The Differences Between Pilates and Yoga Explained

The Differences Between Pilates and Yoga Explained

If you sign up for a workout class at a gym or fusion fitness studio, it’s not uncommon to hear the words Pilates and Yoga used interchangeably. Both are low impact exercises that can be performed on a mat. Both classes focus on tying movement and breath, as well as building strength, lean muscle, and improving flexibility. Plus, they’re both fitness routines that often become lifelong practices for those that fall in love with the movement and its health and wellness benefits.

But these two exercise routines are also incredibly different. They’re both steeped in different traditions, require specific training for teachers to make sure the movements are performed correctly, and focus on vastly different ways of moving your body and working your core. 

Both Pilates and Yoga could have a place in your workout routine but to understand when to incorporate each one, it’s helpful to first understand their differences and similarities. 

What is Pilates? What About Yoga?

To understand the difference between Pilates and Yoga, first let’s take a closer look at each exercise practice.

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a core-focused exercise regimen that brings together the breath, mind, and whole-body health. During a Pilates class, participants perform exercises on a Mat or on an apparatus called the Reformer, like the FRAME Reformer. Each movement is designed to help build long, lean muscles, improve posture, and encourage flexibility. From class to class, the bodyweight exercises will look generally the same, and you’ll hear names like The Hundred, Teaser, Roll-Up, and Single-Leg Circle. In some classes, props are used for weight and resistance.

What is Yoga?

Yoga is a combination of physical movements (asanas), breathing (pranayama), and meditation (dyana) that are tied together in either quick flows or long, steady, often sustained postures. Depending on the type of yoga, the exercises can focus on strength building, flexibility, or even cardio and endurance. Props like blocks or straps are used for assistance rather than added weight or resistance as participants move through Sun Salutations, Warrior Poses, Downward Dogs, and more. Types of Yoga may include Vinyasa, which matches the breath to each movement, Hatha, which focuses on holding poses, and Bikram, which is performed in a heated room.


The 7 Key Differences Between Pilates and Yoga

Beyond the differences in the actual workout routine and the exercises performed, there are six other distinctions that set Pilates and Yoga apart.

1. Fitness Focus versus Spiritual Center

At its core (no pun intended), Pilates is a fitness regimen. It ties together the mind and overall wellness, but it was developed to help dancers strengthen their bodies. On the other hand, Yoga is a mind and wellness practice first and foremost. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), “It began as a spiritual practice but has become popular as a way of promoting physical and mental well-being.”

2. Where the Movement Occurs

In Pilates, a pose is performed actively, with movement occurring within the pose. For example, in the Hundred, the arms are pumped by the side throughout the exercise. However, in Yoga, the movement occurs outside of the pose, for example, moving from Warrior One into Warrior Three.

3. How Each Practice Started

Yoga and Pilates both have long histories, though the history of Yoga goes back more than 5,000 years to ancient Indian religious texts written in Sanskrit. It started as a spiritual practice that connected postures to breathing, meditation, and chakras throughout the body. While there are many theories about its evolution throughout the millennia, it is generally agreed that its roots are in both Hindu and Buddhist practices, and those inform the movements that are performed today.

Compared to Yoga, Pilates seems like a spry centenarian. Pilates was first introduced to the world in the 1920s by Joseph Pilates, who opened the Body Conditioning Gym in New York City and counted dancers from George Balanchine and Martha Graham’s companies among his first clients. His focus was on using exercise, with the assistance of props and various apparatuses, to strengthen the body and connect breath, mind, and overall well being. This eventually evolved into Reformer and Mat Pilates, which intentionally merge body and mind.

4. The Props You’ll Need 

In Yoga, props may include a block, strap, or blanket, all used to provide assistance when it’s difficult to reach the ground or a leg. These are used to bring the ground or limb closer, making the posture attainable even if the body isn’t ready yet.

In Pilates, props may include a Reformer, which includes springs, straps, a footbar, a box, a platform, and a carriage, which are used to adjust resistance and add support. In a Mat or Reformer class, props may be added like a Magic Circle, ball, resistance bands, and hand weights. 

5. Breathing Techniques Used

Breathing is critical to both Pilates and Yoga and, while connecting breath to movement looks similar in both, there’s a major difference in how that breath is used. In Yoga, the breath is inhaled deeply through the nose and exhaled through the mouth. According to Healthline, to perform yogic Ujayi breath, “Keep your mouth closed. Constrict your throat to the point that your breathing makes a rushing noise, almost like snoring. Keep your inhalations and exhalations equal in duration.” 

Meanwhile, in Pilates, the breath is also inhaled through the nose and out through the mouth, but it’s done with a sharper intensity that engages the core with each exhale. 

6. Your Spine

In Pilates, you’ll often hear the term, “C-curve,” which is the shape your spine makes as your abdomen retracts and presses towards the Mat or Reformer. However, in Yoga, the focus is often on maintaining a flat back.  

7. The Benefits

While both Pilates and Yoga can improve strength, flexibility, posture, and stability, both also offer their own unique benefits. With the more fitness-centric Pilates, there may be joint and spine benefits, particularly with the weighted exercises that are performed with the assistance of a Reformer. In Yoga, there are stress relief and spiritual benefits that could come with the practice because of its emphasis on meditation in movement. 

How to Incorporate Both Into Your Fitness Routine

Performing Pilates and Yoga requires an understanding of the movements and how to practice them correctly to avoid injuring yourself, so it’s typically better to start with a class, whether that’s in-person or at-home. Because they don’t require extensive equipment, you can easily tune in to a class online or via an online platform like FRAME. 

Pilates and Yoga use different muscles in different ways, so you don’t have to worry about practicing on consecutive days. Instead, think about what you need in a specific moment. If you want to focus on building lean muscle, look to Pilates. If you need a restorative connection to your mind and body, try a Yoga class. Listen to your body.

Have you tried both Yoga and Pilates? How do you incorporate them into your routine? Is there a way you prefer to blend the benefits of both? Let us know in the comments!

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