These days, you can’t turn on the TV without hearing some celebrity extol the benefits of yoga or Pilates. Madonna credits her hard body to the former; Jennifer Anniston owes her lean muscles to the latter. A-listers seem to know which discipline is right for their bodies, but which one is best for you? According to the experts, that depends on your goals. To help you pick the perfect exercise, we rounded up a Pilates instructor, a yoga teacher and a neutral third party for a side-by-side comparison…
This discipline has an Eastern-based philosophy. “Yoga is a journey of self-discovery,” says Leigh Crews, a registered yoga teacher (RYT) and spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The mind, not the body, is the main target. Yoga teaches relaxation and meditation, and not just in the studio. “[What students learn in class] transfers into the rest of their lives as well,” Crews explains. “Instead of laying on the horn when they get cut off on the freeway, they practice yoga breathing and remain calm.”
And during the yoga session itself? Students fall into a meditative, peaceful state of mind.
But if you’re not into meditation, should you try yoga anyway? Absolutely, Crews says. “There are eight [parts] of yoga, and spirituality is only one of them. Many Western classes tend to focus more on breathing and movement.” (
Pilates is more concerned with strengthening the body than the mind. But it still requires the mind to be engaged – no auto-pilot here. Movements are deliberate and focused. “Pilates is also called ‘contrology,’” says June Kahn, owner of June Kahn’s Bodyworks, LLC, and director of Pilates for Lakeshore Athletic Clubs in Boulder, CO. “It’s using the mind to control the muscle.”
“Both exercises have a mind-body connection,” says Edward Jackowski, Ph.D., founder of the New York City-based fitness company Exude and author of Escape Your Shape: How to Work Out Smarter, Not Harder (Fireside, 2001).
The difference? “Yoga focuses more on meditation, whereas in Pilates the goal is to get your mind into the spot where it can control the motions.”
Most poses are static, meaning that they’re held for a long period. They’re not counted in seconds, but rather, in breaths. Often, you move deeper into the pose with each breath you take.
There are two types of Pilates. Floor-based Pilates takes place on a mat on the ground, using elastic bands and the Pilates magic circle (exercise ring) to build strength and add resistance. In machine-based Pilates, you use two machines, called the Cadillac and Reformer, which are a system of springs and pulleys that add weight and resistance.
In both types, exercises are performed in sets and repetitions. While you do hold some moves for a certain number of breaths, as with yoga, in Pilates you remain in regular motion for the majority of the class.
“People gravitate to things they are already good at,” Jackowski says. “Those with flexibility are more apt to choose yoga, while those who are stronger gravitate toward Pilates.” However, he recommends people not simply opt for the easiest workout, but rather the type of exercise that will most benefit your body.
The Physical Benefits
Yoga keeps the body supple, pliable and flexible, which helps you perform daily movements better. “Yoga is functional training,” Crews explains. “It requires lots of different muscles to work together, training them to perform in the way we use them in everyday life.” (Compare this to isolation exercises such as biceps curls, which work only one muscle at a time.)
Athletes can also benefit from yoga. “With any sport, you tend to overwork one muscle group over another,” Crews says. “Yoga will pinpoint this imbalance, forcing the weak muscle to work harder and forcing the tighter muscle to stretch.”
“Every Pilates exercise combines flexibility and strength,” Kahn says. Pilates emphasizes your core, or “powerhouse” muscles, which run in a circle around your lower back and abdomen. Whether you’re doing abdominal work, leg lifts or upper body exercises, all movement originates from the core in Pilates.
“[A strong core] allows you to have more power and improved performance in sports,” Khan explains. “You’re better able to power and propel yourself through movements.”
Dancers have known this for years. “Ballerinas flow beautifully through their movements. They look like they’re floating,” Kahn says. Watch an experienced Pilates practitioner, and you’ll notice the apparent ease of her movements, as well. But don’t be fooled – it only looks effortless. Moving through the progressions is challenging and requires a lot of strength.
In general, yoga is the best choice if you want to increase range of motion and overall flexibility, Jackowski says. “If you have a weak back or core section, pick Pilates.”
The Ultimate Goal
Yoga encourages practitioners to turn inward for self-evaluation, to be introspective. The end result is a calmer demeanor and mindset. “Stress reduction is a documented benefit of yoga,” Crews says. (See related article: Baxter Bell’s Secrets to Stress-Free Living)
“Pilates is corrective in nature,” Kahn says. In fact, Joseph Pilates founded this exercise in the early 1900s to help wounded World War l soldiers recuperate.
Many physical therapy centers offer Pilates sessions for those who have been injured in sports or car accidents, or are suffering from chronic neck or back pain. Often, these sessions can be covered by insurance.
“The movements help realign the natural curves to your spine and fix imbalances caused by poor posture,” Kahn says.
“Stress relief is really the core of yoga,” Jackowski says. “Pilates was developed more for rehabilitation purposes.”
The Bottom Line
Try yoga and Pilates at least three to five times each before you make up your mind. And if you want to lose weight, don’t forget your running shoes: You won’t lose fat without cardiovascular exercise.
Can’t choose between yoga and Pilates? No worries. The two disciplines complement each other. If you strengthen your abs in Pilates, it will be easier for you to hold certain poses in yoga. Becoming more flexible in yoga will allow you to move through Pilates progressions with more ease. “There is no one exercise that by itself is pure fitness,” Jackowski says.
So why limit yourself? Do them both. Just make sure you’re being guided by a trained professional.
For yoga: A yoga teacher (RYT) registered with the Yoga Alliance, a non-profit organization that sets standards for yoga training, will have at least 200 hours of training; there is also a 500-hour level.
For Pilates: Look for an instructor certified by STOTT Pilates or the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA).