Yoga vs. Pilates: Here Are All the Differences to Know

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I began teaching yoga in 2012, and since then, I’ve often been asked about the difference between yoga and Pilates. People often believe the two can easily be interchanged and that they both have the same benefits. Though yoga and Pilates are similar in some respects, they’re very different in others.

They’re both low-impact workouts and accessible to everyone regardless of fitness background or athletic ability. They both use bodyweight as resistance and can help to increase your quality of life and longevity. From there, they differ quite a bit. Pilates is a fairly new fitness method that was created in the 1920s, after World War I, to help wounded soldiers with rehabilitation. Yoga, however, is an ancient practice that dates back at least 5,000 years.

If you’re curious about either or you’d like to better understand the difference between yoga and Pilates — including their history, benefits, and what you can expect from each physical practice — keep reading.

Pilates vs. Yoga: The History

Pilates started in the 1920s in New York City when Joseph Pilates and his wife emigrated to the US from Germany and opened what they called a “body-conditioning gym.” Their studio featured the Cadillac apparatus (a platform bed with four posts and a “trapeze”), which he developed during his time working as an orderly in German hospitals post-WWI. He used it to help support patients who were unable to walk as they began their rehabilitation process. His studio in New York became popular within the dance community because it allowed dancers a chance to not only improve their technique but also recover from injuries as they built strength. He published two works featuring his conditioning method: “Your Health” (1934) and “Return to Life Through Contrology” (1945). When Joseph Pilates was alive, his method of training was known as “contrology,” but since his passing in 1967, the method of movement has been referred to as the Pilates method.

Yoga, on the other hand, is an ancient practice; historians believe it dates back 5,000 or 10,000 years. Before what we know as the origins of Western yoga, there was a form of yoga in ancient Egypt (Kemet) known as Smai Tawi, or Kemetic yoga. It was a spiritual practice and, unlike modern-day yoga, was embedded into the overall culture of society. It aimed to help people unlock a higher consciousness. It’s important to recognize this part of yogic history to resist the erasure of African culture and acknowledge its influence on the evolution of the practice.

The origins of Western yoga can be traced back to ancient India. It was first practiced through songs, mantras, and rituals carried out by Vedic priests. In the pre-classical period of yoga (800 BC to 250 BC), ancient Indian texts began to mention yoga as a means to reach a higher state of consciousness. By the classical period (250 BC to 148 BC), the practice was defined by the Yoga Sutras, a collection of written texts that explore the connection between the physical and spiritual self and incorporate more physical practice. Post-classical yoga (800 AD to 1700 AD) saw the physical practice of asanas (yoga poses) and breathwork gain more importance as a means to cleanse your body, mind, and spirit. This led to what we know today as yoga. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, yoga masters began sharing their teachings with the Western world and the practice gained attention outside of India.

Pilates vs. Yoga: The Intention

One of the key differences between yoga and Pilates is the intention behind the practices. “Pilates aims to promote strength and balance in the body; yoga aims to yoke or find union with your true self,” says Alexa Idama, a classical Pilates instructor and wellness educator.

Pilates is first and foremost an exercise method; it focuses on building strength and stability in the body, with an emphasis on core work, posture, and the health of your spine, says Camai Brandenberg, a certified Pilates and 200-hour yoga instructor. While the practice may have mental health benefits, it’s focused entirely on the physical body.

Yoga, in contrast, is not just about the physical; its overall intention is to teach its students mindfulness in every aspect of their lives. “Yoga is a spiritual practice, compromised of eight ‘limbs,'” Brandenberg explains. “The most familiar limb is asana, which are the yoga classes we take in studios.” Another limb is pranayama, breathing techniques; the others focus on internal practice, for example: focused concentration and meditative absorption. The term “yoga” means to “yoke” or “unite” in Sanskrit. As you move through the physical postures of yoga, your goal is to find a moving meditation as you link your breath to movement and connect your mind and body. Though we focus mainly on the physical practice of yoga in Western society, in its true existence, the practice is mainly one of spiritual growth and expansion.

Pilates vs. Yoga: The Physical Practice

Both Pilates and yoga are “low-impact methods of building strength and flexibility while focusing on your breath and the mind-body connection,” Brandenberg, founder of Embody Pilates, says. Both modalities involve syncing your breath and movement as you transition through postures. There are even some similar exercises in both practices, such yoga’s Cobra and Pilates’s swan, or Chaturanga Dandasana and Pilates push-ups. From there, what you do during a yoga or Pilates session will be quite different.

Pilates exercises are performed on either an apparatus, such as a reformer or a Cadillac, or a mat. The movements focus on stabilizing your core to improve balance, body control, and spinal stability. With the help of your breath, you’ll use your core muscles (i.e. your abs, lower back, pelvic floor, and hips) to support every movement you do in Pilates. The exercises focus on creating balanced muscular strength on the front and back of the body and aim to improve your overall quality of life. In Pilates, you often perform reps of the same movement instead of flowing through them, the way you do in yoga.

One’s physical yoga practice is only a single aspect of their overall yogic experience, and of that physical practice, there are several different types — for example, Vinyasa, restorative, and Hatha. Vinyasa yoga is considered to be the most athletic form and consists of continuous movement linking your breath to your postures as you flow. These flows usually consist of arm balances, Chaturanga Dandasana, and power poses such as Warrior II. Ashtanga, power yoga, and Prana are all forms of Vinyasa. On the other side of the spectrum, restorative yoga is centered on winding down the body and the mind to create a space of relaxation in both. In a practice like this, you’d often find yourself using props like yoga straps, bolsters, blanks, and yoga blocks. Lastly, Hatha yoga moves slower than a Vinyasa flow, and you’ll hold the poses for longer amounts of time.

Pilates vs. Yoga: The Benefits

Physically, both yoga and Pilates can help you “develop a stronger, balanced body and increased flexibility,” Brandenberg says. And mentally, both practices can help you “calm the nervous system and achieve meditative states through the emphasis of proper breathing,” she says. In addition, both Pilates and yoga can help reduce lower-back pain and increase your overall mobility.

Yoga can increase your flexibility, improve your cardiovascular system and overall athletic performance, and reduce your chances of injury, according to the American Osteopathic Association. It can also work to reduce your anxiety and depression as well as help you find more mental clarity and focus both on and off of your mat.

Pilates has similar benefits to yoga: it can increase your flexibility, improve your posture, increase your ability to concentrate, and help with stress management. It can also help to balance out your overall muscular strength, enhance your muscle control, and improve your spinal stability.

Which Should You Try?

Because they’re both low-impact workouts, both yoga and Pilates are accessible to almost everyone. I know social media may lead you to believe you need to be hyper-flexible or super strong to practice either modality, but in actuality, they were both created in a manner that welcomes everyone. There are variations of each exercise or pose to meet you at your level and help you build upon your current practice.

Wondering how to choose? You don’t have to — there’s room for both Pilates and yoga in your routine. “They can both be complementary to one another but should not be practiced in place of one another as the benefits of each are different,” Idama says. That said, Brandenberg suggests Pilates “for those looking to solely strengthen the body, build their core, and achieve balance.” And she suggests yoga “for those looking for a meditative practice that includes low-impact movement and flexibility.”

Regardless of which modality you go with, give yourself grace as you begin a new workout regimen. Remember that learning new things is never an easy task, but if you go into it intending to learn and grow, you’ll find success and fulfillment with either practice.

If you’re looking to try either practice at home, check out our POPSUGAR Fitness YouTube channel, which offers free workouts of many styles — including yoga and Pilates.

Image Source: Courtesy of Christa Janine

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