What's the difference between these two mind-body exercises and which should we be doing?
Yoga and Pilates have taken our world by storm. Mounting stress levels and a greater focus on fitness and wellbeing have caused these mind-body workouts to soar in popularity. With celebrity endorsements backing the trend, yoga and Pilates are firmly on the fitness roadmap, with classes available in studios, schools, gyms and online.
Both have the power to improve strength, posture, flexibility and reduce stress. However, despite their popularity, confusion persists about the difference between them. This is partly because there are so many different types of yoga and Pilates and partly because there is a lot of crossover between them.
So which is better and which should we be doing?
Yoga is an ancient practice, originating in India. Although we don’t know exactly when it was first practised, the word yoga first appeared in Hindu ancient scripture 5,000 years ago. Historically, yogic tradition focused on cultivating spiritual liberation and harmony. In the late 1800’s, yoga spread West, gaining momentum as a route to better health and inner-peace.
Pilates was invented by German-born Joseph Pilates. Having suffered from poor health as a child, Joseph Pilates was very image-conscious and created an exercise method to strengthen his frail body. During WWI, Pilates worked in a convalescent hospital, where he began using his techniques to treat injured soldiers. Doctors noticed that these patients recovered quicker and became stronger, and began to endorse Pilates’ rehab method. Joseph Pilates honed the concept and in 1923, launched the first Pilates studio in the USA.
The most obvious similarity between Pilates and yoga is the fixation on mindful breathing.
During yoga, instructors will ask you to focus on Pranayama, or belly breathing, which can become rhythmic and therapeutic. Yogic breathing helps to calm the mind, reduces stress and stimulate clear thinking.
By contrast, Pilates exercises start with engaging the core and using lateral breathing to expand the ribcage. This allows you to activate deep abdominal muscles, which stabilise the spine whilst you work through the hardest part of a movement.
Understanding how to optimise your breath in each practice is key. If you’re new to Pilates or yoga, it’s worth spending some time concentrating on the breathing element. Getting your breathing right can transform the whole experience.
Regular practise of either yoga and Pilates will help to tone, sculpt and strengthen your body. However, the two movement styles are very different. Yoga comprises a series of static postures, whereas Pilates is more dynamic.
Yoga typically involves flowing through a series of poses (asanas) that will improve balance and flexibility, with a strong emphasis on mindfulness. By contrast, the goal of Pilates is core strengthening. By precisely isolating small muscles, Pilates helps to improve muscular control.
If you are new to Pilates or yoga, you may struggle at first. Don’t let this put you off! The two practices target muscles that aren’t commonly used during other forms of exercise. You can be incredibly fit and still come out of a yoga or Pilates class feeling fatigued or out of your depth, simply because you’ve worked your body in a completely different way. Patience is a virtue when it comes to this type of exercise. Without being too cliché, practise really does make perfect.
Both yoga and Pilates focus on mind-body relaxation. Yoga’s focus on spiritual wellbeing makes it ideal for improving mood. Yoga classes will typically finish with a relaxation or meditation component. By focussing on the present moment, yoga can effectively reduce stress.
Comparatively, Pilates concentrates on alleviating physical stress. When we are tense, our bodies naturally adopt poor posture, for example by slouching when sitting. Activating the core automatically relaxes the shoulders and relieves pressure on the hips and spine, relieving tension and stress.
During the current lockdown, mindfulness is more important than ever. These practices encourage us to give ourselves a break from external stresses – something we could all benefit from.
There is no doubt that biggest difference between yoga and Pilates is spirituality. Pilates delivers an element of consciousness through body awareness and breathing, whereas yoga places a strong emphasis on mindfulness.
The true purpose of this ancient practice was never about cute yoga outfits or contorting into the perfect pose to gain Instagram followers. Asanas (poses) are physically demanding, designed to build mental strength. The aim is to power through physical challenges, overcoming the inclination to stop when it becomes difficult. This allows the practitioner to quiet the mind, creating an open space for thought and reflection.
Pilates has become a pillar of modern injury prevention and rehabilitation. As a physiotherapist, I love incorporating Pilates into my patients’ rehab programmes’. I regularly use Pilates with kids as young as 5 suffering from hypermobility, through to adults with sciatica and elderly patients with high risk of falls. It is especially useful for patients suffering from low back pain, as abdominal and back muscles are mutually supportive. By strengthening these muscles, you reduce tension through the spine. Over time, this will help to reduce pain.
Yoga can be equally effective for back pain, as it targets the anxiety that often accompanies persistent pain.
Unfortunately most forms of yoga or Pilates are not strenuous enough to count towards the government-recommended 150 minutes of moderate activity per week. However, the government also recommends that adults do two training sessions per week, and yoga and Pilates definitely count towards this.
As a physiotherapist and a Pilates instructor, I am asked this question all the time. Both are safe and low-impact, making them suitable for people of any age and ability. Pick a class suitable for your level, go slow and listen to your body. Form is extremely important in both yoga and Pilates. If practised incorrectly, you risk provoking pain. If a particular movement is uncomfortable, don’t push through it; it is important to stay within your physical limits.
People often report that they tried Pilates (or yoga) once and it just wasn’t for them. There is so much variation in what’s on offer, so you may need to try a few classes before you find one you enjoy. Some people love the Zen-vibes from a deeply meditative yoga class, whereas other love to feel the burn following an intense Pilates session.
There are endless numbers of free classes available on Zoom, social media and YouTube. If you don’t get much out of a particular class, don’t give up on the whole practice – try a different style. There’s a class out there for everyone.
Ultimately, the choice between yoga and Pilates comes down to personal preference. Often, people who are more logical tend to prefer Pilates, whereas people with creative brains find more freedom in yoga.
Whichever you go for, both yoga and Pilates are great forms of exercise and can dramatically improve your physical and mental health. As with any exercise, the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy it.
Naomi Burns, Physiotherapist
22nd April 2020
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