What is the Difference Between Yoga and Pilates?

Both yoga and Pilates can provide a great workout, building strength and flexibility, and merging body and mind in practice. The two types of workout seem very similar, and in many ways they are. There are also important differences.

Understand what makes each practice unique, so that you can choose the workout that best meets your needs, limitations, and fitness and health goals.

Yoga vs Pilates

What is Yoga?

Yoga is an ancient practice from India. Traditional yoga includes several different elements, but modern practice usually focuses on asana and pranayama, poses and breathing. As a workout, it’s the asanas—the poses of yoga—that matter.

The modern practice of yoga usually involves a fluid movement from one asana to the next. The poses build strength, balance and flexibility. Many people use it simply as a workout, but yoga can also be a form of meditation with a focus on breathing and mindfulness. There are several styles of yoga that make up modern practice:

  • Hatha yoga is most common in Western yoga studios. It is a basic practice, moving through poses to get a gentle workout.
  • Bikram yoga, or hot yoga, is done in a heated room.
  • Vinyasa yoga focuses on smooth transitions between poses and connecting each movement with breathing.
  • Iyengar yoga was created by B.K.S. Iyengar. It focuses on precise movements and alignment using props like blocks and straps.
  • Restorative yoga is all about relaxation and is not a rigorous workout.

What is Pilates?

Pilates is an exercise method and philosophy developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s. As a prisoner of war during World War I, he spent years creating exercises to help his fellow inmates. After the war, he opened a studio in New York City, mostly working with dancers to built strength and improve balance, flexibility and posture.

Pilates called his method Contrology, or the art of controlled movements. Pilates exercises are small, controlled moves that use body weight to build strength, control, muscular endurance and flexibility. You can do Pilates on a mat or with special equipment. Much of the strength work focuses on the muscles of the core.

Modern Pilates practices vary a little depending on the instructor and system, but all rely on a set of key principles:

  • Controlled breathing
  • Focus and concentration
  • Muscle control
  • Precise movements
  • Centering on the core
  • Flow, from one movement to the next
  • Postural alignment
  • Muscle endurance
  • Relaxation

The Similarities Between Pilates and Yoga

While Pilates and yoga are distinct practices, they have many things in common:

  • Both yoga and Pilates have physical and mental health benefits.
  • Both are low-impact workouts and gentle on the joints.
  • They both primarily use body weight to build strength.
  • Proper form is essential in each practice, so both are best done with trained instructors.
  • Once you have learned the form and technique, you can do both yoga and Pilates at home with limited or no equipment.
  • Both practices build core strength, improve posture and balance, and increase flexibility.
  • They both focus on breathing and require mental focus.

Each type of workout has benefits. Whether you choose to do one or the other, or both, expect to get stronger and more flexible and to experience greater relaxation and less stress.

Key Differences Between Yoga and Pilates

Practicing one or the other will bring you important benefits and is better than doing nothing at all. However, either yoga or Pilates may be better for your needs and goals. Some of the key differences between these two practices will help you decide which is best:

  1. The Spiritual Focus. If you want a spiritual element to your workout, yoga can provide it. While Pilates includes a focus on breathing and connecting the mind and body, it is not a spiritual practice.
  2. Variety. As you explore the two types of workout, you’ll find that there is more variety with yoga. You can choose a gentle restorative class, a challenging, sweaty hot yoga session and everything in between. Pilates is generally either mat work or reformer exercises with little variety in style.
  3. Movements. The movements used in each practice are different. Pilates movements are smaller and more precise. It’s a slower workout compared to most styles of yoga, which has bigger movements and transitions.
  4. Rehabilitation. Pilates is good for rehabilitation from injuries or surgery. It can be adapted to match each individual’s limitations and to build strength slowly and safely.
  5. Equipment. Both workouts can be done without any equipment, but when used, it’s totally different. Some types of yoga use basic props. Many people do Pilates with more complicated equipment like the reformer and the Cadillac.
  6. Core Strength. Yoga strengthens the body, but the focus is more on the arms and legs. In Pilates, you will focus on developing the core muscles, including the back, abs, hips and glutes.

Which is Better for Back Pain?

Back pain is a common complaint, and exercise can help. Any type of workout must be done carefully to manage back pain. Overdoing it, poor form or injuries can actually make pain worse.  Yoga may be the better option, but it must be done safely.

Yoga helps relieve back pain in a few ways. It improves mobility and flexibility in the back. It stretches out tight back muscles and also strengthens them. Stronger back muscles support the spine and make it more stable. If you struggle with back pain, it’s important to do the poses with proper form and to make smooth, slow transitions from one to the next.

Both yoga and Pilates are safe and helpful for women during pregnancy, with appropriate adaptations. Of course, if you are pregnant consult with your doctor before trying any workout. An instructor experienced in working with pregnant women can adapt classes to be safe and effective.

Pilates may be especially helpful for pregnant women or those who are trying to get pregnant. The focus on core strength helps women develop muscles that aid in delivery. It’s also great for recovering from childbirth.

Yoga is a great option for women looking to focus on stress relief and managing anxiety. A gentle, adapted yoga practice can be a great way to manage the negative emotions that may come up during pregnancy. It can also improve sleep.

Which Burns More Calories?

Neither yoga nor Pilates burns a lot of calories compared to cardio workouts or weightlifting. There is some variation, depending on the type of class. For instance, hatha yoga is more challenging and burns more calories than restorative yoga. An advanced, reformer Pilates class burns more calories than a beginner, easy class. In general, Pilates burns more calories than yoga.

Which is More Difficult?

Again, this varies somewhat by style and class type. With either workout, it’s important to start with a beginner program in order to learn good form. In most cases, Pilates is a more intense workout. With equipment, the movements can be more complicated and difficult than yoga poses. On the other hand, advanced yoga can be challenging as well.

Both yoga and Pilates are excellent choices for regular practice. Along with other healthy lifestyle habits, both can improve physical and mental health. Choose the practice that best meets your needs and matches your goals.