Yoga versus Pilates: which one and why?

Yoga MattA common question amongst newcomers to both yoga and Pilates is how to pick between the two of them.

It’s true that they are similar and so offer some of the same kind of benefits, but the history of both is actually very different and they have distinct aspects which, in practice, mean they affect the body in quite different ways. Here we clear up the misinformation and take you through the characteristics of both yoga and Pilates.

The similarities:

It’s important to keep in mind that Pilates and yoga are similar disciplines. Both will build strength, increase flexibility, improve fitness and get you feeling healthier, and neither is necessarily “better” than the other.

A quick note on background

Pilates and yoga have very different histories which inform how they work and what they have to offer. You probably know that Yoga originates in Ancient India and has a spiritual aspect to it beyond basic exercise. Pilates was only created in the early 1900s by German-born Joseph Pilates seeking to develop an innovative treatment for those injured in the First World War. Though Pilates recognises that the mind and body can affect each other, it doesn’t focus on the spirit like yoga does. This doesn’t necessarily have to sway you either way (a yoga class might focus heavily on the spiritual side or hardly at all depending on the teacher) but you might want to take it into consideration.

A lot of yoga classes will include meditation for example and will focus heavily on breathing. For some this will be a welcome addition, others might want to focus purely on physical exercise.

Pilates builds strength:

Pilates aims to build strength. It was initially adopted by professional dancers to aid injury recovery because it strengthens the entire body by working all muscle groups. This means it will condition your body. It has a unique focus on the core muscles in the trunk and pelvis and will flatten your tummy.

..helps the back:

A 2006 study which assessed 39 physically active participants aged between 20 and 55 years with chronic lower-back pain demonstrated that Pilates has a significant effect on the back. The subjects were randomly assigned to receive either four weeks of Pilates, or four weeks of consultation with a physician. The Pilates group reported significant decrease in pain and disability over the control group.

…and has been proven to help these conditions:
Breast cancer recovery:

Studies have indicated that Pilates has helped women recovering from breast cancer. 13 participants took part in one-arm Pilates exercises over 12 weeks; statistically significant improvements emerged for shoulder abduction and internal rotation on the affected side, neck rotation toward the unaffected side and neck flexion. Participants also experienced improved quality of life, mood and body image.


50 women with fibromyalgia were split into two groups: one participated in a Pilates exercise programme for 12 weeks, whilst the others were given a home exercise programme. The Pilates group showed significant improvement in pain, whilst the other group showed none.

Yoga helps the mind:

Yoga focuses more on how you feel than Pilates (though of course, improving your health through any means will always make you feel better). If you’re looking for something which will make you fitter but will also improve your mental wellbeing then yoga is the perfect form of exercise. As well as focusing on physical balance, strength and flexibility it encourages spiritual wellbeing, inner focus and relaxation. Yoga actually means “Union” referring to the union of body, mind and spirit.

…builds strength:

Like Pilates, yoga builds strength via the yoga postures of Asanas that you will repeat. As you build endurance, so muscles will strengthen, but it isn’t as focused on building muscle strength as Pilates.

…and keeps you flexible:

Yoga is the one to go for if you want to improve flexibility. There isn’t an exercise regime which can match yoga in terms of enhancing flexibility and increasing range of joint motion. That being said, Pilates will still improve flexibility to an extent.

These are the main differences between yoga and Pilates. If you don’t have a specific desire beyond getting fit when you come to choosing between the two then it might be a good idea to try each discipline out and see which suits. Within both disciplines the range of exercises can vary considerably and the type of instructor you have will also influence your experience so don’t be afraid to try out a few different classes.

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