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Pilates vs. Yoga

By Blog Post

So, how do you start writing a blog to compare Pilates with yoga when you are not a blogger and you don’t know much about yoga? I guess I’m up for a challenge…

I opened APG Pilates in 2012 but moved my current location on 87 Liberty street in March 2014, a street more exposed to walkers and surrounded by more businesses.

So, how did I end up being known as “the yoga lady from Liberty street” when I don’t know much about this form of exercises?

In 2015, I decided to share my space with other practitioners, such as a therapeutic massage therapist Lisa Knowles, a swing dance instructor and some yoga teachers. I kept that model for 3 years then made the conclusion that it would not work. I needed to make it clear that I was a Pilates studio. Until that decision was made, even if Pilates was the main service in the studio, people were referring to it as the yoga place and that was kind of driving me crazy.

When I would have a little break in between two classes, some walkers on the street would stop by and ask what was the difference between the two techniques. I would try to explain that apart from lying down on your back and being a mind body connection form of exercise, they were not the same. I would try to explain that Pilates is more focused on core strengthening, deeper muscle groups, using most of the time some apparatus while yoga is more about stretching and balance with an extra spiritual component. But even myself I was not really convinced by my answers. The truth was that I don’t know much about yoga because it never has been my thing.

I was introduced to yoga to a very young age. I was raised by my grandma who had her every week routine of taking a yoga class. So, every Tuesday starting at the age of four I would go to yoga with her and the instructor would let me participate. My grandma introduced me to dance at the age go three and half. When I would join her to her yoga class, I would totally show off in front of her yoga classmates with my flexibility and balance. I had so much fun and I loved the compliments. However, as soon as the class was focusing on breathing and meditation I would totally disconnect from the class. I would get up and go to another room and I would play with my dolls or whatever else that could be used as a toy. When I was asked to start this blog, I was first trying to find the technical difference between yoga and Pilates. My colleague Kathy Gitto and I were trying to brainstorm on the subject.

We acknowledge that yoga and Pilates are often compared as similar practices. But there are major differences that place them in their own unique categories. They work the body in different ways, and employ different workout methods and apparatus.

The main difference is their origins. Yoga was created in India more than 5,000 years ago, with the purpose of connecting individual consciousness with divine consciousness. The number of methods grew through the years but the main focus, in general, was on the meditation part. The exercise part was secondary.

Pilates has more recent origins. It was created at the beginning of the 20th century by Joseph Pilates for physical exercise and rehabilitation, focusing on strengthening the body’s core and spine while working on alignment, building lean muscle, improving posture, and helping with balance.

There’s also an obvious difference with the equipment. Yoga uses mainly a mat, as well as minor equipment such as blocks. Pilates uses the mat as well but also a variety of apparatus that use varying springs for resistance and assistance.

But even if we knew the two methods were different, neither Kathy or I knew much about yoga. It just wasn’t our thing. I then realized that the difference wasn’t so much about the exercises themselves, even if it is part of it, but about the philosophy behind it and the mind-body approach. Even the breathing was not introduced the same way.

So… I do think our person, our maturity, is changing through life, so something that was introduced at a certain time in our life may have been introduced at the wrong time. What do I mean by that? In my case, I was introduced to Pilates mat class when I was a student at Alvin Ailey dance center. I remember having some classmates being so in love and in touch with a technique called Pilates. This was in 1998, and I’m not sure the class was called Pilates at that time due to trademark issues. I decided to follow one of these classmates and to register in this class. I remember her being a little weird because she will use all those deep anatomical terms to talk about something as simple as a toe. But anyway, I decided to try and for sure I did not get it.

At this time, I had zero clue there were different worlds in Pilates. What we call the Classical method is closer to what Joseph Pilates used to teach, another was a more fitness fusion type that was taught in gyms, and another style was more of a physical therapy (PT) direction which was more focused on rehabilitation. The class I took at Alvin Ailey was more of the PT direction. Really slow and with long details to try to find the deeper muscles in your body. I was a mover, and I couldn’t get that the point was not to bring your leg to your nose. The show off that used to work and impress my grandma yoga classmates was surely not working on this Pilates instructor.  

Now, another important point is, that I think that this teacher was not good. Instead of explaining to me that I should work with control and limitation, she would just look at me with frustration or just ignore me. So, I was just like “that $hit ain’t for me”. A decade later, when I was pregnant with my son Joseph, my not yet husband Joey and I decided to buy a house in the town of Newburgh, because his parents were living nearby, and we knew we needed their help with the baby. I was still living in Paris, at that time, and still working as a dancer. But I wanted it to be my last contract, because I was ready to focus on my new life as a mother. Joey was still living in the Bronx, and we were really excited about moving into a new house together.

With no doubt, I wanted to have my baby in France, near my grandma and with all the benefits I could take advantage of over there. Women in France are being followed by a midwife that would help them go through pregnancy before and after birth. You could choose to have swimming, yoga, or even now Pilates classes during your pregnancy. I choose swimming. I loved both midwives that followed me. They give you different classes to educate you about the pregnancy and one of them was about the pelvic floor. To learn how the breathing can help you to relax and how the control of the pelvic floor can help the birthing process. Then that same class explained how the breathing can help to connect to your transversus abdominis and help to retract the pelvic floor. Not only did you have the class but after having the baby the midwife will meet with you to physically help you to heal your pelvic floor and to avoid any case of diastasis recti.

You may ask yourself why am I talking about my pregnancy when you were attracted to this blog to figure out the difference between yoga and Pilates. I’m getting there… First, I want to explain that this was the first time I finally understand how to breathe. And diaphragmatic breathing with long inhalation and exhalation, really helps with relaxation. Surely it won’t make the contraction pain disappear, but Joseph and some years later Stella slid out of me like butter, truly painful butter, but the breathing did help to make it a little easier without any epidural. When I came back to the States and after nine months of being a mom, I decided that I needed to be active again. I went to see my chiropractor Errol Toran in New York city, and his wife Ann asked me if I was interested in Pilates. This couple helped me so much while I was a student, with a psoas and lower back injury. I am always grateful for their help and advice.

In 1998, when I got injured they helped me with rehabilitation exercises. Ann was a former dancer that studied at the New York City Ballet School. Dancers from New York City Ballet were the first dancers introduced to Pilates. When I came back to them, 10 years after, Ann told me the exercises we were doing to strengthen me in the past and to rehabilitate me, was Pilates. She showed me the studio they created since with the apparatus named reformers. One of my best friends, Fabrice Lamego, was working for her while continuing his dance career. I was still hesitant and not convinced that Pilates was for me. But I gave a try on the reformer and this was an “illumination” evidence. How did I miss out? I just loved it. I could connect to all the details my midwives gave me on transversus abdominis, pelvic floor, diaphragmatic breathing and all that in a form of exercise. Not like in a gym setting, which I never had an interest in (probably a subject for another blog), but as a moving exercise with count and flow. It reminds me of dance training. That was it, Pilates was my thing!

Most of my friends were into yoga, so I would try again to take the class and as much as I felt very good after class I really wasn’t enjoying the yoga class itself. It was not that I didn’t like the exercises, neither that it was painful or difficult, it was just that I could not stay focused. The only yoga classes I enjoyed was when the instructor gave a specific body part to focus on. And that’s where I personally think yoga and Pilates are different. In Pilates, not only will you constantly be in movement and even more if you take classical classes, but you always have to focus on a specific muscle or joint or body part. You will have to get in touch with you deeper self physically, using the mind to get control on your body.

In yoga, it is more abstract. The focus is more spiritual and you are using your mind to pass the limits of your body. Unfortunately, as much as I like to talk spirituality with my friends, it does not turn off my thoughts while exercising. I did not say it will never be but at this time in my life I am not ready for it. When I take a yoga class, and the instructor is starting to ask us to focus on something abstract, I will start thinking of laundry, kid’s activities, chores and many other things that will not relax or turn my brain off. We are all different, and need different things at different times of our life. I know a lot of people who swear about yoga and can’t find any interest in Pilates. It may sound like I’m saying that Pilates is more superficial because we are focusing on ourselves as the mechanic of the body, while yoga will be more on the spirituality level. But I don’t see it this way, far from it actually. I thing is just a different direction to learn to know about yourself. Pilates is building from the inside towards the outside, you will use your full mind connection to connect to your power house (your core, your center). I think we can use Pilates to focus on our base, our ground to be in touch with our body, to be aware of our limitations. To listen to our pain, not ignoring it but working around it. Focusing on what is still functioning properly, balancing the body to avoid any overuse. In Pilates, our focus is the powerhouse, the center, then we keep building around it. Pilates helped me to accept my body, to recognize my strength and to listen to my pain, accepting it instead of being angry about it. To see the pain as a friend to avoid pushing to a point of injury.

I think yoga will help, when I’ll be ready, to get to the next step of getting in touch with the unknown. To let go of the control that is necessary in the Pilates technique originally called Contrology. I think yoga will push some limitation but I do think your mind and body needs to be ready for it. While writing this blog, I attended a yoga retreat and learned a lot more about the subject. It was a little difficult to open up at first but then it became more natural. Plus, I tried a Yogabundance class which was a fusion between yoga and west African. I’m usually not a big fan of fusion classes and concerning Pilates and yoga, if you are newbies to both techniques you should tried the original techniques to know your base before going into any type of fusion. But in this case, probably because I am half west African, it did help me to stay connected. I’ll probably try yoga again sooner than I thought I would, when I was writing this blog but at the moment Pilates is MY THING!

Hope it will become yours too…