Yoga vs Pilates—what are the differences and which one will work best for you?

The body and mind benefits of yoga vs Pilates have subtle differences, which could have an impact on your workout

woman doing yoga outside
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Weighing up yoga vs Pilates can be tricky. After all, at first glance, they both seem very similar. If you’re looking to gain flexibility, get stronger and ease stress, then it can be argued that both of these workouts are equally brilliant for boosting physical and mental wellbeing.

What's more, the beauty of both yoga and Pilates is that anyone—regardless of age or ability, can simply roll out one of the best yoga mats, and start reaping the benefits from the comfort of their own home. 

So, what sets these two workouts apart? And is one better for you than the other? We asked one yoga instructor and one Pilates expert to explain how both exercises can improve your health. All you need to do is pull on a pair of your best leggings and get ready to stretch out your limbs.

Yoga vs pilates – what are the key differences? 

At a glance, yoga and Pilates seem to incorporate many of the same elements. They’re both low-impact forms of exercise and feature a series of focused movements that are usually performed on a mat. But, that’s where the similarities end, and there are distinct differences between the two. 

Yoga is thousands of years old and the origin of this practice can be traced back to ancient Indian texts. Rooted in spirituality, yoga unites the body, mind and soul and is based on postures that are practiced in sequence. These linked yoga poses focus on flexibility and strength, relaxation and breathing. 

“When you first start to do yoga, the movements can seem complicated but they soon will start to feel familiar and like a moving meditation,” says yoga instructor Hannah Barrett.

Breathing is the essence of yoga practice and acts as a mindfulness tool when you move through your poses. “It helps you to connect with the subtle energy within your body and mind and grounds you in the present moment,” says Hannah. "This helps you to let go of the past or control of the future, and enables you to focus on the now."

woman doing yoga in the garden

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Pilates, on the other hand, was founded in the early twentieth century by a German self-taught fitness guru called Joseph Hubertus Pilates. He developed a system of strength and flexibility exercises that he named "controlology" and used his techniques to help rehabilitate soldiers in World War One. Joseph later set up a studio in New York to teach his method and his legacy now lives on around the world.

“Joseph Pilates taught us that one of the main results of his method is gaining complete control of your body. He drew inspiration from the martial arts – slow, controlled flowing movements performed with thoughtful awareness,” says Lynne Robinson, founder of Body Control Pilates and co-author of The Pilates Bible.

The fundamental principles of Pilates include control, concentration, core stability, precision, and good breathing.

What are the different styles of yoga?

There are many different types of yoga and each have sequences practiced at different paces and levels of intensity. Yoga instructors may also introduce their individual style of teaching to a class. All ages can enjoy yoga—there are even yoga mats for kids specifically, as the benefits of yoga for children are endless.

Hatha, Iyengar, Yin or Restorative yoga are gentle practices that are good for those who are new to yoga. An instructor may also offer specific yoga for beginners classes.

Want to get your heart rate up? Look for Ashtanga and Vinyasa classes as these are more physically challenging and good if you're looking to yoga for weight loss or want to know how to lose belly fat. You'll really benefit from one of the best thick yoga mats in these classes to give your body and joints ultimate support, particularly if you're starting yoga for back pain.

What are the different types of Pilates?

Joseph Pilates’ method has been adapted over the years by different Pilates schools, but when his guiding principles and original exercises are followed exactly, it is known as Classical Pilates or Traditional Pilates. This can include: 

  • Matwork Pilates
    A total of 34 strength training movements make up Joseph Pilates' original sequence that is performed on a mat. 
  • Reformer Pilates
    This medieval piece of apparatus designed by Joseph Pilates improves strength and stability by offering resistance. With Classical Pilates, a specific sequence of exercises will be followed on the reformer. Other equipment may be used in Classical Pilates including the cadillac, the chair and the barrel. This is one of the best exercises to burn belly fat, if you practice regularly and eat healthy alongside your fitness routine.
  • Contemporary Pilates
    Blends the work of Joseph Pilates with some adapted movements based on new learning and research on body biomechanics. Teachers of the modern method have more flexibility to switch up sequences and the apparatus used.
  • Clinical Pilates
    When Pilates is used for rehabilitation following an injury or surgery, it is known as Clinical Pilates. Pilates exercises will be modified by a physiotherapist to suit a person's specific physical needs.

Woman stretching on Pilates reformer

(Image credit: Getty / Ashley Corbin-Teich)

The benefits of yoga 

Yoga is great for both body and mind. Just some of the many benefits of yoga include:

  • Increased strength and flexibility
  • Stress reduction 
  • Increased energy
  • Improved circulation
  • Better digestion
  • Weight loss
  • Hormone balance

Daily yoga can make you feel happier by boosting levels of the feel-good hormone, serotonin. It’s likely you’ll feel the emotional gains straight after a session—this could be a sense of calm or feeling more energized. 

“Over time you may notice your stress levels are lower, your muscles get stronger and more toned, and you're more flexible. Your digestion improves and your cardiovascular health also increases,” says Hannah.   

There are also studies to show that regular yoga practice can help improve mental health. Research suggests that yoga can be almost equally as effective in treating anxiety as seeing a therapist. 

In another study, people who did yoga reported lower levels of stress than those doing other forms of exercise, due to yoga’s meditative element. This makes it a useful coping tool for those with busy lives.

“Being in a constant state of stress becomes a problem,” says Hannah. “Our ‘flight or flight’ system gets activated, setting off many things in the body including the release of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline, a spike in our immune system and shut-down of our digestive system.” These reactions in the body can have negative health consequences. 

Yoga gives you a chance to quieten the mind, connect to your body, and activate the parasympathetic nervous system which helps you to “rest and digest".

woman stretching on mat

(Image credit: Getty / Westend61)

The benefits of Pilates

There are plenty of reasons why Pilates is the go-to exercise for health-conscious stars, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Anniston. Benefits include: 

  • Joint health
  • Better posture
  • Improved muscle tone
  • Healthy bones
  • Relaxation
  • Stronger pelvic floor
  • Reduced menopausal symtoms

Pilates is a conditioning exercise that releases tension in the muscles as well as toning the entire body – with a focus on the abdominal muscles, lower back, hips and bum. The movements can help ease stiff joints too. 

Along with a healthy diet and regular cardio exercise, Pilates can help with weight control and can help you manage menopause weight gain

The exercise can also ease uncomfortable menopausal symptoms and it is particularly beneficial for strengthening the pelvic floor. This can prevent organ prolapse that currently affects around 50% of post-menopausal women. 

A big benefit of Pilates is that it can counterbalance the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Too much sitting down and not enough movement, negatively affects our musculoskeletal system. 

This results in short-term and long-term pain and discomfort, which can reduce our quality of living and even affect our mental health, says Lynne. "Even if you do nothing else, performing a few simple Pilates exercises a day can help keep the aches and pains at bay.”  

Pilates is also the ideal way to offset the damage caused by over-exercising. It can help the body to move more effectively and efficiently, to reduce the risk of getting injuries.

woman in Pilates class

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Yoga vs Pilates – which one is better?

According to a recent poll by HFE, when asked to choose between yoga vs Pilates, 70% of fitness goers say they’d pick Pilates. But who's to say you can't do both?  

And, don't worry about not being bendy enough for yoga. If you have tightness in your hips, back, shoulders or hamstrings it could be exactly what you need. When practiced regularly, muscle tension reduces and flexibility increases as connective tissues become looser and joints are able to move more freely.

Although very different, these exercises bring a range of mind and body benefits that complement each perfectly. Add either one—or both, to your exercise routine and you'll stay strong, healthy and happy as you age. 

Ali Horsfall

Senior Health Writer Ali Horsfall has almost 15 years experience as a journalist and has written for national print titles and women’s lifestyle brands including woman&home, Woman, Woman's Own, BBC magazines, Mothercare, Grazia and The Independent. She currently specialises in health and fitness content and loves sharing the best expert advice on staying well.