Having been a certified Pilates instructor for ten years and prescribing exercise in my role as a physiotherapist for slightly longer than that… I have been asked many times “What is the difference between yoga and Pilates?” I have recently completed a yoga instructor training and I finally feel properly placed to give a full and unbiased answer! As it turns out yoga and Pilates have some interesting similarities and some key differences. Read on to find out about the real differences between yoga and Pilates.
Yoga is quite simply ancient. It can be traced back many thousands of years with the earliest records dating from around 2500BC! It originated in India and could be described as the oldest system of personal development in the world. Yoga is so much more than a series of physical poses. It is a complete way of living though this could easily be forgotten in the modern world. It began as a pathway to super-consciousness/enlightenment or connection with the divine, encompassing mind, body and spirit. Yoga in the current day and age has developed in so many diverse directions. Many people going to classes today are only aware of the physical postures which are only really one small aspect of yoga. More on this later.
In contrast Pilates is a very modern phenomenon. It can be traced back to one man called Joseph Pilates (1883-1967) who created his exercise method in the early twentieth century. He developed it whilst working with prisoners of war during the first world war as a way to improve their health. After the war he went on to refine the concept with professional dancers then emigrated from Europe to America where it really took off. Pilates became mainstream in the late 1980’s/90’s so is considerably younger than yoga!
Yoga has it’s roots in Indian spirituality. The name yoga comes from the Sanskrit ‘yug’ meaning to yoke or join together, referring to the joining together of mind, body and breath. As stated above the original aim of yoga was connection with ‘God’. However yoga has diversified so much that nowadays although some classes retain a spiritual component many do not. Many people only want to access the purely physical side so classes have evolved to satisfy clients needs. For purist yogis this is perhaps taking yoga away from it’s roots but it also enables more people with different outlooks to experience yoga.
The aim of Pilates is improved health, physical and mental. At it’s roots it is a physical work out. There is no mention of spirituality and the lack of mantras, chanting and all spiritual aspects is one of the key differences between yoga and Pilates. However, concentration and focus are key Pilates principles making it a very mindful workout.
A complete way of life
The early yogic texts describe yoga as an eight limbed path to super-consciousness or enlightenment. Each limb or stage should be attained before passing to the next. The limbs involve ethical and moral principles, physical postures, breath control, control of the senses, stilling the mind and meditation. The former stages are focused entirely on preparing the body to meditate in order to reach the higher state. Encompassed within these limbs are key concepts about living in harmony with nature and the environment (no killing animals, i.e. a vegetarian diet), moderation in all things and serving others without personal reward. Thus the true practise of yoga affects all aspects of your life.
Pilates is not usually considered a way of life – though some claim it to be! It is a route to a healthier and more balanced life, through a mindful form of exercise. Clients regularly tell me Pilates has a widespread impact on their life, for example much greater awareness of their posture, their breathing and how they use their body. It can be assumed that if people feel better (after doing Pilates) they act better – towards themselves and others, but yoga remains much more a complete way of life than Pilates.
Development over time
Yoga has evolved considerably in the modern era. One very famous yogi (Tirumalai Krishnamacharya 1888-1989) who is often considered the father of modern yoga was very influential in helping yoga become more mainstream. He did this by introducing influences from other physical disciplines such as boxing and gymnastics. This is strikingly similar to the way in which Joseph Pilates developed the Pilates method. He drew on his knowledge of these exact same sports when he created his repertoire of exercises.
There is also a strong similarity between Joseph Pilates and another famous yogi B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014). He was one of the first pupils of Krishnamacharya. Iyengar was a weak and sickly child following an attack of influenza as a baby and took to yoga to make himself better. Yoga helped to steadily improve his health. Iyengar is largely credited with popularising yoga and bringing it to the West.
Similarly it is due to Joseph Pilates own poor health in childhood that he started exercising. Then he refined his techniques to improve the health of his fellow inmates. Both these men considered correct alignment and precision central to their techniques.
Today it seems remarkable (or ridiculous?!) that health professionals are still constantly striving to educate the public that exercise is essential for good health. The ancient yogis worked this out a long time ago.
The fact that yoga and Pilates share many key principles is evident to anyone who has tried both types of exercise. However the experience of attending each of these classes can be very different. The key core principles that overlap are; alignment, breath, concentration, control, balance, precision, flow (in some types of yoga) and mindfulness. Understanding the similarities in the development of both techniques helps us understand why there is so much overlap. That said there are as many different styles of yoga as there are yoga instructors. Pilates can also vary widely depending on the instructor. No two teachers teach in exactly the same way.
One often noted difference in style is that Pilates is always dynamic with continual fluid movement. Vinyasa flow yoga is continually flowing but many forms of yoga are slower with poses being held statically for longer periods of time. This is something that can make people either love or hate one class over another!
Breathing is also central to both techniques however the pattern of breathing often differs. This is one of the most confusing things for people who practise both yoga and Pilates. The reasons behind the breath patterns also differ with a purely physiological basis in Pilates versus an energetic/spiritual basis in yoga.
Meditation or mindfulness
The terms meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably however there is a difference between them. Mindfulness refers to being completely aware of the present moment and paying purposeful attention to it. Meditation is the process by which we try to still and concentrate the mind on a single point of focus, pushing away all other thoughts. Both of these techniques have been proven by neuroscience to have multiple positive and lasting effects on our brains. The ancient yogis had worked this out of course but now we have the science to prove it!
Yoga incorporates both mindfulness and meditation. Focused attention is applied during the practise of the yoga asanas (poses) and a typical yogic lifestyle involves being mindful. The physical postures also have the ultimate aim of preparing the body to meditate. Meditation is key in yoga as it forms one of the eight limbs of yoga (as mentioned above). There are many and various forms of meditation, worthy of a separate blog post!
Pilates is certainly a mindful form of exercise with specific attention being paid to the movements that are being performed and synchronised with the breath. It could be considered a form of moving meditation, like yoga. However generally speaking meditation does not form part of a Pilates class. This is another key differences that hugely influences peoples choice of class.
So should I do yoga or Pilates?
Try try try! Every class and teacher you try will be different so the key is to find one that works for you. If it does not then go elsewhere. The most important thing is to find a class that you enjoy so you want to go regularly and one that you feel gives you what you need. Saying that, be open minded. Often it is those people that find a slower paced meditative class more challenging that need this type of class the most.
Seek a class that is tailored to the needs of the individuals in it rather than to what the teacher wants to do. My personal view is that yoga and Pilates, despite having many similarities, remain different and very complementary. The ideal would be to do both.
Now to your mat
There you have my views on the differences between yoga and Pilates and also on what they have in common. There are no doubt more that could be mentioned but for now hopefully you have a better understanding of the two and feel inspired to give them a go if you haven’t already! Now, to your mat!