As a practitioner of both yoga and Pilates, I am often asked about the difference between the two. I think some of the confusion comes from the variance within both groups; there are many types of both yoga and Pilates. To someone who has never practiced either, the variance is probably subtle. However, to someone who has experience with one or the other, changing focus may seem as drastic as speaking another language. I have found distinct strengths to both and think there is much to be gained by a dual practice.
To the lay person, yoga = flexibility. But it’s not that simple. There is an emphasis on sustaining asanas to elongate muscles and achieve alignment; but whether this is the central part of practice depends a lot on the type of yoga being practiced. Perhaps the wider variance within yoga disciplines is on the flow between asanas. In my own experience, this connectedness is a very distinct part of yoga and often combines a spiritual element to practice. Proper form in yoga depends on the asana being practiced and maintaining breathing is the common thread between yoga poses. Because there is no singular cue for good form, yoga doesn’t have a single region of focus and most classes yield a good whole body workout.
In slight contrast, Pilates can be done on a mat, as is yoga, but can also be done on a Reformer. The Reformer allows for, among other things, increased resistance in poses. While Pilates does still focus on breathing, I consider its central focus to be on maintaining the “powerhouse,” or abdominal stability. Even as I write this article I can hear my trainer in my head instructing me to keep my “shoulders back and down, powerhouse engaged.” Pilates started as a form of rehabilitation and, in my experience, that emphasis has continued. The conscious engagement of the “powerhouse” allows for a focus on core stabilization which many people (myself included) think is the foundation for whole body stability. Pilates practice or class tends to be more choppy than a yoga flow, but repetition is much more common for Pilates poses (“The Hundred” is a great example of this).
In my own life, both yoga and Pilates help me in different ways to improve my CrossFit performance and general well-being. I utilize yoga for revitalization and clarity. The focus on breathing helps keep me centered despite physical challenges. I do also appreciate the focus on mobility and flexibility and often am drawn to yoga for this benefit. On the other hand, I utilize Pilates as a means to help maintain my core stability and manage my injuries. Specifically, I have found that it helps keep my upper back and shoulder pain at bay.
Something worth mentioning is that I don’t think you should consider yourself having “done” yoga or Pilates if your only experience is from a DVD. Proper instruction and guidance is paramount to both styles of practice. On that note, because there is substantial variance between styles of both yoga and Pilates, extrapolating the benefits or drawbacks to either based on one single style isn’t fair. If you don't know where to start, try them both. And then try other variations of both of them. Maybe both are for you - that has sure been the case with me!
Rachel Wiegand has been an athlete her whole life but yoga has been the only constant throughout moves and life changes. A former personal trainer, she is now a practicing chiropractor in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and enjoys helping patients find a physical activity that fits their lifestyle best. In addition to yoga, she practices Pilates and is an avid Crossfitter. On her weekends you can find her teaching yoga at CrossFit Sheboygan, with her hubby at Lake Michigan on her paddleboard, or at the dog park with her boxers, Dug and Rosco.
Images via: @karenlordpilates