Yoga vs Pilates

Gaby Noble is a leading Pilates educator and owner of award-winning studios Exhale Pilates London. With a large A-list clientele, she regularly writes for top publications and presents at wellness and corporate events.

I am often asked ‘should I do Pilates or Yoga?’ The reality is they are not mutually exclusive. Both have a plethora of benefits, but understanding the difference between the two can help guide you on your journey.

 The reason people often group yoga and Pilates together

Both are low impact and low intensity disciplines. They quite frequently come under the ‘holistic’ umbrella, however this is where they differ. Yoga is more about spirituality and breathing whereas Pilates is more about mindful movement and strength. They both incorporate the powerful combination of body, mind and soul, while breathing is also a huge component for both disciplines.

With an increase in stress levels, especially in the past year, both disciplines have surged in popularity as people are becoming more aware of being less ‘punishing’ to their bodies and mental state. And yet, in an overcrowded market place with businesses trying to create differentiation for commercial advantage, we are moving far away from the original and traditional benefits these disciplines provide.

The main similarities…

As I mentioned, both Yoga and Pilates focus on breath, with more concentration on this element in Yoga. Yoga breathing promotes relaxation and is used to hold a pose and breathe into stressed and tight areas. In Pilates, the breath is used to provide the muscles with more energy to exercise effectively. Hence the inhale is important as you are bringing fresh oxygen into the entire body to feed the muscles to work more. As Joseph Pilates said: ‘Breathing is the first act of life and the last, our very life depends on it.’

Both Yoga and Pilates are used to help support back issues by strengthening the back muscles and working on balance. Yoga, however, can actually exacerbate problems if the person doesn’t use their core in the poses. Using the core is Pilates’ main aim, and all movement must come from the centre whether you are lying, standing or sitting.

Most Pilates moves start from lying down so as not to put pressure on the joints, whereas Yoga generally starts standing. If, for example, you do a downward dog and use your weight by pressing into the wrists and feet without a strong centre you can actually worsen weaknesses, crunch the neck and shoulders and put pressure on your pelvis, weakening the back muscles.  Therefore, it is important that whatever exercise regime you are doing (whether it be Yoga, weightlifting or running, for example), that you teach and train your body to come from a strong centre – in Pilates terms, ‘Powerhouse’.

With both disciplines focusing on the mind-body connection, Yoga and Pilates can really help with anxiety and depression by slowing everything down and helping you be more mindful of self-care and alignment. You don’t always have to be hitting it hard to get some incredible physical and mental results. Quite the contrary, as you will lower cortisol levels which spike when the body and mind are under stress – these actually prohibit a healthy being, limiting the results you are looking to achieve.

Pilates and Yoga target muscle groups that you won’t access in many other forms of exercise. You can be an incredibly fit runner or boxer and come out of a Yoga or Pilates class in agony because you’ve worked muscles you don’t usually engage or even know you had.

 …And the key differences  

As mentioned above, Yoga has poses where you breathe for long periods of time. Pilates is more about using the breath to help facilitate a movement more efficiently and feed the muscle with more oxygen for it to work harder.

Both can be performed on a mat with additional props, however the original Pilates method incorporates the use of many different machines – the best-known being the reformer. There are many pieces of kit that Joseph Pilates devised to help his clients to support the balance of strength and flexibility, including the barrel, chairs, foot corrector and whole heap of other incredible contraptions. So, if you aren’t able to perform an exercise correctly on the reformer and mat, you could build that strength or flexibility by working on the others. The fundamental goal in Pilates is to perform the mat sequence with strength, flexibility, flow and control. As Joseph points out: ‘A few well-designed movements, properly performed in a balanced sequence, are worth hours of doing sloppy calisthenics or forced contortion.’

Pilates is not a spiritual pursuit like Yoga is. Yoga uses the body to connect with the mind and inner self. Pilates uses mindfulness to connect to the inner workings of the body.

The key differences also are to know what type of Pilates and Yoga you are doing. Dynamic forms, especially if you are a beginner or prone to injury, make you move your body quickly – they potentially can be damaging to the joints, which in turn does the complete opposite to what you had envisaged for the session and, most importantly, for your body and mind. Make sure you do your research, especially if you have any niggles, as some Pilates and Yoga sessions (especially Dynamic Reformer as referred to today) can make the ‘niggle’ worse! Niggles are generally down to imbalances in the body, so the key is to find the balance through understanding what exactly needs strengthening or stretching.

The beauty of both Yoga and Pilates is that they provide the benefits to balance muscular strength and tone, flexibility for your joints to move better (which in turn makes you feel better) and, above all, work on linking the body to the mind – one of the most powerful tools we have.

How do you know if you’re more of a Yoga or a Pilates person?

Pilates is a safer option if you are prone to injury, especially if you are hypermobile. It is key not to overstretch, as this pulls an already mobile joint away from strengthening a muscle that supports it.

I believe that practicing both Yoga and Pilates is really complementary. However, in today’s society people are time poor so you have to try what suits you and what makes you feel better. Generally, you prefer one or the other as they are very different when you understand what should be achieved. It is also important to not give up – both practices take patience and egos should be left at the door.

People who are more logical tend to like Pilates, whereas creative people like Yoga as it gives you more freedom. A client once said to me, ‘no one tells you to empty your brain in Pilates, you have to think!’ Pilates is a combination of stretching but also applying conscious strength. It really forces you to stay present and to feel your body moving without being told to. It’s a perfect mix between fitness and Yoga.

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