Pilates vs. Yoga: How to Decide Which is Better for You


Pilates vs. Yoga: How to Decide Which is Better for You

Staying fit is an important part of any self-care routine. While many enjoy going to the gym, running, or hiking, others seek a more holistic approach to fitness. Two great activities for body-mind wellness are Pilates and Yoga. Both can help you with strength and flexibility as well as reduce stress, but the way they go about this differs. 

Is Pilates or Yoga better for you? While you can get benefits from both activities, it depends on your health goals. Pilates is appealing to people who are looking for a full body workout starting with a strong core. Yoga is preferred by those who are looking for both mind and body wellness. 

For those looking to improve their wellness routine, adding in an exercise program to suit your needs is important. Many of us only have time to focus on one new type of workout, so choosing between Yoga and Pilates may be a difficult decision. Many of us only have time to focus on one new type of workout, so choosing between Yoga and Pilates may be a difficult decision. The rest of this article will discuss the history and compare these two forms of mind-body exercise to help you decide which one (or both) you would like to try. 

Yoga vs. Pilates: What Are They?

Pilates and Yoga are both low-impact workouts, typically barefoot or in socks, that utilize bodyweight resistance for strength and flexibility improvements. They also incorporate the breath in the practice which helps improve mental wellness and combat stress, anxiety, depression and many other conditions.

Participating in either of these exercises can increase overall health and lead to a better quality of life. They can help connect you with a community and encourage you to improve other aspects of your lifestyle as well. Either of these can become a new lifestyle if that is what you are looking for.  

Pilates and yoga are both widely available as in-studio classes, either discipline-specific or part of a class package at fitness and recreation centers across the country. You can also find videos of both of these activities online or via hard-copy media. 

While it is possible to do either Pilates or Yoga with minimal equipment, Pilates can also can use more complex, expensive machinery. 

The History of Yoga

Yoga’s exact origins are unknown, but it is widely accepted that yoga started in India at least 3,000 years ago. It has roots in Shamanism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions with the purpose of connecting the individual consciousness to the universal consciousness through physical activity. 

This works through five main principles:  

  • Relaxation
  • Exercise
  • Breathing
  • Diet
  • Positive thinking and meditation

Yoga is gentler and on meditation first and then on strength and flexibility; mindfulness is one of the key results on which yoga is focused. Deep breathing, holding poses, and flowing through them in a controlled manner are the elements that help you achieve this mindfulness. The secondary benefits from yoga come from improving your physical form which include:

  • Flexibility
  • Strength 
  • Joint elasticity 
  • Increased blood flow
  • Release of toxins  

There are many types of yoga to accommodate all needs. These employ different techniques to reach the same end goal of mind-body balance. This variety means that anyone, with any body type, should be able to find a practice that works for them. 

Some of the common varieties are:

  • Hatha, which is a great variety to help you relax from a long day. It is one of the gentler varieties and also the most commonly found.
  • Kundalini has been said to help people dealing with addiction. It is considered an “uplifting” form of yoga, incorporating chants into the standard breathing and movements for which yoga is known. 
  • Vinyasa focuses on flow. In this form you are moving the body continuously, but at a very slow pace, through poses with the accompanying breath. 
  • Sivananda is understood to be a more stimulating variety of yoga. It takes the body through a series of 12 common poses that help increase flexibility and strengthen muscles.
  • Hot Yoga, also called Bikram, is usually done in an intentionally heated room (with a temperature anywhere from 85-100 degrees Fahrenheit). This heat is said to help work out toxins through sweat and increase flexibility.  

For a complete list of different types of yoga, check out this series of articles by Yoga Journal. This site also contains detailed descriptions of yoga poses, practices, and more!

The History of Pilates 

Pilates has a much more recent origin. It was created by Joseph Pilates in 1920 to rehabilitate wounded soldiers coming back from World War I. Several years later, he brought this practice to the United States, where he spent years refining the exercise to what it is today. Pilates has six key elements:

  • Concentration
  • Control
  • Centering
  • Breathing
  • Flow
  • Precision

These six principles work with the mindset that you are creating long, toned muscles by focusing on small movements. Pilates emphasizes strength from the center of the body outward; you always begin by stabilizing muscles in the core of the body. 

A controlled breath is used to start the muscles contracting which are then held or maneuvered to improve strength. This strength is intended to travel from the core outward and into the limbs, thus providing a whole body workout. 

In addition to the basic mat movements, Pilates also can use more complex machines, most notably the Reformer, that use springs, levers, and your own body weight to improve strength. These machines can be quite expensive which makes this part of Pilates difficult to do from home. However, most gyms and studios teaching Pilates will be able to provide a variety of equipment needed. 

Pilates is often used by athletes to build full body strength to aid them in other sports and activities. 

Key Elements of Yoga and Pilates

Now that you have an understanding about each of these exercise forms, this next section will go into detail comparing specific areas of focus. 

The Breath

Since both Pilates and Yoga consider the breath essential to the practice, it’s important to understand the role it plays in fitness and meditation. 

We all breathe. It is one of the most basic functions of the human body. In addition to delivering oxygen to our brains and body, it can clear our mind and strengthen our muscles. However, much of the time we don’t notice our breath or use it in a way that allows the body to function the way that it should. 

This is what breath control in both Pilates and Yoga can teach you. This practice describes how your mind moves in sync with your body through your breath. As each breath brings oxygenated blood to your muscles, it increases the intensity of your postures. This trains your muscles to release and activate, supporting body alignment, muscle length, and posture. 

Breath control is used in both Yoga and Pilates to add that second level of intention to your workout. 

  • Pilates uses the breath to pool focus into your pose. The main breathing technique is called The Hundred.
  • Yoga places significant emphasis on the breath, or Pranayama, and employs various breath control techniques.

The Hundred

Pilates uses one breath control technique, called The Hundred (also the Pilates 100), that targets core strength and stability. This technique ties the breath together with fully-engaged abs to work the deepest muscles in your belly. 

Some experts consider it the defining move in Pilates because it incorporates all the elements (concentration, centering, control, breathing, precision, and flow) into one movement. 

To find out how to do the Pilates 100, see this article from Self.

Pranayama 

In yoga, the breath work varies by practice or teacher but all yogis agree that it is an essential part in any yoga routine. Pranayama encompasses all breathing techniques, each of which is used to cultivate energy in a different way.   

Here are five Pranayama techniques that can be used in many forms of yoga. For instructions on how to do these breathing techniques, check out this article from Yoga Journal.

  • Basic breath awareness is as simple as beginning to notice that you are breathing and how.
  • Ujjayi Pranayama, also called Ocean Breath, is done by inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth with a partially closed airway. This breath is for relaxation but can also add strength to poses.
  • Nadi Shodhana Pranayama is the act of inhaling through alternating nostrils. This type of breath is said to purify the nadis, or energy passages that carry life force through your body.
  • Kumbhaka Pranayama, or Breath Retention, occurs when you inhale deeply, hold your breath for a few seconds, and then inhale a little more. This breath helps your lungs expand allowing you to hold more air in them.
  • Kapalabhati Pranayama is a rapid breathing technique that activates your nervous system which is meant to energize you and focus the mind. This breathing technique is not recommended for those who are already under a lot of stress.

Pilates: The “Core” Principle 

When people think about taking on an exercise routine, they usually do so to improve their body by increasing strength, flexibility, and/or coordination. Weight loss may also be a goal or an at least appealing side effect. If any of these are your goals as well, Pilates may be where you want to start. 

Core strength is the pillar of Pilates. Many of the poses and routines are performed while sitting, kneeling, or laying on the floor. This format allows for the increase in muscle strength without putting a lot of strain on the joints. 

This “center outward” approach to strength training can give you many physical benefits including: 

  • Help develop killer abs
  • Rehab your back pain
  • Tighten up your backside
  • Improve your posture
  • Elongate your muscles 
  • Increase flexibility 
  • Improve circulation and organ function
  • Lose weight 

While the workouts can be intense and lead to soreness, they are customizable to your ability. Higher intensity classes will cause increased heart rate and sweating but can lead to strength gain without an increase in bulk. 

Slower or lighter classes will provide more opportunity for lengthening but won’t sacrifice strength building entirely. Additionally, due to the low-impact characteristics and the close proximity to the floor, many older people or those with lingering after effects of serious injuries can also participate in Pilates with great benefits. 

Yoga: Mind over Matter

Yoga is an exercise form that should be approached with a slightly different mentality. The main principle is meditation, where a person uses their physical form to reconnect with their mental and emotional state through the breath.

Many people misunderstand the goal of yoga and assume it is in increasing flexibility. While this attribute, as well as strength and balance improvement, can result from yoga, they are not the primary focus. Due to the emphasis on the breath, the physical form is primarily a vessel through which you carry your intentions. This can be seen in the many varieties of yoga mentioned above.

Varieties of yoga that include chants (Kundalini) or holding individual poses (Iyengar) emphasize the meditation aspect, whereas more physical forms (Bikram or Hot Yoga) can have a greater effect on strength gain or weight loss.   

Those seeking better mental health, whether to combat everyday stress or treat more long-term conditions like depression or anxiety, will probably feel more at home with yoga. The mental benefits from yoga focus on two types of training:

  • Calming the mind
  • Mindfulness

Calming the mind is important because it allows you to release your million everyday thoughts, allowing you to feel relaxed, centered, and present. This calm is then passed through your physical body, lowering blood pressure and cortisollevels (the stress hormone). A decrease in blood pressure causes improved circulation which is said to remove harmful toxins and pass oxygen, nutrients, and dopamine (the feel-good hormone) quickly through the body. 

Mindfulness is the idea of focusing on the “here and now”, or becoming aware of how you are feeling (emotionally, mentally, and physically) in the present moment. Then you can accept those feelings without trying to rationalize or “fix” them.  It is considered the first step toward a happier life. Yoga helps practice this habit by encouraging you to exert your mental energy on the poses you are holding and letting go of the world around you.

Both of these techniques can lead you to improved mental clarity, allowing you to prioritize important tasks at hand. They also can help prevent negative thoughts from occurring and when they do occur, a calm mind can help you work through them easier. 

Other Benefits of Yoga and Pilates

However, the benefits of yoga and Pilates do not stop there. The following are a few other advantages of the two practices:  

Pilates and Meditation

While Pilates may seem like a more traditional exercise class due to its emphasis on physical strength, the mind plays an integral part as well. Adding this element of concentration to the workout is what differentiates Pilates from many other exercise routines. 

In Pilates, the mind is a powerful tool to improving your workouts and controlling your body’s movements. This places focus completely on the body, breathing, and how the two interact. The mindset in Pilates works similarly to yoga: forcing the mind to calm which leads to better circulation, reduction of stress, and improved organ function. 

Thus, if you are interested in stress relief and also learning some level of mindfulness while still getting a thorough workout, Pilates will fit the bill. However, if mental control is your primary focus, one of the more physical forms of yoga may be more appealing. 

Physical Benefits of Yoga

Yoga can vary in its physical intensity from very gentle to fairly intense.

Most people can find a class that fits their needs whether they are:

  • Recovering from an injury
  • Trying to get back into shape
  • Pushing themselves to the next level 

While anyone of any level can participate in most varieties of yoga, it is recommended to always start with a beginner class if you are new to the variety or the discipline as a whole.

Yin Yoga and Iyengar are slower-moving varieties that focus on holding poses for one to several minutes. While they can become challenging, especially when the details of each pose are highly scrutinized, they are also very centering and relaxing. These practices are especially good for those with injuries or physical limitations (upon consultation with a doctor) as they give the body a chance to really settle into a position. 

On the other hand, Vinyasa or Hot Yoga/Bikram is all about movement. Participants “flow” from one pose to another, frequently in specific sets, rarely spending more than a few seconds in any one pose. Some people may find this frustrating as it does not allow a lot of time for perfection. However, that may appeal to others who enjoy moving, sweating, and increased heart rate. 

A Warning on Hot Yoga

Hot Yoga, of which Bikram is one form, continues to attract lots of supporters, especially from those who enjoy a highly intense workout. However, the debate on health benefits versus safety risks is heated.  

Done in a room that is intentionally heated to 85-100+ degrees and often humid, Hot Yoga is supposed to mimic the climate and temperature of India, where yoga has its roots. This heat and humidity causes excessive sweating, elevated heart rate, and rapid breathing.  

Some professional yogis swear by this method as a way to sweat out toxins and rapidly increase flexibility and muscle strength, but others believe this methodology goes against the yogi principle of cultivating energy by dispersing it instead.

There are also some very real safety concerns with Hot Yoga including:

  • Heat intolerance 
  • Unsafe body temperature
  • Dehydration and dizziness
  • Exacerbation of existing conditions such as high blood pressure
  • Over-stretching of muscles
  • Potential injury

Many of these safety concerns occur when inexperienced people jump into an intense Hot Yoga class. To avoid this, it is recommended to ramp up slowly and stay in tune with your body. And remember, if heated yoga is not for you, there are plenty of other yoga classes out there to meet your needs!

To read more about Hot Yoga and its benefits/concerns, you can refer to this article from Healthline.

Weight Loss

Losing weight is on the minds of many people today. It one of the leading reasons to start a new exercise routine. Thus, it is worth noting how yoga and Pilates can contribute to your weight loss journey. 

The short answer is that neither of these workout routines is tailored for complete or rapid weight loss. In addition to adhering to a healthier diet, weight loss comes in the form of burning calories through cardio which doesn’t happen as much in standard yoga or Pilates classes.

That being said, research on these forms of exercise and weight loss is mixed. While studies have found conflicting evidence on whether or not a 12-week course of Pilates itself can contribute to weight loss, it is generally agreed that combining these with a healthy diet and more fat-burning activities (such as running or swimming) will help a person reduce weight.

As with any form of exercise, higher-energy versions of either class will burn more calories. Additionally, the contribution that both yoga and Pilates have on toning your muscles will help you in keeping weight off over time. 

Improvements to Medical Conditions

Both Pilates and Yoga are said to help with a wide range of conditions from mental to physical. This is due to the whole-body nature of both types of exercise as well as the holistic understanding of breath, and energy flow and transfer. 

Yoga has been known to have positive effects for certain medical issues, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Arthritis
  • Respiratory conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic pain
  • Type 2 diabetes

As Pilates is a much newer practice, treatment of medical conditions is still in the beginnings of study. However, since Pilates is performed primarily on the floor (vs. the standing poses of yoga) it may be beneficial for those who have: 

  • Arthritis
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Respiratory conditions
  • Joint injuries
  • Back pain

Of course, if you have specific health concerns, it is important to consult a doctor or certified instructor before beginning any new exercise routine.

Once it is deemed safe to do so, any workout can be modified if you have neck/back pain, respiratory issues, are pregnant, or have other physical restrictions.

Yoga and Pilates Classes

How your actual Yoga or Pilates class will run will also have their share of similarities and differences. 

Equipment

Whether you’re looking to join a specialized studio or start classes from home, there is some basic equipment you’ll need for both Pilates and Yoga. Fortunately, many studios provide this equipment so you can try it out without any monetary investment. 

Basic equipment is as follows:

A Note on Clothing

While any comfortable workout clothes would suffice for these classes, form-fitting clothing is recommended; this will keep your clothing out of the way while holding poses that involve hanging your head below your waist or moving your legs in the air. It will also allow your teacher to see and correct your poses more easily, giving you the full benefit of the workout. 

Lastly, during machine work in Pilates, loose clothing could get bound or caught in the machine, thus slowing down your workout. 

Pilates Classes: Mat or Reformer?

For Pilates specifically, you’ll need to decide if you want a mat-only class, or if you want to work with machines. For the machine classes, the Reformer is the one you’re most likely to see as a beginner, but other machines come into play at more advanced levels. 

Either of these class types can be started as a beginner, but make sure to communicate your level of experience to your teacher at the beginning of class.

  • Mat Classes are more like a yoga class setup where most or all of your exercises are performed on a foam mat on the floor. It is important to note that a Pilates mat is a bit thicker than the yoga version to provide more relief on pressure points.
  • Reformer Classes use a machine called the Reformer, which is a sliding platform complete with a stationary foot bar, springs, and pulleys that provide resistance. This type of class can be a bit more intense as the equipment offers more challenge than bodyweight alone. 

Both types of classes focus on controlling the body rather than performing long sets of repetitions until your muscles get tired. Instead, they are working against gravity and/or the springs of the equipment to isolate and tone each muscle individually. 

There are also other types of Pilates-inspired workouts, such as SLT, Brooklyn Bodyburn, or Studio MDR. These give the same benefits as Pilates but deviate in their individual routines. Due to this variety, it should be fairly easy to find a class in your area.

How to Choose Between Yoga and Pilates

Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether Pilates or Yoga is a better choice, taking into account your lifestyle, body type, health history, and personal goals. While trying different classes and teachers is the best way to find your new favorite workout routine, here are some general guidelines to get you started. 

Choose Pilates if you are:

  • Most interested in developing a strong core and toned muscles.
  • Looking for physical rehabilitation.
  • An athlete who wants added strength to improve other sports.
  • Also interested in incorporating meditation and breathwork into exercise.
  • Interested in adding a cardio element to your workout.

Choose yoga if you are:

  • Trying to reduce stress or improve mental well-being.
  • Interested in improving your balance or full-body function.
  • Pursuing increased spirituality in daily life.
  • Highly interested in improving the flexibility of both muscles and joints.
  • A person who enjoys the technical workings of the body.

Still can’t decide? It’s possible to alternate Yoga and Pilates classes based on your desires/needs each day. Also, some places offer a Yogilates or PiYo class that combines elements from both Pilates and Yoga. These hybrid classes give you the meditative benefits of yoga with the intense core strengthening of Pilates. Take a look in your area to see if one of these fun classes is available to you!

Dakota Carroll

Yoga have been a part of Dakota's life for 10+ years. Her practice has helped her grow stronger, more flexible and fearless. Dakota encourages her students to be creative and challenge the body. She seeks to inspire every student to feel refreshed, nourished and balanced both on and off the mat.

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