Fitness & Nutrition

Yoga and Pilates: Two Paths to Many Benefits for Mind and Body

August 18, 2021

Nobody’s doing goat Pilates—at least not yet—and only yoga happens in hot rooms. Although there’s a lot of overlap, significant differences between yoga and Pilates extend past whether farm animals might make a guest appearance. For one thing, yoga originated as a spiritual practice and has been around for centuries, and Pilates came about in the 1920s, when a fitness-obsessed hospital orderly (and boxer, circus performer, self-defense enthusiast . . .) figured out a technique for helping patients rehabilitate after injury. 

The two were linked somewhere along the way, and now it’s common for studios to offer both; they’re bringing in a bevy of practitioners interested in calming their minds, strengthening their bodies, and improving how their jeans fit. So which is a better fit for you? 

So you want to calm your mind . . .

Yoga is here to help. Its primary objective is uniting your body, mind, and spirit. Along the way, you get stronger and improve your balance, but the physical part is only one of the eight limbs of yoga. The others are more philosophical, covering elements like concentration and self-discipline. 

You will move in a yoga class, and you will also sit, lie, and stand very still. All of it will go a lot better if you do it thoughtfully, with focus. You will concentrate deeply on where your body parts have ended up and how they align with each other in a pose. That kind of thing tends to shove out pesky worries about the dust piling up on your bookshelves or whether the mozzarella is past its “best by” date. In many classes, you’ll also be asked to set an intention (a point of focus for the class—maybe something as simple as “breathe” or “enjoy”), use a mantra, or use visualization in a final meditation. In other words, yoga has you move for the sake of your mind. 

Pilates is basically the inverse of that: You move for the sake of what the movement will do for your physical health and, because there’s no mind without body (and vice versa), the movement soothes your mind. Both practices include breathing techniques that are highly effective at relieving stress. 

So you want to increase strength and stability . . . 

Pilates and yoga are low-impact forms of exercise that make you stronger, improve your balance, and increase your stability. How they go about it is different. Pilates is highly core-focused and, although it works much more, will bring great gains in the area from your neck to your butt creases (which are likely to move up if you stick with it). Expect to do a lot of micro-movements over and over, taxing your muscles, and requiring everything to pull together. That is, you’ll need to hold your shoulders back and your abs tight while you pulse up and down in a squat. You’ll also need concentration and mental toughness to keep going even while your muscles get fatigued, but that’s a topic for the previous section. 

Yoga also requires a lot of muscles to work together, but that’s because you’re moving from pose to pose and holding those poses. Instead of repetitive small motions, you’re making big moves from standing to folding to lunging to a plank, and so on. You’re going to want to not fall, most likely, and so you’ll call on a lot of stabilizing muscles and connective tissue to keep you upright as you move and especially as you hold poses. 

Yoga and Pilates excel at increasing your strength and stability. They just go about it in different ways. Bonus: Either will make you more flexible, too. 

So you want to feel like you got a great workout . . .

Some people run marathons and some like a gentle stroll. One person’s hardest workout ever is another’s easy day. Which means you can get that exhilarating “wow, I just got so much stronger” feeling from either. 

You can also find a huge range of classes, especially when it comes to yoga, which has had all those centuries to branch off and expand. Still, Pilates is designed to get people in the best shape for using their bodies effectively. Dancers were quick to adopt it because it helped them become more balanced, strength-wise, so they could do their thing without hurting themselves. It almost certainly will challenge you mentally and physically. Yoga can do the same, depending on which class you take, but it starts from a more meditative place. 

The best way to find out how these differences work for you (and you know what we’re going to say here, right?) is to try both.