Yoga vs. Pilates: Which Should You Add to Your Cross-Training Routine?

Both of these workouts are great for your health, but one favors the mind while the other targets the body.

Are you ready to try a new cross-training activity, and wondering whether you should take the advice of your friend who swears by her yoga class or the one who never misses a Pilates session? If so, you probably have some questions, including: What’s the difference between yoga and Pilates, anyway? And would either of them boost your running performance?

Here, we have answers to your biggest questions about Pilates and yoga.

What is Pilates?

Pilates has a rep for being kind of intimidating—but it’s actually a low-impact way to build strength in your core muscles. Developed by Joseph Pilates in the 1920s, it’s an energetic and mindful total-body exercise method that emphasizes strength, muscle control, and stability. The exercises are either done on the floor with a mat, or on special equipment, including a machine called a Reformer.

What is yoga?

It’s estimated that yoga has been around for thousands of years. The practice consists of a series of physical postures, and also focuses on breathing as well as inward attention and awareness. According to the Yoga Alliance, the largest non-profit group supporting the practice, yoga is a “comprehensive system for wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual…[it’s] a system not of beliefs, but of techniques and guidance for enriched living.” Hatha yoga, a system of postures and breathing techniques, is probably the most well-known in the U.S.

How are yoga and Pilates different?

Experts point to the fact that both yoga and Pilates involve a flow of moves, but the emphasis is different. Pilates focuses on core strength, while yoga is more focused on flexibility and has a stronger spiritual connection.

“Yoga has a spiritual component and comes from a long lineage of teachers and sages in India, and Pilates was created by a man who wanted to help dancers breathe and move better to maintain a healthy spine,” says Mel Russo, a certified yoga instructor in New York City. “In my view, a main difference is that yoga has many variations and styles, and Pilates has stayed pretty true to what its creator intended.”

Jennifer DeLuca, a master teacher of Pilates and the owner and director of BodyTonic, Inc, says, “They both ask you to use your mind with your body. They both strive to be total body conditioning and have movement in all planes. They also both have a breathing exercise component to them and focus on proper alignment and posture.”

She adds, “In some yoga practices, the emphasis is on holding postures, while Pilates has a brisk movement component. In yoga, the spiritual is obvious, while in Pilates it is an after-effect of your exercise and comes in the form of a deep sense of well-being and renewed energy. Even though they both incorporate strength and stretch, yoga focuses more on stretch, and Pilates more on strength. But with all of this out there now, the lines are really blurring. It’s getting more challenging to take a yoga class that hasn’t picked up on the benefits of a Pilates exercise and vice-versa.”

What are the benefits of Pilates?

DeLuca explains that Pilates will help you strengthen your core, increase flexibility and coordination, improve your posture and respiratory function, and boost your sleep and digestion. All of these are tied into running stronger, faster miles.

There are mind-body benefits as well, DeLuca adds. “You’ll have a brighter mood, clearer thinking, and more confidence.”

As Lindsey Clayton, senior Barry’s instructor and cofounder of the Brave Body Project, previously told Runner’s World, “having a strong core stabilizes your body as you run, and adds power to your arms and legs to drive your body forward.”

Prolonged bad posture can cause stiffness in the hips and compression of the spine. “Poor posture increases tension in the muscles, which can cause injury and even joint damage,” Jaclyn Fulop, M.P.T., a board licensed physical therapist and owner of Exchange Physical Therapy Group, previously told Runner’s World.

And, a strong respiratory system allows us runners to be able to take in more oxygen for our muscles, which leads to better endurance.

Are there any drawbacks to Pilates?

“I don’t think anyone should avoid Pilates,” says DeLuca. “I do think that some people should be in private Pilates training with a seasoned teacher, while others would be fine in group settings. I always encourage people to do at least three private sessions before joining a group.”

One other caveat that she points out: “There are also many different forms out there calling themselves ‘Pilates’ when they’re not the tried and true version,” says DeLuca. “Consumers should do their homework and find the right fit.”

What are the benefits of yoga?

There are many different kinds of yoga, and the benefits differ, depending on what you’re looking for out of your practice.

“If you’re looking to physically challenge yourself and become stronger and more flexible, then a more physical practice like Vinyasa flow will help you achieve that,” says Russo. “If you need to move a little and connect to your mind and body, then a slower and more restorative yoga practice would benefit you.”

Experts mention that consistent yoga classes can bring greater flexibility, strength, and coordination, as well as a healthier heart. And no matter what practice you choose, the biggest benefit is creating the habit of moving your body, strengthening your joints, and learning your physical limitations.

“But I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to do your research,” says Russo. “Finding the class style, level, and teacher that’s right for you is paramount.”

What about yoga’s mental and spiritual benefits?

Yoga emphasizes the importance of paying attention, being present, and breathing more so than other physical modalities.

“If you’re taking a yoga class with a good teacher, they have a way of sneaking in psychological or spiritual benefits,” says Russo. “If you’re not connecting to something deeper than how physically strong you are, then you’re missing the point of having a yoga practice.”

Yoga also asks you to listen to your body and respect its limits; a good yoga teacher will remind students that forcing yourself into a yoga pose could potentially injure you.

“I like to remind my students that who you are on the mat is who you are off it,” says Russo. “So if you’re learning how to be kind to your body and how to slow down, be present, and breathe, my hope is that you take that with you, and the benefits will show up in ways you least expect it.”

Are there any drawbacks to yoga?

“The biggest drawback is that yoga, for better or worse, has become very mainstream, and in many studios it’s turned into a ‘workout’ much more than a full mind/body practice,” Russo says. “A poorly trained teacher who is not proficient in anatomy can easily injure someone. Also, if you have a long list of injuries and need special attention, opting for private one-on-one yoga is a safer option than a group class. It’s hard for even the best trained teacher to give someone with serious injuries the attention they need in a group class.”

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