This is a popular comparison as anyone casually peering into a Yoga or Pilates studio will notice many similarities in the postures. And it's true that both have some core similarities and benefits, but there are also some very distinct differences.
Both Yoga and Pilates are low intensity, low impact and inclusive exercises. Pilates’ and Yoga’s offical image of only young women in tight clothing is nothing like the reality. Both are inclusive. Many of my clients are older men and women who seek a deep and effective form of exercise, without the intensity of a lot of other sports. Tight clothing is also not obligatory, and you do not need to be lean & fit to start practising Pilates.
Both are mind & body fitness modalities, meaning that both practises are based on the belief that the mind and body are connected and that awareness is required to gain full benefit from the exercises. Both disciplines apply this quite differently. Yoga has very spiritual roots and is thousands of years old, whereas Pilates has its origins in healing and rehabilitation and is only 100 years old. Yoga uses the body to connect with the mind and the inner self, Pilates uses mindfulness and movement to reconnect to all the muscles in your body and thus improve body awareness. After some practice I have, for example, had clients comment on being able to consciously connect and engage tiny muscles in their bodies thanks to their Pilates practise. This might be a benefit of, but is definitely not the focus in Yoga.
Both follow a sequence of pre-determined exercises.
In Yoga you often hold poses for longer and follow through a sequence of poses or asanas, whilst Pilates is about continuous movement, completing a set series of exercises that have various repetitions without holding poses or stopping.
Both serve to build strength, flexibility and stability. Pilates focuses a lot on realigning the body, in particular the spine, and strengthening the core. Because of the ability to either lessen or increase resistance in exercise, Pilates is more often than Yoga recommended for physical rehabilitation.
Yoga focuses on broad muscle groups and emphasises balance and meditation. It is therefore proven to have a lot of mental benefits for people suffering from depression or anxiety for example. In Yoga, it is more difficult to slowly build up sufficient connected strength to safely complete more advanced movements.
Pilates’ rehabilitation benefits are well recognised. One of the most prominent examples online would be Laura Browning Grant, a pilates teacher in North Carolina. She is using pilates techniques to rehabilitate her severely brain injured husband and documenting their journey in social media.
I personally came to Pilates for rehabilitation, after chronic back and neck pain, nothing seemed to help and my pain got worse. When I found Pilates as a form of rehabilitation it was really different, gentle and we only did what felt good. I then decided to follow an instructor's education to help my own rehabilitation.
There is also some scientific evidence that Pilates and Yoga have much more wide-ranging psychological effects. Pilates in particular has been proven to be effective in somatic healing - the release and healing of deeply held trauma; something that is often difficult to heal through conventional psychological treatment alone.
Both Pilates and Yoga target muscle groups that you won’t access in many other forms of exercise. You can be an incredibly fit runner or boxer and come out of a yoga or pilates class in agony because you’ve worked muscles you don’t usually engage. I've had many elite athletes come undone in my classes.
Over the years I have had many clients who have practised both Yoga and Pilates, even simultaneously. As you now know, both can be hugely beneficial. In the end it comes down to your personal preferences and your body’s individual needs. And why not consider doing both and really doing something good for your mind, body and spirit?