This post was written by one of our contributors; physiotherapist – Emma Wrath.
Something I get asked regularly by my clients is ‘Which is better; yoga or Pilates?’ usually followed by ‘What’s the difference?’ and all too often I find myself being incorrectly referred to as a yoga instructor as friends struggle to distinguish between the two. Perhaps you’ve heard Pilates can improve sports performance and longevity, maybe you have a New Year resolution to be able to do a headstand, or you are looking to supplement your current training or maximise your active recovery. Well you have come to the right place – this article aims to dispel myths and explain the difference between Pilates and Yoga, and the benefits of both.
Yoga and Pilates make great choices of exercise as they are both low impact, relatively low intensity and both emphasise the connection between physical and mental health with attention to conscious breathing. Both can be tried by anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness, and can be modified easily to accommodate injuries or medical conditions. However, do not be mistaken for thinking these characteristics make them the easy option when browsing your gym timetable. Done right, both will help you to build strength, endurance, and suppleness whilst improving your overall health, posture and energy levels. Both can supplement additional training or be used as a way to unwind and relax, depending what you need or desire from your training.
Another question I get asked, is whether Pilates or yoga will build excessive muscle or cause people to ‘bulk up.’ As mentioned previously, both help to build muscle strength but due to the high repetitions of exercises and low weight used, it is unlikely that individuals will notice a large increase in muscle mass.
Note: Neither Pilates or yoga contributes to the NHS 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise recommended per week, although they do both count towards your recommended strength sessions.
Created by Joseph Pilates, who was born in 1880 in Germany where he spent his young adulthood studying yoga, meditation and ancient exercise practices. He was ahead of his time in believing that mental and physical health is closely related and following the war he worked in an English hospital rehabilitating those injured in the war. Joseph had a pioneering approach to exercise and found that by adding springs to hospital beds and allowing patients to exercise against resistance, their healing improved by loading the muscles, ligaments, and tissues. Joseph later relocated to America to develop his concept within the dance world and to open his own studio in New York City. He worked with elite ballerinas from the New York City Ballet amongst others until he passed away, leaving behind his Pilates legacy.
The principle of Pilates is a mind-body centring technique, emphasising the importance of quality movement and good muscular control, especially within the deep core muscle – your transverse abdominis. This focus on the
core has led to an increase in Pilates research for back pain and chronic conditions and has shown regular Pilates can significantly improve pain and functional ability in people with chronic lower back pain (1,2). Research has also shown that regularly practising Pilates will reap full body benefits, including improved balance and control, increased body awareness and improved core strength (3). By incorporating resistance by using bands, balls, and light weights, Pilates will challenge your co-ordination, endurance, balance, flexibility and strength.
Studies have also shown Pilates is not only safe, but recommended in pregnancy for reducing pelvic girdle pain (4), improving pelvic floor strength (5) and can be used to treat female urinary incontinence (6).
- Mat – Mat classes are performed on the floor and can include equipment such as: resistance bands, balls, foam rollers or light weights. This is Pilates in its truest form and a great place for beginners to start.
- Reformer – A reformer is a bed-like frame with a flat platform, called a carriage, which rolls back and forth. The carriage is attached to one end of the reformer by a set of springs and you can either work against the springs to add resistance or use the springs to assist you in movements. It is a versatile piece of equipment that can take your Pilates up a gear.
- Equipment Pilates – This is an umbrella term for classes that incorporate multiple pieces of spring resisted
equipment including: the reformer, wunda chair, cadillac and tower.
- MOTR (MOre Than a Roller) – A new, compact version of the reformer packed into the size of a large foam
- Clinical Pilates – Pilates lead by a healthcare professional, usually a Physiotherapist. This is advantageous for those trying to rehabilitate or accommodate an injury or medical condition.
*As mentioned earlier, Pilates doesn’t traditionally work your aerobic and cardiovascular system. However, to increase your heart rate try a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) Pilates class or jump board Pilates session on the reformer which will target your aerobic system.
Try at home: Four Sides London offers a fantastic online home programme (including the fundamentals, pregnancy and a post-natal series)
Dating back 5000 – 10,000 years ago, yoga’s exact heritage is less well known due to its oral transmission of sacred texts and the secretive nature of its teachings. Originating in India, one of the main things that stands it apart from Pilates is its spiritual heritage as its roots are embedded in many spiritual and religious rituals within: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Traditional yoga has more flow and fluidity of movement than Pilates; repeating postures called asanas, making up sequences called vinyasas. Yoga gurus from India introduced yoga to the West in the 20th century, adapting yoga into a modern-day workout whilst still offering elements of breath work, meditation, visualisation, use of sound and spiritual meaning (7). Traditional yoga classes can still be found, and it is up to you how spiritual you want to be with regards to your workouts and flow, and what you wish to gain from your yoga practice.
Yoga’s nature favours flexibility with the deep stretching of muscles and holding of postures, but you also receive the benefits of all-round muscle strengthening, balance, and stability work (7). Yoga has been a focus in a variety of mixed quality studies, but now there is good evidence to suggest yoga can significantly improve the symptoms of depression (8), physical fatigue and reduce stress (7). As with exercise in general, yoga has also been shown to provide benefits to our brain health and could potentially reduce the effects of ageing on the brain (9).
With so many different styles of yoga to choose from, this alone may put you off. Here’s a quick run down of the most common types:
- Yin – A slow-paced style of yoga with postures that are held from 45seconds up to five minutes. Yin is a great class for beginners, and it can also be a meditative yoga practice helping you to find your
- Hatha – The Sanskrit term “hatha” is an umbrella term for all physical postures of yoga. In the West, hatha yoga refers to all the other styles of yoga (Ashtanga, Iyengar, etc.) that are grounded in a physical practice. Hatha is great for beginners as it is often slower than other forms and is an introduction to classic postures and breathing techniques.
- Ashtanga – A physically demanding flow starting with sun salutations and moving into floor postures. Due to its physicality it is not recommended for beginners but is a great option for anyone looking to develop their existing yoga practice.
- Vinyasa – Vinyasa yoga was developed from Ashtanga in the 1980s and the flowing style links breath to movement. Many types of yoga can also be considered Vinyasa flows such as Ashtanga, power yoga, and prana.
- Bikhram – This type of yoga is undertaken in a room set at 40 degrees Celsius and 40 percent humidity. There is no hard evidence to back up claims of added benefits from working out in the heat but if you love to sweat this one’s for you! (If you are pregnant it is recommended to avoid this style of yoga.)
- Aerial yoga – Aerial yoga draws from the alignment and techniques of yoga, using a low hanging, wide aerial sling to aid in moving through traditional yoga postures.
- SUP yoga – this is done out on the water on a large paddle board adding an extra challenge to your concentration and balance.
Try at home: I love doing the Alo Yoga Youtube videos. They have something for everyone and videos ranging from 10-60 minutes or more. Cayley Alyssa’s classes are my favourite.
Which one is best for you?
The best place to start is by asking yourself why you want to start and what you are looking to achieve. If you are looking to prevent or rehabilitate an injury, or in preparation or recovery from pregnancy, I would recommend clinical Pilates with a Physiotherapist. If you hope to de-stress, unwind, or to explore meditation, I would encourage you to try yoga.
Still not sure? I would suggest trying both and see which one you prefer! I find the teacher can make all the difference, so if you find someone you feel you can connect with and someone that is passionate about what they are teaching, you are on to a winner. A great teacher can always modify the poses and postures so never feel pressured to attempt something you are uncomfortable with. You can also find ‘Yogilates’ classes that merge both principles online and in studios.
Note: Always speak to your doctor before embarking on any new fitness activity.
(1) Wells C, Kolt GS, Marshall P, Hill B, Bialocerkowski A ‘The Effectiveness of Pilates Exercise in People with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Systematic Review’ PLoS ONE Internet 9(7): e100402, available online: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0100402, DOI:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100402
(2) Wells C, Kolt GS, Marshall P, Bialocerkowski A, ‘The Definition and Application of Pilates Exercise to Treat People With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Delphi Survey of Australian Physical Therapists’ Physical Therapy Internet June: 94(6):792–805, Available online: https://academic.oup.com/ptj/article/94/6/792/2735563, DOI: https://doi.org/10.2522/ptj.20130030
(3) Di Lorenzo CE. ‘Pilates: what is it? Should it be used in rehabilitation?’ Sports Health Internet 3(4):352–361. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3445206/ doi:10.1177/1941738111410285
(4) Andry Vleeming et al, ‘European guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of pelvic girdle pain’ European Spine Journal (2008) 17: 794-819. DOI 10.1007/s00586-008-0602-4
(5) P J. Culligan, J Scherer, K Dyer, J L Priestley, G Guingon-White, D Delvecchio, M Vangeli ‘A Randomized Clinical Trial Comparing Pelvic Floor Muscle Training to a Pilates Exercise Program for Improving Pelvic Muscle Strength’ International Urogynecology Journal Internet 21:401-408. Available online: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/41112777_A_Randomized_Clinical_Trial_Comparing_Pelvic_Floor_Muscle_Training_to_a_Pilates_Exercise_Program_for_Improving_Pelvic_Muscle_Strength DOI:
(6) Kennaway B & Carus C ‘Is pelvic floor muscle training enhanced by supplementary transversus abdominis recruitment in the treatment of female urinary incontinence? A review of the evidence and reflection on current practices’ Journal of Pelvic, Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy Internet 126, 16–28 Available online: https://www.csp.org.uk/system/files/documents/2020-01/06_kennawaycarus.pdf
(7) Woodyard C. Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. Int J Yoga.
Internet 4(2):49–54. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3193654/doi:10.4103/0973-6131.85485
(8) Pilkington K, Kirkwood G, Rampes H, Richardson J ‘Yoga for Depression: the research evidence’ Journal of
Affective Disorders Internet Dec;89(1-3):13-24. Available from:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16185770 DOI: 10.1016/j.jad.2005.08.013
(9) Gothe NP, Khan I, Hayes J, Erlenbach E, Damoiseaux JS. ‘Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current Literature’ Brain Plasticity Internet;5(1):105–122. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6971819/ DOI:10.3233 /BPL-190084
(10) Sivaramakrishnan, D., Fitzsimons, C., Kelly, P. et al. The effects of yoga compared to active and inactive controls on physical function and health related quality of life in older adults- systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity Internet 16, 33. Avaliable online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30953508 https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-019-0789-2