Yoga or Pilates? A Guide.
As Chiropractors, we are often asked which forms of exercise are good to complement treatment and help prevent reoccurrences of back pain. Yoga and Pilates are both forms of exercise that we commonly recommend. We might sometimes recommend one over another if we think either flexibility or strength is a factor in a particular patients problem.
If you are wondering which one to choose, this guide may help you in your decision.
Both yoga and Pilates improve muscular and postural strength. That is not to say yoga does not strengthen core posture muscles. But working the core is a key primary intention of Pilates, while in yoga it is one of a number of benefits. Both systems will increase flexibility, strength, balance and coordination. Both can be helpful in reducing or preventing back or neck pain. It may come down to personal preference, as quite often yoga provides the opportunity for a spiritual experience, while Pilates stays mainly in the physical realm.
The practice of yoga originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. It has evolved over the centuries into many different types of yoga: Ashtanga, Kripalu, Bikram and Vineyasa, to name just a few.
What is Yoga?
Yoga brings the body and mind together and is built on three main structures – exercise, breathing and meditation.
Yoga really focuses on flexibility and body awareness. Standard classes tend to last 90 minutes and frequently there is an order to the exercises that clients repeat, exploring and improving their poses over time. There is a wide variety of different yoga classes, some that are meditative and slow moving and some that are steaming hot (90 to 110 degrees!) and flow swiftly from pose to pose.
In a yoga class, you will work out every muscle in your body equally. Each posture is accompanied by a counter-posture to ensure you create balance in your body. While core-strength is definitely an important element in yoga, it is more of a piece of yoga, rather than the entire focus.
Both yoga and pilates bring an understanding that the mind and body are connected. However, exploring spirituality is a huge part of yoga practice, especially through meditation.
Many yoga classes use a chant or meditation to bring in the focus and dedication at the beginning, and to seal in and appreciate the benefits of the practice at the end.
Although Breathing techniques are important to both yoga and pilates practices, yoga uses breath work on a very deep level. Breathing techniques performed during yoga increase breath control to improve the health and function of body and mind. The two systems of exercise and breathing prepare the body and mind for meditation. When practiced regularly, yoga can become a powerful and sophisticated discipline for achieving physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
In energetic flow-based yoga classes such as Vinyasa or Ashtanga, the practice is called the ujjayi breath, where yogis breathe in and out through the nose, matching these deep breaths to the movements and postures. Often in yoga classes, there will be segments dedicated to breath work, called pranayama.
What are the Benefits of Yoga?
The exercises of yoga are designed to put pressure on the glandular systems of the body, thereby increasing its efficiency and total health.
Yoga has been shown to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol even after one session.
Yoga will strengthen the back and also release unnecessary tension which is often the cause of pain
Yoga will also emphasise relaxation and stress relief.
Pilates is a much younger practice, beginning in the mid-20th century by an athlete named Joseph Pilates. Joe Pilates, born in the late 1800s was poorly as a child. He took up anything he could find to help build his strength and yoga was part of his routine. During this time he became acutely of the need for a strong set of core muscles. The Pilates exercises were developed when he evolved yoga postures in such a way as to challenge the trunk muscles. He therefore created the exercises as a form of rehabilitation and strengthening.
What is Pilates?
Pilates is a non-aerobic method of exercising that lengthens and stretches all the major muscle groups in the body in a balanced fashion. It requires concentration in finding a centre point to control the body through movement. Each exercise has a prescribed placement rhythm and breathing pattern.
Muscles are never worked to exhaustion, so there is no sweating or straining, just intense concentration. The workout consists of a variety of exercise sequences that are performed in low repetitions, Mat work and specialised equipment for resistance can be used. The class pace can be fairly quick and have a certain choreographed feel to them.
One to one sessions are great (if not significantly more expensive) as the exercises are regularly re-evaluated to ensure they are right for each individual. I personally think this is a must fit anyone starting, particularly if just for a couple of sessions before joining a group class.
Top instructors complete at least 500 hours to receive their certification and undergo testing in basic anatomy, physiology and working with physical limitations like joint surgeries and back pain issues.
What are the Benefits of Pilates?
Improved muscle strength and tone particularly strength of the abdominals and back (core strength)
Improved posture and body awareness
Prevention of injuries related to muscle imbalances
Increased lung capacity and circulation through deep breathing (in Pilates practices, you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth).
Improved concentration, Stress management and relaxation
Overall flexibility should also improve, particularly in the back, hip, and hamstrings.
For individuals with back pain, both yoga and Pilates poses can give great results for stronger and more supportive back muscles and more flexibility.
In the end, the easiest way do decide whether to go for Pilates vs Yoga is to have a go at both! Try one or a few classes of each and you will be able to see for yourself which one suits your needs and abilities better.
For both Yoga & Pilates, classes are usually graded, so start with a gentle, slow beginners class if you can, or a small group class to ensure you have more attention in order to get the techniques right.
It may also be a good idea to try a couple of different teachers before giving up on one or the other. Classes, approaches and teaching styles can be vastly different in both yoga and pilates. It is important to find a class and teacher that suits you so you are more likely to enjoy it, benefit and stick with it.
Always discuss any recent or recurring pain with your teacher before the class begins. Care has to be taken with some yoga poses as they could make any existing problems worse. However, a yoga teacher will be able to offer advice to people with back problems.
Remember that it is not a legal requirement to be trained and anyone can set up as a yoga or pilates teacher so it is useful to use these resources and ask teachers about their training. There is lots of good teaching practice out there but also uninformed/inexperienced/untrained teaching practice.
For yoga, look out for British Wheel of Yoga teachers, who have a list of trained Yoga teachers http://www.bwy.org.uk or the Yoga Alliance.
For Pilates, take a look at www.pilatesfoundation.com
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