Yoga or Pilates – Which is better?

Yoga or Pilates – Which is better?

Happy September! Did you know it’s National Yoga Month?

In honor of this special month, I’m answering one of the most frequent questions I get. Should I do Yoga or Pilates? 

To better answer this question, let me share with you a little more about each practice and what it is good for.

Yoga is a practice that dates back at least 5,000 years. In its traditional form, the emphasis in yoga goes beyond the physical, focusing on breath, mental and physical exercise. The word Yoga itself means to join together – and is designed to bring body and mind into a state of union and harmony.

Pilates is a much newer practice created in the early 1900s by Joseph Pilates. He was heavily influenced by various movement practices, like boxing, self-defense, and even yoga. Hence, if you practice Pilates, you will find yourself doing exercises that in some ways are quite similar to yoga. Pilates also adopted a focus on mindfulness and breath work. Originally called Contrology, the emphasis is on doing low reps of exercises, while focusing on impeccable form. A distinct method of breathing was also developed to maximize the breath in a way that builds core strength.

So other than their origins, what is different about Pilates and Yoga?

In Yoga, the emphasis varies somewhat depending upon the style  – the American Yoga association cites over 100 different schools – but generally, the focus is on meditation through movement and sustaining postures while breathing. Physical benefits include greater flexibility, improved mental clarity, freer breathing, and improved strength and balance.

In Pilates, the emphasis is on building a strong core.  As a result, it is often used for rehabilitation for dancers, high level athletes, and even for the general public. The primary physical benefits are strengthening core muscles, releasing chronic areas of tension, and improved posture and lengthened muscles.

While both practices use the mind, the application is quite different. The use of the mind in Pilates is more as a tool to control the body while in Yoga, the focus is on releasing thoughts to become more present in our bodies and our lives. By releasing thoughts, the breath flows more easily and more tension is released. Think of this difference between Pilates and Yoga as sort of a west vs. east or outside in vs. inside out kind of approach.

What if I’m really looking to get more flexible?

Yoga is renowned for its capacity to increase flexibility. If you think about it, every posture requires you to hold a stretch, but the great thing about it is that it is stretching in a very active way. I have learned some of my best teaching techniques from yoga teachers, who for the most part are excellently trained to emphasize the oppositional nature of stretches (all muscles have two attachments) as well as emphasizing the use of oppositional muscle engagement, ie. firming your quads in triangle pose, which protects your joints and increases your stretch.

When done well, I highly recommend Yoga to everyone who is seeking to get more flexible. Aside from finding an excellent teacher who corrects students individually, make sure that the class is at your level or at the very least that you don’t feel pressured to work harder or deeper than you are ready for.

Well, what about Pilates? Will it help my flexibility?

I’m frequently surprised to learn how many people believe that Pilates is simply a type of stretching. That is an extreme oversimplification of Pilates. In fact, while Yoga is stretching through held postures, any stretching in Pilates is through active movement – continuous motion.

This can mean that you don’t feel more flexible from Pilates right away. It also means that you probably won’t feel any intense stretching feeling while taking class.

You will, however, find exercises in a Pilates Mat class that will help lengthen your hamstrings, open your chest, and (to a lesser degree) open your hips.

If you have especially tight hips – and many of us do because of the number of hours we spend sitting – tight hip flexors may initially get tighter as they tend to overwork to compensate for weak abs.

Pilates helps you get more flexible primarily through strengthening muscles that are weak so that you are more balanced and through the oppositional muscle engagement principle (by activating your quads, you lengthen your hamstrings and vice versa).

There is a unique flexibility aspect to Pilates, though. The practice of articulating the spine. In doing all upright and straight spine activities, our backs and necks can get extremely tight. By incorporating both curling and arching positions – active and static – Pilates helps increase the flexibility of our spines.

What if I haven’t exercised in a really long time (or have little to no exercise experience)?

Pilates is probably the most gentle exercise out there. The fact that the majority of the exercises are done lying down (on your side, back or stomach) makes it super accessible if you have limited strength. It is also extremely safe if you have lower back or neck pain when the proper modifications are made.

I have personally found Yoga to require a lot more strength initially than Pilates, especially if you are really tight or recovering from an injury. Yoga consists of a lot of standing postures and poses that require you support your weight with your hands and arms which require more strength.

That being said, either practice could be great for you, if you get in the right class.  Be sure to listen to your body. If you are just starting, take beginner classes and don’t worry about being able to do everything. Pick a practice that you find the most enjoyable and make it a part of your regular routine.

What if I want to get stronger & more toned abs?

I definitely would recommend you start with Pilates. The primary focus of a Pilates is on building core strength and a good teacher will help you challenge your core, and teach you great form to help you get stronger while staying pain free. A good class will emphasize Posterior Lateral Breathing, drawing the navel to spine, and utilizing the pelvic floor.

Yoga does not incorporated a lot of postures that focus on ab work, though there are a few. Navasana (similar to the Pilates Teaser) is one. And a good Yoga teacher will reference Mula Bandha (akin to using your pelvic floor) throughout the class.

The breathing pattern in Yoga is different, yielding slightly different results. The yogic breath focuses on diaphragmatic breathing where you fully release the abdominals on each inhalation. While healthy for expanded your lungs and breathing capacity, yogis frequently have weak Transverse Abdominals (the muscles that draw your waistline in and support your organs and low back).

The Pilates practice of Posterior Lateral Breathing will help you increase your capacity for breath while strengthening the Transverse Abdominals at the same time.

What about doing both Yoga & Pilates? Is that overkill?

Yoga and Pilates are extremely complimentary to one another. I personally practice both.

Most of the Pilates I do is in the context of teaching group classes or a short sequence before or after a weight training session. This practice helps me keep my muscles long, my core strong, and my chronic imbalances from shifting into a painful zone.

Yoga helps me release tension in my body – particularly my hip flexors – and since Yoga has a lot more poses that involve rotation, opens up parts of my body that Pilates alone doesn’t seem to reach. I also have a deep appreciation for the meditative aspects of Yoga, and find that the benefits of practice include feeling more relaxed and helping me bring focus to my life.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear from you.

Do you practice Yoga, Pilates or both? What aspects do you enjoy about what you practice? Do you have any other questions about the differences between the two?

Leave your comments below.


3 Responses to Yoga or Pilates – Which is better?

  1. I love the mix the two! I really enjoy yoga – especially the meditative aspect, but also for the cardio of flow. But because of my schedule I can’t fit it in every day. Pilates however is easier for me to fit in and definitely helps strengthen my Core! Thanks for the in-depth information!

    • Marcy, The Reformer is an excellent way to find your alignment. The spring based resistance allows many muscles that are chronically tight to relax while finding good alignment right away. (It often takes longer in the matwork since you don’t have a machine to support and guide you.) Many people can’t afford to take Reformer sessions, but if you can, even for a few sessions, I always highly recommend that people start here. Then you know what the matwork will feel like when executed properly. Priceless!

Leave a Reply