Pilates or Yoga: Which is Right for You?

Featured Article, Fitness, Workout Plans
on February 6, 2012

Peek into a Pilates or yoga studio, and they might seem similar at first glance. But though both use the breath as a way to connect more deeply to the body, these two types of exercise come from quite different backgrounds and offer various benefits. To help you decide which might be right for you, we sought expert advice on the backgrounds of each, what to expect from a class and why each attracts its own devotees.

What Is It?

Pilates: The original method, developed by an athlete named Joseph Pilates, was composed of 34 mat-based exercises to build core strength and flexibility, says Ana Cabán, a fitness and lifestyle personality and Pilates expert.While there are still mat-based classes available, many Pilates studios also offer private or small group sessions using large pieces of equipment with names like “The Reformer” and “The Cadillac.” The equipment provides resistance and support to help you build strength and align your body. After a few sessions, people often say they feel stronger, longer and more graceful, she says. Though quite different than yoga, “It’s also a body-mind exercise,” Cabán says.
“You need to be present to truly be doing Pilates.”

Yoga: The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word "Yuj" meaning “to unite.” It refers to the joining of body, mind and soul. “Hatha yoga is the generic term for the physical practice of yoga,” versus other arms of yoga that include things like breath work, meditation and devotional practices, says Timothy Burgin, founder of YogaBasics.com, an online resource for all things yoga. “Hatha yoga is what most people in the West think of as yoga,” he says, adding that there are many different styles. “Some are more vigorous and physically demanding, while others are more gentle. Some focus more on physical alignment, some more on the spiritual, internal work. Most are a blend.” Regular practitioners say yoga relieves stress, improves flexibility and mobility, builds strength and cultivates a sense of calm.

What Should You Expect?

Pilates: Class is done barefoot or in socks. You’ll spend most of the class lying down, on your back or side. You’ll move slowly and mindfully with each movement, doing five to 10 repetitions. “It’s not about countless reps, but about the quality of the movements and doing them with control,” Cabán says. “Pilates isn’t just about the top layer of your abdominals, it goes deeper into your transverse abdominus, which is like a corset. It holds in all your internal organs. The stronger your transverse abdominus is the better posture you’ll have and the stronger your back will be,” she adds.

Yoga: Classes—which are usually between an hour and 90 minutes long—often begin with a few minutes of centering or meditation. “It’s a way of easing into the practice—a place where you draw your focus inward and start to have a meditative type of experience,” Burgin says. “The class usually starts slowly and then builds with pace and intensity of poses so that you warm up the body.” Seated postures usually come first, then standing poses, also done barefoot on a mat like mat-based Pilates. A return to the floor may bring you into postures on your back or into inversions (upside-down poses, or poses that bring your feet above your heart). Classes typically end with a pose called savasana, in which you lie on your back for 5 to 15 minutes. “It’s active relaxation in which you completely relax and let go of tension in the body,” Burgin explains. Most studios provide yoga mats and all props, but some charge a mat rental fee.

Finding a Class

Pilates: There are different schools and certifying bodies. Cabán suggests looking for a teacher near you through PeakPilates.com, PilatesMethodAlliance.org, or ClassicalPilates.net. Then, she says, take at least three classes. “Let your body get used to the movements, especially on the equipment. There’s a learning curve. It can feel odd at first,” she says.

Yoga: “It’s always good to find a friend who’s doing yoga and who has a class or teacher that they like. Usually that friend will know your personality and abilities and can give you a good recommendation,” Burgin says. If you’re starting from scratch, he recommends trying different classes, styles of yoga, studios and teachers. “Look at yoga studio web sites or description of classes” to find a style that sounds like a fit, he says. “A level one, beginning or a gentle class is a good place to start.” Search YogaAlliance.org to find registered yoga teachers who have trained at 200- or 500-hour levels.