Difference Between Pilates and Yoga

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on July 18, 2023
4 min read

Pilates and yoga are two types of exercise that can benefit almost everyone. Although many people consider them similar, they have important differences. But either one can be a positive force for your health.

Both Pilates and yoga are low-impact exercises, but there is one important difference. When practicing yoga, you typically adopt a position and hold it, or flow into a different position. In Pilates, you adopt a position and then challenge your core by moving your arms or legs. Both approaches increase strength and flexibility

The story of Pilates begins with a sickly child named Joseph Pilates who was born in Germany in 1883. He wanted to improve his health by studying yoga, martial arts, and other disciplines involving the mind and body. He became more interested in body movement during the first World War when he worked with injured soldiers. After the war, he brought his style of exercise to New York City, where dancers, actors, and athletes embraced it.‌

Pilates moves require stabilizing your core before going through a series of range-of-motion exercises. Although some Pilates studios use specially designed machines, you can also do Pilates on a mat without special equipment. 

Yoga is an ancient spiritual practice rooted in India. As a fitness strategy, it blends physical poses (asanas) with breathing techniques(pranayama). Because it has some elements of mindfulness, yoga is sometimes called meditative movement. It is popular in the United States. A 2017 survey showed that one in seven adults had practiced it during the preceding year. About 94% of those who do yoga say they do it to improve their overall wellness. 

There are many types of yoga. Hatha yoga, a common type, is slow-paced and suited for beginners. Other types can be faster-paced or feature more demanding poses. Instructors often modify poses to suit the needs of their students. 

It can:

  •  Increase core strength to improve stability
  •  Improve posture
  •  Increase flexibility
  •  Ease lower back pain

Also, some studies have shown that Pilates may help with weight control.

Pilates is also a valuable tool for physical rehabilitation. In one review of 23 studies, 17 studies found that Pilates reduced pain and disability in individuals with a variety of conditions, including back pain, neck pain, scoliosis, and multiple sclerosis

Pilates is not an aerobic exercise. But it can reduce stress, which does benefit the heart.

In most cases, Pilates is safe for pregnant women, seniors, and children. Beginners should learn with the help of a certified Pilates instructor. ‌

It can:

  • Ease low-back pain and neck pain
  • Improve balance
  • Enhance sleep
  • Eases stress and stress-related illnesses, such as tension headaches
  • Ease the pain of knee osteoarthritis
  • Help with weight loss
  • Ease some symptoms of menopause

Almost everyone can do yoga, but consult your doctor first if you have certain health conditions, including:

If you have one of these conditions, some yoga poses may not be suitable for you, but you can benefit from others. Women can practice yoga during pregnancy with the approval of their doctor, but you may need to modify the poses.  

Yoga causes fewer injuries than high-impact exercise. Still, it can cause sprains and strains, especially in the knee and lower leg. In addition, some individuals have sustained compression fractures of the spine after practicing yoga. 

Advanced positions, such as headstands and lotus and advanced techniques, such as forceful breathing, are more likely to cause injuries.

Those with glaucoma, which causes high pressure in the eye, should avoid head-down poses.

If you decide to start practicing yoga, learn from a certified instructor to ensure your health and safety.

It is difficult to say whether Pilates or yoga is better suited for you. If you want to increase your strength and flexibility, Pilates might be the better choice. If you want to improve your overall wellness, you might choose yoga. Still, much depends upon the particular classes available to you and the skills and qualifications of the instructors.

Yoga is appropriate for men, but some men feel that they are not flexible enough for it. Certain poses have different effects on men and women, but both men and women can benefit from practicing yoga.

Pilates may have a similar problem attracting males, but it's helpful to remember that a man invented Pilates and that Joseph Pilates developed many of its principles while working with male soldiers.