Often, people who are introduced to Pilates for the first time ask what the difference is between that and yoga, as they both appear to share many similarities.
The answer is, superficially not much. Both use a series of structured moves to improve flexibility, strength and posture, and to improve mental outlook. Both have postures that concentrate on specific muscle groups. Both teach the importance of breathing correctly, and both focus on proper alignment of the body to perform the exercises correctly.
Some have said that the difference between the two is the use of external props, with yoga depending on the body only and Pilates making use of its different exercise machines to achieve the program’s goal. However, as yoga has become more Westernized, many external props have been introduced into to practice, from mats and blocks to elastic resistance bands and chairs.
Oddly enough, Pilates’ creator, Joseph H. Pilates, actually studied yoga as well as other forms of Eastern (and Western) exercise systems in developing his now-famous regimen in the late 19th Century. This might help explain the similarities between the two practices.
As with yoga, Pilates’ approach, which he called “Contrology,” centers on teaching the body the ability to control various muscle groups. Both are non-impact exercises, both center on flexibility, breath control, and proper posture.
Perhaps the one significant difference is the spiritual aspect of yoga, which was the original impetus for development of the yoga exercises and positions (asanas) 5,000 years ago: to focus the mind and discipline the body in preparation for lengthy meditation sessions. The exercises were not thought to be an end in themselves, but more as preparation for a religious practice, although many Pilates practitioners describe achieving a stronger mind-body connection and a positive change in spiritual outlook as a result of their practice.
Another difference is that pilates classes put an emphasis on developing the body’s abdominal core, thereby allowing the rest of the body to move with flexibility and balance. Yoga’s hundreds of asanas address every part of the body. Yoga also emphasizes holding asanas longer than does Pilates, which tends toward a more flowing movement from one posture to another.
And Pilates can more easily accommodate beginners and those with physical limitations, as well as more experienced practitioners. Many who find their way to Pilates do so as a result of physical injury or illness, using it as physical therapy during their recovery. This is far less likely to be the case with yoga, although beginners can find a comfortable place there, as well.
Finally, the breathing in both disciplines differs: Yoga breathing tends to be more intense than the slow, controlled breathing of Pilates, although both place great emphasis on breathing correctly.
In the end, with their similar roots and similar aims, perhaps its only a question of which you were introduced to first, and which type of exercise you feel most comfortable with. And engaging in one does not preclude participation in the other. They can both be thought of as complementary disciplines. The important thing is that you regularly practice whichever one you ultimately elect to follow.