To answer the question as straightforward and as simply as one can – the key difference is that yoga is a spiritual practice that is thousands of years old, based on Indian philosophy and yogic traditions. Pilates, on the other hand is a repertoire of exercises developed more recently, in the 1920’s, by Mr Joseph Pilates to help first World War injured soldiers rehabilitate which then spread more mainstream.
However … there are subtle and major differences between Pilates and yoga and there are subtle and major similarities! Not particularly helpful I know when you are deciding which one to practice and I often get asked the question as to which one is ‘better’ to do! There is no ‘better’ one, I feel it’s dependent upon your objective, intention and aims, and what your mind and body requirements are.
Do you want to get fitter, maybe you want to start yoga to lose weight? Are you feeling stressed and need to chill out? Maybe you want a flatter stomach or to become more flexible? Do you need to exercise for rehabilitation or has your doctor suggested exercise for health reasons and help reverse certain medical conditions? Maybe you have a ‘dodgy’ back or you require a complete lifestyle change? Yoga may even help with the quest for better sleep.
Why is Yoga so good for you?
Yoga is not just about the poses (asana) practiced on the mat, it is more about living a conscious existence and a ‘clean’ way of life. The poses prepare the body for savasana – the important relaxation at the end of the class. There may be classes that include chanting and certain breath control exercises that explore and deepen mind, body and spirit harmony, to help you learn to live with loving kindness and a desire to serve.
The ultimate aim in yoga is enlightenment! (Not really known to be achieved in a 90 minute class but hopefully you will leave with a sense of peace, calm and openness each time!). To take it deeper, there are the yamas and the niyamas – a code to live one’s life by (similar to the Ten Commandments).
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Whilst Joseph Pilates was interned as a POW in WW1, as a very fit man himself who enjoyed boxing and yoga, creatively attached springs to the beds of injured German soldiers so they could exercise.
Later, when Pilates moved to New York to set up his studio, he and his wife helped injured ballet dancers get back on their feet! As their various students moved across the US to teach his method to others, it arrived in LA, and when the Hollywood stars of the 1960’s started practicing ‘contrology’ (its original name) popularity soon increased, eventually spreading to Europe and the UK.
Pilates can change your body in a number of ways. The Pilates method focuses on the flexibility of the spine, deep strengthening of the core, graceful posture and alignment, breath and precision. The abdominals and breath initiate the movement and as Pilates himself was influenced by yoga, certain moves cross over, e.g. the plank, the boat (or teaser), and as he was also a circus performer and boxer, there are some fun but tough moves – rolling like a ball, open leg rocker and seal – exercises that again focus on flexibility of the spine and stability of the core.
He often taught fit people outdoors regardless of weather. It can be said therefore, that Pilates is considered a more physical practice which can be used to maintain your ideal weight, whereas yoga a more emotional and mental practice that activates the parasympathetic nervous system, either by holding the poses for a certain amount of time, or finding a flow with the breath, allowing the breath to lead the movement in order to sit quietly for meditation.
Both disciplines may utilise small props – albeit different types. In Pilates you use a ‘magic circle’ (ring) or a soft ball. You can find Pilates classes that incorporate dynabands, rollers and Swiss balls. In yoga, certain classes use belts, blankets, foam pads and cork bricks.
Both can be practiced without any props and just the mat. Pilates however, is also be performed on ‘machines’ or ‘equipment’ – the reformer, the cadillac, the barrel and the chair for example – and you would usually attend a specialised ‘studio’ to gain the benefits of reformer Pilates and the other modalities, unless you were fortunate to have these expensive pieces of equipment at home!
Yoga can be practiced anywhere – even if it’s sitting quietly on top of a mountain or waiting for a bus standing on a crowded street standing in ‘mountain pose’! The ideal with yoga is to develop your own daily self-practice – which one day maybe is just for five minutes and another day one hour and the classes aid your self-practice.
There are now many different styles of yoga and although primarily low impact, a dynamic class (which often includes jumps) or a hot yoga class will make you sweat. There are yoga classes that include extremely beneficial yoga inversions – headstands, handstands etc and poses that often looked like rather complicated!
Pilates can also be challenging depending on the level of the class and the chances are you will only sweat practicing the advanced repertoire. Pilates is pure movement, or as Alan Herdman once said to me, ‘it’s just exercise’. It’s not spiritual – you train for strength and length, stability and makes you more aware of the imbalances of the body.
Yoga is about balancing the mind and although flexibility and strength may result, and certain poses will aid smooth digestion and improve the immune system, it can offer ‘quietness of mind’ and if you so wish, help you on your own spiritual ‘journey’.
Both yoga and Pilates are incredibly valuable and I suggest trying them both – find a teacher you like and a style that suits you. ‘Classical’ Pilates stays very close to how Mr Pilates originally performed his set sequence of he exercises.
‘Contemporary Pilates’ may include exercises not from the original repertoire but incorporates the principles. Some yoga classes may be more static and poses are held for longer or more dynamic or flowing – so again, explore and discover what suits you – there’s Iyengar, Ashtanga, Jivamukti, Sivananda to name just a few and can be confusing to the beginner!
But do bear in mind, It really doesn’t matter if your pose is not as perfect as the teacher’s or the person next to you. It’s your body, your mat, your practice!
In my view, both disciplines complement each other so no need to choose one over the other. Consider incorporating both into your weekly schedule and see how you feel.
Of course, there are people who prefer yoga over Pilates and vice-versa, it’s personal choice. Whichever you choose, practice mindfully with focus and awareness to improve concentration and calm the mind. In addition, Pilates will strengthen the body from the inside out and lengthen and define the muscles, and yoga will teach you how to be more present, to help you heal and reflect.