Yoga and Pilates: What’s the Difference?
Monday, December 22, 2008 at 01:18PM
Amy Leibrock in Education, Pilates History

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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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