Pilates vs. Barre vs. Yoga: Which One Is For You?

When it comes to getting fit, there's no end to your choices. From high-intensity aerobics classes to meditative tai chi, each exercise style offers distinct benefits, and all of them improve your health and well-being in one way or another. Low-impact classes in particular — such as yoga, Pilates and barre — can help you improve many components of your physical fitness, including strength, flexibility, balance and body composition, and they can all help relieve stress.

Athletic forms of yoga can be good for weight loss. (Image: Lifemoment/iStock/GettyImages)

Learning about what each type of exercise offers and then trying a class is the best way to pick one — or all three — to include in your fitness routine.

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.

There are several main types of yoga practiced in the U.S. today:

Anusara: A strict, physically and mentally challenging practice that links postures with the philosophical practice of Anusara, which means "flowing with grace."

Ashtanga: A physically demanding practice involving the same set series of postures while linking breath to movement. Ashtanga is typically not suitable for beginners, unless the specific class or instructor allows it. You can often find intro to Ashtanga classes, and a type of Ashtanga practice called mysore — which is self-guided — can also be adaptable to beginners, depending on the teacher.

Bikram: A challenging 90-minute class including a set series of postures performed in a room heated to between 95 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit. The practice is often touted for its weight-loss benefits, though you shouldn't expect to magically melt away pounds instantly. Bikram classes can be very strict, depending on the studio and teacher.

Hatha: This is an umbrella term that includes all the types of yoga taught in the West, though there are also specific Hatha classes, which are slower-paced introductions to postures and suitable for beginners.

Vinyasa: A physically challenging form of yoga that links poses to breath. It is often referred to as flow yoga for the way it links poses in a flowing movement, including frequent "vinyasas" — transition that involves moving from forward bend to chaturanga to upward dog and downward dog. Classes are often categorized in levels, from beginner to advanced.

Power yoga: A type of vinyasa yoga that focuses more on strength — holding poses for longer, rather than flowing through a sequence.

Hot Yoga: A number of different yoga styles with one common factor: Classes are performed in a room heated to between 85 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Iyengar: A precise style heavily focused on the finer points of alignment. It's a slower-moving practice in which poses are held for longer, which can make it a good choice for beginners.

Restorative/Yin: Relaxing and meditative classes that involve holding reclined postures for longer periods of time.

Kundalini: A practice involving physical postures, breathing exercises, chanting and meditation designed to create awareness and awaken the "kundalini energy" that is believed to be coiled at the base of the spine.

The various types of yoga can be confusing. The best way to start out as a beginner is to do some research. Call the studios near you and find out if they have classes good for first-time yogis; it's important to learn some foundational postures before you move into a more advanced class. Then, you can try a few classes in different styles, depending on your goals, and gradually gain a better idea of what you like.

If you're looking to build strength and burn fat, you can work your way up to one of the more physically challenging types — such as Ashtanga or Bikram, or both. If you're interested in a more meditative or philosophical practice, try Anusara and Kundalini. Although many yogis tend to stick to one type of yoga, there's no rule that you can't take an Ashtanga class on Tuesday, an Iyengar class on Thursday and a restorative class on Sunday. Do what's right, and feels interesting, for you.

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.

To help clear the confusion, here are some types and methods of Pilates you might see at your local Pilates studio:

Classical Pilates: These core-strengthening classes teach the Pilates system just as Joseph Pilates created it. It's usually taught in a strict format that varies little from the original method.

Contemporary Pilates: Although based on the classical method, these classes may include new movements and modifications based on contemporary knowledge and research.

Mat Pilates: Classes involve performing a variety of body-weight exercises performed on a Pilates mat. Some small pieces of equipment may be used.

Reformer Pilates: An equipment-based class that uses the reformer, a machine designed by Joseph Pilates that uses springs, pulleys and ropes to add resistance. Exercises may be the same as those performed on the mat, but with the addition of resistance.

Cadillac/Chair/Tower/Wunda Chair/Trapeze Table: Additional pieces of equipment that may be used in Pilates equipment classes. As with the reformer, these contraptions can make the exercises more challenging, but they can also make them easier to master by assisting the movement.

Many of the body-weight exercises performed in a Pilates mat class are similar to yoga postures. For example, the Swan exercise in Pilates mimics the action of Cobra pose in yoga, and the Teaser is very similar to yoga's Boat Pose. Both styles work to lengthen and strengthen the muscles, with a focus on the core.

Like yoga, Pilates is heavily focused on breathing. But while yoga uses a deep belly breathing, Pilates involves expanding and contracting the rib cage. Yoga breathing is more focused on its meditative aspects and on calming the nervous system, while Pilates breathing is aimed at improving your muscles' ability to perform. However, deep, controlled breathing in any form can have a big impact on stress levels and overall mental well-being.

Pilates is an excellent choice if you want to build strength, stability and flexibility. It's not as beneficial for weight loss as some types of athletic yoga, but it can help you build lean muscle mass, which is key for revving your metabolism for fat loss. The intensity of the class as determined by the instructor will affect how many calories you burn and how much strength you build. If your goal is weight loss, traditional cardiovascular exercises — such as running, cycling and swimming — are always a good adjunct to both yoga and Pilates.

Burn Calories With Barre

Barre is the new kid on the block, and classes have exploded in popularity over the last several years. Many of today's barre classes are based on the Lotte Berk Method, an exercise program created in 1959 in London that combined ballet with rehabilitative exercises that focus on building core stability. But unlike yoga and Pilates, barre classes are more free-form, and can vary widely depending on the style of the studio and the instructor.

Barre combines elements of ballet, yoga and Pilates — as well as other athletic movements — in challenging formats meant to tone the body and create a lean dancer's physique. As implied by the name, classes use the barre as a prop to help you balance while doing repetitions of ballet-inspired movements and isometric strength training.

Mat work is also a part of barre classes. Core exercises — many of them pulled from yoga and Pilates — are typically a focus of each class, as is flexibility training. Other props — including balls, resistance bands and small dumbbells — may be used to add challenge and resistance to the exercises.

Unlike Pilates and yoga, designated cardio segments of each barre workout are meant to get the heart rate up to help burn calories. In this sense, barre is more similar to an aerobics class than Pilates or yoga, even though it includes many movements from those practices. For that reason, barre may be the best choice of the three if your goal is weight loss. According to barre studio franchise Physique 57, students can burn 500 to 850 calories per one-hour class.

There isn't as much of a focus on breathing in barre as there is in yoga and Pilates; teachers may cue breathing, but it's not an integral part of the workout. As for stress relief, barre is still an effective option. Any type of physical activity relieves stress and can make you feel calmer and more peaceful.

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