Yoga vs. Pilates: What’s the Big Difference Anyway?

Yoga and Pilates both offer low-impact workouts that focus on using body resistance to strengthen muscles. They look very similar on the surface as they both use a series of poses and breathing techniques to help with flexibility and overall wellness. But there are some major differences.

The big difference between yoga and Pilates is the focus on overall strengthening in yoga, compared to a focus on core strength in Pilates. Yoga uses meditation, breathing, and gentle poses to promote the well-being of the body and mind; Pilates uses small movements designed to work on core strength.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into each practice, how they began and how we typically see them in the modern day. We will also be comparing what you can expect from both in each session, how each practice can be beneficial, and whether you should choose one over the other.

Yoga

Though there is no record of who invented yoga, it is generally agreed that yoga dates back to ancient India and is a form of physical, mental, and spiritual practice. With links to texts as far back as 2700 BCE, yoga has dramatically changed over the centuries.

Originally practiced as a form of healing, yoga has been proven to help people with diabetes, reduce the risk of heart disease, and even delay the onset of certain mental diseases.

Traditional Yoga

Traditional yoga is about finding balance and spiritual enlightenment. Often thought of as a tree, the messages found in yoga are often described as branches. Each branch represents a different approach to life and include:

  • Karma Yoga follows the path of selflessness. You practice Karma Yoga by making decisions based on how it will benefit others rather than how it will benefit yourself.
  • Bhakti Yoga follows the belief in a higher power. A path of devotion is expressed in every thought and action. Mahatma Gandhi was a follower of this practice.
  • Hatha Yoga suggests that the physical act of yoga is designed to help you achieve enlightenment. Practitioners believe that if the body and mind are not maintained, higher stages of meditation and concentration are impossible to achieve.
  • Jnana Yoga looks to transform knowledge into self-awareness. The idea of knowing thyself to know and understand others.
  • Tantra Yoga seeks to explore your spiritual energy. Deities are envisioned through a series of rituals in order to find a deeper connection with others.
  • Raja Yoga places a focus on concentration. This tradition strictly follows the 8 principles of yoga.

Modern Yoga in the West

With its low-impact strengthening, Yoga has been embraced into western culture since the 1890s. Though the fundamentals have remained, western yoga is more of a focus on physical exercise as opposed to spiritual enlightenment.

Though it can be seen as somewhat superficial in today’s culture, yoga’s health benefits have led to a surge in its popularity. Rather than looking for enlightenment, people turn to yoga as a method of weight loss and body toning.

The beauty of yoga in the 21st century is the ease of access. We no longer need mentors to pass down the practice. Classes are available in most gyms, and yoga videos are getting millions of views online. Virtual yoga allows you to practice in the comfort of your own home and is available for all levels.

The following video is perfect for those new to yoga, as it demonstrates 82 different yoga poses, showing what you can expect from each:

After watching it through and becoming familiar with each pose and how it looks, you can move on to other beginner videos that will walk you through a routine.

The Principles of Yoga

The word yoga translates to ‘union’ and represents the practice outlined thousands of years ago. In its purest form, yoga focuses on eight branches, including observance, posture, breathing, and meditation.

  • Niyamas – observances of healthy habits to help achieve spiritual enlightenment
  • Asana – postures designed to improve balance, flexibility, and strength of the body and mind
  • Yamas – restraints representing ethical living, such as committing to truthfulness and non-violence
  • Pranayama – breathing both with movement and without as a form of exercise to clear the body and mind
  • Pratyahara – the withdrawal of the senses as a way of turning inward and giving strength to the mind and practice
  • Dharanaconcentration onto a single point of focus, strengthened by the practice of Pratyahara in order to meditate
  • Dhyani – meditation designed to achieve inner stillness and clarity to the mind and body
  • Samadhiabsorption of the previous disciplines to achieve enlightenment

Though many classes give little focus to the yoga tree branches, the principles of yoga can be found in today’s practice. Breathing and concentration are key components, along with postures and living a healthy lifestyle.

Types of Yoga

There are a number of different types of yoga, from more gentle practices with a focus on breathing to something more intense; there are classes for all ages and physical abilities. Some of the most common classes include:

  • Hatha Yoga is great for beginners. Hatha refers to the physical practice of using poses to strengthen muscles and joints. A typical class will involve a warm-up, a series of postures, a focus on breathing, and a short period of meditation.
  • Vinyasa Yoga is considered ‘flow’ yoga and offers no break between poses. It’s a more fast-paced practice; the postures are designed to flow naturally from one form to another. All movements are coordinated around your breath.
  • Ashtanga Yoga involves a series of postures designed to increase strength and flexibility. Not ideal for beginners, this practice is physically demanding and requires knowledge of the different poses involved.
  • Iyengar Yoga includes the use of props to encourage proper alignment. Postures are held for longer periods, allowing muscles to lengthen and relax with the help of straps and blocks.
  • Hot Yoga is performed in heated rooms. It is believed that the heat and humidity aid in flexibility, allowing deeper movements during postures. The temperature of 42°C (105°F) also helps with detoxification, encouraging the body to sweat out impurities.
  • Prenatal Yoga is suited for mothers in all trimesters. This adapted form of yoga is designed to encourage stability and to help prepare for labor.

Benefits of Yoga

The benefits of Yoga are vast and varied. From increased flexibility to improved heart health, yoga has proven that it is more than just stretching and breathing. Newer studies have suggested that yoga can be beneficial to people suffering from schizophrenia by helping them gain a sense of control over their bodies and minds.

  • Improved flexibility: As a beginner, you will likely only be able to reach so far. But with continued practice, you should find that you can reach further and push deeper. By repeating poses, your muscles and tissue will loosen, allowing for easier practice and the chance to try new poses.
  • Increased muscle strength: As your muscles are loosening, they are also strengthening. Stronger muscles will help with balance and can help with aches and pain. For example, back pain is often caused by weaker muscles being strained. Building up those muscles will help to support your body and spine and should alleviate any pains.
  • Improved joint health: By moving your joints through different postures, you are helping to flush out toxins, replacing them with nutrients. Oxygenated blood flushes out the joints, allowing them to self-heal and improve bone health.
  • Stronger spine: Building up the muscles surrounding your spine will not only help to protect your spinal discs, but will also help to support your head and neck, improving your posture.
  • Better bone health: Weight-bearing exercises, like the poses in yoga, will help to strengthen your bones. Denser bones can help with posture and coordination and can help to prevent osteoporosis.
  • Increased blood flow: As your blood circulates, it provides nutrients and oxygen to the body. By increasing your blood flow, your muscles and tissue should function better. Certain poses, such as twisting or inverted poses, are thought to help release toxins and better provide fresh oxygenated blood to internal organs.
  • Immunity-boosting: As you move in and out of poses, you are helping to drain your lymph nodes. This helps with fighting potential infections. Additionally, many practitioners’ reduction in stress can help reduce inflammation and tension in the body.
  • Promotes a healthy lifestyle: As with any exercise, you will find that you are burning calories and potentially losing weight when practicing yoga on a regular basis. As you burn calories and build up muscle strength, many people become encouraged to continue their healthy lifestyle off the mat.
  • Lowers blood sugar: Yoga has been proven to help lower cholesterol and encourage weight loss. It is not uncommon for people with diabetes to find improved sensitivity to insulin, which can help decrease the chances of certain complications, such as heart failure.
  • Helps to relieve stress: Whether in class or at home, yoga can help with relaxation and focus. By clearing your mind and slowing your heart, it has proven effective at reducing stress and is often prescribed by doctors.
  • Improved balance: Balance of the body and mind are key goals in yoga. By concentrating on the practice, you can clear your mind of outside distractions. Couple that with stronger muscles and better posture for all-round balance.
  • Helps with sleep: Yoga before bed can help to clear the mind of the day. Certain poses can be held to encourage the release of tension and help to maintain a deeper sleep.
  • Helps to prevent digestive problems: Physical exercise can help with digestive issues by encouraging movement, and yoga certainly qualifies. However, it can also help by reducing stress since some digestive issues can be made worse when you are stressed.

Cost of Yoga

A typical class will likely cost anywhere from $10-$60, depending on which practice you choose and where you are.

One class in the heart of New York City will cost $25, with the option to buy ten classes for $210. In contrast, a class in Pennsylvania will be $20, with the option to buy ten classes for $140.

However, with the volume of reputable yoga instructors turning to YouTube, practicing at home can cost nothing more than the price of a mat. Available in most sports stores and supermarkets as well as online, you can find reasonably priced mats all over and start your practice for less than $30.

Pilates

Unlike yoga, Pilates can be directly traced back to its creator. Joseph Pilates developed the practice in the early 20th century after suffering from a series of ailments as a child. J. Pilates sought after a form of exercise to help with toning and core strength.

Traditional Pilates

Originally a bodybuilder and gymnast from Germany, J. Pilates worked as a boxer and self-defense trainer upon moving to the UK in 1912. His teaching ideology became known as Contrology after having been interned by the British during World War I. Using minimal equipment, J. Pilates was able to train his fellow inmates and further develop his comprehensive regime.

After moving to New York in 1925, J. Pilates and his wife founded a studio that became popular within the performing arts circuit and dance world. Many ballet students were often sent to J. Pilates to help with training and rehabilitation.

Following J. Pilates’ guide as closely as possible, traditional Pilates works with his original teachings and sequencing.

Modern Pilates in the West

Many classes today will follow J. Pilates work closely. However, some of the practice has been modernized with the release of new research. The addition of newer exercises and the modification of others has brought Pilates into the modern world.

The newer versions allow more flexibility in the practice, and many are based on physical therapy requirements. In addition to more options, modern Pilates allows freedom to deviate in terms of sequencing, along with the inclusion of newer props and machines. This makes the practice more approachable to beginners and people with injuries.

The Principles of Pilates

In the same way yoga uses breathing and a series of poses to improve strength and flexibility, Pilates follows a collection of principles designed to improve posture and balance.

  • Concentration – a key aspect of practicing Pilates is a focus on each movement made in the body. Every movement is designed to be effective and requires concentration to ensure they are done correctly.
  • Breath – in addition to helping the mind to calm and increase blood flow, breathing is at the center of the Pilates’ goal to strengthen the core. Deep, controlled breaths work with movements to engage abdominal and back muscles.
  • Centering – the focal point of Pilates is known as the ‘powerhouse’ and is part of your body’s stabilization system. This core collection of muscles includes the diaphragm, rotators, transverse abdominis, and the pelvic floor.
  • Control – J. Pilates believed that you could properly access and strengthen every part of your body by controlling every movement. This is especially helpful to people looking at rehabilitation.
  • Precision – similar to control, the idea of precision comes from the need to move with purpose. Each pose and hold should be done perfectly in order to gain the most benefits. The idea is to train the body to move in a specific way eventually.
  • Flow – as with Vinyasa yoga, Pilates works through a series of poses, each designed to flow into the next. This flow uses the core strength to allow the body to move with precision and ease from one position to another.
  • Alignment – J. Pilates believed that bad posture, along with poor breathing techniques, was at the root of many health problems. This brought about his focus on the core postural muscles used to keep the body in balance and help support the spine.

Types of Pilates

Choosing which form of Pilates is right for will depend on your health goals. People looking to strengthen overall or for rehabilitation would be best suited to classical Pilates. However, if you are looking for a weight loss program, other forms of the practice are more intense and can offer more during the workout.

However, all Pilates classes will work from the same basic principles. Each will incorporate a focus on breathing, flow, concentration, and control.

  • Classical Pilates is closest to J. Pilates’ original practice. This form will incorporate the entire body by using a combination of mat work and props. This option is great for beginners and offers a more structured approach.
  • Mat Pilates allows performers to focus on their core with only the use of a yoga mat. In focusing on the core, this practice works well for people looking to strengthen their back muscles.
  • Contemporary Pilates can vary widely depending on the practitioner. This form of Pilates incorporates yoga and physiotherapy, along with props, to meet the practitioner’s individual needs and is often used as a form of rehabilitation.
  • Stott Pilates is a modified version of Pilates, with a greater focus on the spine. Moira Merrithew developed the newer approach using many of the same principles – breathing, concentration, and control – but put more into postural alignment and exercise sequencing.
  • Reformer Pilates uses a special machine designed to add resistance to your mat workout. As shown in the video below, the reformer helps the user work through a series of postures while adding resistance and ultimately providing a more intense workout:

Benefits of Pilates

Many of the benefits of Pilates are mirrored in yoga. Both practices improve strength and balance through low impact postures. However, unlike yoga, Pilates can be considered a form of cardio exercise.

  • Muscle toning: Holding positions in Pilates activates muscles and joints, strengthening them over time. This often results in muscles becoming more lean and defined.
  • Increased core strength: Pilates puts a lot of focus into the powerhouse and strengthens the core muscles. These muscles are used in every move we make and are responsible for balance and stability.
  • Improved flexibility: Incorporating stretching into your workout helps a great deal with flexibility. At first, you may find your movements limited, but you should find a greater level of movement and reach with continued practice.
  • Better posture: A strong core is a key to better posture. The back and abdominal area muscles help stabilize and support the spine and neck, allowing for a stronger stance.
  • Safe for physical therapy: Contemporary Pilates has been modified with physical therapy in mind. The newer postures and adapted poses are safe for people with injuries and a great option for people looking to regain strength.
  • Improved circulation: Poor blood circulation can cause anything from fatigue to skin problems to more serious heart conditions. Pilates encourages blood flow, circulating nutrients, and oxygen to the whole body.
  • Lowers stress: The promotion of deep breathing and self-awareness can help when you are looking to relax and find balance. This will help when facing challenges by encouraging a calmer response to situations.
  • Cardio: It might not be the same as jumping on a treadmill, but certain Pilates classes provide cardiovascular exercise. Working with a reformer, for example, allows for more energetic moves that help to get your heart pumping.

Cost of Pilates

A typical Pilates class can cost $60 for a group class and up to $150 for a private class.

A Pilates class in the heart of New York City will cost $45-49. In contrast, a class in Pennsylvania can be as low as $24.

With Pilates being slightly more technical and given the use of special props and machinery, it’s no surprise that Pilates is a little more costly. However, where you can safely practice yoga at home as a beginner, it would be more beneficial to try a Pilates class before taking up the practice at home.

Given the inclusion of machines, it is recommended to learn their use from a trained professional to avoid any potential injuries.

Which Is Right for You?

If you are looking to strengthen your body and find balance, yoga is a great option. It is low impact and can be started at any ability level. Beginners can easily find classes suited to them with slower and more guided practice. Similarly, people with higher skill levels have plenty of options when it comes to finding a class and pushing their boundaries.

However, Pilates has a lot of emphasis on healing and physical strength. It, too, is low impact and places a lot of focus on core and inner strength. Beginners can slowly work their way through poses with teachers’ help, finding the right way to engage muscles and breath fully throughout postures. More advanced students can work their way up using props and machines, getting a cardio workout in more intense classes.

When deciding between the two, it is important to look at your goals. Where Pilates will offer core strengthening and stability, yoga will work to help you become more flexible and relaxed. In general, a Pilates class will be more intense than a yoga class. Deciding on your need for balance over a cardio workout will help choose which practice best suits you.

Can You Do Both Yoga and Pilates?

Given their similarities, you won’t be surprised to hear that incorporating both yoga and Pilates into your workout routine can be very beneficial. As both incorporate breathing and stretches, you might find many similarities from one class to the next.

By strengthening your core in a Pilates class, you should find certain yoga poses to be slightly easier to achieve. A strong powerhouse will allow you to hold poses longer and provide better support for your spine.

Similarly, as you become more aware of your breathing in yoga, you should see an improvement in your movements in Pilates. Deep breathing and controlled postures are essential in both yoga and Pilates and will complement each other with added practice.

Yogalates

Inspired by Yoga and Pilates, personal trainer Jonathan Urla developed this combination of the two by taking the best parts of each practice and bringing them together. By combining the breathing and stretches of yoga with the core strengthening of Pilates, Urla was able to create a powerful workout that increased flexibility and balance, along with improving fat-burning potential.

A major difference between yoga and yogalates is the incorporation of other movements while holding a pose. The idea is to strengthen more muscles at the same time.

Yogalates differs from Pilates in that there is no need for machinery. Much like yoga, it can be done only with a mat.

Conclusion

On the surface, Pilates and yoga hold many of the same benefits. Both use low-impact poses and postures to increase flexibility, improve balance and blood flow, and strengthen muscles.

However, yoga is an ancient practice that places great weight on spirituality and finding balance in your life. The mental benefits are just as important as the physical benefits. Pilates differs by placing its focus on building physical strength. Though the goal is to find balance and stability, they do not work toward spiritual enlightenment.

Sources

Sita

Mother of three and Yogi of 20+ years and 200 Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. I am also a Certified Thai massage therapist and I have taught Gymnastics for more than 10 years. In the last couple of years, I've been a big promotor of intermittent fasting.

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