If you had to choose between Pilates and yoga, it would be a tough decision to make.
Both boast a range of health benefits, including muscle strength, flexibility, posture improvement, pain management and illness prevention. Both involve slow, lengthening movements and cultivate the mind-body connection.
Considering the parallels, how do you know which workout is best for you? Depending on your goals, one may be better for you than the other, or you may find that a combination of the two works best for your lifestyle.
As a practitioner of both yoga and Pilates I found both exercises yield similar results, but when it comes to the foundation and experience of each practice, they are actually quite different.
Ancient Healing Practice or Modern Training Regimen?
Yoga originated in Northern India more than 5,000 years ago as a form of meditation and spiritual practice. The key spiritual elements of yoga are synchronizing the mind and body, and connecting the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness through physical activity.
Even though modern-day yoga is now commonly practiced as a way to get fit, its purpose still encompasses relaxation, emotional healing and self-improvement.
Pilates was invented by German athlete Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century to help tone and strengthen partially immobilized World War I soldiers in England. But as Pilates spread as a training regimen, it gained popularity among dancers, actors and beyond.
Unlike yoga, relaxation and emotional healing were not a part of the original philosophy of Pilates. The mind-body connection was seen as more of a foundation for optimal concentration, balance and control. According to Joseph Pilates, the Pilates method was about mind over body. Or in other words, using focus to get through a challenging workout.
Verdict: If you're looking for an expansive emotional release, go for yoga. If you want to improve your focus while you get a workout, go for Pilates.
More Headspace or Focus?
With silent sitting meditation, you sit still and work with your mind and body (even though they are essentially doing nothing). You align the mind and body by repeatedly bringing your attention back into the present moment and focusing on the feeling of your body breathing.
In my experience, yoga is a similar practice, except that instead of bringing your mind back to the feeling of your body breathing while sitting still, you bring your it back to your body breathing through a pose or flow.
Similar insights can develop from both exercises when you start to notice the types of thoughts that take you away from the present moment or what emotions arise when you give yourself space.
However, in Pilates there is less of that open space. Personally, I’m usually too busy breathing through the exercise to think about anything else. (I do Pilates on a machine called the Proformer, which means it’s very, very hard.) However, come the middle of a class, my body and mind start to align and I focus on completing the exercise with correct form. There is no room for mind wandering in this workout.
Through Pilates you can gain insight into the role of the mind as it responds to and experiences pain.
Verdict: If you're looking for a more enlightening experience, go for yoga. If you prefer centering your focus, go for Pilates.
Target Your Core or Entire Body?
Pilates is a targeted resistance workout. If you’re on a machine, it uses more weight than just your body weight. A good Pilates instructor will structure a class so that you get a full-body workout, with a focus on the core and back muscles. In fact, studies have shown that Pilates can increase abdominal strength and correct abdominal asymmetries.
Part of why Pilates is so effective at building core strength is because it engages your "slow-twitch muscles". Your fast-twitch muscles are those that respond quickly, like those used to catch a ball. But by working your slow-twitch muscles, you build endurance, enabling you to work out for a longer period without getting tired.
“A lot of other forms of exercise focus on fast-twitch muscle fibers — even Vinyasa yoga, which is the style most people gravitate toward for their fitness regimen,” says Heather Dorak, founder of Los Angeles Pilates studio chain Pilates Platinum.
According to Dorak, engaging those slow-twitch muscles enables longer endurance challenges, which leads to longer calorie burns even after your workout is over. It also means challenging your stability, requiring your core to work harder.
Yoga also enhances muscular strength, although usually in a less targeted fashion than Pilates and with a maximum load of your own body weight. Like Pilates, yoga elongates the muscles and also builds muscle endurance through holding poses.
Yoga tones large and small muscles all over the body and balances them with one another, while Pilates can target one muscle group. Eastern yoga was intended to focus on mindfulness and breathwork. But with the evolvement of yoga as a Western practice, classes like power yoga focus around using your body to build strength via intense poses and flow.
Verdict: If you're looking for abs of steel, Pilates all the way. But for an all over strengthening workout, yoga it is. Both, however, will help elongate and build endurance.
How Does Organ Health Weigh In?
Yoga increases blood flow as well as levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which allows more oxygen to reach cells, enhancing their function.
Twisting poses in particular enhance this exchange of oxygenated blood in your organs. Yoga also thins the blood, which can decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Jan Maddern, author of “Yoga Burns Fat,” also states that yoga improves digestion and your endocrine system, which is responsible for your appetite, mood and sleep patterns.
While Pilates also includes many twisting exercises, there isn’t as much focus on working your organs and internal systems aside from building strength and flexibility.
Yoga focuses on breath practice, or pranayama, also known as the formal practice of controlling the breath. For example, you may have heard instructors leading classes in ujjayi breathing or leading the class in chants or mantras. These breath practices are known to have a detoxifying effect on the body and a calming effect on the mind.
This type of prescribed breathwork is not a part of Pilates. In Pilates you breathe deeply to facilitate the workout.
Verdict: Through more focused breathing, yoga will target your organs more than Pilates.
Machine or Mat?
There is minimal equipment needed for yoga. You can usually show up at a yoga class (or follow one online) with just a yoga mat. Mat Pilates also is a simple setup involving a mat and maybe medicine balls and resistance rings.
The big difference in equipment comes if you gravitate toward Pilates on a machine (which tends to be a harder workout than mat Pilates).
Verdict: The answer depends on if you like to use your body weight for strength training or if you prefer additional resistance. Also, much depends on what the studios near you are equipped with.
In summary, Pilates is more fitness-oriented, while yoga is more spiritually focused. It just depends on what you're looking for. And, of course, there are always variations of both. The good news is, either way it's great for your body. Personally, I like to mix it up.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you prefer Pilates or yoga? Why do you do either one? Will you be incorporating either of them after reading this information? What's your favorite Pilates exercise or yoga pose?