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Enrich your yoga practice with pilates

Enrich your yoga practice with pilates

by sascha ferguson
Practice Yoga | Tips

getting to the core

Pilates and yoga are often said in the same breath, as forerunners in a quest for awareness through movement and to “get out of the gym.” It’s easy to see why devotees of one are quite naturally drawn to the other: both are rewarding mind-body experiences which calm the nerves and use breathing, which flow between poses, and which engage the whole body with every movement.

Although many devotees stick around for the emotional stability that stems from faithful yoga practice, newcomers are often attracted to the results of either practice: long, lean muscles, flat tummies, tight bottoms, and calm, centered lives. Pilates can be an extraordinary compliment to a yoga practice as a fun and challenging diversion, a deepening of your practice, or a matter of rehabilitation.

Whereas the “goal” of both Pilates and yoga workouts is to “stay present,” and to energize the body, yoga is traditionally practiced on a mat with occasional use of props like straps and blocks. Pilates was developed and is often done on the mat, yet is universally recognized for the “apparatus,” wicked and sexy-looking equipment which looks a lot like kinky beds and chairs. Joseph Pilates developed many of his exercises on hospital chairs and beds, hence the look and the design.

Many people mistakenly presume that you are being pulled and stretched by the equipment in Pilates, but in fact, it is quite the opposite. You are learning how to move and control the apparatus with your body. There is much stretching and strengthening, but it is not passive – you are working very hard. In fact, part of the fun in Pilates is learning to move quickly and with control so you don’t poop out, like with yoga. All this exertion has a bonus: as with yoga, many Pilates devotees report a “buzz” after a session.

Yoga was quite an influence for Joseph Pilates, which is why yogis recognize asanas marbled though many Pilates exercises. Joseph Pilates was a bit of a linear thinker, however, and yoga practitioners used to such poetic nomenclature ofasanas as “warrior” and “cobra,” may chuckle at Pilates’ “single leg stretch” or “legs over the roll down bar.”

Many yoga asanas require holding a pose for a series of breaths. One doesn’t hold a lot of poses in Pilates, moving often through the breath. This is for multiple reasons, and trains the muscles to contract specifically during movement, slimming the physique and keeping joints in sockets (for those deep and difficult asanas.) The mental focus of a Pilates workout is always to power movement from the core muscles. Once this becomes automatic, you can take your newfound skill back to yoga and deepen your ability to relax into poses.

If you have never experienced truly generating power from the core and torso, you may be doing yourself a disservice. With no anchor for corresponding joints and limbs, you may be burdening your joints with the load. Odds are you’ve been borrowing strength from your joints and limbs, even as an advanced yoga student. The power you can tap into as you borrow from your core will astound you and take your yoga to new heights!

Many yogis who reluctantly turn to Pilates with an injury, which often prevents them from practicing yoga, are surprised and delighted to find a fulfilling, challenging, and interesting compliment to a yoga practice. They may return to yoga not only healed, but stronger than before the injury had occurred! Your core can take a real beating and still provide much support to joints that need a break to recover, like a shoulder or a knee. Building a “cast of muscle” around your spine and pelvis is important so that when you bend, twist or just stand, you are protecting your organs, vertebrae, joints and muscles from injury.

If you are already dealing with injury – especially a back, shoulder or knee injury –  the Pilates apparatus creates natural boundaries that aren’t quite so easy to find in yoga, unless you are an advanced and highly aware yoga student. Pilates is a stable place to start moving again, and once you are able to support your injury and move fluidly you will find you can enter a yoga practice without fear of re-injury.

While a typical yoga class is ninety minutes, a Pilates session averages about fifty-five. The more advanced the Pilates student, the more exercises can be executed within the hour. A typical beginner can handle around twenty, while a more advanced student, can handle about seventy to eighty. The quicker flow between poses and constant adaptation of the body dynamic is great for people with rapid-firing minds who find peace through having so much to focus on at once, rather than having to learn how to clear their minds by meditation and breath alone.

Because the emphasis in Pilates is on precision, flow, and speed, it tends to keep the mind pretty busy. As you advance through the Pilates system, you are likely to find yourself upside-down, or balancing on one arm, or flipping over on the equipment. If you find your mind wandering even for even two seconds, you’ll simply fall off the apparatus. So for those of us with hyperactive minds, the quick pace of Pilates and the fact that you have to create an awareness of many dynamics at once gives us the break we need from the gears in our brains. The kind of person who just can’t stop thinking even when in savasana usually takes immediately to Pilates, and paradoxically learns how to quiet the mind, and become better prepared for a fulfilling yoga practice.

Many yogis enroll in Pilates teaching or advanced programs to absorb as much as possible. Teacher trainees who come into the program with a background in yoga find that it “explains feelings they already knew” in their bodies, and furthers their ability to share that knowledge with others. Conversely, many people who were once frustrated and overwhelmed with yoga find that after Pilates, they are not only more physically prepared, but more confident and able to expound the benefits of yoga.