There is no doubting the benefits of both yoga and pilates, but which one is right for you? Farah Asaria finds out...
Few things divide public opinion quite as much, it’s reminiscent of the days when you had to choose between either Oasis or Blur, or Sean Connery or Roger Moore, but never both. Yoga and pilates play transformational roles in terms of well-being, sports or other injuries, organ and lung function and weight loss, but it seems you have to pick one discipline to follow, and one to avoid. But which exercise tribe should you belong to?
The key to getting the most out of one or the other is understanding how they work and how they affect you.
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Yoga has always been the more popular of the two, as it is an ancient method that has been practiced for centuries. There are many types of yoga, such as Iyengar, Hatha and Kundalini, and they all stem from the same philosophy. In yoga, there is an integration of the body, mind and spirit and this is achieved through the practice of exercise, breathing and meditation. Yoga uses physical poses ‘asanas’ and breathing techniques ‘pranayama’ along with meditation, to achieve oneness with your own spiritual being and body. It is a practice that strongly believes in harmonising all aspects of the being. Yoga strengthens the body, the immune system and strives towards reaching your inner self through meditation.
Pilates was created by the German gymnast Joseph H Pilates in the early 1900s. Pilates was a sickly child, suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. He dedicated his entire life to improving his physical system. He studied Yoga as well as body building and gymnastics. Pilates is an exercise system that is practiced on either a pilates reformer machine or on a mat, in order to increase strength, stamina and flexibility. When pilates is practiced using the reformer, you are exercising against resistance, with a breathing technique that allows you to enhance and ease your movements. Pilates focuses on the centre of your body or the ‘core’ to create a strong foundation for all movement. A key part of pilates is being able to coordinate movements, which are often practiced in the form of repetitions, this requires complete concentration and a mind and body connection that has to be present throughout the exercise. It worked for Joseph H Pilates; he lived to the age of 83, a vital and healthy man.
Similarly Ria Haffer took up yoga when she was diagnosed with an underactive thyroid. She has now been practicing yoga for thirteen years and is a yoga therapist based in Abu Dhabi.
When Ria was told she had an underactive thyroid, she was told that she would have to take medication, but she refused. Ria now has a normal functioning thyroid and helps others work with their medical issues.
“When you start practicing yoga, you have to go in with no expectations, it takes time and persistence to achieve your goals and daily practice can be used as a therapy.” Ria suggests that yoga should be practiced at least twice a week by beginners in order to feel the real benefits. Ria also feels that many ailments, such as allergies and skin condition, are a result of stress, and people can benefit from practicing Yoga to correct these conditions. She says: “ Yoga teaches you to honour, respect and love your body, and it is for everyone. It is about you and yourself, you have to sit with yourself and work with your body.”
When you start practicing yoga, you have to go in with no expectations, it takes time and persistence to achieve your goals and daily practice can be used as a therapy
On the other side of the spectrum, pilates is more about the physical self although mind and body coordination plays a big part in the movements. This aspect of pilates is very beneficial to focus and sharpen the mind. It is about concentrating on every part of the movement, from the breathing to the positioning of the body, right through to the dynamics of the movement. Jolene Nash, pilates instructor at the Naya yoga centre in Dubai, started practicing pilates shortly after she had a horse-riding accident and fractured a vertebrae in her spine. The practice of regular pilates helped her get rid of the chronic pain, and like Ria, Jolene helps people with physical ailments and injuries. Jolene teaches both reformer and mat pilates.
“Pilates provides the foundation to all exercise, it is beneficial for professional athletes as well as golfers and footballers, as it works on posture, alignment of the spine and strengthening the core or what Joseph Pilates referred to as the Powerhouse,” she says. As a teacher, Jolene can see how people’s lifestyles are linked to the issues they have, from triathletes who have a tendency to be stiff due to their forward plane of motion, as they sprint, cycle and swim all in one direction and lose flexibility in their movements; to people who spend their whole days sitting at desks. “The beauty of pilates is that it can be tailored to an individual’s needs, according to their physical circumstance and postural habits, whether they are recovering from an injury, pre-or post-natal, living with a condition such as Parkinson’s disease or a victim of a stroke,” she says. Jolene believes that practicing pilates can be a very beneficial base for yoga, as it’s strengthening aspect can help with yoga poses and positions.
Jolene’s conclusion is unusual, as most of those who practice either yoga or pilates tend to be fiercely loyal to their chosen discipline, even though there are many benefits of both such as improvement of posture, pain and stress relief and improved mind and body awareness.
The differences are highlighted in the fundamentals of each. Yoga is a spiritual system that encourages you to delve beyond physical movement and poses and engage with your deeper self, through meditation. For some, this method is ideal as they have a spiritual nature and outlook, and yoga becomes a mental therapy as well as a physical one. For others, the spiritual aspect can be overwhelming or they simply don’t want to mix sport with meditation and prefer something which improves their well being through just breathing and movement. In this case, pilates is ideal.
The other fundamental difference between yoga and pilates is the breathing technique. Deep breathing techniques are used in yoga to move from one pose to another, in pilates the breathing is aligned to the movements of repetition. The breathing element in pilates is used to take tension away from neck and shoulders and helps to activate the core abdominals. In yoga, the breathing techniques are more complex, and there are different types of breathing, for example, for relaxation, focus, energy and deep meditation. Another difference between the breathing of yoga and pilates is that in yoga you use your nose to inhale and exhale, while in pilates you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
Yoga requires patience and a need to reach inside the self, pilates on the other hand, requires concentration and a mind body awareness that takes time to achieve. The spiritual aspect of yoga allows you to focus on your inner self and creates a state of relaxation and peace, which is very hard to achieve in everyday life due to the pace and ‘don’t-have-a-moment’ lifestyle. The concentration that is needed to practice pilates, and the mind and body awareness, helps to sharpen and train the mind.
The benefits of both yoga and pilates are life-changing, for those who are new to both it is recommended to try out each one and understand what your body needs and which one you respond better to. Once you have found your chosen one, you will never look back.
Pilates provides the foundation to all exercise, it is beneficial for professional athletes as well as golfers and footballers
THE ARGUMENT FOR PILATES
After trying several yoga classes, I realised I just couldn’t get into it. I would look around at the others in the class in their zen-like state, and always feel terrible about lagging behind. I also felt like I couldn’t hold the poses for long and I just couldn’t connect with my inner self. When I discovered pilates, I instantly felt at home. I preferred the controlled repetitions of the movements to the poses and for the first time in years, I learnt how to do leg raises (I have a lower back disc injury) without hurting myself. Pilates has strengthened every part of my body, and my ‘core’ is stronger than it has ever been. By working on every other part of my body, my lower back pain is much better and I can manage it. I also love the muscle tone and definition that gets better after each session. As well as my physical wellbeing, I feel much better mentally and emotionally. When I am doing pilates, I feel like it doesn’t get better than this, even though it can be quite intense at times. I always leave a session feeling energised and ready to take on anything!
THE ARGUMENT FOR YOGA
The bottom line is this: Yoga is more about how you feel; pilates is more about how you look. Yoga is quite simply the most powerful system of overall health and wellbeing developed over centuries.
What the ancient yogis instinctively knew about the transformational ability of yoga to heal both the mind and the body, today’s sports scientists and neuroscientists are now able to prove.
This single comprehensive system can reduce stress, increase flexibility of muscles and joints, relieve pain, improve balance, promote strength, heighten cardiovascular conditioning, lower blood pressure, reduce weight, strengthen bones, improve immune function, increase oxygen supply to the tissues, improve sexual functioning, promote psychological and emotional stability and spiritual wellbeing, lessen anxiety, energise mind and body, lessen addictive cravings….the list is virtually endless.
What’s more, never mind what you’re suffering from now, as preventative medicine, Yoga is second to none. The poses, or asanas as they are called, take you through the whole range of motion and every muscle is used. The weight-bearing poses strengthen your bones; the twists massage and stimulate your internal organs; the extensive stretches aerate your muscles and give you the much-needed flexibility that many athletes don’t have, resulting in injury and impairment; the inverted postures stimulate the pineal and pituitary glands, removes stagnant blood from the extremities, improves lymphatic drainage and floods the brain with fresh oxygenated blood; and the breathing techniques calm the mind and significantly reduce stress.
Yoga postures stimulate your endocrine glands, which boost your immune system so that your body will be more efficient in fending off disease; they massage and relieve compression on your digestive system.
Yoga exercise is extremely beneficial for your heart too. Physiologically, the stretching and deep breathing decreases blood pressure, slows your breathing, and releases endorphins into your bloodstream to make you feel pleasantly calm and relaxed.
Many people describe a yoga practice as a moving meditation, and in most yoga classes you will also spend time at the beginning and the end of the session in specific yogic meditation.
I came to yoga late in life – an overweight, fitness-averse sceptic. My back ached, I couldn’t begin to touch my toes, and I never felt terribly well. I was bullied into doing yoga and within a few classes I completely changed my mindset, and my body registered all kinds of changes too.
Here was exercise I could not only do, but actually looked forward to doing. Not only did I gradually become stronger, fitter and far more flexible, but all the irritating little aches and pains fled. Unlooked for changes included losing weight, changing shape, eating less and greatly increased mental equilibrium.
Yoga is suitable for everyone – however old, however unfit. It is a safe, gentle, non-competitive, non-judgemental practice that connects mind, body and spirit (if that’s your bag). It’s not a religion; it’s not a cult; it’s not specifically for new-age nuts or airhead fashionistas whatever you may have heard. It’s the most inclusive, extraordinary, effective life-changing choice you can make. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself – that’s the yogic way.