You’ve probably heard about yoga and pilates, and maybe you’re curious about giving them a try. But what are the differences between them - and why do people get so intense about stretching on a special mat? This guide will break down both practises, and explain how to get started with giving them a try.
What is yoga?
There isn’t actually a single thing called ‘yoga’ - the word refers to a collection of physical, mental, and spiritual practises developed in India centuries ago that are actually an important form of religious practise. When you hear people talk about yoga as exercise, they’re usually talking about one form of yoga: hatha yoga, which focuses on physical postures. In the early 20th century, it was adapted to become the form of yoga most people use for exercise today.
There are lots of different ways to use yoga for exercise, but the heart of a yoga practise is controlled breathing whilst moving through a series of postures, usually followed up by relaxation or meditation. Some focus more on raising your heart rate to get in some aerobic exercise (for example, Bikram yoga or hot yoga) while others are more focused on easy movement and meditation (like Iyengar yoga).
What’s great about all this variety is that there’s probably a form of yoga out there that will work for you no matter what you need. Yoga is really adaptable, so even if you’re afraid that you’re not flexible or strong enough, you’ll be able to find beginner classes and videos that adapt the poses for people who are just starting out, leaving you lots of room to grow.
What is pilates?
Pilates is a flexible system of exercises designed by a German physical trainer in the early 20th century. It was originally designed to help athletes and dancers return to fitness after injury, but because it’s so easy to adapt to make the exercises gentler or more difficult as needed, it has become popular with all kinds of people.
Pilates focuses on the breath and, especially, on building strength in your body’s core. The aim is to move with precision and control - but also with grace. If it sounds tough, it is! But like yoga, it’s super flexible: you can start with beginner classes and work your way up to bigger challenges.
How can yoga and pilates help you?
Getting regular exercise is so important for your physical and mental health. But yoga and pilates offer some particular benefits. Studies have shown that yoga and pilates can decrease stress - even to the point of lowering the levels of cortisol, a hormone linked with stress, in the subjects of a study. They’ve also been reported in studies as alleviating anxiety, depression, and even PTSD. This might be partly because both yoga and pilates help you practise mindfulness - check out our guide An introduction to mindfulness to learn more about the benefits of that. Maybe it goes without saying, but less stress, sadness, or anxiety will definitely make you feel better in your daily life! And as an added bonus, you’ll do better in school or at work.
Yoga’s focus is often increasing flexibility, while pilates zeroes in on core strength. Either one - or a combination! - will serve you well in developing a healthy, positive relationship with your body and protecting yourself from muscle injuries in daily life.
Finally, both yoga and pilates are interested in the practise, not results. Rather than aiming to lift a certain amount of weight or run at a certain speed, yoga and pilates invite you to embrace each day as a new challenge, and to find new ways to strengthen and develop the same poses. This makes them both a great way to exercise if you don’t like the idea of putting a lot of pressure on yourself to hit specific fitness goals.
How to get started
First of all, you don’t need lots of fancy equipment for yoga or pilates, just some comfortable clothes and some space. There are plenty of videos you can do that don’t require any equipment at all. If you go to a class, they’ll likely be able to provide everything you need.
Thanks to YouTube, it’s super easy to get started with yoga or pilates by just searching for a beginner video. This can be a really fun way to give it a try, especially if you feel shy about going to a class or want to develop a routine for free before paying for an instructor or a special mat or clothes.
If you’re at uni, your gym or sports centre may offer yoga and pilates classes. During the first weeks of term, they’ll often offer free taster sessions. These classes will also usually be included in the price of any gym membership, at a uni or elsewhere. There are also lots of organisations that offer yoga and pilates classes at a range of prices, for people of all ages and abilities. Make sure to start with a beginner class - you can always jump up a level whenever you’re ready.
Different instructors will have different styles, so don’t be afraid to try a few different classes or video channels until you find one that’s right for you. Remember, yoga and pilates are about the journey, not the destination - so make sure you’re having fun along the way!
Good stuff from elsewhere
Yoga for Beginners video
Pilates for Beginners video
Some benefits of yoga that are supported by science