What IS the difference between Pilates and yoga?

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I’m asked this a lot. I’m also often asked about joining my yoga classes, and whether it’s really relaxing being a yoga teacher. I’m a Pilates teacher. I do love yoga, and consider myself a yogini. But they are not the same thing.

The fact is, there are similarities between yoga and Pilates – they both take place on a mat, in bare feet, and you can pretty much wear the same Sweaty Betty get up for both. But fundamental nuances mean they are also very, very different. I love both, and honestly would dither endlessly if you told me I had to alight upon one being “better” than the other.

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Yoga is thousands of years old, steeped in spiritual teaching closely aligned with Buddhism and Hinduism; understanding the meridians of the body, and chakras being in balance. Ridding the mind of unnecessary thoughts and judgements, uniting mind, body and spirit. So yoga is often seen to be a therapeutic, cosmic, bendy activity which involves meditation, hippy chanting, incense and connecting to your higher spirit – probably why a lot of people steer clear, which is a shame. It does involve all of those things, in whatever level you choose to incorporate it into your practice. But it’s also simply a wonderful way of moving the body and clearing space in the mind. Yoga increases strength and flexibility, focuses on your breath and promotes relaxation even in times of stress and challenge.

Yoga poses are called asanas, and are held and static. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines ‘asana’ to be a position that is ‘firm, but relaxed’, focusing on the breath. The connecting flow between them is where the movement takes place.

Pilates has movement as its inherent focus, so you never hold any positions. One of the fundamental principles of Pilates is Flow. Re-establishing natural balanced movement patterns which may have been lost through injury, bad habits such as desk-related slouched posture, inefficient breathing, overworking of different muscle groups which leads to others becoming weak and unstable.
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Pilates was created in the 20th century by Joe Pilates, and the exercises draw from his experiences of martial arts, of yoga, of gymnastics. Pilates has many of the same goals as yoga in terms of connecting body and mind – another principle is Concentration – and some very similar exercises such as Cobra, and Cat, but the philosophy comes from a slightly different angle. Rather than actively asking the mind to empty, Pilates requires full and complete concentration on the precision of the body’s movement, on the breath and movement relationship, on control of isolating the right muscles. In this way, there simply isn’t room in the mind for any clutter, or any rumination on to do lists and worries. Your mind feels cleared, swept, aired out after a good session of Pilates. And not an incense burner in sight.

Pilates has the fluid mobility of the spine as its central focus, and an awareness of the limbs coming from the stability of the torso at all times: as opposed to yoga’s full-body  positions. Pilates creates body balance by switching on the stabilising muscles of the spine, pelvic floor and deep abdominals. Developing an ability to move the body from a strong stable centre. The focus is on stability first, and optimum joint mobility: rather than the static “flexibility” that is encouraged by holding yoga poses. The focus is on the core of the body so the rest can freely move and this makes your body stronger both on the inside and out.

Pilates hones the balance between flexibility and strength, and this results in stronger and leaner muscles. Pilates gives your body more flexibility, gives you space to breathe and promotes relaxation even in times of stress and challenge – sound familiar…?

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So for me, Pilates and yoga balance each other beautifully. I love them both. Don’t ask me to choose…