You want to try a new workout, so you go online to check out the classes offered at your local gym. Yoga and Pilates both sound intriguing. They both promise increased strength and flexibility—and they both show photos of happy, fit people holding poses on mats.
But what are the differences between yoga and Pilates?
While both yoga and Pilates exercise offer a host of physical and mental benefits, they have several important differences, in their history, their effects on your mind and body, as well as what you can expect from a typical class.
Comparing yoga vs Pilates can help you choose the discipline that best matches your fitness and life goals.
Rich History vs. Modern Innovation
While both yoga and Pilates exercise focus on moving through certain poses in a way that builds strength and flexibility, the disciplines have different origins. The unique historical context in which they each developed means yoga and Pilates classes tend to have different focuses.
Much like running and wrestling, people have practiced yoga for thousands of years. Yoga originated in India, where people have practiced and taught it in different ways over the centuries.
Modern yoga practice started about 150 years ago, influenced by the publication of Swami Vivekananda’s 1986 book Raja Yoga and his appearance at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Vivekananda took elements from classical Hindu yoga and repackaged it in a way that appealed to Americans and to Indians influenced by Western culture and religion.1
Since then, modern yoga has gained in popularity, spreading across the world.
Yoga uses a series of poses paired with mindful deep breathing technique to promote:
- Muscle Strength
- Mental discipline
- Inner peace
Some yoga classes can feel intensely customized for a westernized, results-driven world—for example, you might find an “office chair” based yoga workshop given at a workplace to help employees reduce stress.
In other ways, yoga’s roots show more clearly. Yoga poses have both Sanskrit and English names, and you may hear an instructor use both in a class.2
Yoga’s history as a spiritual discipline and meditative practice mean yoga exercise classes can focus more on breath and mindfulness than a typical Western exercise class.
In contrast to yoga’s ancient roots, the creation of Pilates workout was relatively recent.
Physical trainer Joseph Pilates created the practice in the 1920s to help with rehabilitation. Some of the first Pilates students included soldiers returning from war and professional dancers such as Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Both groups sought to heal aches and recover from injuries.
Pilates created his exercise program to:3
- Improve flexibility
- Improve strength
- Improve body awareness
Pilates acts as a resistance exercise, similar to weight lifting. In a Pilates session, your instructor guides you through a series of movements, encouraging you to focus on your core muscles, your breath, your muscle contractions, and your spinal alignment. Doing a movement fully and correctly matters more than the number of times you do it.
Some movements incorporate specially designed machines. You can perform other floorwork-based movements with only your body and a mat. If a gym doesn’t have access to machines, they can offer a mat Pilates class instead.
In part because of its history as a rehabilitation tool, instructors can easily modify Pilates movements to accommodate your physical limitations. Always tell your instructor if you have an injury or other physical condition they should know about.
Broadly speaking, yoga and Pilates have similar physical benefits. Both can increase strength and flexibility.2, 3 However, the way those benefits manifest can differ.
Several studies have examined yoga’s potential health benefits.
- Reduced back pain – For some people, weekly yoga classes can relieve symptoms of low back pain just as well as regular, vigorous stretching sessions can.2
- Strengthened bones – One study showed increased bone density in the spines and hips of yoga practitioners.2
- Improved balance – Another study found ten weeks of yoga improved the balance of the athletes who participated in the study.2
If there’s a specific health benefit you hope to achieve, you can talk to your doctor and a yoga instructor about whether or not yoga could help meet your health goal.
Studies also suggest numerous health benefits for Pilates practitioners.
These include potential increases in:3
- Core strength
- Overall strength
Importantly, Pilates can also prove an effective option for those recovering from injury because it offers lower impact on your joints.3 Endless customization options means that in one-on-one settings with an experienced instructor, Pilates can prove an accessible exercise option for rehabilitation after an injury. For example, one study showed reductions in back pain among Pilates users.3
When it comes to Pilates vs yoga, both could offer you promising physical results.
Mental Health Benefits
While exercise classes typically target physical benefits, yoga and Pilates can potentially offer mental health benefits as well.
Yoga’s positive mental health effects have been well documented.
Possible benefits include:
- Improved visuospatial memory – Study participants who practiced yoga and meditation improved their visuospatial memory, which helps with balance, depth perception, and our ability to both recognize objects and move throughout the world.2
- Reduced stress – One study found yoga helped women reduce mental distress, along with psychological and physical symptoms of stress.2
- Alleviated symptoms of depression and anxiety – Researchers also found that yoga helped alleviate depression and anxiety for a group of coal miners with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.2
Yoga can also serve as an accessible entry point for people looking for a calm, non-competitive exercise atmosphere.
While the specific mental health benefits of Pilates have not been as well documented as yoga, studies suggest that any regular exercise can have a positive effect on your mental health.
Various studies suggest regular exercise can improve your mental health by:4
- Reducing anxiety
- Reducing depression
- Reducing negative moods
- Improving self-esteem
- Improving cognitive function
- Encouraging social participation
Regularly attending a Pilates class can give you a way to work to improve your physical and mental health, while joining your local Pilates community.
Pilates vs Yoga: What to Expect In Class
Yoga and Pilates differ in plenty of ways, including the class experience itself.
Yoga classes can vary greatly depending on the type of class you take.
Common types of classes include:2
- Hatha yoga – This refers to yoga that focuses on the physical aspects of yoga, rather than the philosophical, and encompasses most types of yoga taught in the U.S.
- Ashtanga yoga – A physically challenging practice, ashtanga yoga comprises a progressive series of poses that culminate in advanced forms like arm balances and headstands. This style also includes yoga’s philosophical components.
- Power yoga – Focused on strength building, this style includes advanced poses like inversions that require plenty of strength.
- Vinyasa/Flow yoga – This style utilizes energetic flow sequences. It can include challenging poses but a teacher may also choose to include more accessible alternatives appropriate for beginners. Many vinyasa classes include soothing music.
- Iyengar yoga – This style focuses on pose precision and incorporates props like blankets, blocks, and straps to help students attempt poses they otherwise couldn’t. It also focuses on breathing and can include references to yoga philosophy.
- Bikram/hot yoga – Performed in an intensely heated room, these poses provide stretching and a cardiovascular workout. Teachers conduct Bikram classes specifically at 105 degrees in mirrored rooms.
- Restorative yoga – Focusing on relaxation, restorative yoga focuses on a few restful poses that include light twists and gentle backbends. It can also incorporate props like blankets and blocks.
- Yin yoga – Yin yoga aims to increase flexibility. Students hold a single pose for three to five minutes to stretch the connective tissue around the pelvis, sacrum, and spine.
As with any genre of exercise class, we recommend trying multiple teachers to discover the teaching styles that best support you.
As we’ve mentioned, Pilates classes come in two categories:
- Mat classes
- Classes that use Pilates machines
With both styles, your instructor will help you focus on the flow of your movement and on your core muscles. In addition to the original movements developed by Joseph Pilates, instructors often start with warm-up movements.3
You can also choose between private sessions with an instructor vs group classes. Group classes provide a more affordable way to try out Pilates in general and different instructors in particular. However, individual sessions might work better if you require customizations on most or all of the movements and want the instructor’s undivided attention, such as when you’re recovering from a serious injury.
Knowing what to expect in class can help you get the most out of your yoga or Pilates experience.
Other workout tips:
Aside from exploring Yoga or Pilates, you should also incorporate other routines, like stairmaster workouts or a barre workout. You can also decide on circuit training vs HIIT. The point is try various exercises in your workout.
But before you get started, assess your body’s condition. Feel out your muscles and ask yourself, “Should I work out while sore?” If you push your body too hard, you might get injured. Lastly, be mindful of your diet by researching what to eat before a workout.
Explore Yoga and Pilates with Chuze Fitness
Whether you’re itching for a new way to strength train or looking to find a restorative stretch in your workout routine, you may find your new favorite practice in a Pilates or yoga class. But whichever exercise style you reach for, be sure to find a setting that supports your whole health and wellness journey.
At Chuze Fitness, we welcome everyone, from the fitness experts to the people who need a refresher on the difference between yoga and Pilates. We offer a friendly, affordable, spotless, well-equipped workout environment—complete with fun fitness classes to try by yourself or with friends. You can also listen to our Spotify playlist to be extra motivated.
So find one of the gyms near me and explore Pilates, yoga, or any other fitness opportunity that excites you. Because we believe exercise can be fun, and taking care of your health is for everyone.
- Yoga Journal. Yoga History 101. https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/balance/yoga-history-101/
- New York Times. Yoga for Everyone. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/well/beginner-yoga
- MedicineNet. Pilates. https://www.medicinenet.com/pilates/article.htm
- The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Exercise for Mental Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/#:~:text=Exercise%20improves%20mental%20health%20by,self%2Desteem%20and%20cognitive%20function.&text=Exercise%20has%20also%20been%20found,self%2Desteem%20and%20social%20withdrawal.
- Yoga Journal. Yoga History 101. https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/balance/yoga-history-101/