When I tell people that I’m a Pilates teacher I so often get asked ‘what is it’ then they have the inevitable epiphany ‘ah, you mean yoga?’ or sometimes just the straight up ‘what’s the difference between Pilates and yoga?’ I have to admit it used to really annoy me. I couldn’t understand how anyone could confuse the two – I was a Pilates teacher that (naively) didn’t like yoga so I really couldn’t see the comparison. In my mind Pilates was great and yoga wasn’t!

That was some time ago and I’m over my frustration with the question, plus I’ve discovered some yoga practices that I really enjoy. However, the facts remain, Pilates is not yoga.  They are two very distinct disciplines. So what are the differences?

Picture of lady rolling up an exercise mat

1. How old?

Firstly, yoga is an ancient practice whereas Pilates is relatively modern. The Vedic form of yoga dates back to around 10,000 years and was written in Sanskrit. Pilates was created in the early 1920s by a German immigrant, Joseph Hubertus Pilates.  Due to its more recent heritage there are still existing practitioners or disciples of those who learned directly with Joseph Pilates in his New York Studio.

2. Spirituality

Yoga and Pilates are both mind-body disciplines practiced in a similar way where students are required to quiet their minds and focus. However, yoga has a distinct spiritual element to it where students are taught to reflect inwardly. The word yug from ancient Sanskrit meaning “to unify” describes the coming together of mind, body, spirit and emotions. Yogis strive to create harmony between these elements in order to connect more deeply within themselves and live in a higher state of consciousness.

Joseph Pilates described Pilates as “complete coordination of the body, mind and spirit” but he made no allusion to spirituality, indeed he specified that Pilates was a “practical physical education method”. In Pilates mindfulness is encouraged, this is a state of mind that requires being totally aware of what is happening around you. Students are encouraged to stay focused, relaxed and present in the moment to ensure that each exercise is carried out with precision.

3. To pose or not to pose

Movements aren’t held in Pilates as they are in the yoga poses. Yoga poses are typically held anywhere from 1-2 breaths to over 5 minutes depending on the type of yoga. Pilates exercises are flowing movements that don’t have static held positions.

4. Rehabilitation

Pilates is more commonly used for rehabilitation and in fact if you’ve ever been to a Physiotherapist you may notice that a lot of the exercises they prescribe are Pilates movements. Yoga is a mat based programme, whereas Pilates can be done on the mat or on specialised large equipment. Often the large equipment is used in rehabilitation as it uses springs to create resistance that can gently and safely build up strength. The equipment is raised off of the floor so it’s easy to get on and off of for those with mobility issues.

5. Range of movement

Yoga encourages participants to move to the limit of their range of movement. It uses deep stretches which require flexibility and mobility of the joints. Pilates uses smaller more precise movements that require stability of the core muscles while mobilising the joints. Therefore, it teaches participants to stay within their body’s range of movement and to work to increase their range over time. 

6. Varieties

Over the years Pilates schools of teaching have split into two main camps, Classical and Contemporary. Classical Pilates teaches the exercises in the same order and manner that Joseph Pilates taught them. Contemporary Pilates breaks down the Classical movements in order for them to be more manageable for all. Despite this split the exercises taught still follow from the original series of exercises so participants will recognise the exercises regardless of the type of class they attend.

Yoga has many more schools of practice from Hatha, Iyengar and Kundalini to Bikram and Vinyasa. These vary from very slow classes that tend to hold the poses for extended periods of time to more fast-paced classes where participants move quickly from one pose to another.

7. And breathe

A different technique of breathing is used in each discipline. Pilates uses a thoracic breathing pattern. This is a three-dimensional way of breathing where the breath is directed into the back and sides of the ribcage. Yoga adopts tummy breathing, where the breath is taken down into the belly.

Thoracic breathing helps to release and relax tension in the chest and shoulder muscles. The exhalation facilitates the contraction of the transverse abdominals, multifidi and pelvic floor muscles, these muscles of the pelvis, back and stomach are often referred to as ‘core muscles. This breathing also works to activate the lymphatic system which is part of the immune system. Belly breathing 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.

Where the similarities do exist

Despite the differences between the two disciplines yoga and Pilates both improve muscular and postural strength and increase flexibility and balance. They are low-impact exercises meaning that they place less stress on the joints.

The practice of breathwork present in both is instrumental in combating feelings of stress and anxiety. A study by Mindbody (Mindbody Wellness Index Report 2019) found that “70 per cent of those who do yoga or Pilates say that it relieves stress for them.” Coupled with the emphasis of both yoga and Pilates on aligning mind and body and the focus on self-care both programmes are greatly beneficial for helping people with their mental health and wellbeing.

If you want to try out Pilates for yourself I offer online classes that you can find more information about here

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