Yoga vs. Pilates – Which Is Right For You?
Most people whose physical activity centers around strenuous 5-on-5 basketball games or weekend soccer matches – or just lying on the couch watching basketball games and soccer matches – probably think that yoga and Pilates are the same thing.
And it’s quite possible that workout warriors who spend their days pumping iron at the gym may not be able to accurately define yoga or Pilates let alone explain the differences, even though classes in both disciplines might be going on just a few yards away.
It’s easy to see why many lump yoga and Pilates together. They involve somewhat-similar exercises and positions, and they each improve flexibility, endurance and strength while relieving stress. The differences between yoga and Pilates, though, are many – including the philosophies behind them. A better understanding of each will clarify those differences, and help you figure out whether the time-honored practice of yoga or the modern approach of Pilates is right for you.
What is Yoga?
Yoga was developed in India more than 5,000 years ago, and there’s a lot more to it than just striking strange poses in a park or on a mat. In fact, you can understand a lot about the discipline by looking at its name; the word “yoga” is derived from a Sanskrit word interpreted as “union,” and the practice is ultimately intended not only to unify a person’s body with their breath and their mind, but to unify the individual’s spirit with that of the world as a whole – leading to clarity and inner peace. If you’re thinking about yoga simply as a way of getting exercise, you’ll be missing out on the central purpose of the discipline.
There is More to Yoga Than Stretching
It’s true that the stretching exercises (which are known as poses, postures or asana) you’ve probably seen practitioners doing have physical benefits like flexibility and strength. But there’s a deeper purpose to these exercises: centering the mind on a goal encourages calmness and relaxation, improving the well-being of both the mind and body.
The asanas are only part of one path of yoga, even though they’re what come to most people’s minds. Other paths which can be followed include selfless service to others and unending devotion to the entirety of the universe. What we’re talking about here, though, focuses primarily on the exercise system of asanas combined with breathing and meditation. Among the most commonly seen styles are gentle Hatha and Vinyasa yoga and the more demanding Ashtanga and Bikram yoga (the latter being performed in heated rooms). The Asanas for each style vary, and each pose focuses on producing a specific effect on the body and the mind.
In all of the styles, the body transitions between asanas with an emphasis on fluidity, focus, patience and breathing. The poses are usually performed on a yoga mat, although they can also be done outdoors on the ground or indoors on the floor if necessary. Sessions normally end with a meditation period.
To sum up in broad terms, yoga can work wonders for your body but it’s intended to do much more than that; its goal is to unify your body, mind and spirit.
What Is Pilates?
Pilates isn’t about spirituality as much as it is about exercise. It’s a low-impact system developed nearly 100 years ago by Joseph Pilates, a German athlete and physical trainer who was deeply interested in Greek and Eastern systems of mind-body development. He actually came up with the basics of what’s now known as the Pilates system while he was in a forced internment camp, and used some of those techniques (with bed frames and rings from beer kegs as rudimentary equipment) to help other detainees who were rehabilitating from injuries.
Shortly after World War I, Pilates moved to New York where he and his wife – and later his disciples – spread the word about the Pilates method. Among the early beneficiaries of his exercises were dancers whose studios were near his own, rehabilitating patients, and athletes. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 20th century that Pilates’ exercises gained widespread acceptance and popularity.
Pilates isn’t overtly aimed at spirituality in the manner of yoga. Instead the aim is to create a body which works optimally by improving both physical and mental health. This total body conditioning, which is the goal of Pilates, is achieved by performing exercises requiring the six principles of Pilates: centering, concentration, control, flow, breath and precision, while strengthening the body’s core and improving muscle strength.
Some Pilates exercises are done on a mat, while many others involve equipment such as a “reformer,” a floor-based frame with a sliding carriage designed to provide resistance against which the body can work. The rigor required by these exercises creates passive mental benefits like focus and a release of tension, along with the more obvious physical benefits of any well-designed exercises aimed at the abs, hips, thighs and lower back.
The bottom line: Pilates is basically an exercise system, but can have a distinct impact on your mental well-being as well.
Physical Benefits of Yoga
If you’re comparing yoga vs. Pilates to determine which is right for you, it’s pretty obvious that you’re primarily interested in the physical benefits of each. We’ll start with yoga.
We’ve already mentioned that each yoga asana is targeted at a particular body area or result. Not all poses will contribute to the effects we’ll mention, but well-designed yoga programs will hit most or all of these targets.
At the top of the list is flexibility and range of motion, with the shoulders (eagle pose, cow face pose, bridge pose), hips (eye of the needle, pigeon, double pigeon poses), back (two-knee twist, thread the needle) and hamstrings (forward bends, triangle pose, wide-legged straddle) benefiting the most from yoga stretches.
Next comes increased strength developed by bearing your body’s weight in ways you’re not accustomed to, for extended periods of time. The tree pose and the well-known downward facing dog are two asanas which will build muscle strength.
Overall muscle definition and tone is another major benefit of many yoga poses, particularly if done in the proper sequence or with the proper variations. Examples are doing bunny hops from a downward dog pose, doing heel lifts while in a tree pose, or gentle twists out of a low lunge position. Even if you don’t do asanas specifically designed to improve muscle tone, it will still improve from a regular yoga routine. One-leg poses (awkward chair, half moon pose, standing splits) and inversions (headstands, shoulder stands, plow pose) are terrific for this purpose and will also help improve your balance.
Additional physical benefits to any yoga routine include improvements in breathing, energy and cardio health, a more balanced metabolism, and weight loss over time. Stress relief isn’t something that’s physically obvious, but it can help ease back and neck pain and headaches, as well as helping with concentration and sleeping difficulties.
Physical Benefits of Pilates
Since Pilates exercises focus on the body’s core, that’s where you’ll find the most obvious improvements when regularly doing Pilates workouts. Exercises like the knee fold tuck, side balance crunches, circle planks and oblique reaches will do wonders for core strength while Pilates for beginners exercises like leg lifts, heel taps and bridging will greatly help with core stability.
The hundred, the criss-cross, and the rainbow are examples of Pilates exercises which will help build strength and tone muscles throughout the body. Pilates is also ideal for spine stabilization and better posture; you won’t be surprised to learn that exercises like the spine stretch forward, performed either on a mat or against a wall, are intended to improve stability and posture.
Many Pilates workouts are done with the help of specialized equipment like the reformer, the Wunda Chair and the Cadillac, or standard equipment like an exercise ball. The reformer is the one seen most often in studios (and in home gyms) because the resistance it provides as you maneuver the carriage back and forth challenges your body’s muscles to reach new levels of strength. Flatter abs and toned muscles are easier to achieve with the help of reformers or other equipment, and more challenging workouts are possible by adjusting the amount of tension or how much of your body is on the equipment.
Other benefits of Pilates include better coordination and balance, improved circulation and lung function, and spine stability as well as the positive effects of lowered stress and better concentration. Befitting the origin of the system, Pilates is also ideal for physical rehabilitation patients.
Yoga or Pilates for Weight Loss
Many people considering yoga or Pilates are doing so because their primary goal is to lose weight. Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut winner when comparing the two for this purpose. If you choose Pilates for weight loss, you’ll find a slight advantage over yoga; regular Pilates workouts will burn about 175 calories during a standard workout, while Power Pilates (a very strenuous and rigorous iteration of the original Pilates workout from the early days of the program) will burn anywhere from 250-350 calories. By comparison, a Hatha Yoga session will burn around 145 calories, and Power Yoga (an intense yoga program) burns about 250 calories. There’s a slight advantage to Pilates for weight loss, but not a definitive one.
Yoga vs. Pilates: Which Is Right For You?
It’s quite possible that these descriptions have already helped you make the determination which choice is the best for you. If not, here’s a further summary of yoga and Pilates.
Philosophy: Yoga is a holistic and unified program involving the mind, body and spirit. Pilates is primarily an exercise program which “secondarily” works to connect the physical and mental aspects of the body.
Target body areas: Yoga aims to promote flexibility, coordination and relaxation throughout the body. Pilates is primarily meant to structure the body’s core and overall muscle strength, as well as balance and coordination. If you’re primarily focused on your abs or thighs, Pilates is a better approach to do that.
Mental/emotional health: Yoga has been shown to have major positive effects on the sympathetic nervous system and hormone levels, leading to stress reduction and emotional control. Pilates has been shown to have similar effects, but apparently at somewhat lower levels; it’s also said to facilitate the development of new brain cells.
Workouts: Yoga will be performed on a mat most of the time. Pilates utilizes both a mat and several dedicated pieces of equipment (although Pilates for beginners is primarily conducted on the mat, with the equipment factoring in after a period of time). Most yoga routines will be slow, deliberate and fluid; Pilates workouts are also somewhat graceful, but are more likely to let you build up a good sweat (although Bikram yoga, performed in a heated room, will definitely give your sweat glands a workout).
Workout structure: You’ll find that a Pilates workout is basically structured, while most yoga sessions will be less structured with the sequence and choice of asanas left up to the teacher/instructor/guide. Some yoga styles are the exception, as Bikram and Ashtanga sessions are more likely to have structured plans.
Meditation: The end, and sometimes the start, of a yoga session will involve a set period of meditation. If you want to combine Pilates and meditation, you’re on your own.
Rehab: Pilates was originally created to help patients with physical rehabilitation and is still recommended by medical professionals for slow and effective rehab. Yoga is more suited to emotional and mental rehabilitation.
Pain Management: Pilates is generally viewed as the better option for dealing with issues like back pain because it will build the strength of the affected muscles, although there are several recent studies showing that yoga can help with pain in the short-term. If the pain is periodic, yoga could be a better choice because it builds the flexibility which can prevent recurrences.
Yoga vs. Pilates: Why Not Both?
Those on the cutting edge of workout development are now often recommending an exercise program which includes both yoga and Pilates. Since each discipline has its own advantages, an integrated approach can provide both the flexibility and grace developed through yoga and the stronger, lean and toned muscles Pilates helps develop; the combination can lead to higher levels of stress reduction and mental fitness. A number of workout centers are now providing these hybrid programs, which could be worth checking out if you’re still not convinced whether yoga or Pilates is better for you.
If you have decided Pilates is the way to go, you might want to check out the Top 5 Best Pilates Reformers List.