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Pilates vs Yoga: A Comparative Look at Two Popular Exercise Methods

As a mat Pilates teacher, I am often asked to describe what Pilates is. And that is a reasonable ask! However, I am often met with a response similar to “oh, so it’s like yoga then?”. And in my head, I am thinking “NO! Absolutely NOT” but of course, I just smile and say that the founder, Joseph Pilates, did take inspiration from yoga, but that he also took aspects of gymnastics, martial arts and boxing to create his method!

I was never sold on Yoga, and in fact, was fairly neutral about it, as when I had tried it, I had not particularly enjoyed it as I found the spiritual aspect too jarring and I always felt that I wasn’t ‘good at it’ as there was always the bendy person making it look super easy! I have now found some yoga practice that I do enjoy but there is no escaping it; Pilates and Yoga are very different. I have selected 5 key differences between the two, and would welcome your thoughts!

Yoga poses are held for up to 5 minutes

1. The Spiritual Practice

Yoga is an ancient practice, with its roots in Indian philosophy. It began as a spiritual practice that is now so popular as a form of wellbeing and fitness. Although classical yoga also includes other elements, yoga as practised in the West, typically emphasises physical postures (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama), and meditation (dyana).

Students of yoga are taught to look inwards, and to live in a higher state of consciousness. Yoga is a Sanskrit word translated as “yoke” or “union. To yoke means to draw or to bind together. Its aim is to yoke or create a union of the body, mind, soul, and universal consciousness. And whilst many yogi’s are practising for this, many are just looking for the flexibility or the relaxation that it brings, and the spiritual aspect is of less importance.

Pilates, however, although a mind-body exercise, has no basis in spirituality. Joseph Pilates thought of it as a “practical physical education method”. He incorporated relaxation and flowing movement, coordination and concentration, as principles, but it wasn’t spiritual, more of a “complete coordination of the body, mind and spirit” whilst bringing mindfulness into play as each exercise is carried out precisely there is little room for a busy mind, any spiritual aspect is null!

2. The Poses

When I teach beginner’s pilates to those who have done yoga before, it is common that they will be expecting to remain and hold in a stretch or an exercise which is not surprising; in yoga, stretches or poses are held for a few breaths, through to 5 minutes.

With one of the Pilates’ principles being ‘Flowing Movement’, we don’t hold a pose. We encourage controlled transitions from one exercise to another, and will remain in a specific hold on an inhalation! The exception to this may be a plank style exercise where we encourage thoracic breathing for a few breaths (more on the breath below!).

3. The Range of Movement

Another key difference between Pilates and Yoga is how ‘far’ we move our joints. In yoga, students are encouraged to stretch to the end of their range, challenging flexibility. This is a reason why so many people feel that they can’t do yoga or Pilates as they are not flexible!

But with Pilates, we encourage ‘Precision of Movement’ so our joints are not stressed by pushing through a range of movement. Flexibility comes with strength; by stabilising a joint and moving with control from it, the body will become stronger, as will the joint, thereby meaning that the range of movement may increase, but without stress in the joint, ligaments, fascia and muscles. That body awareness is key to Pilates.

In Pilates the breath helps to stabilise our movement

4. The Breath

Now this is an aspect that often foxes new Pilates clients who have done Yoga before as it is so often ‘back to front’! But it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it and as I say to anyone beginning Pilates, ‘just breathe’!

In yoga, belly breathing is used; this process engages the parasympathetic nervous system which is key in calming us down when we are in fight or flight mode, it promotes relaxation and oxygenates the blood, and quite often students are encouraged to breathe out in a pose, and breathe in to move.

In Pilates, we use the ‘thoracic breath’; essentially meaning that we want to get the ribcage moving in 3D; not just the front, but the sides as well as the back which in turn releases and relaxes any tension in the chest and shoulder muscles.

When we breathe out, there is an active contraction of the transverse abdominals, multifidus and pelvic floor muscles. Whilst you don’t need to know the names of these muscles, they are known collectively as our ‘core’ muscles, or ‘centre’. This is why Pilates encourages us to inhale to maintain and stabilise, and to exhale to mobilise as we have switched on our centre.

5. The Heritage

Firstly, yoga is an ancient practice whereas Pilates is relatively very modern. The Vedic form of yoga dates back to around 10,000 years and was written in Sanskrit whilst Joseph Pi

lates created his ‘Contrology’ method in the early 1920s. This does mean that there are still apprentices who practised with him in New York who can pass on their knowledge, although these are obviously getting fewer and further between.

Both methods are evolving and will continue to evolve, often based on science, what is ‘trending’ and how our lives are being lived, for example, online practices became the only way during the lockdowns in 2020.

Are there any similarities?

Having explored 5 differences between yoga and Pilates, it is important to note that, yes, there are some similarities.

  • As a mind-body exercise, both exercises require focus which in turn, can help to reduce stress. They are also low impact forms of movement so are safe for a huge range of people to incorporate into their lives.

  • You do not have to fork out on a huge range of equipment. Whilst you might feel you need to have the latest activewear, both methods can be done in your pyjamas with a mat or a towel on your floor. Other equipment can be added as you further your practice, but absolutely not essential!

  • And the fact that both focus on the breath is so healthy for us. Taking the time to breathe, make space and move is key to our physical and mental health and should be encouraged.

I hope that this article has illustrated, with love, the differences between yoga and Pilates. I hope that it isn’t seen to disparage yoga, so please don’t take it as such! Movement is fantastic so if you are someone who loves yoga, keep doing it, but if you’re yet to give mat Pilates a try, Raise Pilates teach classes and private Pilates in Kingston and Surbiton, Surrey, as well as online. I would be delighted to introduce you to Pilates and show you how it differs from yoga!


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