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Pilates or Yoga – What IS The Difference?

As a Pilates and Yoga teacher one of the most frequently asked questions I hear is “What’s the difference between Pilates and Yoga?”

The following are but a mere ‘few’ observations I’ve made along my Pilates/Yoga journey.

Mat Work

Pilates is a repertoire of 34 Exercises, which involve strength, mobility, and flexibility training. It is a ‘system’ of exercises, which helps you to ‘move’ correctly. We are encouraged to move the body through both Concentric and eccentric phases with ‘flow.’

Yoga, on the other hand involves performing what are called in Sanskrit ‘Asanas’ or ‘postures’ and there are approximately 56,000 of them. Postures tend to be static and more ‘Isometric’ contractions are performed unless of course, you find yourself in an ‘Ashtanga’ style class where you are constantly moving through a ‘Vinyasa’ which is a sequence of postures linked together and performed ‘dynamically.’


In Pilates we can use a plethora of what can sometimes look like a rather bizarre collection of equipment, which Joseph Pilates engineered. It is said that he trained his students on his various pieces of equipment with the intention that, one day, they would be able to perform the whole repertoire of 34 exercises ‘without’ the assistance of any equipment at all. However, you can still practice Pilates with small equipment; find out more about our course.

In a conventional Yoga class however, you could expect to use only very simple things such as bolsters, blocks, straps, and blankets. One of the more 21st century innovations created is the Yoga sling which allows you to perform aerial Yoga i.e suspended in the air.

Head and Heart

In Pilates we perform exercises, which involve the heart being higher than the head. In Yoga this is what’s commonly known as an Inversion. There is no mention or indeed education as to ‘what’ an inversion is in Pilates, however there are strict rules and protocol to adhere to when teaching your class to perform these in Yoga. Strange!

So what is an Inversion? All inverted postures revitalize the entire system of the body. Because the internal organs are inverted they become energized, and the brain is nourished as blood flows towards it. Since there is no weight on the legs, inversions bring relief to tired, strained legs. Women should not practice inversions during menstruation as this interferes with the natural flow at this time.

Same Journey; Different Destination

If you have attended both Pilates AND Yoga you may have observed that despite many of the Pilates exercises looking very ‘similar’ to Yoga postures, there is a lot more movement occurring. For example a Pilates ‘Roll Over’ and Yoga ‘Plough.’ (Halasana ) One constantly moves while the other is ‘static’ for X amount of breaths/minutes. Many of the purposes and benefits are also similar but at the same time very different!!

If we explore the Roll Over in more detail we will see that the main purpose of the exercise is to encourage mobility and articulation of the spine through segmental control, strengthens the core stabilisers, Rectus abdominus and hip flexors. This exercise also passively stretches the Spinal Extensors when the body is in a flexed position.

If we look at Halasana it is an inversion, which relaxes the brain, it is beneficial to practice when you have a cold and it improves the functioning of the Thyroid and Parathyroid glands. It also strengthens the anterior muscles of the trunk while lengthens the posterior chain of muscles.

When holding a Yoga posture it is said that (depending on which posture) it can have a profound effect on the internal organs – for example, when performing a ‘Lord of the Fishes’ pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana – a twist) our Spine is stretched and digestive system is massaged. When performing the Pilates ‘Spine Twist’ the focus is on ‘mobilizing’ the Thoracic region of the spine, training it to twist in a controlled environment and keeping the Thoracic Spine supple.
So, as you can see, the journeys are ‘similar’, the destinations can be radically different!

Prohibitions vs Contraindications

Oddly enough, if you take a look at typical training manuals for both disciplines, you will rarely find mention of internal organs and the effect the exercises can have on them when performing Pilates.

However if you explore Yoga postures you will always find extensive detail as to ‘what’ effect the posture can have on X,Y and Z and in addition to this there are what is called ‘prohibitions’ in Yoga which are commonly known to the Pilates teacher as ‘contraindications.’ These are also much more extensive than Pilates. Again, strange!

Breathing Techniques

In Pilates we practice Lateral Thoracic breathing which is in through the nose down into the Thorax region, then out through the mouth) It is said that the out breath through the mouth aids the core muscles in their job of stabilizing.

In Yoga we practice Belly breathing (in through the nose focusing on the breath reaching the belly region then out through the nose). It is said that we breath in through the nose in order to moisten, filter and purify the air going in, while as the breath comes out through the nose, any debris/toxins collected on the microscopic cilia which line the nose will be exhaled out again.

Note that in Pilates we practice just one breathing technique while in Yoga there are what is known as ‘Pranayamas’, which are different, breathing techniques practiced for different reasons/results.

So this is only touching the iceberg I’m sure you will agree.

Complementary Disciplines

All said and done, from my experiences of practicing and teaching both, I would say that both these disciplines complement each other beautifully.

Two different schools of thought, coming from very different eras and continents, forming a gorgeous marriage of seamless movement and spirituality.

You can read more about becoming a Pilates Teacher here.

Written by Tina Short

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