What’s the difference between yoga and Pilates?

Women work out during a master Pilates class using reformers, a piece of Pilates equipment that provides support and resistance.
Women work out during a master Pilates class using reformers, a piece of Pilates equipment that provides support and resistance.
Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

If you do aerobics regularly at a gym, your instructor might tell you to also take "a yoga or Pilates class for stretching." After all, both exercises include poses intended to increase flexibility. And both offer a quieter, more relaxing alternative to a step or spin class. But while yoga and Pilates get sometimes lumped together, the two disciplines are quite different.

Yoga is believed to be more than 5,000 years old [source: Eisler]. It started in India, though no one knows who originated the practice. There are dozens of variations, although Hatha yoga is probably the most widely known and practiced version in the Western world today [source: Feuerstein].

On the other hand, Pilates was developed in Germany by Joseph Pilates over a period of years, beginning in the early 1900s. Upon emigrating to the U.S. in the 1920s, Joseph and his wife opened a studio in New York City, which was frequented by a group of devoted followers, including many professional dancers. A couple of students eventually opened up their own studios, and the discipline began to spread across the U.S. and eventually the world [source: Joseph Pilates].

So why do people often confuse yoga and Pilates? Maybe it's because practitioners of both disciplines carry around rolled-up mats and spend time lying on the floor. More seriously, there is some overlap with the poses. Joseph Pilates had studied yoga and incorporated some of the moves into his own exercise routine [source: Hessel]. Another similarity is that both practices emphasize breathing, though in different ways, which we'll discuss later.

A final similarity: Both routines earn accolades from their very vocal celebrity followers. Yoga is the workout of choice for A-listers such as Adam Levine, Madonna, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who particularly appreciates the positive impact of yoga on his sex life [source: McKernan]. And David Beckham, Cameron Diaz and Megan Fox are just a handful of the celebs who swear by the body-changing abilities of Pilates [source: McClain].

Now that we've looked at the parallels, let's see what makes each unique.

Physical Distinctions of Yoga and Pilates

Many gym-goers mistake the typically Zen-like nature of yoga and Pilates for being boring and physically ineffective, which couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, experts swear by the disciplines for their effectiveness at improving core strength and flexibility, both of which are incredibly important to success in any type of athletic pursuit. "You can be as strong as a bull, but if you don't have flexibility to move, that strength does you no good," says Jamie Hunt, a registered yoga instructor in the Atlanta area.

The methods Pilates and yoga use to help people achieve physical success are different in form and function. First, yoga requires no equipment other than a floor mat, although beginners can opt to use props like flexibility-enhancing yoga straps, or yoga bolsters, which are basically pillows that provide support when doing poses [source: Romine]. Pilates is also done on a floor mat, but it sometimes incorporates resistance bands and even sophisticated exercise machinery, like reformers to provide more support [source: Johnson].

Poses are very important to both disciplines, but Pilates practitioners hold them for three seconds max, while yoga practitioners might hold them for much longer periods. Yoga also tends to include more standing poses than Pilates, which is mostly done on the floor [source: Siler]. Although both regimens are touted for their full-body workout capabilities, they tend to go about it in different ways. Pilates is known for its particular focus on core and spine strength, whereas yoga strives to work every muscle equally [source: Eisler]. "Yoga is from the tips of the toes to the top of the head," Hunt explains.

Breathing is also important for both disciplines, but with Pilates, you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, while keeping your stomach contracted. In Yoga, you breathe in and out through your nose, while expanding your abdomen (a process called belly breathing). The reason for the difference is that breathing in Pilates is preparation for active movement, while in yoga it's a way to calm you down for mediation [source: Hessel]. And the meditative aspect might be the biggest difference between the two regimens.

Spiritual Distinctions of Yoga and Pilates

Yoga enthusiasts perform the cobra pose on International Yoga Day in Amritsar, India. Yoga started in India more than 5,000 years ago.
Yoga enthusiasts perform the cobra pose on International Yoga Day in Amritsar, India. Yoga started in India more than 5,000 years ago.
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images

Most sports and exercise programs are equal parts mind games and physical prowess. They require concentration, dedication, determination and any number of other attributes not related to biceps to achieve success. Yoga and Pilates engage the mind in different ways, however, and the spiritual aspect is believed by many to be the most important difference between the two disciplines [source: mindbodygreen].

"Yoga moves are intended as a gateway to allow someone to achieve a higher sense of awareness, whether that's a relationship with their own God or higher power, or just a personal, spiritual awakening," Hunt explains. "I personally teach in some classes a sense of gratitude for the moves and the ability to move in the first place."

Yoga has its roots in Hinduism (working on the poses allowed the devout to meditate for hours more easily in one position). Because of that, some followers of Christianity and Islam consider it blasphemous [source: The Economist]. However, other believers insist that it's no more than a form of exercise to them.

Although Pilates does encourage a strong mind/body connection (through breathing), it lacks the spiritual aspect that yoga is famous for. That spirituality sometimes spills over into other aspects of life, with many yogis embracing vegetarianism as a nonviolent alternative to meat-eating, although it's not a hard and fast rule, by any means [source: Barrett]. Yoga devotees also may take up meditation as a separate spiritual practice in addition to their yoga time.

However, neither exercise is going to rev up your ticker as much as spin or aerobics will, and they tend to burn significantly fewer calories than high-impact fitness options. If shedding pounds is your primary goal, it's best to include a range of strength and cardiac-based routines in addition to yoga or Pilates.

Author's Note: What's the difference between yoga and Pilates?

I'm not gonna lie, when I was young and dumb I believed yoga and Pilates to be workouts for people who were afraid to really get sweaty. Then I tried them both and ate my words. If only that was the stupidest thing thought or said in my early years...

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Sources

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