If you thought yoga and Pilates both involved contorting your body to achieve toned muscles, core strength and flexibility, you’d be right – but only partly.
Both floor exercises promise similar fitness benefits but vary greatly in technique – and origin.
What’s the difference?
Pilates was developed in the early 1900s by German-born Joseph Pilates, a sickly child who was determined to get strong. He achieved this through exercise – including body-building and martial arts – before developing his own system. It has evolved to become the technique bearing his name.
Catherine Etty-Leal, an Australian Physiotherapy Association member and Victorian branch chair of the Sports Physiotherapy Association, said at the heart of Pilates is the “core”, a group of muscles deep in your midsection.
Pilates is all about strengthening these core muscles and “allowing the limbs to move around this stable foundation”, Ms Etty-Leal said.
By contrast, yoga started in India thousands of years ago. This ancient practice focuses on achieving harmony between the mind and body.
Irene Ais, a yoga devotee who trains new instructors, said yoga is primarily spiritual. The physical aspect is a more recent addition, she said.
“Yoga is so varied in its application, yet it is often promoted in the modern wellness industry as purely physical,” Ms Ais, who is an Australian Physiotherapy Association member, said.
Practices like meditation and breathing to activate the relaxation response are common yogic techniques that help achieve greater emotional and mental wellbeing.
“This is a vital extra benefit in fast-paced modern life, where mental illness is said to be ranked by the World Health Organisation as the leading cause of disease burden by 2020,” she said.
Do yoga and Pilates live up to their health claims?
Ms Etty-Leal said that, done correctly, Pilates helps tone muscles, increases core strength, and improves posture and flexibility. However, this isn’t its sole focus.
Many people “spend a lot of time retraining movement control so the pure strength and toning aspects do not happen until much later,” she said.
A 2011 study published in the journal Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation reviewed 16 papers looking at the effectiveness of Pilates. The researchers found strong evidence that Pilates improved flexibility and dynamic balance, and moderate evidence that it improved muscular endurance in healthy people.
The verdict on weight loss is slightly more questionable. A 2012 study in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that there is poor evidence linking Pilates with body composition.
Yoga is often associated with mental and spiritual wellbeing, but the evidence for its effects on overall health is mounting. A 2010 review of 81 studies comparing yoga with other forms of exercise found that it might be as effective as, or better than, other exercise for improving a variety of health-related measures.
Pilates or yoga?
The best floor exercise for you depends on a variety of factors, including personal preference, fitness level and existing health conditions or injuries. Both exercises can be easily adapted to suit everyone from beginners through to professional athletes.
The key is to find a class and teacher to suit your needs, fitness instructors said.
“Both yoga and Pilates are safe and effective ways of exercising, which utilise your own body mechanics and resistance,” Ms Etty-Leal said.
“This means you can use it as much as you like outside of the studio as well.”
Ms Ais added that yoga should be tailored to emotional and mental needs.
“A student who is, for example, type A and stressed may not benefit from a dynamic physical practice that further stimulates the nervous system, but may benefit from a stillness, meditation practice,” she said.