We finally acknowledge what Joseph Pilates believed in all along: our minds and bodies don’t function separately and should be treated as an extension to each other, because bringing the two into balance is key to happy and healthy living. When it comes to lifestyle and exercise, “mind-body” is now mainstream, and a buzzword applied to many training methods – most prominently Pilates and Yoga. Because we place both modalities in the same category, there is a lot of confusion about the differences between the two.
Many claim that Joe Pilates studied Yoga, while in fact, no evidence exists that he did – in fact, he never mentioned Yoga in his publications or to any of his students. He frequently talked about boxing, martial arts, gymnastics, and acrobatics as his early influences, but there are no references to Yoga – except, possibly, for when he talks about the best sitting posture in an article in 1934, “shown by those people of the East, who habitually sit cross-legged on the ground”. Since Yoga did not become popular in the US until the 50’s, long after Pilates was developed, it is questionable whether he could have had the exposure. Of course, there is no evidence that he did NOT study Yoga, either, but for what we know today, it is highly unlikely.
However, there are undeniable similarities between the two: the key elements of Pilates could easily be used to describe Yoga as well. In both modalities there is an emphasis on deep inner strength and flexibility, proper breathing technique, and so on. Even the praised benefits are the same: a stronger connection of body, mind, and spirit, improved health, and overall well-being. It would be easy to list even more similarities, which is puzzling if we’re assuming that Joe never studied Yoga. Did he unintentionally come up with what turned out to be the ‘western equivalent’ of Yoga?
Maybe. Truth be told, there are only so many shapes and patterns the body can move in, and if you look back at what inspired Pilates movements and Yoga practice alike, the similarities are not so surprising. Joseph developed parts of his method from the observation of nature and wildlife. He claimed to have studied how animals move and stretch to maintain ideal form and health. Every Pilates movement was designed to lead back to a movement the human body performs on a daily basis. Yoga asanas / postures, too, often reference nature and animal movement, as well. That is why there are many Pilates and Yoga shapes that, on picture, look the same. However, there is a major difference in execution.
POSTURE VS. MOVEMENT Looking at the Boat pose or Navasana (Yoga, first picture) and the Teaser (Pilates, second picture), one will only find minor differences: for example, the back is completely straight in Navasana, while it remains rounded in Pilates, and the arms are held at different positions. But, the main difference is the one you cannot see on a picture: In Navasana, the goal is to set up and hold the position – it’s a posture. The Teaser is less about the final shape, and more about the sequential articulation in and out of the position – it’s a movement!
EVOLUTION In order to understand the differences, one also has to consider the evolution of both movement forms.
Yoga originated in ancient India as a spiritual and mental discipline, a philosophical nurturing of one’s self. The physical practice of asanas/postures dates back to the 15th century. It is, however, just one component of the holistic Yoga regimen. The mind-body connection is achieved by practicing all the different spiritual aspects of Yoga tradition, but most of the classes we now label Yoga really just focus on posture practice and the physical aspect.
Pilates, or Contrology, has only been around for a century, and is a form of vigorous physical exercise and whole body movement. Back in Joe Pilates’ days the exercises looked very different from what you see in most classes today. There was a gymnastic quality to the movements, and it required every ounce of strength in the deepest layer of muscles to execute them properly. When he talked about mind-body connection, he was not talking about meditation, but rather a fierce mindfulness, “correct physical fitness with proper mental control”. His philosophy is rooted in ancient Greek culture and tradition, after all. If you ever see archival footage of Joe and his students, you will find that it bears no resemblance to Yoga. But as the Pilates method got passed on, exposed to the interpretation of many along the way, it has changed quite a bit as well.
The conclusion: Take Yoga and Pilates in their purest form and you have two completely different modalities: Religious discipline versus body conditioning. Fast forward to today and these practices can look almost the same, simply because we have allowed the distinctions to blend in. Within both modalities, so many different styles and schools of thought have established themselves that it’s hard to know which is which.
Does it matter? Maybe not. After all, the body does not care what you call your movement practice as long as you are getting results and feel great. What is important is to always look for the highest level of instruction possible, and for the teacher of either modality understand and be able to communicate the origins and guiding principles behind their work.