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Yoga and Pilates: What’s the Difference?

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Yoga’s boat poseYoga’s Navasana or “boat” pose, courtesy of AsthangaYoga.infoThe Teaser as shown by Joseph PilatesJoseph Pilates doing the Teaser, courtesy the Pilates Method AllianceBy Sherri R. Betz, PT
Ever had a client ask, “What are the differences between yoga and Pilates?” As you stammer out a hopefully intelligent-sounding answer, unconvinced even in your own mind as to the difference, you probably just hope the client doesn’t ask again! 
You may have heard this joke: The difference between Pilates and yoga is that in yoga you close your eyes and think about god and in Pilates you keep your eyes open and think about your abs! And one guru said the purpose of yoga is to become more flexible so that you could sit comfortably to meditate. Yoga certainly is more than that.
I write this in trepidation of offending the beautiful yoga and Pilates practitioners around the world. I hope to distill some of the information about yoga and Pilates looking at some of the differences and similarities between them to help practitioners understand these popular forms of movement.

My yoga practice began in Louisiana (when no one did yoga there!) at about the age of 15. At the local library, I happened to pick up The Sivananda Companion to Yoga and started trying out some of the poses and breathing. (Actually, I skipped the breathing and avoided it for many years until I did my Pilates training and was forced to learn to breathe!) Now I am devoted to my Ashtanga/Vinyasa yoga practice and my Pilates work to keep my body in shape and to add a spiritual component to my life. It has been very interesting to compare a movement practice that has been around for 2,000 years with one that has been around for only about 80 years. 

[Click here to jump to background descriptions of common form of yoga practiced in the United States.]

[Click here to jump to a background description of Pilates.]

Range of Motion
One of the main differences between contemporary Pilates and yoga is that Pilates begins with small range of motion and progresses toward end range joint movement while yoga tends to hold postures at end range of joint motion and muscle length. This tends to make yoga postures more risky for the beginner or injured student. There seems to be an easy fix to this dilemma in that the teacher might suggest to the yoga student to go to 75 percent of their range of motion and hold there. This would build strength in the musculature that supports the joints, protect joint structures, such as capsules and ligaments, from getting overstretched, thus, reduce the risk for injury.

Postures and Poses
Another interesting difference between Pilates mat and yoga classes is that yoga begins often with the Sun Salutation series that includes standing poses and push-ups while Pilates mat classes are meant to end with the 34th exercise, the Push-Up. Yoga warms up with standing postures and ends lying down and Pilates begins in supine positions and ends standing up. Yoga’s relaxation pose at the end of yoga class is meant to help the body integrate the postures, and Pilates’ purpose for ending in standing is to prepare the body for re-integration into functional daily activities. 

Self-Care Practices
In regard to personal hygiene and self-care practices, most yoga styles recommend bathing before class, eating a vegetarian diet, avoiding eating at least two hours before class and drinking plenty of water. Joseph Pilates made many recommendations for personal hygiene in his books Return to Life and Your Health. John Steele, a former client, friend and attorney of Joseph Pilates stated in a lecture at the 2007 PMA Conference in Orlando, Fla., “Joe was a strong advocate for personal hygiene—he actually got into the shower with clients to teach them how to exfoliate their bodies with a hard bristle brush!” (Showering was not a common practice back then—most people took baths.)  An archival video actually exists of Joseph demonstrating hard bristle brush exfoliation, nostril water cleansing and rough towel drying! 

We certainly know that yoga stemmed from the Hindu religion, which drives many of the physical yoga practices we see today. Yoga practices usually incorporate a form of meditation or spiritual reflection for the purposes of achieving enlightenment. In contrast, not much is known about Joseph Pilates’ spiritual or religious beliefs other than that he felt that his Contrology method—as he called what is now known as Pilates—was “the complete coordination of mind, body and spirit.” He stated in his writings that the “trinity” (mind, body and spirit) with the adoption of the principles of Contrology was necessary to achieve spiritual peace and everlasting happiness. Most of his statements about the benefits and goals of Pilates centered around mental clarity, zest for life and better concentration. In most Pilates classes and teacher training programs, this trinity, as a way to achieve spiritual peace, is rarely mentioned.

Yoga Bandhas
Yoga Bandhas often are forgotten pieces of Hatha yoga practices. Ironically, these are more often utilized and trained in Pilates than in yoga (under other names). The bandhas are meant to be used to prevent prana (life force energy) from escaping the body. Jalandhara Bandha is the Throat Chakra Lock, which prevents prana from escaping the upper body. Uddiyana Bandha is the Sexual Chakra or Abdominal Lock, and Mula Bandha is the Root Chakra Lock—preventing prana escaping from the lower body. This energy-trapping technique is facilitated by drawing in or contracting the deep neck flexors, the transversus abdominus and the pelvic floor. These structures happen to be key components in core control. The bandhas can facilitate better core, head, neck and trunk control during challenging yoga poses; especially long-lever arm movements at end range.   

Bandhas Yoga Definition Pilates Equivalent
Jalandhara Bandha Throat Chakra Lock Deep Neck Flexors
Uddiyana Bandha Sexual Chakra Lock Transversus Abdominus
Mula Bandha Root Chakra Lock Pelvic Floor


Breathing Practices in Pilates and Yoga
Most yoga practices utilize a diaphragmatic breath during their postures and sequences resulting in lower belly distention with each breath. This does not imply that Pilates breathing does not use the diaphragm. With an inhale, the diaphragm will descend no matter whether the belly is allowed to distend or remain contracted. In Pilates, the client is asked to maintain the deep abdominal contraction so that the ribcage expands laterally. This style of breathing is referred to as costal breathing. Pilates also utilizes percussive breathing or pulsed breathing on occasion with some exercises such as the Hundred.
A more specific yogic breath is the Ujjayi breath, “created by gently constricting the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Gently pulling the breath in on inhalation and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation against this resistance creates a well-modulated and soothing sound—something like the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out,” writes Tim Miller in Yoga Journal.

Ujjayi is a diaphragmatic breath, which first fills the lower belly activating the first and second chakras, rises to the lower rib cage (the third and fourth chakras), and finally moves into the upper chest and throat.
Both Pilates and yoga use breath coordinated with movement resulting in inhalation and exhalation during particular phases of exercises. There are many variations and opinions between the styles of yoga and Pilates as to when to inhale and when to exhale.
So when a client tells you that they are practicing yoga, you might just ask them what type and then go try it yourself! Going over photos of the readily available yoga postures might help your client jog their memory as to what poses they do in their yoga classes. If you are a Pilates teacher, movement teacher or physical therapist, it is a good idea to experience these methods to reap the benefits and throw out what might not be useful or even risky.


About Pilates
Pilates is a system of exercise developed by Joseph and Clara Pilates from 1925-1967. Originally called Contrology by its creator, Pilates consists of mat or floor exercises progressing from small or mid-range movements to large end-range movements with flowing quality and correct biomechanical alignment. Positions are not generally held for long periods of time, rather, the student moves into and out of positions slowly at first progressing to a rapid but controlled pace. Mat exercises are complemented with special large and small apparatus to either assist movement or to resist movement. The large apparatus utilizes springs for assisting the rehabilitation patient or for challenging the experienced mover. Costal breathing with transverses abdominus facilitation is the preferred breathing style. The original method is largely dominated by spinal flexion or forward-bending movements possibly due to Joseph Pilates idea that “the spine should be flat like a newborn baby.”

There are several styles of Pilates taught currently today. Classical or Original Pilates indicates that the teacher will be teaching the exercises exactly as Joseph taught them as well as in a particular order. Evolved or more modern Pilates means that the teacher or physical therapist might modify a particular exercise or select a group of exercises based on an initial assessment and gradually progress them to more advanced choreography.

Common Forms of Yoga Practiced in the United States
Yoga was brought to us by Hindus practicing in India. Hatha yoga is the broad term that can be used interchangeably with yoga. Astanga yoga is the term given by the philosopher/sage Patanjali, about 2,000 years ago to describe eight limbs of a path toward union of the Atman (individual soul) with Brahman (universal soul). The practice of asana and pranayama (breathing practice) are just two aspects of the eight limbs of Astanga yoga. The other six steps are: Yama (social ethics); Niyama (personal discipline); Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal); Dharana (concentration); Dhyana (meditation); and Samadhi (bliss). Below are descriptions of 12 forms of yoga practiced in the U.S. 

Hatha: Even though Hatha is considered the broad term for most of the yoga styles in the U.S., if you see a class described as Hatha, it will likely be a slow-paced stretching class with some simple breathing exercises and perhaps seated meditation. This might be a good place to learn basic poses, relaxation techniques, and become comfortable with yoga.

Vinyasa is a term, like Hatha, that covers a broad range of yoga classes. Vinyasa, which means “breath-synchronized movement,” tends to be a more vigorous style based on the performance of a series of 12 poses called Sun Salutation, in which movement is matched to the breath. This technique is sometimes also called Vinyasa Flow, or just Flow because of the smooth way that the poses run together and become like a dance. Vinyasa style of yoga is probably the most similar to the way Pilates mat is meant to be practiced.

Astanga or Ashtanga: means “8 limbs” in Sanskrit and is generally a fast-paced intense style where a set series of poses is performed, always in the same order. This style involves a very difficult series of postures that involve intense end-range positions in rotation, side-bending and flexion of the spine and strength poses that require a tremendous amount of upper-body strength in its fullest form. It stresses daily practice of constant movement from one pose to the next using ujjayi breathing, jalandhara bandha, mula bandha, uddiyana bandha and drishti (eye gaze or point of focus). Astanga is the inspiration for what is often called Power Yoga. If a class is described as Power Yoga, it will be based on the flowing style of Astanga, but not necessarily kept strictly to the set series of poses. Look over the Astanga Primary Series charts to see the postures with their Sanskrit names in their original form.

Sivananda: Traditionally, Sivananda yogis practice the sun salutations before the Asanas (postures). There is also an interesting supine relaxation pose between poses “to let the benefits of the pose integrate” that is not found in many other yoga practices. Personally, I felt that this building of energy and sudden stopping to lie down had my heart rate going up and down and my body heating up and cooling down many times throughout the class. Sivananda Yoga is based upon five principles: proper exercise (Asana) focusing on 12 poses in particular, proper breathing (Pranayama), proper relaxation (Savasana), proper diet (vegetarian) and positive thinking and meditation (Dhyana).

Bikram or “Hot Yoga” is a series of 26 specific poses and two breathing exercises developed by Bikram Choudhury performed in a room heated to 95-105°F. This wildly popular style of yoga is very dogmatic in that no (or very few) modifications are allowed. I do not recommend this style for clients who are still in acute phases of rehabilitation.

Jivamukti: This style of yoga emerged from one of New York’s popular studios. Jivamukti founders David Life and Sharon Gannon take inspiration from Astanga (like Power Yoga) and emphasize chanting, meditation and spiritual teachings, often accompanied by trendy music.

Iyengar: This form of yoga gets its name from its founder, BKS Iyengar. Iyengar focuses on precise postures with emphasis on alignment and use of props to assist students in achieving correct positions. Poses are held for minutes at a time versus flowing from one pose to the next. There are 200 postures and 14 different types of breath practices documented in this practice. This is a good style for beginners to yoga, and it is easily adapted to rehabilitation. Yin yoga holds poses in gentle, stretched, non-painful positions for at least 1 minute and up to 20 minutes at a time. The yin essence is “yielding” and allowing muscles, tendons and ligaments to lengthen over time. This form of yoga is good for clients who have ligamentous or capsular restrictions and might be a good complement to manual therapy techniques if the client is guided gently and carefully into the prolonged stretches.
Forrest: Developed by Ana Forrest, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., Forrest yoga is gaining popularity around the U.S. The performance of vigorous asana sequences is intended to strengthen and purify the body and release pent-up emotions and pain so that healing can begin. Expect an intense workout with an emphasis on abdominal strengthening and deep breathing.
Integral Yoga follows the teachings of Sri Swami Sachidananda, who came to the U.S. in the 1960s and eventually founded many Integral Yoga Institutes and the famed Yogaville Ashram in Virginia. Integral is a gentle hatha practice, and classes often include breathing exercises, chanting, kriyas (exercises and breathing techniques intended to purify and cleanse the body’s energy channels) and meditation.
Anusara: Founded in 1997 by John Friend, Anusara (meaning flowing with grace) is a Hatha Yoga system that combines a strong emphasis on physical alignment with a positive philosophy derived from Tantra. The philosophy’s premise is belief in the intrinsic goodness of all beings. Anusara classes are usually light-hearted and accessible to students of differing abilities. Poses are taught in a way that opens the heart, both physically and mentally, and props are often used. Kundalini, one of the more spiritual types of yoga, goes beyond the physical performance of poses with its emphasis on breathing, meditation and chanting. However, the Kundalini sequences are very physically intense. The Kundalini is untapped energy (prana) at the base of the spine that can be drawn up through the body, awakening each of the seven chakras. Full enlightenment is said to occur when this energy reaches the Crown Chakra. In Kundalini, the exploration of the effects of the breath on the postures is essential. It uses rapid, repetitive movements rather than poses held for a long time, and the teacher will often lead the class in chanting.


Sherri R. Betz, PT, is owner of TheraPilates Physical Therapy & Gyrotonic Studio in Santa Cruz, CA. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Pilates Method Alliance and is a principal educator for Polestar Pilates Education.



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Posted on Monday, December 22, 2008 at 01:18PM by Registered CommenterAmy Leibrock in , | Comments90 Comments | References239 References

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No, it's not futile. It's also not black and white, as i said. But until everyone can see that this issue isn't about a PT approach verses a somatic approach verses an exercise approach then there will probably remain some degree of divide between perspectives.

The PT approach is not about excessive lordosis, it's about understanding the data that has been gathered through a more scientific process and applying that knowledge and information to the exercises being performed. Sometimes flexion in the lumbars helps to neutralize the effects of the forces measured in the research, sometimes flexion adds to those forces significantly, as also found in this research. Whether it be Yoga, Pilates, traditional exercise methods or the rest, the same analysis applies. The names of the exercises or who created them is irrelevant, the motion, position and alignment is relevant. And two exercises from two different methods can look very much the same with some exception maybe to the verbal guidance and subtle bodily awareness, yet they boil down to the same body positioning with the same laws of physics imposing the same forces on them. That can't be changed with wording or intention.

The creation of an excessive anterior pelvic tilt is already a problematic issue in some pilates students and teachers, combined with the loss of lumbar lordosis as JW was talking about. This combined pattern is a dysfunctional one, leading to many problems. Remember again, this is not black and white. While one person may need to reduce their lumbar lordosis a little bit to help with their presenting back problems, there is and usually should be an eventual moment in time when they no longer need to make this their focus as the curve balances out. But these changes in intention are often not recognized, especially when following a sequence or routine, as is often the case.

My recommendation would be to investigate the research from the other side of the coin to help draw some conclusions on your own. It's not the job of any PT or such to try and force this perspective on anyone. It's your journey, just consider the wider terrain because it always has an impact on local conditions.

January 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenteraPTslant

Thanks for this discussion, everyone. Future responses from me will be on my blog. The info may be of interest to yoga and pilates enthusiasts alike.

To aPTslant:
Please see the "Pilates-pro Yoga and Pilates comment" post for my response. The entire post, and especially comments #5 and #6 beneath it, would be most appropriate to your comments above. Also, if you are so inclined, there's also info about some research on the blog! :)

January 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarole Amend

I agree with Ptslant about excessive anterior pelvic tilt being a problem with Pilates instuctors and their students. I believe this comes from a misunderstanding and confusion of the idea of creating axial length and stability uniformly vrs reducing the lumbar curve to achieve that goal. But this also addresses what Carole is saying as well as JW, the work needs to be directed toward the client and the instructors need to have a complete knowledge of how the body works and functions outside the paramaters of "Pilates".

January 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLA

I have read Joe's letters that he handwrote and his written English was perfect,learned in the university in the internment camp. Although I do believe the style of his books is influenced by the writer,his interpretation was not.So,I dont buy the German words theory(lots of my own theories through time I've proven myself way wrong,
by the way.)

Two points I'm happy to debate, though,
"there are 20 flexion exercises in the mat,"
and the PMA aims at preserving JP's work.

The PMA started with the group that sued Romana, initiated by Ken Endelman. Before the lawsuit, no one had heard of Lolita San Miquel or Mary Bowen.It made them celebrities, and they were not teacher trainers until people pleaded with them, so people could say they studied with a "First generation Master." Those terms, as well as elders, all came in this decade.

The PMA and Body-Mind-Spirit and IDEA is sponsored by the equipment companies which completely, totally changed the apparatuses, with the common investment of
validating their "evolved" Pilates.(Before the lawsuit everyone called it Pialtes-based)Each manufacturer, Peak, Balanced Body and Stott, has their own certification course based on their equipment changes and their "innovative" work. The only manufacturer not hooking thousands of people into giving them thousands of dollars under contract is Gratz Industries.

The PMA, instead of promoting standardization has promoted a social club. people feeling the longing to belong. It's a business. Get 4000 people to give you $200 to join and attend your conference for $1000, do the math, and you've got yourself a job. I don't like how they have influenced the fitness industry at all, Although I have taught from Moscow to Spain, Australia to Kansas for the last 22 years, when I apply to spread the authentic work of Joe Pilates, having spent 18 years with Romana and being certified by her, I am told that unless I am "PMA" certified I cant teach! Really?

But Kevin Bowen told Kathi Ross NAsh he would sneak her into teaching becuase she had 200 people watching her demo in the exhibition hall and they want,need Romana teachers, Kathi wouldnt be dishonest, because she is the real, real deal.

We should survive the intense scrutiny of Romana's course to be judged by who?
An anatomist?

What would Joe think of that?
I think he'd churn in his urn.
Siri Dharma Galliano

February 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSiri Dharma Galliano


Thank You, Thank YOU, THANK YOU! That was so well put. I am so sick and tired of the equipment companies making changes to machines for the sake of selling machines.

If the human body hasn't changed since it's creation, why would the machine?

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Redfield-Dreisbach


February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSiri Dharma Galliano

Awsome Thank God you have the b***s to tell it like it is! The PMA is bogus when they claim to be setting standards for the industry.. I said this on another post. "When standards are set and are then ignored for a price, those standards have no value.

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLA

I am so appreciating this discussion! I love both Pilates and yoga. I find that they compliment each other very well. For myself, I need Pilates to keep everything integrated. Yoga doesn't do that for me, but it does awaken my body/mind in ways that are important to me.
As for the photos, the yoga pose is lovely but looks to me like it's depending heavily on hip flexor action. Joe's position actually shows better use of the abs. True, the hunch and reach of Joe's shoulders is not the way most of us would practice now, but he has the key elements of a good teaser in place - I don't see him straining or trying to "pull" himself up with his reach. Teaser and boat pose have somewhat different focuses. We're not really comparing apples to apples here.

February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarguerite Ogle

Practice yoga every day and you`ll feel the difference. If are not so prefect in yoga, go to your nearest available yoga centers. For more information about Yoga centers in Hyderabad visit www.happyhyderabad.com

June 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBabji

Well, it's been a long and winding road since my last comment under this Pilates Pro article (Jan 19, 2009).

I am still hoping for what I posted on Jan 18, 2009:
"Let's start looking at what is right in both.
Let go the mat and have a conversation."

Since this discussion, so many online discussions have transpired on Pilates Pro, the AASI Contributions Blog, the Pilates Connections Discussion Board (PCDB), the AIM Academy Forum, and also Michael Miller's Blog. And they have all dovetailed into a discussion of the flat back/straight spine issue in a post entitled "The Whole 'flat Back', neutral Thing" on the PCDB.

For those interested in reading those discussion, as well as "ideas" on the the "common" ground in the pilates community, please go to:


There's you'll find a chronology, a summary and a perspective from yours truly.
Thank you!
In the spirit of community,
Carole : )

August 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarole Amend

Splendid comparison article for beginners to understand the principle differences and unions between the two practices.

March 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCambridge Pilates

Dear Sherri-
Well Done! I have wanted to tackle this question on my own website for a long time but have simply not had the courage nor willingness to explore a succinct way to answer such a difficult question. I did manage to jot down my opinion on the difference between Pilates and yoga in our blog on Pilates Anytime but I direct our readers to your article for a more in depth review. I hope you don't mind, but I'd like our subscribers to see what you have so thoroughly researched. Thank you!
Kristi Cooper White

March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristi Cooper White

My recommendation would be to investigate the research from the other side of the coin to help draw some conclusions on your own. It's not the job of any PT or such to try and force this perspective on anyone. It's your journey, just consider the wider terrain because it always has an impact on local conditions.

May 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergrow taller

Idiopathic scoliosis is primarily a neurological condition that has its primary effect on the spine, rather than "just a spine condition". With that in mind, it is no wonder scoliosis brace treatment and scoliosis surgery are becoming obsolete rather quickly. The advent of break through prognostic technologies like Scoliscore (genetic testing) and the soon-to-be-released scoliosis blood test are only going to increase the push for early stage scoliosis intervention scoliosis treatment technology as well. Fortunately, we are already well on our way towards prevention of the condition and hope to prove we can alter the natural course of the condition in even high risk genetically predisposed patients soon. Feel free to check out the neuro-muscular based rehab programs we have specifically designed for idiopathic scoliosis. http://www.treatingscoliosis.com

March 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClayton Stitzel

This is the best explanation that I have ever heard between the differences. I blend them when I do exercise, I am not so technical. I believe both have great benefits to body and mind.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkarina

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