Many people think that Pilates and Yoga are the same. But even though some of the body positions look similar, the experience of doing Pilates versus Yoga is totally different.
Pilates and Yoga can complement each other because they each emphasize different types of movement and different fitness and mental goals.
What is Yoga?
Hatha Yoga is the type of yoga most westerners think of when they hear the word “yoga”. But Yoga with a capital Y is a philosophy that includes mental disciplines, spiritual practices, eating practices, and a huge body of written teachings.
Hatha Yoga is only one of 8 “limbs” of a deep philosophy that has been taught in India for thousands of years.
Hatha Yoga focuses on yoga asanas which are physical exercises. Hatha Yoga has thousands of different sub-genres and usually emphasizes:
- Breathing in coordination with flowing movement sequences
- Balance poses and inverted poses
- Passive stretching holding positions and using the breath to deepen the position or asana using bodyweight and sometimes props
Originally Yoga Asanas were performed to help the mind focus and prepare the body for meditation. It was a means to hone the body for mental and spiritual goals.
Today the Asanas have been hijacked and modernized in thousands of different ways.
Yoga classes usually emphasize flexibility, balance, and can increase circulation of lymph and blood systems.
Many types of Yoga start with a sequence of standing poses to warm up the body. Flow yoga is a style of yoga where you are moving in unison with your breath rather than holding static poses.
Sun Salutation is a common sequence to start with. Sun Salutation is a flowing sequence that is often done before static standing poses. Often in yoga classes, there are balance poses and static stretches where one holds and deepens into a position.
Seated poses are often done in the second half of the class. Many classes will end with inverted poses like headstands and handstands when you are warmed up and focused.
There is sometimes a short final seated meditation. At the very end of the class, you usually lie in “corpse pose” known as savasana in Sanskrit. Lying still allows the nervous system to assimilate the new information. Lying still also helps you cool down gradually.
The goal of a yoga class can vary greatly.
Some classes focus on relaxation and rejuvenation. While power yoga classes make you sweat and emphasize cardio or use resistance tools to increase the intensity. Many modern yoga classes would make the ancients turn over in their graves if they could see what goes on in the name of Yoga.
In more traditional yoga classes the Sanskrit language is used to name the poses. Many teachers prefer to use the English equivalents. Sanskrit is often used for chanting at the beginning and end of the class.
Rodney Yee is one of my favorite Yoga teachers. He has many videos for all levels and many types of yoga. He makes yoga accessible and safe.
Pilates is not anything like yoga
Pilates focuses on the stabilization of the core muscles. The core is not only the abdominals but includes the whole trunk, spine, and pelvic. Spinal alignment and joint alignment are also emphasized in Pilates.
There is also a big emphasis on shoulder girdle stabilization. Pilates focuses on resistance training using range-of-motion rather than static poses.
The use of the breath in yoga versus Pilates
Unlike Yoga, Pilates provides very little passive stretching. Pilates classes often incorporate the breath into each movement. In Pilates breath is primarily used as a force for activating the abdominal muscles. Focusing on the mind is secondary in Pilates. In Yoga, the breath is often used for centering the mind and focus as the main goal with exercise goals as a secondary byproduct.
Pilates was originally developed from exercises improvised in a prison camp situation. German emigre, Joseph Pilates moved to New York City in the early 20th century and formalized his movements. He designed a program to help ballet and modern dancers rehabilitate after injuries. He blended many concepts from both western and eastern origins. Some of his influences include:
- Weight training
- Tai Chi
- Martial Arts
- Zen Meditation
The founder of the Pilates system designed many pieces of resistance and alignment equipment for a type of physical therapy.
- The Reformer is the first piece of equipment he designed.
- The Cadillac
- The Wunda Chair (He was German, thus the strange name)
- Barrels of different sizes and shapes
Joseph Pilates built many smaller props that can be used in the Pilates mat work. He was way ahead of his time when he first started teaching back in 1923.
Some studios stick very closely to the original exercises developed by Joseph Pilates. This is known as Classical Pilates.
Classical Pilates emphasizes form and perfect execution and often no new exercises are added. These studios use apparatus that is built faithfully to the original designs. Many of the New York studios teach classical-style Pilates.
Modern versions of Pilates
I became a certified Pilates trainer and taught for 15 years using the Stott Pilates Method. Stott was developed by a former dancer.
Stott Pilates keeps many of the classical exercises. But Stott updates the movements with the knowledge that we presently have of proper body mechanics. Stott is the best of both worlds, classical and modern.
Pilates ProWorks is a studio where I taught in the San Francisco Bay Area. This hybrid style was developed in Latin America but has studios all over the world. They focus on newly designed equipment. Pilates “Proformers” are wider and longer than the original because people are bigger and taller now than they were in 1923.
Pilates ProWorks is much more intense than the Stott style and incorporates aerobic fitness into all classes. Their classes barely resemble classical Pilates at all. It was exhilarating and fun to teach this new style of Pilates after doing Stott for so long.
The Lagree Method is another hybrid style that is very loosely based on Pilates. Lagree uses very slow movements that are intense because of the high weight loads. Lagree developed a unique piece of equipment called the Megaformer.
They have designed a inclined Megaformer that I have not tried yet. Jo Pilates would love what Lagree has designed. I took Lagree Method classes for a month but decided it was too macho for me.
There are too many different types of Pilates-derived exercises to list them all. Hundreds of new designs for Pilates equipment have been developed over the last 20 years. There is even a standing apparatus called the Corealign that Joe Pilates would have loved.
Pilates can overwork the hip flexors and neck
Many hybrid and new forms of Pilates have developed over the last 15 to 20 years. Now there is often an emphasis on doing many reps of each movement so you “feel the burn” and work each muscle group to complete exhaustion.
There are many exercises in Pilates that focus on strengthening the abs while doing variations on ab curls combined with resistance training for your arms.
A lot of the exercises force you to hold your legs in a tabletop position while lying on your back. This supine position can put a lot of stress on the hip flexors.
The main purpose of the flex hip flexors is to fold the thigh toward your center. The hip flexors are deep muscles that attach the front of your spine deep beneath the abdominals, so they are part of your core along with your abs and glutes and help you stabilize your trunk during movement.
Often Pilates classes emphasize a lot of upper body flexion. Pilates does employ a few extension exercises for the torso. All of this flexion can put a strain on the cervical spine when the abs are weak. Sometimes students cannot engage the abs enough to keep tension out of the neck and shoulders.
Yoga balances out some of the Pilates flexion
In yoga, you also use the pecs and abs to stabilize in many positions: downward dog, inverted poses, and standing many poses.
But there are very few extended periods of time in Yoga where you have to hold your legs up in a tabletop position with the hip flexors.
Depending on the style, Yoga usually offers more hip extension and back extension than Pilates does. Yoga balances all the forward flexion you are required to perform in Pilate classes for long sequences of abdominal exercises.
Choosing the right class for you
Find a studio that has a good reputation and is safe. The right class for you will depend on your goals.
Do you want to stretch and relax or build muscle? Do you need to rehab and injury? You may need to try several studios to find the best type of exercise for you.
Don’t be afraid to modify Exercises
Unfortunately, in both Pilates and yoga, some studios are very orthodox about being faithful to the original teachings. these studios don’t modify the exercises as much as they should.
They are more concerned with how a position looks than tailoring the exercise to the needs of individual students.
In some Yoga classes, there are contraindicated positions that modern exercise physiology has proven are not safe to do. If anything doesn’t feel right to you, stop immediately.
In Bikram yoga, they still teach one a double straddle pose that we now know is dangerous for the knees.
My favorite Bikram Yoga teacher had to have surgery on both knees. So I always modify this position while everyone else in class is valiantly trying to do it because they don’t know any better.
We know a lot more about anatomy and functional movement than we did way back in the 1920s when Pilates was first developed. Yoga asanas were first developed thousands of years ago so there are some asanas that we no longer consider safe to perform.
In a Pilates class that I used to take 4 times a week, there were always a lot of long holds in the plank position. But I was just getting over a rotator cuff injury so I couldn’t hold a plank position for very long. Planks require stability in the shoulders, hips, and core trunk muscles.
Planks are especially difficult on a moving platform, so I modified generously by going down on my knees or changing the position of my feet. Sometimes I would get out of the plank position sooner than the other students.
My injured shoulder didn’t have the strength or stability to hold super planks at that time.
Did I feel like a wuss for cutting an exercise short when everyone else was keeping up?
Sure, sometimes I would get frustrated. But I knew this was healthiest for my rotator cuff while it was recovering.
Even though I’m 30 years older than most of the other students in the class I have a greater range of motion and more flexibility than many people so I get to gloat about that.
Have fun and don’t be afraid to shop around. There are also many online courses you can follow along with to get a feel for the differences between Yoga and Pilates. Though for Pilates work on the apparatus you have to go to a studio.