Ready to try a new workout, and wondering whether you should take the advice of your friend who swears by her yoga class or the one who never misses a Pilates session? If so, you probably have some questions, including: What's the difference between yoga and Pilates, anyway? And would either of them help you slim down, if that's your goal? Here, answers to your biggest questions about Pilates and yoga.
What is Pilates?
Pilates has a rep for being kind of intimidating—but it’s actually a low-impact way to build strength in your core muscles. Developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, it’s an energetic and mindful total body exercise method that emphasizes strength, muscle control, and stability. The exercises are either done on the floor with a mat, or on special equipment, including a machine called a Reformer.
What is yoga?
It’s estimated that yoga has been around for thousands of years. The practice consists of a series of physical postures, and also focuses on breathing as well as inward attention and awareness. According to the Yoga Alliance, the largest non-profit group supporting the practice, yoga is a “comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual…[it’s] a system not of beliefs, but of techniques and guidance for enriched living.” Hatha yoga, a system of postures and breathing techniques, is probably the most well-known in the U.S.
How are yoga and Pilates different?
Experts point to the fact that both yoga and Pilates involve a flow of moves—but the emphasis is different. Pilates focuses on core strength, while yoga is more focused on flexibility and has a stronger spiritual connection.
“Yoga has a spiritual component and comes from a long lineage of teachers and sages in India, and Pilates was created by a man who wanted to help dancers breathe and move better to maintain a healthy spine,” says Russo. “In my view, a main difference is that yoga has many variations and styles and Pilates has stayed pretty true to what its creator intended.”
Pilates focuses on core strength, while yoga is more focused on flexibility and has a stronger spiritual connection.
Says DeLuca, “They both ask you to use your mind with your body. They both strive to be total body conditioning and have movement in all planes. They also both have a breathing exercise component to them and focus on proper alignment and posture.” She adds, “In some yoga practices the emphasis is on holding postures, while Pilates has a brisk movement component. In yoga the spiritual is obvious, while in Pilates it is an after-effect of your exercise and comes in the form of a deep sense of well-being and renewed energy. Even though they both incorporate strength and stretch, yoga focuses more on stretch, and Pilates more on strength. But with all of this out there now, the lines are really blurring. It's getting more challenging to take a yoga class that hasn't picked up on the benefits of a Pilates exercise and vice-versa.”
What are the benefits of Pilates?
“There are so many!” says Jennifer DeLuca, a master teacher of Pilates and the owner and director of BodyTonic, Inc. By doing Pilates, she says, “you’ll strengthen your core, gain muscle tone, increase flexibility and coordination, increase postural awareness and respiratory function, and even improve both your sleep and digestion.” There are mind-body benefits as well, DeLuca adds: “You’ll have a brighter mood, clearer thinking, and more confidence.”
Are there any drawbacks to Pilates?
“I don't think anyone should avoid Pilates,” says DeLuca. “I do think that some people should be in private Pilates training with a seasoned teacher, while others would be fine in group settings. I always encourage people to do at least three private sessions before joining a group.” One other caveat that she points out: “There are also many different forms out there calling themselves 'Pilates' when they're not the tried and true version,” says DeLuca. “Consumers should do their homework and find the right fit.”
So, will Pilates help me lose weight?
“Losing weight is a mathematical equation,” says DeLuca. “You have to burn more than you ingest. What Pilates can do in that equation is help you to feel better and stay motivated. If you learn the method well enough, there is a cardio component, but it's nothing like running for 55 minutes. However, it can improve how easy it feels to run, bike, or go out dancing with your friends.”
What are the benefits of yoga?
“There are many benefits, depending on what you’re looking for,” says Mel Russo, a certified yoga instructor in New York City. “If you're looking to physically challenge yourself and become stronger and more flexible, then a more physical practice like Vinyasa flow will help you achieve that. If you need to move a little and connect to your mind and body, then a slower more restorative yoga practice would benefit you. The big benefits of yoga are that you’re creating a good habit of moving your body, strengthening your joints, and becoming aware of your physical limitations.” Experts mention that yoga classes can bring greater flexibility, strength, and coordination, as well as a healthier heart. “But like with anything, you have to be consistent,” Russo adds. “You need to do the work to get the physical benefits. If you do that, then you slowly start to see changes. You get stronger and more flexible, and for many people their back pain goes away. But I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do your research. Finding the class style, level, and teacher that's right for you is paramount.”
What about yoga's mental and spiritual benefits?
“One of the big differences between yoga and other physical modalities is that it asks you to pay attention—there is a huge emphasis on being present and on breathing,” says Russo. “If you’re taking a yoga class with a good teacher, they have a way of sneaking in psychological or spiritual benefits. If you’re not connecting to something deeper than how physically strong you are, then you’re missing the point of having a yoga practice. Yoga asks that you listen to what your body is telling you; a good yoga teacher will remind her students that pushing and muscling their way into a yoga pose is not the point, and has the potential to injure them. I like to remind my students that who you are on the mat is who you are off it. So if you’re learning how to be kind to your body and how to slow down, be present, and breathe, my hope is that you take that with you, and the benefits will show up in ways you least expect it.”
Are there any drawbacks to yoga?
Says Russo, “The biggest drawback is that yoga, for better or worse, has become very mainstream, and in many studios it’s turned into a ‘workout’ much more than a full mind/body practice. A poorly trained teacher who is not proficient in anatomy can easily injure someone. Also, if you have a long list of injuries and need special attention, opting for private one-on-one yoga is a safer option than a group class. It’s hard for even the best trained teacher to give someone with serious injuries the attention they need in a group class.”
Will yoga help me lose weight?
This is a common question about yoga: Can it help you lose weight? “Yes, but indirectly,” says Russo. “I get this question often, and unquestionably the best solution for weight loss is the food you eat. Be aware of the calories you take in and make sure you’re mobile. But absolutely yoga can help. If you have a consistent practice—at least two or three times a week—then you’ll start to see and feel changes in your body. People’s appetite for fatty foods, their addictions to caffeine and alcohol, often lessen with a consistent yoga practice. The teachings and the breathing and the self-awareness start to kick in and you take better care of yourself.”
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