Pilates & Yoga - What’s The Difference?


Look up the definition of Pilates in the dictionary and you will get:

"a system of exercises using special apparatus designed to improve physical strength, flexibility and posture and enhance mental awareness.”

The definition of Yoga is:

“a Hindu spiritual discipline,  part of which including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures is widely practiced for health and relaxation” 

Despite similar terms being used in each definition, I hope you can see that there are also distinct differences. There is still a lot of confusion between the two and the terms are used interchangeably. In social situations the statement that immediately follows when I answer Pilates teacher to “what do you do?” is, “is it like yoga?”!  It doesn’t help that in mainstream media images showing postures from Yoga are used to illustrate Pilates and vice-versa. And just to muddy the water further, I have seen "Yoga-lates” classes amongst other fusion concepts that mix the two disciplines. You can see why it is difficult to understand that the two modalities are separate and entirely different in approach and function. 


How are they similar?

  • They are both low intensity. They are performed at a slow deliberate pace with emphasis on form and alignment.

  • They both constitute what is known as "low impact” exercise. The stress placed on the body is relatively low. Both are used in rehabilitation.

  • They both emphasise a mind-body connection. 

The History

Pilates came into being around 100 years ago when Joseph Pilates devised a new approach to exercise and body-conditioning. A frail child, he looked to exercise to improve his body and became skilled in many disciplines such as boxing, gymnastics, diving and skiing. Joseph believed that a sedentary lifestyle, bad posture and inefficient breathing were the roots of ill health. His answer to these problems was to design a unique series of physical exercises that help to correct muscular imbalances and improve coordination, balance, strength, and flexibility. He called his system “Contrology.” He used it when interned during the First World War to help his fellow internees remain fit. He then emigrated to New York and went on to open a studio in Manhattan. It happened to be in the same building as a number of dance studios and so “Controlology” became a big part of the rehabilitation and training of many dancers. Several early students of his became exceptional teachers in their own right. These teachers carried on the legacy of Pilates work through training programs of their own and Pilates eventually spread worldwide. 

Yoga began as an ancient meditation practice and originated in India five thousand or more years ago. Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body. The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘Yuj’, meaning ‘to join’. The physical aspect of yoga is through moving the body in and out of postures or “asanas”.  Through its development it was discovered that the yoga “asanas” had a practical benefit of improving flexibility and alleviating physical injuries and chronic pains. The physical practice of Yoga eventually gained popularity in the West as an answer to helping ailments and aiding relaxation. It has many different schools and influences in its modern day interpretation. 

What can I expect in a class?

In Pilates you will be taken through a series of movements that simultaneously strengthen and stretch the body. There is an emphasis on correct alignment, precision of movement and the development “core” strength. Whilst Pilates can be done on the mat, Joseph Pilates also invented large pieces of equipment  which you will find in more specialist Pilates Studios. The equipment includes the Reformer, Chair and Cadillac and is designed to provide a huge variety of ways in which to support and/or challenge the body through resistance. 

There are many different types of Yoga with different emphasis. Generally speaking, you will be taken through a series of physical postures and stretches by an instructor. Depending on the type you may flow through these poses or hold them for up to a few minutes. There is an emphasis on the meditative aspect and finding spiritual awareness through the breathing pattern alongside the physical movements. The class will take place on a mat and small equipment such as blocks, cushions and or straps may be used. Both Yoga and Pilates can be done in a group or private 1:1 setting. 


Different benefits: 

Pilates has a very logical and biomechanical approach to the body. You will gain an understanding of how your spine and joints work and how to increase balance and efficiency in your movement patterns.  Regular sessions will result in an increase in overall strength (particularly core strength) and range of movement. Your body awareness and posture will improve. The precision and control needed to execute the movements alongside control of the breath makes it a very mindful activity which can help reduce stress. It is very helpful for rehabilitating from injury and injury prevention. It is also very effective for alleviating and preventing the onset or recurrence of back pain. 

Yoga helps you to unwind and connect to your breath and body. The focus on mindful movement and the breath is very helpful in counteracting our busy, stressful lives by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. The physical part of the practice increases body awareness and flexibility. The focus on breathing can help with respiratory issues, stress and anxiety reduction. 


Choosing which is right for you:

Perhaps you feel more attracted to Pilates or Yoga based on your personal preferences of circumstances. If you are still unsure then why not try both? I personally find they compliment each other very well and practice both. Pilates is my mainstay and works very well for my hypermobile (overly bendy!) body. It has effectively eliminated my recurring neck, knee and back niggles. The physiology led approach has also given me a huge amount of information on my strengths and weaknesses, which is invaluable for efficiency and injury prevention. Interestingly,  the strength, joint stability and control I have gained from Pilates helps me to execute the physical postures in Yoga in a safe and effective way. When it comes to Yoga, I feel a huge benefit from the meditative aspect of the practice. In particular "Yin" Yoga classes have proven very effective in helping my anxiety. 

Humans are designed to move and any practice that helps counteract our largely sedentary and stressful lives is good for both mind and body, no matter what form it takes. We are all unique and some modalities suit us more than others. I hope this article illustrates the differences between these two hugely beneficial disciplines and helps you make a more informed choice. 

Article written by Alex Marshall: Flex It Stretch It

Alex is a Pilates Teacher and Low Back Pain specialist based in London and Tunbridge Wells.

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