Most people have the vague notion that yoga and Pilates are somehow related. In fact, many confuse the two for being different names for the same type of exercise. This is mistaken. While there are many similarities between Pilates and yoga, there are also distinct differences. So before you sign up for a Pilates class with the expectation of gentle stretching, let’s compare yoga and Pilates so you can make an informed choice.

The Benefits of Yoga and Pilates

One reason people tend to confuse yoga with Pilates, is because both exercises provide many of the same health benefits. Both are excellent for improving posture, increasing muscle definition in the core (abs), shoulders, arms and back, and improving balance, flexibility and strength.

But the benefits of Pilates are generally more physical, with most of the emphasis on building strong core muscles; the benefits of yoga extend to spiritual and emotional well-being in addition to the physical benefits of strength, flexibility and balance.

Neither Pilates nor yoga can replace cardio exercise, even though both provide some level of cardio benefit. But both Pilates and yoga can replace one or two of your strength training sessions each week. In fact, including a couple of Pilates or yoga classes to your fitness schedule each week will work smaller muscles that get ignored in the weight room. Many weight lifters rave about the additional bodybuilding results they’ve gained after doing a few Pilates or yoga classes … the additional core strength and flexibility goes a long way to improving weight lifting technique.

What Is Pilates?

The Pilates exercise technique is named for Joseph Pilates, a former carpenter and gymnast who developed the program in the 1920’s. Since then, there has been an explosion of Pilates studios, classes and DVDs that have been used by professional athletes, dancers, celebrities and moms to build core strength and tone muscles.

While Pilates movements were inspired by yoga, Pilates is not a classic form of yoga. Its focus is on perfecting a few primary movements, which can make Pilates very challenging for the beginner. Many novices never progress beyond the very basics of Pilates, but still benefit from the exercises.

There are two different types of Pilates classes: one uses mats for floor exercises, and the other utilizes two specific machines called the Cadillac and the Reformers. Both use srraps, springs and bands to hold your body in place while you attempt certain poses. The Pilates machines can be a little intimidating to new students, so it is usually best to start with a mat class so you can learn the breathing and movements before attempting the machines.

If you have been attending yoga classes and have come to enjoy the music, don’t expect to hear it in Pilates class. A Pilates mat class is usually taught without any musical accompaniment. The instructor needs to listen to your breathing and suggest adjustments, and you need to hear the hand claps that accompany certain movements.

Pilates classes are usually more expensive than yoga classes, with mat classes costing $12-$25 per class at many gyms and fitness clubs. Private Pilates sessions can run $50-$200 for a single session. If your gym includes Pilates classes at no extra charge, sign up immediately … you have found a great bargain. But since there are no standard certifications required for teaching Pilates classes (the name itself is now considered generic and anyone can call themselves a Pilates instructor), make sure your teacher has completed some sort of certified Pilates training. The Stott Pilates certification is well recognized, as is Balanced Body and Re:Ab./

What Is Yoga?

To over simplify the definition, let’s just say that yoga includes a little bit of Pilates and a whole lot of other things. The exact nature of these “other things” will vary between different forms of yoga, but include meditation, a greater emphasis on flexibility and balance, and a holistic connection between the mind, body and spirit.

Because the core muscles (think abs and back) are so crucial to every movement the body makes, it is virtually impossible to perform any form of exercise without involving the core. But where Pilates moves are focused almost exclusively on the core muscles, yoga incorporates core awareness into just about every single move, but the emphasis of any particular pose may be on the hamstrings, glutes, back muscles, or shoulders.

Yoga attempts to link breath with movement, so every inhale and exhale of the breath involves the core and ties it into the pose being performed. This is where yoga and Pilates are fundamentally the same. But in yoga, you hold the pose for a maximum amount of time to increase strength and flexibility. In Pilates, you rarely hold still, performing movements more quickly and dynamically. This is actually true of some forms of yoga, but the traditional yoga poses are held longer.

While yoga, in general, incorporates a more spiritual approach to strength training than does Pilates, it should be noted that some forms of yoga are much more spiritually oriented than others. Anusara yoga has a heavy focus on spiritually, while Ashtanga yoga has a much more physical focus on strength and stamina.

Which is better, yoga or Pilates?
Only you can answer that question, and the only way to know for certain is to try both types of classes. If you are looking for a straightforward core-building program, Pilates will be the most efficient way of gaining core strength. But if you are looking for a holistic strength training program that incorporates mind, body and spirit, check out the various forms of yoga and choose one that fits your state of mind. (See our article “10 Different Types of Yoga“)