Yoga vs. Pilates: What's the Difference?

We compare two popular programs. What's best for you?

If you’re looking at yoga or Pilates to tighten your midsection, build strength, stand taller and feel healthier, they both get the job done. Both disciplines require concentration, consistent practice and awareness. That’s why they are classified under “mind-body” programs, along with Tai Chi and meditation.

But the differences between the two can be confusing, even for veteran students. Here’s a crash course on how yoga and Pilates each tone up our bodies and minds.

Probably the biggest difference is that yoga is fundamentally a spiritual practice. The primary purpose of yoga is to teach students how to quiet their minds and enter a meditative state. The physical yoga that is so popular today, called hatha yoga, means the physical path of transformation. Although hatha yoga uses the body and movement, its purpose is to achieve union between the body, mind and spirit. This state is called samadhi.

On the other hand, Pilates is strictly a physical exercise program, used specifically to correct imbalances in the body, strengthen muscles and in many cases, become pain-free and improve posture. It is also excellent cross-training for dancers and golfers alike.

While yoga focuses on opening the hips, spine and shoulders, Pilates requires stabilization, minimal movement and deep core control. Let’s compare the yoga pose “reclined hand-to-foot pose” (Supta Hasta Padangustasana) with the Pilates exercise “scissors.” In both, the student is lying on his back, holding onto one leg, foot or toe. The essence of the yoga posture is to lengthen the hamstrings and spine while using the core (uddiyana banda) to lift the head toward the foot and hold for a minimum of five breaths. This is an amazing hamstring and hip stretch. The leg can also be taken out to the side to fully open the hips.

Unlike reclined hand-to-foot pose, “scissors” is more concerned with firing the transverses abdominis and obliques in order to keep the core flexed and still despite the movement of the legs. Sure, students may feel a hamstring stretch, but it’s secondary to the core stability that needs to happen in order to execute the exercise properly.

They may look similar to the casual observer, but they target different muscles, breath patterns and levels of endurance.

Other differences include formats. A Pilates class typically runs through 20 to 40 exercises with five to 10 repetitions of each in a 45 to 55-minute class.

Yoga students practice postures called asana that are held for a certain number of breaths or even minutes. Depending on the style of yoga, poses may be linked together with a rigorous breath and movement system called vinyasa.

Yoga classes typically include standing, balancing, seated postures and inversions, such as shoulder stand, crow pose or headstand. Some poses can be hard for people with joint and balance issues. If you have knee, ankle, spinal issues or any recent injury, be sure to let your instructor know so he or she can give you safe modifications. Some yoga classes are heated and may begin or end with a Sanskrit chant or the sound of “om.”

Pilates classes are not heated and many exercises are performed supine, prone or in a side-lying position. They are more accessible for people with knee, rotator cuff and back problems. Pilates with a trained instructor is excellent pre-and post-operative therapy.

Equipment-base Pilates allows trainers to work with students in small group settings, usually five to six people, who share specific goals or limitations. For example, the Pilates Reformer adds controlled resistance from pulleys to force the core and external limbs to either work harder or provide extra assistance, depending on the exercise.

Although both yoga and Pilates emphasize breathing, the yoga breath is in through the nose and out through the nose to create inner heat and produce an audible "ha” sounds that’s used as a tool for meditation. Pilates students breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth to focus on emptying the diaphragm and contracting the deep abdominal muscles.

Finally, yoga and Pilates prices can vary. Yoga classes run anywhere from $12 to $20 per class. Mat Pilates classes cost $8 to $20 per class and are even included in some gym memberships. Equipment-based Pilates classes, such as the Reformer, Cadillac, Chair or Barrel run $25 to $40 per 50-minute class and are usually limited to five students to ensure safety and personal attention.

Try both if you’re unsure which one is right for you. Yoga will burn calories, increase flexibility and produce overall good feeling, relaxation and peace of mind. Pilates will get you to connect with your powerhouse and keep that voice in the back of your head that says, “Stand up straight, shoulders back, belly in.”

Check in next week as we explore a new fitness trend that could be right in your backyard. And all you need are monkey bars.

Lisa Byrne August 16, 2011 at 11:29 AM
this is one of the clearest and best articles on the difference. When people ask I tell them that I have a Pilates studio. Their response sometimes is "Oh, I love Yoga!". This will be a good handout for them:) Lisa Byrne http://www.PilatesForSport.com
Bob Gookin August 16, 2011 at 02:35 PM
What a great article. I've always wondered about the distinctions and now I know. As someone who is just getting back into running after a long layoff, I'm looking for something to increase my flexibility -- and, correspondingly, to decrease my chances of an injury. Given that I currently have the flexibility of an icicle, I have always been a little daunted by yoga. But I think I'm going to give pilates a try. Thanks again for a great article!
Gordon Kaplan August 16, 2011 at 04:00 PM
This is a good basic article for students who know nothing about either practice. However there are some additions needed for accuracy. Yoga is a complete system for evolving or growing the human being. The practice is inherently robust, despite the prevalence of classes which teach only asana (poses). Through mediation we address emotions, patterns of behavior, addictions et al. Through lifestyle and nutrition we nourish the human body. Through posture and breath we address the skeletal, organic, and muscular systems. Through applied philosophy we heal our relationship with self, others, and planet. To merely call this a "spiritual practice" understates its breadth. Additionally, uddiyana bandha is the the act of contracting the abdominal contents toward the spine, from the pubic bone to the xiphoid process. For the safety of students this should not at all be engaged during asana. Yogic breath does in fact travel into and out of the nostrils, rather than the mouth. However it is a particular control of breath (pranayama) called Ujjayi (victory) that creates an audible "ha" and "sa" sound. Breath is moved through the nostrils because that is the optimal filtration system for healthy breathing. Yoga doesn't "focus" on opening the hips, shoulders, and spine. When properly conveyed, yoga focuses on that which THE practitioner needs in their body at that time for their wellbeing. That is achieved by stabilizing some things and mobilizing others.
Heather Mrowka Strine August 16, 2011 at 11:28 PM
Bravo! One of my best friends just asked me this question. As the owner of www.4yourfitnessneeds.com, I tried to answer as best I could, and the short answer I gave covered just a small part of what you've put so clearly. I'm going to refer her to this article, and cross "write an article about the difference between yoga and pilates" off my todo list.
Heather Mrowka Strine August 16, 2011 at 11:35 PM
Very nice reply. I'm a martial artist, and when we meditate prior to our class, we practice our breathing. We breath in through the nose, focusing on filling up our lungs and allowing our abdomen to expand. The exhale comes out the mouth, emptying the abdomen of air. This method of breathing has been recommended for anyone with stress as a way to keep one's heart-rate down and their organs functioning properly. That's not to say that the method used in Yoga is incorrect. As my Tashi says to me constantly "Breathe, Heather, BREATHE." I'm one of those individuals who needed to relearn to breath to decrease my stress. Yoga, Pilates, and Martial Arts has greatly helped me not only learn to breath correctly again, but has also decreased my stress. This is something that many people should learn, and a focus on fitness and breathing will keep those who participate living longer than our sedative counterparts.
Nami August 19, 2011 at 07:47 AM
It's depend to your instructor knowledge about anatomy of movement, human anatomy doesn't change from stone age until now. So Yoga or Pilates are good for health as long your instructor really know all aspect of Yoga or Pilates, in Yoga or Pilates content every movement, posture, or asana need body awareness, mind in present, and proper breathing, sense as human, if you believe in spiritual background you can choose Yoga, if just proper exercise you want, you can choose Pilates
Flexhk Studio December 10, 2012 at 07:52 AM
This is an awesome article with clear difference between Yoga and Pilates. Both have their unique importance.
Steve December 10, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Believe it or not I actually gained a little height after a year of Pilates. I think it was all due to the posture correction. I went to the Doctor for an annual physical. He measured my height. All my adult life I had been 6'3" and change. After a year of Pilates he measured me again and I was 6'-4". LOL He kept looking at my chart and he checked it about 3 times!


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