Yoga and Pilates: What’s the Difference?

Written by Melisa Deane for the Towson Patch


If you’re looking at yoga or Pilates to tighten your midsection, build strength, stand taller and feel healthier, they both get the job done. Both disciplines require concentration, consistent practice and awareness. That’s why they are classified under “mind-body” programs, along with Tai Chi and meditation.

But the differences between the two can be confusing, even for veteran students. Here’s a crash course on how yoga and Pilates each tone up our bodies and minds.

Probably the biggest difference is that yoga is fundamentally a spiritual practice. The primary purpose of yoga is to teach students how to quiet their minds and enter a meditative state. The physical yoga that is so popular today, called hatha yoga, means the physical path of transformation. Although hatha yoga uses the body and movement, its purpose is to achieve union between the body, mind and spirit. This state is called samadhi.

On the other hand, Pilates is strictly a physical exercise program, used specifically to correct imbalances in the body, strengthen muscles and in many cases, become pain-free and improve posture. It is also excellent cross-training for dancers and golfers alike.

While yoga focuses on opening the hips, spine and shoulders, Pilates requires stabilization, minimal movement and deep core control. Let’s compare the yoga pose “reclined hand-to-foot pose” (Supta Hasta Padangustasana) with the Pilates exercise “scissors.” In both, the student is lying on his back, holding onto one leg, foot or toe. The essence of the yoga posture is to lengthen the hamstrings and spine while using the core (uddiyana banda) to lift the head toward the foot and hold for a minimum of five breaths. This is an amazing hamstring and hip stretch. The leg can also be taken out to the side to fully open the hips.

Unlike reclined hand-to-foot pose, “scissors” is more concerned with firing the transverses abdominis and obliques in order to keep the core flexed and still despite the movement of the legs. Sure, students may feel a hamstring stretch, but it’s secondary to the core stability that needs to happen in order to execute the exercise properly.

They may look similar to the casual observer, but they target different muscles, breath patterns and levels of endurance.

Other differences include formats. A Pilates class typically runs through 20 to 40 exercises with five to 10 repetitions of each in a 45 to 55-minute class.

Yoga students practice postures called asana that are held for a certain number of breaths or even minutes. Depending on the style of yoga, poses may be linked together with a rigorous breath and movement system called vinyasa.

Yoga classes typically include standing, balancing, seated postures and inversions, such as shoulder stand, crow pose or headstand. Some poses can be hard for people with joint and balance issues. If you have knee, ankle, spinal issues or any recent injury, be sure to let your instructor know so he or she can give you safe modifications. Some yoga classes are heated and may begin or end with a Sanskrit chant or the sound of “om.”

Pilates classes are not heated and many exercises are performed supine, prone or in a side-lying position. They are more accessible for people with knee, rotator cuff and back problems. Pilates with a trained instructor is excellent pre-and post-operative therapy.

Equipment-base Pilates allows trainers to work with students in small group settings, usually five to six people, who share specific goals or limitations. For example, the Pilates Reformer adds controlled resistance from pulleys to force the core and external limbs to either work harder or provide extra assistance, depending on the exercise.

Although both yoga and Pilates emphasize breathing, the yoga breath is in through the nose and out through the nose to create inner heat and produce an audible “ha” sounds that’s used as a tool for meditation. Pilates students breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth to focus on emptying the diaphragm and contracting the deep abdominal muscles.

Try both if you’re unsure which one is right for you. Yoga will burn calories, increase flexibility and produce overall good feeling, relaxation and peace of mind. Pilates will get you to connect with your powerhouse and keep that voice in the back of your head that says, “Stand up straight, shoulders back, belly in.”