Yoga vs. Pilates: Which is Best for You?

It may not be an age-old question, but fitness enthusiasts routinely wonder about the difference between yoga and Pilates.

At first glance the two practices seem quite similar. Both focus on non-impact movements performed on a mat. And both promise to improve flexibility and muscular endurance. The two also appeal to those looking for a more gentle or “mindful” approach to exercise and draw large numbers of devotees who swear that regular workouts improve their quality of life.

Yet despite the similarities there are significant differences between the two.

“Precision is a big part of Pilates technique,” said Rosemarie Geist, a Montreal-based Pilates master trainer who has been teaching for over 10 years. Geist says the basis of the Pilates practice is to “get into the core.” Defined as the muscles located between the hips and the shoulders, the core has long been touted as the body’s powerhouse. It transfers power from the lower to the upper body, and vice versa. It also controls posture.

For beginners, making that connection to the core can be tough. Contrary to most other forms of exercise, the movements in Pilates are small. And the objective is to perform them with control and precision. There is also a learned breathing routine that flows with the exercises, which can also take time to master. So if you are used to big flowing athletic movements, the pace of a Pilates class may seem slow and the instructor too focused on seemingly insignificant details.

Yet it’s those details that set Pilates apart from yoga. Joseph Pilates invented the practice in the early 1900’s as a therapeutic form of exercise to rehab injured war veterans. His technique was meant to be personalized according to the needs of the individual. With large group classes now the norm, most workouts feature a select number of exercises that are repeated several times before moving on to the next.

Pilates is also performed on equipment like the reformer and the barrel, but that practice tends to be taught one-on-one or in small groups, and is done only after the basic mat techniques have been mastered.

Yoga, on the other hand is a more free flowing form of exercise. The movements are larger and classes move from one exercise to the other at a quicker pace. Instructors teach proper technique, but there is less of a demand for perfection and most beginners find it easier to grasp the basic fundamentals.

There is also a more spiritual side to yoga. Depending on the type of yoga, there is a meditative aspect to the practice that is very much a part of its 3,000 year old history. For those more interested in the physical versus the spiritual there are plenty of options that offer a significant athletic challenge. Be it Ashtanga (power yoga) or Bikram (yoga in the heat) yoga, there are options for those who want a more western approach to exercise.

On the flip side, there are gentle yogas that are geared to destress and restorative yogas that work to reduce joint pain.

One of the benefits of yoga that is not found in Pilates is balance training. Yoga features lots of standing poses that move to one leg, which is an added benefit for anyone who wants to improve balance as well as flexibility and muscular endurance.

So how do you know which is for you? First review your goals. If you’re looking for a whole body workout that stretches and strengthens, then yoga is your best bet. Or, if you interested in standing taller and improving posture, Pilates is probably the better choice.

Then there’s your own personal approach to fitness. Are you easily bored or do you value a workout that demands discipline and an appreciation for the finer aspects of movement? For all you type A’s out there, Pilates may be just your cup of tea. But for those who want a workout that features lots of variety and an easy to follow style of movement, then yoga may be your exercise of choice.

Still undecided? Take a trial class at your local fitness club and see what each feels like. Remember however, that Pilates has a learning curve, so don’t be surprised if you have trouble grasping the basics in just one class.

Geist says both practices offer lots of benefits, so there is no good or bad choice. For most it’s simply a matter of personal preference.

“Choose the one that resonates within,” said Geist.

Of course, you can always sit on the fence and take a yogalates class, which features a fusion of the two practices. Not only will you get the best of both worlds, you’ll have a little extra time to get a feel for the differences between the two before deciding whether yoga or Pilates is right for you.