“So, what is the difference between Pilates and Yoga then?”

by Elfed Joseph

This is a typical question I get asked by newcomers coming to my classes. I am qualified as a teacher in both disciplines and teach some classes “back-to-back”. How do you reduce these complex subjects to a three minute “soundbite”? The following quotes are my own personalised summaries with due apologies to experts who would couch things more eloquently!

“Joseph Pilates developed his system about 100 years ago which focussed on developing the “core” of the body - the pelvic floor, the abdominal, back and gluteal muscles to provide a protective “corset” of muscle to support spinal health. This promotes good posture and is characterised by small precise movements in exercises which work closely with the breath. Range of movement around the joints is encouraged along with muscular tone; people generally feel more energetic after practising it for a while and has many sporting benefits too.”

“The origins of Yoga go back at least 4000 years and it uses physical posture work, sequences and balances and work with the breath to increase flexibility, strength and mental wellbeing. It can be taken further as a meditative practice or for spiritual goals for those who want to follow this path.”

The differences and similarities between the two subjects could fill a book so I will home in on a few key areas.

The breathing is markedly different. In Pilates your core muscles are engaged so a ribs based (thoracic) breath is used. Try engaging your pelvic floor and breathing from your diaphragm? Yes, it’s virtually impossible so Pranayama practices e.g. the “the three part breath” are inaccessible.

Pilates works with the natural curves of the spine, Yoga by contrast frequently involves hyper extension and hyper flexion of the spine. For example, a Pilates “bridge” is a straight line from the knees to the top of the chest, it would be a “wedge” in Yogic terms. A Yoga “bridge” is a significant backbend.

Pilates works with the natural curves of the spine, Yoga by contrast frequently involves hyper extension and hyper flexion of the spine.

The pelvic floor features heavily in Pilates and is important in a different way in orthodox Yogic practice. It often evokes an interesting response when I ask new members of a class “Do you know where your pelvic floor is?” Women that have had children invariably say “Yes” and so do many that haven't had them are similarly aware; men by contrast usually have no idea, a classic male response is “ I thought it was only women that had them”! So how do they differ? In Pilates “Zip up the pelvic floor” is a cue for starting to engage the core muscles. In addition, pelvic floor exercises are regularly used e.g. going up and down in a lift, to target this area in isolation. In conventional Yoga the pelvic floor is drawn in when utilising the Mula Bandha in Pranayama but is used a tool to intensify the practice rather than as a toning device. The exception to this would be Pregnancy Yoga where there is considerable emphasis on learning to strengthen and as appropriate, relax the pelvic floor.

The cultural resonances are profoundly different too. Yoga is sometimes banned from Church Halls as it is erroneously associated with promoting Hinduism or something equivalently non-Christian. Pilates is a physical exercise system with as much attendant threat as Zumba, or line-dancing in this context.

There is cross-over between Pilates and Yoga and they are, in my opinion, complimentary practices. It is no coincidence that Joseph Pilates was an experienced Yogi in his own right and various Yoga postures pop up in the limbering sections of Pilates classes. Both practices develop body awareness and motor skills too, particularly the ability to balance; a common feature of feedback from class members in either area lists better posture and deeper breathing as benefits of attending classes.

Elfed Joseph

Mid-West Glam BWY

BWY Yoga Teaching Diploma

BWY Pregnancy Module

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