I often get asked by patients about whether Pilates or yoga might be a better exercise for them. In preparing to answer, I always try to consider what their particular needs and goals are. For example, are they most concerned with heart health, weight management, stress reduction or strength and flexibility? These are all important goals, but based on my clinical experience I tend to think one is more important than all the others. That "one" is strength, especially of the core. If you have that, you will be better able to manage your other goals; if you don't, everything else will be a struggle. It is the importance of strength that informs my views on Pilates vs yoga debate.
Many of you are aware that Pilates exercises target your so-called core, the abdominal and oblique muscles around the spine. If your aim is to strengthen these muscles, then Pilates is the hands down first choice. In a recent study, sedentary women who completed a Pilates training bulked up their abdominal muscles by as much an impressive 20 percent, while also lessening any existing muscular imbalances.* Because a strong core is so important to all other aspects of posture and movement, this extra strength is truly a game changer.
In contrast, yoga - especially hatha yoga, with its flowing poses, tends to work larger sections of the body. In addition, yoga focuses on breathing, posture and spirituality to help promote feelings of wellbeing. This is all good. My concern with yoga is that all movements require both flexibility and stability. All too often those flowing poses end up promoting end-range flexibility without the needed stability. The result is greater flexibility without the necessary strength and control. This is a prescription for injury- particularly to the spine. Unfortunately, spine injuries tend to detract from any sense of well being.
Summing it up: First, when it comes to fitness and health goals, I think building and maintaining core, abdominal strength is very, very important because it facilitates so many aspects of posture and movement. Second, in comparing Pilates and yoga, Pilates is a much more effective at building core strength. This is not minimize the benefits of yoga or challenge any yoga-lovers in the audience. Indeed, yoga has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduce the intensity and frequency of hot flashes, and ease arthritis. When it comes to the core; however, yoga is just not as effective at strengthening the crucial core and it has the added risk of promoting too much flexibility without enough stability. For me, Pilates- the one that builds the core- rules.