What’s the difference between yoga and pilates?

I’ve spent a lot of time in both yoga and pilates studios. While I kind of understand the difference between the two practices, I’ve never been able to put it into words. When people ask me, I will often say ‘yoga is more…flowy, while pilates more about single exercises’. But there must be a better way to describe it! All the yogis and pilates fanatics reading this post will be able to reel off a thousands qualities that make yoga different from pilates, and vice versa. But for those of us who aren’t as far into their yoga/pilates journeys, I’ve done some research to figure out exactly what distinguishes the two.



Yoga originated over 5000 years ago in India. Its aim was to align the mind and body and get a better understanding of oneself. From this it became part of a larger philosophy, the centre of a particular way of life surrounding mindfulness.

Spirituality/ Mindfulness

The main aim of yoga is to improve spirituality and mindfulness. Strength and flexibility is very much an extra – that’s not to say it is not an effective strengthening exercise, however. Your yoga instructor will aim to have you feeling relaxed and calm by the end of your session, rather than exhausted (like in other forms of exercise!).


A great physical benefit of yoga is improved flexibility. Yoga is designed to stretch out your muscles so you can achieve poses that work your muscles. Once you become more flexible, yoga will become a more intense workout to challenge your body. Hopefully you’ll leave a successful yoga session feeling more supple than when you arrived!

Strength & cardio

The strength in yoga is disguised by the cardio of sun salutations and movements alike. While strength is a large part of yoga (because you have to hold your body weight in certain poses) it is secondary. Alongside strengthening exercises, cardio adorns itself. The whole notion of yoga is moving as one – it is less about individual movements, and more about the flow. In this sense, strength and cardio are tangled up in each other.


Yoga = balance. Nearly every pose uses your balance. I often find that I have to work on my balance much more in a yoga class than a pilates class. I think (and any yogis please correct me on this!) this is because forcing yourself to balance allows you to sync mind with body. In other words, by trusting your body to hold uncomfortable positions, you are connecting with it more – you learn more about the way your body works when you have to move it into unfamiliar positions!


Rather than small movements, like in pilates, yoga connects a number of poses and movements into one sequence. Except, you probably won’t notice that they are different movements sewn together! This means that instead of having a break where you can get into a new position, you are moving constantly in between each one. This improves endurance and also helps you focus on your breathing. For me, this is a major difference in yoga and pilates.



Pilates was developed in the 20th century as a strength and rehab method. Its first use was to rehabilitate World War I soldiers, but was soon adopted by dancers and then fitness gurus for the sheer number of benefits it provides.


Pilates is focussed around core strength. Nearly every movement uses your core. While other muscles are used, too, your abs will feel the burn most readily. This is pilates way of getting your mind in line with your body. By tapping into those central muscles, you’ll feel more aligned with the rest of your body.

Muscle toning

I see pilates as a stripped down yoga, to reveal a core of muscle tone and strengthening exercises. This is especially true of reformer pilates. The main aim is to increase strength and tone up your body. Mindfulness and spirituality play somewhat in the background, unlike yoga.

Structured workout

Earlier I described yoga as a seamless loop of exercises, sewn together with slow cardiovascular movements. Pilates, on the other hand, is very much a structured workout. You are using your strength to perform certain exercises that are strictly individual. This means that you are doing a workout on a mat, rather than a session of mindfulness with a some (or a lot of!) strength mixed in. In other words, you know exactly which muscle you are working, rather than using your body in harmony to perfect certain poses.

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