Sleep Science

The difference between yoga and Pilates

21 Jun 202216 min read
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The main difference between yoga and Pilates is that Pilates focuses on small, slow movements (often using machinery or other props). Its aim is to strengthen the body. Yoga involves both fast and slow-flowing movements, placing a greater emphasis on meditation. 

Yoga has been practised for thousands of years and there are many different types of yoga out there. While Pilates also has variants, its origins are much closer to home. Pilates was created by physical trainer Joseph Pilates in the 1920s as a method to both tone muscles and help muscle recovery. 

Both exercises have been proven to promote mental well-being and better sleep. Read on to find out more about the differences and similarities between yoga and Pilates.

Classical yoga and breathing

Yoga had already been practised for hundreds of years when, at some point, the ancient variations of yoga came together to become what is known as ‘classical yoga’. Classical yoga centres around eight elements:

  1. Moral standards
  2. Self-discipline
  3. Posture
  4. Breathing techniques
  5. Sensory experience
  6. Focused concentration
  7. Meditation
  8. Bliss or enlightenment

If you’re only after a bit of exercise without any deep spiritual meaning, don’t let these put you off. Many people practise yoga as a means of exercising and simply leave the philosophy at the door. 

Like yoga, pilates also concentrates on breath work. Pilates has a meditative element that increases mindfulness and helps to combat stress and anxiety. We’ll talk more about this later on.

The objectives of yoga and Pilates

Yoga and Pilates have many similarities. Here we look at what people hope to achieve by taking up these activities.

Young woman doing yoga meditation

Yoga objectives

Most people have two things in mind when they decide to take up yoga: fitness and mindfulness. 

  • Fitness

For a lot of people, yoga is a convenient, low-impact exercise that can be performed at home or even during stolen moments throughout the working day. 

Yoga’s poses and movements can improve flexibility by stretching the ligaments and connective tissues around joints and muscles.

Faster yoga movements, or more strenuous poses held over a period of time, can be used to burn calories and sculpt the body.

  • Mindfulness

Yoga’s meditative effect is also one of the reasons so many people feel so connected to it as a practice. The origins of yoga are heavily focused on clearing the mind and achieving peace. In fact, half of the previously mentioned ‘eight elements’ of yoga involve aligning the mind and body through meditation techniques.

In the modern era, many people are attracted to yoga for its positive mental health benefits. Studies show that mindfulness and meditation can help combat anxiety, depression and feelings of low self-esteem.

Pilates objectives

We asked Pilates expert Sarah-Jane Johnston a bit about the origins of Pilates and what people can get from it. Sarah-Jane is the founder of evolution34, helping people to achieve their health, fitness, and wellness goals.

Sarah-Jane Johnston - Yoga and Pilates expert

She explains: “Joseph Pilates grew up plagued with poor health such as rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. Through his determination to overcome health problems, he studied and developed an exercise programme that assisted in restoring him back to optimal health. 

“Joseph observed that where there was a weak or misaligned area of the body, a person tended to overcompensate or overdevelop another area, making it crucial to correct the misalignment and re-educate the body so that injuries did not repeat themselves.”

Much like yoga, Pilates delivers both physical and mental benefits. However, those who undertake Pilates are usually either interested in building core strength or are recovering from a muscle injury. 

  • Core strength

The breathing in Pilates focuses on supplying oxygen to the muscles rather than meditation. Nonetheless, the focus on breathing does promote mindfulness.

In Pilates, small, intense range-of-motion exercises are used to strengthen specific muscle groups. Many of these muscles make up your core muscles. Core muscles include those found in the abdomen and back. Exercising these muscles can tone the body and increase strength and flexibility. It can also give you a feeling of greater control over your posture and movement.

  • Recuperation

Over the years, Pilates has been used by physical therapists to help rehabilitate damaged muscles and joints. Its inventor, Joseph Pilates, worked during The First World War in an internment camp where many patients in the hospital were bedbound. To assist with movement, Joseph attached springs to a bed to help patients engage in resistance exercises without having to stand up. As the notion of ‘Pilates’ came into being, he began to create specialist machinery that he would use to help patients strengthen their muscles that had weakened due to extended bed rest.

Regimes of Pilates have been beneficial for a number of conditions, including lower back pain, neck pain, urinary incontinence and multiple sclerosis

Types of yoga

Having been around for thousands of years, many different forms of yoga have developed. Here are five of the most popular:

Hatha yoga

Possibly the most well-known form of yoga, Hatha is actually a catch-all term relating to the physical postures found within all yoga. However, it has come to be referred to as a gentle style using slow movements and relatively easy poses. It’s often found in gym classes for beginners.

Vinyasa yoga

This translates as “place in a special way” and the practice is considered fairly strenuous. Movement and breath are specially coordinated to allow you to flow from one shape to another.

Bikram yoga

Bikram yoga is a form of hot yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury. Performed in a room at 40 degrees Celsius with 40% humidity, devotees perform a strict set of forms and breathing exercises. Some people use this form of yoga to detoxify their bodies through sweating.

Iyengar yoga

Where Bikram yoga concentrates on the environment, Iyengar yoga is all about precision. These poses are held for a long time, with only small adjustments made to the form. Much of its focus is on achieving the perfect alignment of shape.

Yin yoga

Yin is a popular class for beginners, focusing on slow movements. The discipline works on the body’s connective tissues and it is often used to help recovery from injury.

Types of Pilates

Pilates may have only been around for about 100 years but it still has many different styles. Here is a selection:

Classical pilates

Classical Pilates, as developed by creator Joseph Pilates, involves some exercises performed with only a mat, and others that require certain machines and apparatus. This form is known for following a specific set of movements in a particular order.

Mat Pilates

Mat Pilates is based on the classic exercises and only mats are needed, so you can do this from the comfort of your own home with no need for machinery. 

Reformer Pilates

This type can only be performed by using a special type of machine known as a Pilates reformer. The equipment looks a little like a rowing machine and features a mat attached to springs set within a frame. 

Contemporary pilates

There are many types of contemporary Pilates and the type you perform will depend on your instructor. Based on the classic style, contemporary pilates usually incorporates a modern understanding of the body to create exercises aimed at specific muscle groups.

Yoga and Pilates equipment

One of the great things about both yoga and Pilates is that you can choose to perform exercises that really require only one piece of equipment: a mat.

There are many exercises you can do that simply require a mat, as well as those items you usually need when exercising, such as comfortable clothing and a bottle of water. 

However, as we have seen, there are many forms of yoga and Pilates. And there are many levels, from basic through to advanced. Certain exercises may require some more unusual items, which should be available at your class or gym, depending on the type of discipline you are learning. Here we outline a few of them.

Yoga equipment

Yoga mat

The yoga mat is the one true essential piece of the yoga kit. Without a mat, you risk injuring yourself through slips or by placing too much pressure on your spine and joints.

The surface of a yoga mat is designed with extra grip, allowing you to maintain positions for longer without the danger of falling. It also acts as a cushion between the hard floor and your body. While you can technically perform yoga on soft surfaces such as grass or carpet, we suggest using a mat.

Yoga block

Yoga blocks are made from light materials such as foam or cork. They are sometimes used by beginners who may find it hard to reach certain positions. The blocks are placed under each hand, extending the reach of the arms.

Yoga straps 

These pieces of material are used to add resistance during stretching. This helps to decrease tension and improve flexibility. Straps can help practitioners of yoga achieve the more difficult yoga forms.

Yoga wheels and foam rollers

This hollow, circular tube is fairly new to yoga. Like blocks, the wheel allows you to reach difficult positions and stretches. It is said to improve flexibility and is even beneficial for certain back and muscle injuries. 

Rollers work in a similar way, relieving tight muscles and increasing the range of yoga positions that can be achieved. 

Sandbags

Yoga sandbags are weights that can be held on your feet or between your thighs. The added pressure of the sandbag can, produce an awareness of the body and help you to feel more grounded.

Kneeling pads

While mats provide some cushioning, certain poses may place more strain on your knees than others. Kneeling pads work to add that extra bit of comfort for the knee joints during those long and difficult positions.

Yoga towel

Some forms of yoga can make you very warm, especially hot yoga. And even though yoga mats have a rough surface for extra grip, you may slip occasionally. Yoga towels can be laid on top of a mat to absorb the sweat and create a more secure surface.

Pilates equipment

Pilates reformer machine

Like yoga, there are many Pilates exercises that can be done with only a mat. Unlike yoga mats, Pilates mats are actually a lot thicker. This is because a lot of Pilates exercises are performed on the stomach or back, putting extra weight on the spine.

Unlike yoga, Pilates was developed with certain machinery in mind. These machines were developed to strengthen the muscles and stretch the ligaments. Depending on the form of Pilates you choose to practise, some equipment may be required.

Pilates mat

Pilates mats are similar in shape to yoga mats but are slightly thicker.

Sarah-Jane advises: “You want a mat that is a minimum of 8mm as you will be on your spine laying in supine and semi-supine positions, rolling on the spine, so comfort is essential.”

Reformer

The structure consists of a frame with a seat attached to springs and ropes. A number of different exercises can be performed on the reformer in different positions and using different spring configurations. 

Cadillac

The Cadillac looks a little like a parallel bar. Consisting of a metal frame with straps and loops attached, you can hang from the Cadillac in various positions, using gravity to intensify your workout. 

Pilates ring

The Pilates ring was invented as a resistance prop to be used with both a mat and other equipment. By squeezing the flexible rubber ring with either your hands, thighs or ankles, you increase the energy spent, which helps to build muscle.

Resistance bands

These long pieces of elasticated material work in a similar way to yoga straps. They offer resistance during certain exercises to increase muscle strength and promote flexibility.

Stability ball

Found in most gyms, the stability (or fitness) ball can be incorporated into many exercises. It varies in size and can be sat on, laid over or used to prop up hands and feet. The unstable surface it creates forces your body’s muscles to work harder in order to keep your body balanced.

Pilates chair

This was created to increase strength and improve balance. Much like the reformer, it consists of a box with a seat and springs. However, the seat is static, while a pedal on one end is attached to springs, which produces tension.

Ladder barrel

The ladder barrel is a barrel-shaped piece of padded wood attached to a short ladder. You can use this to create various shapes and forms that help with deep stretches and spinal movements. As well as strengthening the spine, the barrel can also be used to work the abdominal and oblique muscles.

Mental health benefits of yoga and Pilates

Both yoga and Pilates are great ways to exercise and improve your physique. But it’s not just the body that benefits. Many people take up these disciplines because of the positive effects they have on your mind. 

It has long been proven that exercise, in general, is beneficial for mental health. Physical activity increases the circulation of blood to the brain and influences systems in the body that produce ‘stress hormones’.

And it’s not just the physical effects of exercise that can be beneficial. Disciplines such as yoga and Pilates:

  • Promote self-efficacy and self-esteem
  • Increase social interaction if performed with a class
  • Provide a well-needed distraction from daily worries

The breath work involved in both yoga and Pilates can naturally centre you, helping you to concentrate on your inner calm while pushing out negative thoughts.

Sarah-Jane explains: “Pilates brings mind and body together, focusing strongly on concentration, balance, precision and breathing. It’s the perfect way to de-stress and feel accomplished while also taking care of your health.  My participants at the gym and my private clients often say, ‘I had a headache when I arrived and it’s disappeared, or ‘I’ve had an awful day and didn’t want to come but made the effort and I’m feeling so much better now, thank you'."

“Pilates can also be a great exercise for the morning waking up and stretching re-aligning the body after being curled in bed or just having laid for 7 plus hours. You’ll feel accomplished and ready for the day ahead.”

Controlled breathing and inner focus are major parts of the mindfulness training that comes with yoga and Pilates. Mindfulness involves maintaining an awareness of both what is happening in the mind and how your body feels at the time. It’s a way of paying attention to thoughts that can help you to understand what is going on within yourself, nurturing and improving mental wellbeing.

The focus of both yoga and Pilates on controlled breathing and slow, deliberate movements makes them the perfect exercises to promote mindfulness.

How yoga and Pilates affect sleep

The endorphins released by any form of exercise help to promote sleep, and yoga and Pilates are no different. Aerobic exercise has also been shown to raise the core temperature of your body. Initially, this helps to wake the body, but as your temperature drops back down, it produces feelings of sleepiness.

Sarah-Jane describes reactions from her own clients: “Clients on an evening class with me have said, ‘wow after doing the class I have the best sleep of the week’.  It could be down to the mind and body link for some, while for others it will be that they are pain-free, or becoming pain-free, by being mobile and more flexible.”

Alongside the beneficial effects of exercise on sleep, studies have shown that both yoga and Pilates can improve sleep for different groups, including:

In fact, a systematic review of studies surrounding sleep suggested that moderate physical activities such as yoga and Pilates are more beneficial to sleep than more intense workouts.

Why not check out our post on how exercise affects sleep to see which exercises are best for improving your sleep?

The best yoga/pilates poses to try before bed

Both yoga and Pilates can be relaxing or strenuous, depending on the exercise. If you’re looking for a good night’s sleep, it’s best to find a form that doesn’t get you too worked up.

Here are some tried and tested forms that will help you drift off soundly to sleep.

Bedtime yoga exercises

Lying butterfly pose

While lying on your back, press the soles of your feet together. This should naturally make your legs open and your knees drop to the side.

You should focus on keeping your joints balanced and level as you hold the pose.

Legs up the wall

Sit on the floor next to a wall and place your legs up the wall by leaning back and resting your back on the floor. Your thighs should be touching the wall and you should feel the tension in your hamstring. Lay there with your palms upwards and your arms at your sides.

The corpse

This simple form involves laying straight and still on your back. Keep your palms upwards while rolling your ankles. You should focus on slow steady breathing and how the floor feels against your body.

Bedtime Pilates exercises

Shoulder bridge

This core-strengthening exercise is recommended by our Pilates expert, Sarah-Jane. Lay on your back and draw your legs up bent so your feet are hip-width apart, then pelvic tilt to engage your glutes and hamstrings. Slowly lift your thighs and back off the mat until your body is diagonal to the floor. 

Yoga expert pose

You should be able to feel each vertebra leave the floor. Once your knees are in line with your shoulders, begin to lower your spine back down until you are back down on the mat and your pelvis is rested. 

Tendon stretch

An exercise that is usually done on a reformer, it can instead be performed in bed, for extra convenience. With your heels together, stretch your toes back toward your head and hold. Then point your toes back in the opposite direction, and repeat.

Single leg circle

This leg exercise helps to strengthen the core. Lie on your bed and raise your leg while keeping it straight. Hold your leg to maintain the position. If possible, hold the toes instead. Now rotate your raised leg in a circular movement, drawing a circle with your toes. Keep your shoulders and pelvis on the floor while keeping your pelvis stable. It should be your stomach muscles that are doing all the work. Then repeat with your other leg.

Yoga and Pilates are two disciplines that are not only great for keeping fit but are also proven to help mental health and promote sleep. Why not start yoga or pilates today? It’s never too late to start repeating the benefits.

Sarah-Jane finishes by saying: “Pilates can help everyone. I found Pilates when my boxing instructor told me I have a 6-pack, but did I know how using my Transverse Abdominals would help my punch be so much better if I was centred. ‘Get me to Pilates now’, I said, and have been doing Pilates now for 19 years and been teaching for 3.”

“I do think unless you know the power of Pilates and how hard it is to get the exercises correct, some males still see Pilates as a gentle exercise and not for them. But looking back at the history of Pilates, Joseph himself and what exercises and activities he did, you would think it would be the opposite and my sessions would be full of men!”