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Pilates vs Yoga Exercises

Explore the Differences and Similarities in Pilates and Yoga Exercises


Updated October 16, 2012

It's not easy to compare Pilates and yoga. They are both huge subjects with many differences and similarities. Happily, Pilates and yoga are also very complimentary practices.

Below we explore five exercises that Pilates and yoga share.

You might also like to see:
7 Yoga Poses for Pilates
Read a more in depth exploration of yoga and Pilates in The Pilates - Yoga Connection

Differences in Pilates and Yoga Exercises

For our purpose, which is to explore some of the exercises that Pilates and yoga have in common, it might be worthwhile to start with a few generalizations about how Pilates and yoga approach movement.

One of the significant differences between Pilates and yoga, is that Pilates exercises are very much directed toward developing core strength and efficient movement habits that translate into daily life. Yoga poses also develop core strength. But yoga is more stretch and flexibility oriented, and perhaps, less interested in daily movement mechanics than in expanding consciousness through movement. Pilates also increases flexibility, and has a strong body/mind integrative component, the difference is the degree of focus.

Pilates and Yoga as Body/Mind Practices

One of the most obvious similarities between Pilates and yoga is that they are both body/mind disciplines. The intent for both is to bring the body and mind together in a way that enhances awareness and elevates the over-all life experience of the practitioner. Any body/mind integrative practice can evolve into a spiritual path. In yoga this intent is often overtly expressed, whereas Pilates, this opportunity may be acknowledged but is rarely directly addressed.

For more insight into the body/mind aspect of Pilates, read The Pilates Principles.

Now, let's see what some exercises that Pilates and yoga have in common say about their relative approaches to movement.

Open Leg Balance / Boat Pose

pilates exercises
courtesy of Lara Kolesar

A core strengthener, this move is familiar to both Pilates and yoga students. Yoga might present boat pose with the legs together, and with or without grasping the ankles. In Pilates, the legs are in a V shape and the ankles are held. The basic move, using the abdominals to hold the body in a V while perched on, or just behind, the sit bones is the same for both.

This exercise brings up another general difference between Pilates and yoga which is that though there are some held poses, such as this one, in Pilates, in general, Pilates keeps moving.

See the instructions for Pilates open leg balance.
See the instructions for yoga boat pose.

Open Leg Balance is also part of Pilates exercises, teaser and open leg rocker.

Roll Over / Plow Pose

Pilates Picture
(C)2006, Marguerite Ogle

The form of the exercise is very similar in Pilates and yoga, but it also shows some of the differences in emphasis between Pilates and yoga. In yoga plow, there is care taken in rolling over and back down, but the emphasis is on the stretch, which may be held for a long time. Pilates roll over is done as a continuous flowing movement, focusing on abdominal control to go up and down, and coordinating with the breath.

When you look at the instructions from Pilates and from yoga, notice the variations in arm placement, and the prop used in yoga. But also notice the clear alignment, with shoulders down and open chests, shown in both versions.

See the instructions for Pilates roll over.
See the instructions for Yoga plow pose.

Swan / Cobra

Pilates Picture
courtesy of Peak Pilates

Despite their wildly different animal names, Pilates swan and yoga cobra are basically the same exercise. Both yoga and Pilates increase the stretch of this move by further straightening the arms.

Yoga practitioners will often combine cobra with other positions. For example, they might slide into it from plank position or move from cobra to upward facing dog. The beginning position for Pilates swan is always on the belly. Also, in Pilates the breathing pattern for swan is specific - inhale to extend up, exhale to release. In yoga, there may or may not be a breath pattern given, and the top of the pose is often held for more than one breath.

See the instructions for Pilates swan.
See the instructions for yoga cobra.

Front Support / Plank

pilates yoga picture
courtesy of Peak Pilates

Plank is essentially the same in both Pilates and yoga. The idea is to hold the body in a straight line with the shoulders down and the chest open. Pilates might emphasize holding the abs in more, and yoga might hold plank for a longer time, but plank is essentially a traditional yoga move that one also finds in Pilates mat work.

Plank has been called front support in Pilates, but that seems to be giving way to the more traditional, plank. Both yoga and Pilates make this move more challenging by lifting one leg, then the other.

See the instructions for Pilates plank pose.
See the instructions for Yoga plank pose.

Pilates Push Up / Chaturanga (Four Limbed Staff Pose)

Pilates yoga picture
(C)2006, Marguerite Ogle

"Plank to Chaturanga." If you take a yoga class you are likely to hear that phrase many times. Moving from plank pose down into four limbed staff is the lowering part of a push up. In yoga, that move is often not followed by pushing directly back up in to plank, as one would in a Pilates push up. It is more likely to be used as a transition move into another pose like downward or upward facing dog, which is why it comes around so regularly in a yoga workout.

Pilates push up is one of the Pilates mat exercises that is most similar to a yoga sequence. As an exercise that flows with the breath from standing, down to plank, push up, and back to standing, it is reminiscent of the sun salutation, but with 3 full push ups set in the middle.

More About Push Up / Chataranga

It is worth noting that both Pilates and yoga treat the push up position differently than a standard military style push up. In both Pilates and yoga the alignment of the arms is such that the shoulders are rotated back and down and the chest is very open. This is achieved by placing the hands so that the fingers face forward and rotating the arms slightly outward. In addition, both yoga and Pilates keep the arms close to the sides, and parallel to the body. By contrast, a military style push up is often done with the hands turned in and elbows splayed out to the sides.

See the instructions for Pilates push up.
See the instructions for yoga four limbed staff pose

Learn 7 Yoga Poses You Can Add to a Pilates Practice

It might be interesting for you to take this exploration in a slightly different direction and look at 7 yoga poses that can give us a fresh perspective on some of our Pilates exercises.

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