Instructors often have to clarify the difference between the two to those unfamiliar with either. People often think that Pilates and Yoga are both about becoming more flexible, breathing, and relaxing. Yes. They do make you more flexible, there is a lot of breathing, and the fact that you take time out from the craziness of life does make you more relaxed. But besides the occasional crossover moves like Plank or the Teaser (aka. the Boat), they have quite different goals.
Yoga aims to open and create space, lengthen muscles and lubricate joints, to create a sense of expansion. This is not to say that the body cannot get unbelievably strong from Yoga; there are poses that require not only muscular strength but also tremendous reserves, will, and perseverance. Give me a hundred rollups over one Wheel any day!
Furthermore, these effects can also extend to the mind and spirit. For those who stick around for long enough, a subtle change happens within the practitioner and as the internals change, so do the externals. In addition, the Yoga practice is basically endless. The poses can get deeper, more challenging, demand more reserves; the sky’s the limit. Even if potentially all poses have been discovered and mastered, the meditative and practical aspect of Yoga go on for as long as life does.
While Yoga expands, Pilates holds. The body does not only need flexibility and lightness; it also needs to hold. Joints need stability as well as freedom of movement; just ask anyone with a back or knee injury. Of course, Yoga also has poses that stabilize, but ultimately that is not its main focus. Stabilization through the strengthening of the core and spinal muscles is the main goal of a Pilates practice.
While each Yoga asana uses the entire body, Pilates focuses all work on the core. The practitioner is taught how to initiate all movement with the abdominals. Lower abdominals are trained to hold the pelvis in the correct position, upper abdominals and upper back muscles to hold up the upper spine, all work aimed at a strong core and a long, neutral spine. Shoulder joint rotation and scapular placement are also important parts of a Pilates practice. While Yoga is also strong on alignment, Pilates is obsessively so. Hours may be spent on teaching shoulder rotation or ensuring the movement of the spine comes from the correct area. Although this is more a quality of the teacher, Pilates does seem to attract more ... hyper-corrective instructors.
Yoga keeps your spine loose, Pilates keeps it in position. Yoga makes long, strong, and flexible muscles, Pilates strengthens the muscles that hold the Yoga muscles. Yoga keeps your joints oiled, Pilates keeps them from slipping out. Yoga aims to create flexibility of body and mind, strength and resilience, to open and expand, and ultimately to transcend the body; it is the ever expanding circumference of the circle. Pilates grounds and holds; it is the center.
The roles of the two bring to mind the saying “Keep your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground.” Yoga can build strong roots and trunk, but mainly its primary goal is to reach, reach, reach for the sky. And while there’s plenty of reaching in Pilates, its focus is on building strong roots and trunks. And if all metaphors are still failing, if you can’t feel the difference between where your ribs end and your obliques begin, well…that’s Pilates. If you can bend your spine or put your body into some circus-reminiscent pose without ending up in traction, that’s Yoga. Do them together… and now you‘re talking!