When it comes to developing a long, lean body that is toned, healthy, and vibrant, people are often referred to try either yoga or Pilates. While at first these practices may seem similar, they have some fundamental differences that readily become apparent upon trying them both. Even within each practice there are striking differences between styles, which makes drawing hard and fast comparisons tricky, but if we focus on generalities it’s easy to help people decide which of these two practices are right for them.
One of the major differences between the two is their source of origin. Yoga is an ancient practice that dates back several thousand years, and has been practiced and refined in India and recently across the world by millions of people. It contains dozens of different styles, some radically different from each other, but all of them share this common root. Pilates on the other hand was started in the early 20th century by Joseph Pilates, and is focused on strengthening and rehabilitation of injuries. It is a novel practice, but an increasingly popular one.
The second main difference lies in the spiritual focus of yoga. While Pilates emphasizes the connection between body and mind, and seeks to help its practitioners unite the two for a more thorough and rewarding workout, yoga goes beyond mat and seeks to help yoga practitioners with their general approach to life, illustrating lessons that are encouraged to be followed during the course of your normal life. These lessons are spiritual, and stem from the Indian heritage of the practice.
A visual and practical difference lies in the usage of equipment. Joseph Pilates designed a series of machines that are meant to guide and assist the practitioner in stretching, strengthening, and aligning the body, using body weight and springs to provide resistance. Further, a series of small tools are often used on the matt, ranging from weighted balls and foam rollers to rotating disks and resistance bands. Yoga on the other hand uses your own body weight and nothing else. While novice yoga practitioners might use blocks or straps to assist them with difficult poses, in general you will simply need a yoga mat, allowing you to practice at home or on the road without the need for machines.
A fourth difference lies in the goal of the practices. A good Pilates class will target your core, will help improve your alignment, and strengthen your whole body so that it becomes healthy and connected. The process is designed to improve weaknesses and place your whole body in balance. Yoga, while seeking to improve your core and strengthen your body, also places a great emphasis on balance, flexibility, meditation, focus, and mental discipline. The goal for yoga is not just improve your body, but to improve your life.
Yoga is also very fixated on the power of your breath. Indeed, many instructors will tell you that breathing is the most important part of your practice, and that ujiya breath will help carry you through the most difficult of the poses. In Pilates, breath is emphasized, but not given nearly as much importance as in yoga.
How then to decide which is correct for you? In large part it’s a question of temperament; if you are interested in a more straight forward, athletic class which will focus on building core strength, improving your body and giving you a guided, structured workout, than Pilates is for you. If instead you are looking to step into a deeper world where meaning and spiritual significance is discussed and meditated upon as you challenge your body through a variety of poses and routines that are often day to day, then yoga might be correct for you.
Realize however that each instructor will have a different approach to each discipline, and that a Vinyasa Flow yoga class will be very different from a Hatha yoga class, just as a classic Pilates class that seeks to adhere to Joseph Pilates’ original teachings will differ from a modern class that seeks to grow and improve upon his body of work.