Pilates + Yoga = Yogilates. Pilates/yoga fusion.
When you look at the schedule for your gym, health club, spa, or studio, how do you decide which class to choose? You may ask: What are the benefits of one type of class over another? How do you navigate these classes and techniques?
Although a Pilates mat class may, at first glance, resemble yoga, there are some important fundamental differences in practice and emphasis between the two disciplines. These differences may be complementary; many people find that the two mind/body disciplines accompany each other well. While Pilates helps develop one’s core strength, a critical component to a stable yoga practice, a regular yoga practice fosters flexibility and balance, key aspects of a smooth Pilates routine. Consequently, a training regime that includes both Pilates and yoga can help the practitioner better excel in each discipline.
The differences between the two practices stem from each discipline’s history. Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years with an emphasis on integrating mind, body, and spirit through linking breath and movement for overall health and well-being. Beyond the poses, yoga includes an array of breathing practices and meditation techniques as well as a broad philosophical tradition. The poses themselves stretch and strengthen muscles, improve range of motion in the joints, enhance physical (and mental) flexibility, and massage the organs and balance the endocrine system. Yoga’s long history has created a great deal of variation in the nuts and bolts of its practice, providing a wide variety of styles to choose from.
Comparatively, Pilates is a much more recent practice. Less than a century old, Pilates includes both a series of mat exercises as well as movements performed on a set of unique Pilates equipment. Founder Joseph Pilates developed the technique as a method for rehabilitating the injured and wounded while he was a World War I hospital orderly. He brought together his training from gymnastics, yoga, martial arts, boxing, and bodybuilding and created his own fitness regimen. Necessity spurred Pilates’ invention of a signature set of equipment – originally fashioned out of hospital beds and scrounged spare parts – in a makeshift rehabilitation gym. The metal springs from hospital beds have evolved into the set of equipment associated with Pilates training: the reformer, cadillac, wunda chair, and low barrel.
When Joseph Pilates moved from Europe to New York City, his training sessions became all the rage with dancers. George Balanchine, noted dancer, choreographer, and ballet master for the New York City Ballet, would send injured dancers to Pilates for rehabilitation exercises to return their bodies to dancing form. It is said that in the 1950s, all of the dancers in New York had seen Pilates for conditioning sessions.
This link between Pilates and dance continues today as many dancers practice Pilates as an adjunct to their training to develop core strength, prevent or treat injuries, and emphasize the long, lean muscular tone necessary for dance. Sean Gallagher, P.T., director of the New York Pilates Studio, and a former dancer himself, integrates Pilates with physical therapy to teach injury prevention, body awareness, and rehabilitation for dancers and stage actors.
The intense focused training of the Pilates repertoire stabilizes joints and strengthens small muscles. Movements particularly target what dance teacher and Pilates instructor Julie McCloud refers to as the “orphan muscles.” These are the smaller and often deeper muscle groups found around joints, within the abdomen, below the shoulder blades, or hidden beneath the layers of the low back; they include the serratus anterior, lower rectus abdominus, and transverse abdominus.
When people think of Pilates, what primarily comes to mind is building core strength and strengthening the orphan muscles of the abdominal region. And the abdominal muscles are often sore after a novice’s first mat class. Indeed, the core work is the cornerstone of Pilates. “That is Pilates,” says Erin Low, Pilates instructor and general manager of Goleta Valley Athletic Club in Goleta, California.
Core strength is undoubtedly one of the benefits of Pilates practice. Through classic exercises like the hundreds, criss-cross, and other floor work contortions, a strong and supple set of abs is developed. This improves participants’ posture and gives dancers what yoga and Pilates instructor Kent Burden refers to as the suppleness of a tiger about to spring.
Yoga Expansion and Attention
Yoga often emphasizes large movements, including expansive poses like triangle or warrior, with arms widely extended and hips open. Depending on the focus of the class, poses may be held with precise alignment, or the class may be instructed to flow from pose to pose, accenting the fluid nature of the movement. Yoga accentuates articulation of the length of the spine and the joints, which develops suppleness. The flexibility cultivated by yoga is important for physical strength.
This point is emphasized by Jonathan Urla, who developed the integrative technique Yogilates: “A tight muscle is not as strong as a flexible muscle.”
Long-time Pilates practitioners find value in the flexibility gained through a yoga class. Lorena Gutierrez, Pilates instructor and owner of La Playa Pilates and Wellness, found that incorporating yoga into her fitness routine helped her increase her flexibility, particularly through releasing tension in her neck and upper spine. This tension was unrelieved from years of serious Pilates training.
Although Pilates also emphasizes attention and awareness, yoga additionally includes the practice of relaxation and meditation. Unlike most Pilates mat classes, yoga ends with savasana, a lying-down relaxation pose that encourages integration of body, mind, and spirit and release of physical, mental, and emotional tension. Yoga also includes the practice of meditation to further train awareness and attention, as well as an acknowledgement of the development of a person’s individual spiritual path.
Take a Deep Breath
Both disciplines emphasize the breath and the process of linking breath and movement, however, the mechanisms of breath technique differ significantly between them.
Although yoga traditions vary widely in their use of breath, often a three-part “yoga breath” is taught in class. In this type of breath, three parts of the lungs (upper, middle, and lower) are sequentially filled, either moving from the top down or the base of the chest to the space beneath the collarbones. Diaphragmatic breathing is also emphasized, which involves softening the abdominal area on an inhalation to allow the diaphragm to expand downward and the lungs to fill.
In Pilates, on the other hand, the mechanism of the breath appears vastly different. Pilates trainers teach people to hold their abdominal muscles in and direct their breath into the sides of the chest and the back of their body. Cues include feeling the movement of the breath down the muscles of the spine and the expansion of the back of the ribs with each inhalation.
The use of the breath is linked to one of the core concepts of Pilates – drawing in the abdominal area to engage the abdominal muscles, particularly the lower abs. This strengthens the core and creates support for the spine. According to Gutierrez, the muscles take the shape in which you use them. Therefore, drawing in the abdominal muscles supports the development of a lean, yet strong core.
Because these techniques are so different, the use of the breath does not easily cross disciplines. It makes sense to breathe into the spine during a Pilates mat class or while engaging core strength to balance on the Reformer. Relaxing the abdominal area to breathe just doesn’t work doing a routine that includes repetitive abdominal-strengthening movements. However, a Pilates-style breath of expanding the chest and back can also be effective in yoga poses that require the use of core strength for support, like standing triangle pose.
In both techniques, breath and movement are linked. Low is one practitioner who does not see a conflict in using one breath technique in a Pilates class and another in yoga. Both help to create a heightened sense of awareness of both the body and the breath.
East West Fusion
The interplay between the two forms of mind-body exercise is being utilized by classes that offer a fusion between the ancient yoga poses and the more modern Pilates sets. Yogilates, developed by Jonathan Urla, is a formalized synthesis of the two techniques that come together on the mat. In a Yogilates class, a traditional Pilates abdominal series is completed first to draw attention to posture and strengthen the core muscles. After the core floor work, the class may start to resemble yoga with sun salutations and standing poses, with cues to remind students to emphasize core strength.
5 Moves: Yogilates
Kent Burden, mind/body program coordinator at the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa, has incorporated Pilates, yoga, and meditation in a program he has labeled the Essential Triangle. Burden finds that his personal workout integrates aspects of both, so much so that he does not see where the yoga ends and the Pilates begins on his own mat.
Awareness, attention, and mind-body consciousness are hallmarks of both methods, and it is this focus, even more so than the exact nature of the movements, that creates cohesion between mind and body. Combining the two, either in a complimentary workout regimen or in a single class, can create a unique synergy that enhances physical and mental well-being.
By Felicia Tomasko
Resource list for Yoga and Pilates
Balanced Body: Pilates videos and DVDs for the mat, Reformer, Ultra-fit circle, and more; equipment available for studio and home use. www.pilates.com
Gaiam: Yoga and Pilates mats, clothes, and other equipment. www.gaiam.com
Stott Pilates: Videos, manuals, gear, newsletter, find an instructor. www.stottpilates.com
Winsor Pilates: Classic Pilates workout program with mat exercises adapted for home use. DVDs available. www.winsorpilates.com
Find a yoga teacher: www.yogaalliance.org
Yogilates: Books, videos, training programs, class schedules and news. www.yogilates.com