One is a holistic discipline originating from ancient India, the other a specific physical system devised by a German anatomist in the early 20th century, but there’s much cross-over – and therein lies confusion – between yoga and Pilates.
As practices today, yoga and Pilates are both celebrated for their numerous health benefits, from offering connection to the body and stress relief, to developing flexibility, strength, control and endurance. There are countless interpretations of both disciplines (and one person’s balance class is another person’s cardio) but what links them both is breath work.
But despite the longevity and global popularity, confusion persists about yoga and pilates, compounded by the increasing variety of classes offered in each discipline. Ashtanga, iyengar and vinyasa are all considered relatively modern incarnations of yoga; inevitably new variants of pilates have sprung up, too, as the market has become more commercialised. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, whose mother, Doria Ragland, is a yoga teacher, is a fan of Megaformer – a souped-up version of reformer pilates – while gyrotonic yoga is credited with helping Andy Murray with his longstanding back issues.
Teachers of both yoga and pilates say they are routinely asked to explain the difference between them. “The simple answer is that they’re both low intensity, low impact and inclusive, unlike many other forms of exercise,” says Prof Greg Whyte, a former Olympian and now leading authority on sports science. “Generally speaking, yoga is much more about flexibility and stability, pilates is strength and stability.”
Get Centered With Yoga
Yoga is the oldest method of three, dating back thousands of years, but it only became widely practiced in the Western world in the 1940s. The physical exercise, called asana in Sanskrit, refers to the postures or poses, such as downward dog, tree pose and headstand. Special breathing methods, or pranayama, are also part of the traditional practice, as is meditation to help calm and center the mind. Depending on which yoga style you choose and the studio you go to, there may be more or less emphasis on the physical versus the meditative aspects of yoga.
Pilates for a Strong Core
Created by former athlete Jospeh Pilates to help rehabilitate his peers in an internment camp during World War I, Pilates was designed as a system for strengthening the body and mind. Using a combination of body-weight exercises and equipment, Pilates focuses on strengthening the body’s “powerhouse” — the core muscles of the hips, abdomen and lower back. It does this via several different modalities, including mat exercises and equipment exercises — the particulars of which can seem complex.
Laura Browning Grant, a pilates teacher in North Carolina, gained a huge following on social media for using pilates techniques to rehabilitate her husband, Jonny, a former Navy Seal who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash. Grant has written about the power of pilates for both physical and mental wellbeing. “I have worked with individuals that have experienced trauma, causing emotional and physical damage,” she writes. “Using the pilates method, many were able to regain a sense of balance in their life.”
Suzi Power teaches yoga and pilates at the community studio East of Eden in London, and sees the benefits of both. She advocates pilates as a safer option for those prone to injury, or those who are exploring this type of exercise for the first time. “I trained in yoga first, but I was drawn to pilates reformer because I had a yoga injury. Pilates helped me to rehabilitate.”
Yoga uses the body to connect with the mind and the inner self, while pilates uses mindfulness to connect to the inner workings of the body. “I practise both and love both – I think they complement each other well,” says Lottie Murphy, a former ballet dancer, now pilates teacher. “The main difference is the focus on the spiritual element in yoga. Some of the actual poses are similar – in pilates, we do the elephant, which is basically downward dog, and also backbends. It’s just that in pilates, we tend to build up to some of those moves more slowly than you might in yoga.”
How To Choose Between Yoga vs Pilates
If you want to improve your balance, flexibility and muscle tone while also helping combat general stress and anxiety, yoga is a cheaper option with more available classes and studios (due to the growing popularly of the practice).
If you’re looking for an exercise to help manage an injury or combat general back, muscle or joint pains such as arthritis while improving your strength, Pilates is the better choice for this. However because of the specialised equipment, a Pilates class is often more expensive.