are a good workout, yoga can be more of a ‘work-in’, helping us to peel away the layers of stress and tension so we can feel more connected and in harmony with ourselves and the world around us.
For these reasons, yoga is seen as the go-to method for people seeking greater understanding of themselves and deeper spiritual connection.
Yoga and Pilates are both breath-based disciplines, but the breathing focus and techniques are quite different. In yoga, the primary goal is to stay connected to the breath, providing a focus for the mind. In Pilates, the first order of business is the precision of movement, and then the coordination of that movement with the breath.
For the bulk of the yoga asana practice, the breath is taken in and out through the nose, which helps to calm the nervous system. Pilates instead teaches you to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. This style of breathing is known as diaphragmatic, whereas yoga often emphasises abdominal, or belly breathing.
Why are the two breathing styles different? One reason is that Pilates is preparing you for active movement, emphasising an abdominal contraction on the exhale, which provides support in your core muscles. Yoga, on the other hand, is working to down-regulate the nervous system to prepare you for meditation, and for this the breath is key.
There is also not the same emphasis on core support in yoga. Since these breathing styles are so different, you may get a more intense abdominal workout from Pilates than from yoga. You may also find Pilates to be more energising and invigorating, while yoga may have more of a calming effect on you.
Pilates workouts can take place both on the mat and on machines, while yoga is solely mat-based and uses props such as blocks, bricks, straps, bolsters, blankets and chairs to facilitate and support poses.
The Pilates machines use springs that provide resistance to increase strength challenge, as well as offering support. This makes them a great tool for developing balanced strength and flexibility and also makes Pilates accessible for those recovering from injury, or with insufficient strength to support their limbs. If you have a sports- specific training goal too, the machines can be a great addition to your exercise regime.
Yoga classes usually begin with the Sun Salutation series, including push-ups, while Pilates mat classes are meant to end with the 34th exercise, the Push-Up (chaturanga). Yoga warms up with standing postures and ends lying down in relaxation (savasana), but Pilates begins lying down and ends standing up.
Yoga’s relaxation pose at the end of yoga class is meant to help the body consolidate the postures, while Pilates’ purpose for ending in standing is to prepare the body for re-integration into functional daily activities. So, if you like the idea of finishing by floating into a deep relaxation, yoga is the way to go. If you prefer to bound off the mat feeling energised, try Pilates.
Flexibility vs stability
One of the main differences between Pilates and yoga is that Pilates begins with small ranges of motion and then progresses towards end-range joint movement while yoga tends to hold postures at end-range of joint motion and muscle length.
In yoga, one generally holds each pose for several breaths, whereas Pilates is about movement, flowing through exercises at a slightly faster pace. This contributes to yoga's reputation as being flexibility-focused and taking the body ‘to your edge’, whereas Pilates’ emphasis is on stability, strength and control throughout the body’s full ranges of movement.
Although both practices succeed in dramatically increasing flexibility of the spine and limbs, certain body types are better suited to either one or the other. For example, a hyper-mobile individual would likely be better suited to Pilates. Yoga's deep stretches
may destabilise their joints further and lead to pain and injury, whereas the focus in Pilates would be to increase stability around the joints and develop greater control of their ranges of movement.
So, beyond this, what’s the best way to learn which one is for you? Go out and try them for yourself! For me, both practices have the power to improve overall wellbeing. I continue to be delighted at just how simple yet powerfully transformative yoga and Pilates are. You might find that one speaks to you more than the other, but I've found that together, they are the perfect combination.