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Yoga & Pilates: The Difference

When I tell someone I am a Pilates teacher you can guarantee they will respond with one of the following questions:


  • “Ah I get a really bad pain here when I run” (or some other postural issue)
  • “Oh my god can you help me lose weight”
  • “Pilates is like Yoga, right?”


Unfortunately, unlike other forms of exercise, Pilates just doesn’t seem to get much of the limelight. It’s associated with injury, back pain or old age and therefore many of its other numerous benefits go unnoticed. For me however the biggest challenge is explaining how Pilates is so very different from Yoga. Whilst there are a few similarities it really is like comparing apples and pears. Here are some of the main differences in my mind.



The History


Pilates, originally called Contrology, was created almost 100 years ago by a man called Joseph Pilates and its purpose was to assist dancers with their strength, flexibility and range of movement thus preventing them from getting injuries (something that is very common in dancers and can ruin their careers). Joseph has an interesting history himself, including internment during the war, and he moved around a lot before settling in New York. Yoga is thought to have originated thousands of years ago in India and therefore there is no one person cited as ‘creating it’, especially given that it is more of a lifestyle than a specific workout (more on this later).


The Basics


Reformer Pilates


Both Pilates and Yoga can be mat-based, and require little to no equipment. However, in Pilates there are a few pieces of large equipment that can be used during practice, such as a reformer, cadillac, chair etc. These were designed by Joseph Pilates and are usually found in more specialist studios (mainly due to their high cost). Yoga and Pilates can be practiced in a group setting or on a 1:1 basis and you are led through a sequence of poses or exercises by your instructor.


The Focus


The emphasis in yoga is more about meditation than the specific workout. Yoga uses poses to help focus the mind and these poses are mainly to help achieve this meditative, spiritual awareness rather than say getting stronger. However, if we take the physical exercise of yoga is based on flexibility, stretching and ensuring that the body is balanced in its ability to move. Many poses have counter-poses and there is a sense of opening up the body. Therefore, what we find with yogi’s is an increase in flexibility with the added benefit of strength improvement.


Pilates, on the other hand, is not a way of life. It is literally all about the exercise. There is no spirituality involved and it is more clinical in some ways. Pilates is all about strength with the focus heavily on the core. The main goal in Pilates is to build a body that is strong and balanced. Those who practice Pilates will improve their strength, and the added benefit is their will be a greater range of movement at the joints which increases your flexibility. In very simplistic terms Yoga focuses on flexibility, Pilates focusses on strength, but the spiritual side of Yoga must not be overlooked.


The Body-Mind Connection


Both Yoga and Pilates talk about this connection however, yet again, for different reasons. In Yoga the poses themselves are a way of almost challenging the mind to not affect the body. The emphasis is on turning the mind inwards and not allowing the voice in your head to affect you. For example, during a difficult pose you would work hard to quieten the mind and instead listen to the breath. This technique can then be used in stressful situations outside of the yoga studio.




In Pilates we use the mind-body connection to help assist exercises. In Pilates you are being asked to really concentrate on what you are doing and be mindful of what feedback you are getting from your body. We are almost doing the opposite to Yoga. We want the mind to affect the workout as visualising a muscle engaging genuinely helps it to engage. Both Yoga and Pilates understand that the mind can affect the body, it is just how we use that connection that differs.


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The Breath


Both practices make use of the breath throughout their workouts. In Yoga the breath is used as a way of centering yourself, of bringing the attention away from the chattering of the mind. It’s used as a form of meditation during your practice and thought to affect your emotional state.


In Pilates we use the breath as a way to assist the exercise. For example, when we do an abdominal curl (sit-up) we exhale as we lift the head and shoulders so that there is less air in the lungs. This means it is easier to flex the spine as when we inhale our spines extend rather than flex. The Pilates breath is also used to assist in core engagement as the diaphragm and abdominals work together to stabilise the spine. Again, this difference in use of the breath highlights the main differences in Pilates and Yoga. One is focussed heavily on the mental state, whilst the other focusses on the body.


In Summary


Even as a Pilates instructor I practice Yoga. For me, even though there are very clear differences between Yoga and Pilates, I get something from them both. Pilates for me allows me the time and energy to focus on how my body feels. Does my back feel sore? Are my hip flexors tight? Do I have an imbalance in my shoulders? This understanding, and then intellectual training of my body with Pilates, helps me to be the strongest and most functional I can be. BUT I have a really demanding business. And I have struggled with depression in the past. So, I know that I have to work hard every day to keep that black dog at bay.


body mind connection


.So, Yoga for me is my mental health exercise. I walk out of my yoga classes feeling as if I am on cloud 9. It has helped with my flexibility yes, but Yoga has helped keep me on the straight and narrow.  I would honestly say that without it I’m not sure how I would ever get 60 minutes of not thinking about work. It quietens my chattering mind and your mental health is JUST as important as your physical/muscular health.


Try them both and see what works for you. Or do what I do and do … both. Neither one is winner, they are both absolute gifts for the body. Read my Blog on choosing the right Pilates class HERE.

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