I can distinctly remember trying yoga for the first time 14 years ago. A colleague had persuaded me that we needed time out from our busy jobs and should use our lunch break to try out some new yoga classes across the road from our office. I was up to my neck in press releases and didn’t really have the time, but I knew she was keen and wouldn’t go alone, so along I went.
I’d obviously heard of yoga and wasn’t worried about a bit of light stretching – these were the days when I was regularly running 5kms so yoga would be a breeze, right? Wrong, very wrong, I couldn’t have been more wrong! That one-hour of yoga turned me into a sweaty, dizzy, shaking mess. I ached for days afterwards, had pains in places I didn’t know I even had muscles and had to take the lift all week (stairs were a definite no, I can still remember the thigh burn!)
So it was strange perhaps that I went back the week after and continued to go for another 2 years before I moved jobs. But what I’d learnt after that first session is that unless you’re working your whole body every time you exercise, then you’re not as fit as you think you are – and I had clearly been neglecting a lot of my body by just running. It’s no surprise that many professional sports people practice yoga, as it helps to keep your muscles in shape by treating your body as whole and not targeting just one area.
For those who don’t know, yoga is a low impact exercise that connects breath and movement through a sequence of yoga poses. It tones and stretches your body and improves your strength, balance and flexibility. Some poses are naturally easier to get into and hold and some are much harder and can make your muscles shake.
For me, yoga always feels like a full body stretch, building my strength and flexibility week by week. It’s not a CV session – although I’ve been to some fast flow yoga classes which really get your heart racing – but I always leave a class knowing that all my muscles have been properly worked.
As well as being a great way to shape up, I love the spiritual side to yoga, which brings a real sense of peace and balance. I feel this most when on the mat in a class, but also try to incorporate in my everyday life. I really appreciate the time in each session to close my eyes, relax and just take a break from the chaos that is usually going on around me.
So how exactly does Pilates differ from yoga?
The short answer is that in my view it doesn’t differ that much. Like yoga, it develops your strength, flexibility, muscular endurance, co-ordination, balance and posture. And like yoga, it requires you to engage and work every part of your body.
Originally designed for injured dancers, Pilates focuses much more on your core, stomach and back, although a session may concentrate on arms or legs.
In Pilates we’re not asked to hold poses for any length of time, but to repeat certain movements. For example we might begin a class with 20 squats, move onto some stretches and follow with 20 stomach exercises. We also use equipment in Pilates, which is something I have never done in a yoga class. Rings, rollers and bands are regularly incorporated into a lesson and allow you to push a little further to gain a fuller stretch.
Pilates doesn’t have the spiritual side to it. Yoga encourages you to go inside your head while practising, whereas Pilates allows you to stay present in the room and focus on the physical part of the exercise. My Pilates class is relaxed and informal, with some chatting and laughing – in essence you feel part of a group doing exercise together.
After 4 years of Pilates I’m proud of the strength that I have in my core. Yes, my tummy feels more toned too, but it’s in the muscles underneath where I can really feel a difference. They are tighter and stronger and allow me to get into positions in class or execute moves that I would never have been possible before Pilates. I enjoy thoroughly stretching and working my whole body each week and I know this is going to serve me well as I get older.
In conclusion I would say that Pilates and yoga both offer similar benefits to your health & wellbeing and work well regardless of your age, gender, size, shape, fitness ability or level of flexibility.
I would suggest the biggest differences between them are:
I would never presume to tell you which to choose and I’m still no closer to working out which suits me better. I genuinely enjoy and benefit from them both.
The serenity that yoga brings is the perfect antidote to busy stressful lives and the strenuous core based exercises of Pilates makes for a great work out.
Maybe give them both a try and let me know your thoughts!