Yoga and Pilates are the two most popular types of mind-body exercise classes not just in the United States but also here in the Philippines. People are always asking me which of the two they should take. My standard answer is both. Of course, this is easy for me to say because I teach both types of classes and I can conveniently fit both formats into my weekly class schedule. Other people may be not be so fortunate because the classes are offered at different times in their fitness centers or only one type of class is taught there. So here is a comparison between yoga and Pilates to help you decide which is better for you. For people who have little knowledge of either discipline, this will be an introduction of sorts.
Yoga is a five thousand year old philosophy that encompasses an entire lifestyle including ethical and spiritual values, not just exercise. The poses or asanas were originally invented so yoga practitioners could hold their bodies in static positions for long periods while they were meditating.
Pilates exercises were invented by German Joseph Pilates to strengthen his sickly body and later, to rehabilitate injured soldiers during World War I. Pilates introduced the technique to the dance world when he immigrated to the U.S. Pilates originally called his system "Contrology".
Since yoga is a philosophy, there is much more to yoga than just the poses or asanas performed during a class. In this article, I am only comparing the similarities and differences between yoga and Pilates exercise classes.
I also need to point out that there are many variations of yoga (Iyengar versus Ashtanga, for example) and there are different ways you can do Pilates (mat-based versus machine as well as exercises with a mini-ball, rubber band, foam rollers, and etc) so the comparison will be based on the general principles of both formats.
Yoga is considered the "father" of all exercise while chi kung (from which tai chi is derived) is called the "mother". We can definitely call Pilates a child of yoga and chi kung because many of the exercises were obviously borrowed from yoga but have the flowing movement of chi kung.
Yoga and Pilates are similar in their encouragement of "mindful movement". Unlike, running or walking, where your movement becomes automatic, you have to keep your mind totally focused on what your body is doing when you practice yoga or Pilates.
Joseph Pilates said, "Contrology develops not only the muscles of the body, suppleness of the limbs, and functioning of the vital organs and endocrine glands, it also clarifies the mind and develops the will." Some of his other favorite sayings were "the mind shapes the body" and "where the mind goes, the body will follow".
Meanwhile, B.K.S. Iyengar said, "Asanas have been evolved over the centuries so as to exercise every muscle, nerve and gland in the body. But their real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind."
According to Michele Hebert, an international mind-body fitness consultant, most mind-body exercises including yoga and Pilates have three similar characteristics to achieve a healthy balance between mind, body, and spirit. These characteristics are mindfulness, correct physical form, and breathing. Hebert says that the mind stays focused on the correct movement of the body while the breath is considered the "bridge" that links the mind and body. Slow down your breath and you relax; speed it up and you feel energized.
Mara Carrico, author of Yoga Journal's Yoga Basics, gives a simple guideline to remember when doing any type of mind-body exercise: Focus (for the mind), relax (for the body), and breathe (for the spirit). Mind, body, spirit = focus, relax, breathe.
Static versus dynamic
Yoga exercises are static (Ashtanga is an exception), meaning you get into the pose, you hold it for several breath cycles, and then you get out of the pose. Pilates exercises, meanwhile, are constantly moving. You perform five to ten repetitions of an exercise, and then you move on to the next. Not only that, Pilates strives to develop a graceful and fluid rhythm as you perform the repetitions and as you move from one exercise to another. It's no wonder that Pilates became a favorite of dancers like Martha Graham and George Balanchine.
Breathing is a big thing with both yoga and Pilates. Both believe in coordinating the breath with the movement. Pilates has one basic style of breathing, which is called "ribcage breathing" and the purpose is to stabilize and protect your spine while you are in different positions by holding your abdominal muscles tight but still allowing you take deep breaths by expanding the ribcage.
Yoga, meanwhile, has many styles of breathing for many different purposes. There is belly breathing to relax you. There is "ujjayi breathing" where you make a Darth Vader sort of sound at the back of your throat to help keep your focus during the poses. There is the "breath of fire" to energize you. There is alternate nostril breathing to calm you down. And there are still many other more advanced breathing techniques for deeper meditation.
Another difference between the breathing of yoga and Pilates is that in yoga, you use your nose to inhale and exhale while in Pilates, you inhale through the nose and exhale with the mouth. Yogis believe the mouth is only for eating and talking while Pilates uses forced mouth exhalations to reinforce the tightening effect in the abdominal muscles.
Proper spinal alignment
Yoga and Pilates both pay special attention to the proper alignment of the spine when doing the exercises. To stabilize the spine, both disciplines use special techniques, which are very similar but have different names. Basically, you use muscular contraction to hold the pelvis, lower back, or ribcage stabilized so you can safely and effectively move the limbs. In yoga, it is called the system of bandhas or locks. In Pilates, it is called "placements" as in pelvic placement. Proper spinal alignment is vital to protect the spine. These techniques can and should be used not just in yoga and Pilates but also when lifting weights, and doing other forms of athletic exercises.
A celebration of the spine
Good friend and fitness colleague, Lawrence Biscontini, likes to say that yoga and Pilates are a celebration of the spine. Joseph Pilates said that you are only as healthy as your spine. Yoga believes your spine houses energy centers or chakras, which if blocked lead to poor health. Yoga and Pilates will both develop a strong and flexible spine. Well-designed classes have exercises where the spine is taken forward, backwards, sideways, and rotated.
A common misconception that people have about yoga and Pilates is that they are all about stretching. Perhaps this is because one of the benefits that you get from both formats is improved flexibility. The truth is yoga and Pilates develop what is called "flexible strength" - muscles that are strong enough to lift, stabilize, and move the body through a full range of motion. Joseph Pilates liked to use the image of a cat to describe the lean musculature and ease of movement achieved by his exercises. Yoga will do the same.
Yoga and Pilates use the weight of the body as resistance to challenge the muscles to become stronger. Yoga has more standing exercises that develop leg strength as well as balance. Pilates is mostly done lying on your back, on your stomach, on your side and sitting down. That's why I like to do both forms of exercise to have a good blend of standing and mat exercises.
Yoga also tends to have more exercises that challenge the upper body (chest, upper back, arms) than Pilates does unless you are doing machine-based Pilates, in which case the springs attached to the machines deliver sufficient resistance to strengthen the upper body muscles.
Aerobic or cardiovascular exercise is any exercise that is done continuously for 15 to 60 minutes or more while using the arms and legs in a rhythmic fashion. The goal of aerobic exercise is to increase the amount of blood pumped per beat to improve the efficiency and stamina of the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Examples are walking, running, swimming, dancing, etc.
Unless you are doing Ashtanga yoga, which moves rapidly from one position to another, yoga and Pilates do not qualify as cardiovascular or aerobic exercise. Thus, if you want a complete exercise program, you have to supplement your yoga and/or Pilates classes with some form of aerobic exercise.
It's not that easy to calculate how many calories you burn in yoga and Pilates since the intensity of the class depends on the kind of exercises being done and the strength level of the class participants.
In general, a 130-pound person would burn approximately 260 calories an hour for a light to moderate Pilates mat-class and 236 calories for a yoga class. "Intense" Pilates would burn approximately 346 calories while an intense yoga class would burn about 400 calories per hour.
Your weight affects how many calories you burn (the more you weigh, the more calories you burn), so use the following formula to make it more accurate: Divide the number of calories burned by 130 pounds. Multiply the answer by your weight in pounds.
For example, divide 260 calories by 130 pounds. The answer is 2 calories per pound. Multiply that by 110 pounds. The answer is 220 calories.
Weight loss versus inch loss.
All this talk about calories leads to a common question: Can yoga or Pilates help you lose weight? Definitely it can as part of a total program of watching what you eat and doing cardio exercise. For weight loss, you want to burn 1,000 to 2,000 calories a week through exercise. If you are doing no other form of exercise but twice a week of moderate Pilates, burning 520 calories a week would not be enough and you would have to add aerobic exercise or a sport like badminton or tennis. However, if you are doing three Ashtanga classes (an intense form of yoga) a week that are one-and-a-half hours long (the length of most yoga classes), then the caloric burn of 1,800 calories is enough to help you lose weight.
But beyond weight loss, yoga and Pilates have a greater impact on your appearance because of the inches you lose from the firming and toning effect on the muscles. It is not uncommon to drop to a smaller size of clothes but weigh more or less the same.
No doubt, Pilates has the most number of exercises that focus on the abs, waist, and trunk. Almost every variation you can think of for the abs is offered in Pilates. If abdominal and waist whittling is what you are looking for, Pilates is the ticket for you. This is not to say that yoga will not strengthen your abs and trunk because it will but Pilates just has much more focus on that area.
Mat-based versus machine Pilates
This has nothing to do with comparing yoga with Pilates but I want to add a comparison between mat-based and machine-based Pilates because people also ask about it. If Pilates is the only form of muscle toning that you do, then a combination of both would be ideal because Pilates machines offers more resistance and types of exercise for the arms and legs (especially the upper body) than mat-based classes. Meanwhile, abdominal exercises in mat Pilates are usually harder than machine Pilates because the machine supports the legs during exercises that involve leg raises. By mixing mat and machine Pilates, you get a more total muscle-strengthening program. If you do weights or yoga, mat Pilates will be sufficient and you won't need to add Pilates machine exercises.
The best of both worlds
In my opinion, doing yoga and Pilates combines the best of both worlds. However, if you can only choose one, choose yoga if you are want more flexibility, strength in the upper and lower body, mental concentration, relaxation, and stress release. Choose Pilates if your goal is a more defined mid-section as well as long and lean muscles.
Some centers offer hybrid classes called "Yogalates" or "Yogilates", which combine yoga with Pilates and this is a good option for those who are pressed for time. But I still find that doing separate yoga and Pilates classes allows you to more fully experience and reap the benefits that each form of exercise has to offer.