Pilates or yoga: Which workout is better?

By Audrey Noble

Photo: Getty

Downward dog or reformer machines? We get the experts to break down the differences – and which could be the better fit for you

In the world of ‘It’ girl-approved low-impact workouts, there are two forms of exercises that reign supreme: yoga and Pilates. Though similar in results (a stronger core, toned muscles, etc.), they are very different in practice. So how does one choose between the two?


Deciding which workout is better for you and your needs depends on a couple of different factors. So if you’re debating whether you should be in downward dog five days a week or investing in a Pilates class package, here are some things to consider.

What is pilates?

Pilates, as Dr. Melissa Leber, MD, director of emergency department sports medicine at the Mount Sinai Health System, describes it, is a low-impact form of exercise that focuses on core strength. This is done through different movements on a mat or on a reformer machine.

Created by German circus performer and boxer Joseph Pilates, Pilates exercises are all about slow and controlled small movements to tone the body. “It has great health benefits since it’s a form of strength-building exercise by using our own body weight as resistance,” says Dr. Leber. “This helps to prevent injury and also rehab chronic injuries; the fact that it is low-impact means that it’s great for the joints.”

While Pilates can be done on your own at home, Dr. Leber says an instructor is beneficial to ensure you’re doing the exercises properly. Plus, correct form yields better results and helps to prevent injury. The exercises are adjustable to suit a range of physical needs and capabilities, those with back pain and core-related injuries should look for a modified approach with the help of a professional. Results vary based on consistency, but Dr. Leber notes that it can take up to a year to really develop core strength. Slow and steady is the key to your progression.

What is yoga?

Derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to yoke” or “to unite,” yoga is a practice that “connects our body, mind, and spirit with our individual self and universal consciousness,” says Sudha Nair, yoga expert and wellness manager at The Four Seasons, Nam Hai, Hoi An, Vietnam.

The ancient spiritual practice, which first originated in India, ultimately aims to achieve self-discovery and liberation through movements, meditation, and breathing techniques. Yoga has evolved over centuries to include many different practices. Nair breaks down the most common forms as follows:

  • Hatha Yoga: focuses on breathing, basic postures and relaxation
  • Vinyasa Yoga: links breath with dynamic movements
  • Ashtanga Yoga: A physically demanding style of yoga that follows a set sequence of postures
  • Iyengar Yoga: emphasizes proper alignment with the use of props
  • Bikram Yoga: also known as hot yoga, is practiced in a heated room and follows a set sequence of postures
  • Kundalini Yoga: focuses on chakras and the release of energy in the body
  • Restorative Yoga: supports the body in gentle restful positions and the use of props
  • Yin Yoga: stretches the connective tissues by holding poses for a longer period of time

When practiced regularly, the physical benefits of yoga include improved flexibility, stamina, and strength. But “it’s not just a physical practice,” Nair says, adding that it can also be beneficial to your mental health. “It is a diverse practice and many levels of consciousness are involved.”

With meditation and breathing practices incorporated throughout sessions, yoga can help relieve stress and anxiety and get you to sleep better at night. Certain poses, she adds, can help reduce inflammation, improve cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, and lead to a better immune system overall. “Practicing yoga slows down the pace of life and makes you truly understand yourself,” she says.

Practicing yoga slows down the pace of life and makes you truly understand yourself.

Sudha Nair, yoga expert and wellness manager at The Four Seasons, Nam Hai, Hoi An

Yoga is generally considered safe, as long as you practice with a trained yoga teacher or professional. Those who have certain medical conditions, have joint issues, are pregnant, or older in age may need to modify their practices to avoid injury. It can take time for you to see results; it’s all dependent on how consistent you are, your fitness level, and what you’re looking to achieve in the end.

The differences

The main difference between Pilates and yoga is the movements. Dr. Leber says that yoga tends to be a slower-paced workout compared to Pilates, with you holding certain poses for a longer period of time. Pilates moves at a quicker pace and focuses on the repetition of low-impact exercises to work your core muscles. The focus on the mind-body connection also differs, with yoga incorporating meditation and spirituality to help your mental well-being.

While both exercises are difficult in their own right, Dr. Leber says it might be easier for beginners to get started with yoga since Pilates focuses so much on building core strength. Because Pilates can be more active than yoga, you may see results quicker, but regardless of which one you decide to take up, you’ll need to be consistent for a minimum of three months to experience the full benefits.

Which one is better?

The short answer is neither. What will work best for you depends on various factors, including what type of results you’re looking to achieve. Dr. Leber says that if you like a slower exercise affords time to tend to your mental health, give yoga a try first. If you’re into a a faster pace workout with a focus on core strength, Pilates will likely resonate more. No matter which form of exercise you choose, again, consistency is key. “Pick whichever one provides you with the instructor, teacher, or coach, who inspires you to consistently return for more,” she says. “In the end, sticking with the workout long term will give you the best benefit.”