Your cousin swears by Pilates, but your brother-in-law insists that his yoga mat is far superior. You’ve heard good things about both styles of working out, but to be honest, they kind of look the same to you. If you’re trying to decide which is best for you, or if you already practice one but are curious about the other, it might help to know some of the crucial distinctions between yoga and Pilates.
If you’ve ever looked in on some classes, you know that there are plenty of things yoga and Pilates have in common. Especially compared to your gym’s boot camp and HIIT classes, both of these practices are relatively quiet (alas, no blasting My Chemical Romance). Breathing technique is important in all forms of exercise (as a personal trainer and powerlifter, breathwork is my thing), but both Pilates and yoga really focus on your breath as the guiding force of your workout. Both types of exercise will also leave you feeling stronger and more in touch with your body after a solid session.
With all those similarities, it can be difficult to choose whether Pilates or yoga is better for you. (Spoiler alert: like everything in life, they both are good for different things.) If you’ve ever been confused about which class to take at your gym, these nine important differences might help you decide where to roll up with your mat.
As you likely know some part of, yoga is rich in thousands of years of Indian history, where it originated as a practice of holistic living. Technically, the physical poses are only one part of an eight-limbed practice of classical yoga, which includes ethical guidelines and work on concentration, superconsciousness, and meditation. Yoga as practiced in the United States today is largely divorced from that practice, focusing on physical poses and breath work. (It is also often taught in a culturally appropriative way that doesn’t acknowledge these origins.)
Pilates, on the other hand, was developed in the 1920s by Clara and Joseph Pilates, who created an apparatus called a reformer to help people sink into deep core strengthening movements. With a focus on healing the body, the history of Pilates is full of workouts created for injured soldiers, dancers, and athletes to recover and re-discover their physical strength.
Selecting your practice with intention is a great way to cultivate a powerful relationship between yourself and the yoga or Pilates movements you’re learning, and engaging in their histories is a good start toward doing that.
Whereas yoga has a long history of embodying a holistic spiritual and ethical lifestyle, the more modern Pilates was developed for physical rehabilitation. According to the Pilates Method Alliance, Pilates as an exercise was influenced by the influx of European soldiers returning from World War I, many of whom needed physical therapy and to develop a renewed connection with their bodies. While yoga centralizes spiritual growth, Pilates emphasizes the development of physical strength. Both types of exercise can have a profoundly moving impact, but if you’re looking for a more explicitly spiritual practice, yoga might be the choice for you.
3. Breathing For Different Reasons
In yoga, your breath is meant to be a vehicle for relaxation, deepening your understanding of movement, and connecting with your body. In Pilates, you still engage closely with your breath, but for a different reason. Breathing in Pilates is more similar to breathing during weight lifting in that the goal of your breaths is to bring energy to your muscles during your reps. Both types of breathing will help you gain greater breath control, but if you’re looking for a closer analogue to the way you’ll breathe during weight lifting, Pilates will teach you well. If your main motivation in choosing a practice is reducing anxiety, however, yogic breathing will give your mat an edge over your Pilates reformer.
4. Reformer Versus Mat
Not all Pilates moves require the vaguely medieval-looking reformer, but they are a central part of intensive practices. Pilates reformers, with their moving platforms and long straps, are meant to help you maximize your core engagement beyond what you can accomplish with just a mat. Pilates springboards or Cadillacs can also be used to deepen that engagement. You can definitely do a lot of Pilates work on a mat by itself, but depending on the class you stroll into, machines might well be part of it.
Yoga utilizes some equipment, too, but that’s more in the realm of blocks and mats and blankets (oh my). So if accessibility is an issue and you want to be able to take everything you learned in class back to the comfort of your own living room, yoga might have an edge.
5. Repetitions Versus Flow
Some of my friends and clients love the idea of having a specific goal, focusing all their energy on counting and completing their reps. If keeping track of repetitions is your jam, Pilates may just be your peanut butter (I’m so sorry). But if you’re more about different movements flowing into each other and holding poses for time, yoga might be more your style. Both are excellent methods for building balance, flexibility, and strength, so ultimately this one is about your comfort zone and preferences.
6. Mental Versus Physical
If Pilates was developed with physical rehabilitation in mind, you might say that yoga was developed to focus on mental rehabilitation. Don’t get me wrong — yoga can be immensely physical, and Pilates can also help you check in mentally. But on the balance, the focus of cultivating your yoga practice is often on the internal transformations, whereas a major focus of Pilates instruction tends to be on strengthening muscles. Choose your fighter, and enjoy the benefits.
7. Strength And Flexibility
You get plenty strong in yoga, trust me. My personal training clients who’ve supplemented our work with yoga inevitably wind up with brilliant reserves of extra strength. However, the emphasis in yoga tends to be on breath work and flexibility, rather than building strength for the sake of being strong or rehabilitating an injury. If you’re looking to quickly increase your core strength levels, Pilates might be the way to go, but if flexibility is more of an immediate priority, yoga may be a better fit.
8. Vertical Versus Horizontal
If you’re taking a Pilates class, you’re likely to be horizontal for most if not all of the time. Pilates focuses on lying down during your exercises, which is why the versatility and added challenge from the reformer or springboard is so useful. Yoga, on the other hand, is more likely to have you transitioning between horizontal positions (lying down) and vertical positions (standing). Make no mistake, though — just because you’re lying down in Pilates doesn’t mean it won’t challenge your core to the max.
9. Emphasis On Core Or Whole Body
It’s not that Pilates won’t make your whole body stronger, or that yoga won’t strengthen your core. Still, the emphasis of Pilates is on your core, aka the muscles supporting your torso, while the poses you’ll move through in yoga classes will literally extend from your fingers to your toes. The full-body nature of yoga might be appealing to you, or you might want to stick with Pilates to keep your focus less on your limbs and more on your inner stability. Either way, you’ll increase your core strength, it’s just a matter of what route you want to take to get there.
Ultimately, you don’t have to choose between yoga and Pilates. Getting stronger in Pilates will help you hold your yoga poses, and gaining flexibility in yoga will definitely give you deeper engagement in Pilates. The positive feedback loop between the two can be wonderful, but if you do want to choose one, make sure it’s the one that gives you the most joy.
At the end of the day, your workout is always going to be a matter of your own personal preferences, and that’s a good thing. You deserve to get the most happiness and satisfaction possible from your workout, whether you choose yoga, Pilates, or a combination of the two.