Pilates vs. yoga

What are the differences and commonalities? 

Students (and teachers) sometimes confuse Pilates and yoga as similar enough to be passable and interchangeable. 

I’ve heard Pilates instructors explain that their method is just like yoga, but with machines. Sometimes yoga teachers say pilates is a watered-down version of yoga with strength training. Maybe this is dismissive or superficial of what the methods offer. 

But, what ARE the differences, and what can they learn from each other as disciplines?

Keep in mind that these observations come from my personal experiences within the fields. I am a 22-year ashtanga yoga practitioner and have been involved in the “contemporary” pilates realm for about 20 years. 

Let’s look at the origins of the two methods and some guiding principles. 

Pilates vs. yoga: history

Brief History of Pilates

Pilates, the movement method, takes its name from Joseph Pilates, a German-born emigre to Britain and then the USA. He devised his system, initially called Contrology, as a new approach to exercise and body conditioning in the early 20th century. Joseph Pilates presents his method as the art of controlled movement. It is an adaptable mind-body exercise system that develops core stability, strength, and flexibility. It brings attention to muscle control, posture and breathing. The practitioner uses set exercises that can either be performed on the mat or apparatus. The innovative equipment Mr. Pilates invented includes the Reformer, Cadillac, Wunder Chair, Spine Corrector, and Ladder Barrel, just to name a few. 

He wrote two books, Your Health: A Corrective System of Exercising That Revolutionizes the Entire Field of Physical Education in 1934 and Return to Life Through Contrology in 1945.

The Pilates system allows the exercises to be modified for various difficulties from beginner to advanced. Together, the practitioner and instructor can decide on specific goals and adjust the movement sequence to achieve these goals. 

There are several different versions/brands of Pilates, and the method has been entangled in legal battles. In October of 2000, the word Pilates was ruled a general term, making it free for unrestricted use, like the word yoga. 

Within the pilates world, there is sometimes a chasm between two directions; classical and modern. The classical/traditional Pilates follows the original form of Pilates and his first students as closely as possible. 

Modern/contemporary Pilates includes Joseph Pilates’s original concepts and expands upon ideas with other influences such as sports science, fitness, yoga, and dance.

A brief history of yoga

Yoga history can be a bit obscure sometimes due to oral transmission of sacred and sometimes secret texts. Yoga originated in Northern India around 5,000 years ago, with some researchers estimating 10,000 years of traced history. 

Yoga scholars such as Timothy Burgin divide yoga origins into four main periods of practice/development and history.

Pre-classical yoga starts with the first-mentioned texts from the Rig Veda. The Vedas are a collection of songs, mantras, and rituals that eventually came to form the Upanishads. The most famous is probably the Bhagavad-Gita, but there are about 200 scriptures belonging to the Upanishads. 

Classical yoga is defined by Patanjali’s yoga sutras sometime in the second century. Pantajali organized yoga into the 8-limb path containing the eight steps or ways to achieve enlightenment. The yoga sutras still influence most yoga forms. 

Post-classical yoga starts a few centuries after Patanjali. This period begins to embrace the physical body as the way to achieve enlightenment. The postures (asana) are meant to break the knots that bind us to our physical existence and clean the body and the mind. This practice evolves eventually into Hatha yoga.

Late 1800 and early 1900, yoga masters began to travel to the west, attracting lots more attention. Notable people here are Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda. Krishnamacharya had three primary disciples that increased the legacy and popularity of hatha yoga as we know it: BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar, and Pattabhi Jois. All of this becomes modern yoga. Western culture has had a distinct influence on yoga and, at times, erased the origins and meanings behind the method. 

Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga are the guidelines for a more meaningful and purposeful life and emphasize moral and ethical conduct plus self-discipline. These are the guiding principles of a yoga practice. There are many different modern schools and styles of yoga, each of which emphasizes various aspects of the eight limbs. 

Pilates vs. Yoga: Principles 

Yoga: the 8 limbed path

1) Yamas: ethical standards and a sense of integrity focus on behavior and how we go through life. These are basically universal practices.

  • Ahimsa, nonviolence
  • Satay: truthfulness
  • Asteya: nonstealing 
  • Brahmacharya: continence
  • Aparigraha: non covetousness

2) Niyama: this is the self-discipline and spiritual observances. For example, regularly attending church or temple, personal meditation practice, and taking contemplative walks are all examples of niyama.

  • Saucha: cleanliness
  • Samtosa: contentment
  • Tapas: heat or spiritual austerity 
  • SvaDhyaya: the study of sacred scriptures and one’s self
  • ishvara pranidhana: surrender to God

You can explore these concepts more in a wonderful book by Deborah Adele: Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice 

3) Asana: the physical postures practiced in yoga. In yogic views, the body is your physical temple or seat of the soul, and taking care of the body is integral to spiritual growth. We can develop discipline, focus, and concentration, which helps our meditation practice. Asana is what in the western world is widely known as yoga.  

4) Pranayama: general translation is breath control. The breath practice is to gain control over the respiratory process by recognizing the connection between breath, body, and the mind. You can practice pranayama as a separate practice or within the Hatha asana routine.

5) Pratjahara: withdrawal or sensory transcendence. We consciously try to draw our senses away from the external world and stimuli. We create a detachment as we focus inward. This withdrawal gives us more space to observe our emotional reactivity, cravings, and habits. 

6) Dharana: Concentration. Once we can turn off the outside distractions, we can turn inward and witness the internal distractions of the mind. This attention is the precursor to meditation. We can bring our awareness to a single mental object. A body part, an image, or a silent repetition of a sound are examples of this concentration focus.

7) Dhyana: Meditation or contemplation. Dhyana is very similar to concentration, Dharana, which is a one-pointed focus. Dhyana is being aware without focus. There is stillness with little or no thoughts. 

8) Samadhi: state of ecstasy. The person merges all the focuses, transcends the sense of ego/self, and realizes the connection to the divine and all living things. Enlightenment/ecstasy has been described as joy, fulfillment, peace, and freedom. 

Pilates Principles

Depending on the lineage of Pilates, there are at least six guiding principles, but I have seen up to 11. Joseph Pilates did not name these principles. Instead, his students tried to make the method more accessible and transmittable for future generations. This means there is some contention on the names and fundamental principles. 

The original six as I learned them: 

  • Concentration: the complete focus of your mind on the movements being performed. 
  • Control: Deliberate control of the entire body as you perform the exercise.
  • Center: Joseph Pilates believed all movement should initiate from the body’s core. You will hear words like powerhouse, scoop, imprint, hollow out to try and activate the core. 
  • Flow: Flow refers to the structure of the training, which aims to be continuous, but can also refer to the flow of the movement. As Mr. Pilates had many dancers visit the studio, ease and fluidity are cornerstones of the aesthetics. 
  • Precision: many teachers will insist on specific shapes to be executed as precisely and efficiently as possible.
  • Breath: Mr. Pilates said, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last… above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” 

The following principles list has also been considered to be pillars of the method:

  • Rhythm 
  • Alignment 
  • Coordination 
  • Stamina 
  • Balance muscle development 
  • Whole-body movement 

As a pilates student, you are encouraged to incorporate all of them into each practice to make a well-rounded physical exercise program. Much like yoga, the instructor decides which principles will be emphasized depending on the teacher’s lineage and the student’s goals. 

Pilates vs. Yoga: Similarities and Differences 

If we look at the principles of Pilates and the eight limbs of yoga, there is a little bit of overlap:


We can say that all the physical principles of Pilates would fall under the umbrella of Yoga Asana. Both methods strive to develop physicality for the greater health of the body. 

This physicality includes working for balanced muscle development, stamina, precision, control, and coordination. 


Both methods share the breath as a foundation. Depending on the pilates lineage and the yoga form, the breath pattern is choreographed into the sequence of movements.

In Pilates, we will generally inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Most times, the exhale will be linked where there is physical exertion. “The Hundred” is probably the most challenging of the coordinated breathing exercises.

Yoga pranayama has many more types of breathing techniques than Pilates.

These are just a few examples of yoga breath practice:

  • Ujjayi Pranayama (warrior’s or ocean breath) is a powerful form of breathing suited for a strong practice or flow, like an Ashtanga practice. You breathe in and out through your nose.
  • Nadi Shodana prepares the student to meditate or clear the mind before an active practice. This breathing exercise aims to breathe through one nostril at a time.
  • Kapalabhatti is also known as “the skull shining breath.” This breath focuses on the exhale, which is short and forceful.


Concentration/Dharana. We have little writings of Joseph Pilates, so we can speculate what he meant with concentration. We usually assume he meant attention to the movements being performed. This concentration was probably not a precursor to meditation, like it is in yoga. 

Mr. Pilates made no ethical or moral suggestions other than a meaningful and purposeful healthy life could be attained through doing his method. 

Pilates vs. Yoga: Movement Theories

There are quite a few pilates exercises that seem to have origin in yoga, But we can’t say if Joseph Pilates had ever studied yoga. It’s perhaps just that there are only so many exercises and movements that the human body can do so that every movement technique will have some overlap with one another. 

We can generally say that most yoga forms do not use large equipment, and only a few emphasize the use of props, for instance, Iyengar Yoga. The props such as yoga blocks, straps, or bolsters help make yoga poses more accessible or supports the practitioner. Although there is an element of strength in many yoga postures, there is a higher emphasis on flexibility and mobility.

The pilates method places far more importance on muscle development and joint mobility. Using the springs in most pilates equipment challenges the muscles’ strength by providing variable resistance. The reformer challenges the vestibular system as we balance bodyweight and external resistance on moving surfaces.  

Yoga and pilates are “mindful movement” practices aiming to help students realize their potential and capacity for physical and mental health. The methods require discipline and focus to reap the promised benefits. Although you can say that yoga’s spiritual element is integral to the yoga practice, you would still get enormous physical benefits if we subtracted it. And if we added a spiritual component to pilates, like the yamas and niyamas, the pilates practice would be enriched. 

Perhaps understanding where one discipline ends and the other begins gives us enough freedom to help ourselves or our clients delve deeper into each modality. The intentional practice of either method helps our emotional well-being, physical health, and ability to cope with stress. In these modern times, when people feel more disconnected from their bodies, finding a way to reintegrate the body, mind, and soul should be a priority. 

Pilates vs. Yoga: Summary 

Both modalities can have a huge impact and benefits on the student. It’s worth trying both to see how you feel within the practice. Each step we take to get closer to better health and enjoyment in our bodies is valuable!


If you want to dive a little deeper into your home practice or your teaching practice, check out some of our free resources:

Get your FREE pilates cheat sheet with 40 color pictures to help your pilates home practice. 

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