Pilates VS Yoga

Pilates Versus Yoga – What’s the Difference?

Many people think that Pilates and Yoga are pretty much the same kind of exercise. 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.

Pilates and Yoga can complement each other because they each emphasize different types of movement and different fitness and mental goals

How Yoga differs from Pilates

Hatha Yoga is only one of 8 “limbs” of a very deep philosophy that has been taught in India for thousands of years. Hatha Yoga focuses on the Yoga Asanas or physical exercises. Yoga has thousands of different sub-genres and usually emphasizes:

  •  Breathing in coordination with movement
  • Passive stretching
  • Flowing sequences through various positions using body weight and sometimes props

Originally Yoga Asanas were meant 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. Yoga classes usually emphasize flexibility, balance, and increasing circulation of lymph and blood systems.

Many types of Yoga start with a sequence of standing poses to warm up the body. Seated poses are often done next. Many classes will end with inverted poses like headstands and handstands when you are super warmed up and focused.

There is often a short final seated meditation and then lying in corpse position to allow the nervous system to assimilate the new information and cool down gradually.

Often there are a lot of static stretches where one holds and deepens into a position.

The goal of a yoga class can vary from relaxation and rejuvenation to power yoga classes that make you sweat.

Sometimes the Sanskrit language is used to name the poses and 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.

How Pilates differs from Yoga

Pilates focuses on stabilization of the core abdominal muscles as well as spinal and pelvic alignment. There is also a big emphasis on shoulder girdle stabilization. Pilates focuses on resistance training using range of motion rather than static poses. 

Unlike Yoga, Pilates provides very little passive stretching. But like Yoga, Pilates incorporates the breath into each movement. 

Pilates was originally developed in New York City by German emigre Joseph Pilates to help ballet and modern dancers rehabilitate after injuries. He blended many concepts from both western and eastern origins. Some of his influences include:

  • Gymnastics
  • Weight training
  • Tai Chi
  • Martial Arts
  • Yoga
  • Zen Meditation

 And more…

The founder of the Pilates system designed many pieces of resistance and alignment equipment for a new 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.

Classical Pilates

Some studios stick very closely to the original exercises developed by Joseph Pilates. This is known as Classical Pilates. 

Classical Pilates emphasizes form and often no new exercises are added. These studios use apparatus that is built faithful 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. It keeps many of the classical exercises but 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 I taught at 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 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 uses very slow movements that are super intense and uses a unique piece of equipment called the Megaformer. They have designed a new inclined Megaformer that I have not tried yet. I took Lagree Method classes for a month but decided it was way too macho for me.

There are too many different types of Pilates-derived exercises to list them all in this post. Hundreds if newer models and types of equipment have been designed.

Both Pilates and Yoga have up leveled for difficulty

Many hybrid and new forms of Pilates have developed over the last 15 to 20 years. Now there is often an emphasis on doing so many reps of each movement that you “feel the burn” and work the muscle group in question to complete exhaustion.

Sustaining positions for long time periods can be especially taxing for the hip flexors in supine position (lying on your back). 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.

The hip flexors are important because although they flex the hip joint they 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 though it also 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, or you don’t understand how to engage them enough to keep tension out of the neck and shoulders.

Yoga balances out some of the Pilates movements

In yoga you also use the pecs and abs to stabilize in chaturanga, downward dog and inverted poses as well as standing balance poses. But there are very few extended periods of time in Yoga where you have to hold your legs up with the hip flexors.

Depending on the style, Yoga usually offers more hip extension and back extension than Pilates does. So Yoga balances all the forward flexion you are required to perform in Pilate classes to for long sequences of abdominal exercises.

Choosing the right class for you

Photo by Oluremi Adebayo

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? Or 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 so wedded to doing the original teachings that they don’t changes.

My favorite Bikram Yoga teacher had to have surgery on both knees. So I always modify this position while everyone else is valiantly trying to do it because they don’t know any better. 

In some Yoga classes there are contraindicated positions that 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.

Now we know a lot more about anatomy and functional movement than we did way back in the 1920s when Pilates was first developed and way more about human physiology then when yoga asanas were first developed thousands of years ago.

For instance in my Pilates class that I take 4 times a week there are always a lot of long holds in plank position. But I am just getting over a rotator cuff injury so I can’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 modify generously by going down on my knees or changing the position of my feet or simply getting out of the plank position sooner than the other students.

My injured shoulder doesn’t have the strength and stability to hold super planks right now.

Do I feel like a wuss for cutting an exercise short when it seems like everyone else is keeping up?

Sure, sometimes I get frustrated. But I know this is healthiest for my rotator cuff while it is recovering.

Even though I’m 30 years older than most of the other students in class I have greater range of motion and more flexibility than many people so I get to gloat about that.

In conclusion

Have fun and don’t be afraid to shop around. There are also many online courses you can watch 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.

Online resources


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