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Yoga or pilates?

Yoga versus Pilates! There are great benefits to each of these practises, but how do you know which is best suited to you? Adele Smyth, who teaches both, shares her journey.

Yoga or Pilates?

Where do you start with this question? It’s something I’m asked a lot – and  I’m sure I answer it differently every time based on how I’m feeling that day! And if you approach the question from the viewpoint of the physical benefits of each compared to the other, then you’re really in for a minefield of a debate.

But I want to talk to you about the more personal reasons as to why we choose one over the other and also ask the question of why can’t we do both?

I have been a classical Pilates teacher for nearly 14 years and a yoga student and teacher for a fair while too.

My love of Pilates started after I had had enough of teaching hi-impact, high intensity classes. After years of road running and competing in races I needed to find something that made my body feel as though it had worked hard and efficiently but had not resulted in a huge pounding on my joints.

Coming from a dance background I was aware that many dancers, particularly ballet dancers, benefit from Pilates classes and that they appeared to stay injury free a lot longer and their rehab was also quicker.

Pilates shock

My first Pilates class was a bit of a shock to me in terms of how much slower the pace of movement was compared to the classes I’d been teaching. I had to consciously spend more time thinking about my breath pattern and how changing the way in which I breathed affected the way I worked out and my stamina too.

Once I had overcome the difference in class structure and focused on the fundamental elements of Pilates, I started to have a much deeper physical understanding of Joseph Pilates’ work and aims.

Yoga journey

My yoga journey has been a bit different. Hot yoga was my first choice for quite a while, as I enjoyed the flexibility that the heat provided to my body and how much deeper I felt I could move into the asanas. I knew of the spiritual background of yoga, but I hadn’t explored this aspect of the practise very much and I wasn’t really sure how I felt about it.

Around this time, my dad passed away and shortly after I went through a separation and divorce. I was a single mum working part-time as a nurse and part-time as a Pilates teacher – and I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I had spent years teaching classes which focused on my physical health and my beliefs at the time were that being physically fit and healthy would automatically make me emotionally fit and healthy. Looking back now, I was a little naive in my expectations!

This is when ashtanga yoga came into my life. I practised from my home when the girls were in bed and started to read more about it. Unfortunately life became too busy to continue to develop my practise and I ended up spending less and less time on the mat and eventually stopped.

Fast forward 10 years! I came across a wonderful yoga teacher who reignited my yoga passion. She was so calm in mind and her outlook on life was realistic and grounded. She was appreciative that sometimes life can be tough.

Yoga teacher training came to me at the right time in my life. A time when I had accepted that I needed a deeper emotional connection to what I was practising and teaching. To have a form of exercise or movement which would allow me to rid myself of any emotional blockages that I had within my body and to then allow me to be physically and mentally healthier and stronger.

Yoga has a purpose to unite the mind, body and spirit. Yoga can be a way to heal the body and to find an emotional and mental harmonious balance. Yoga gives your body more flexibility and promotes relaxation even in the most stressful of times.

How you look versus how you feel

Can it be said that yoga is about how it makes you feel and Pilates is about how it makes you look? I think this is too simplistic, but perhaps there are some truth behind this statement.

In yoga the poses use your body weight as the resistance for exercise which takes focus to flow into and out of. This allows for fluidity and a great deal of mind / body connection. Pilates has the same aim in mind, but you can use additional equipment, either the reformer machine or small equipment like bands, to add resistance to the moves.

Pilates focus

Pilates will bring more focus to your deep abdominal core muscles to allow the rest of the body to move freely. There is a great balance between flexibility and strength resulting in strong and lean muscles – hence the possible belief that Pilates is about how it makes you look. I personally think there is more to. Yes, Pilates can give you a strong, lean physique, but I also believe it helps to iron out any kinks that are in your body and creates space your joints.

Pilates has a unique focus on core muscles in the trunk and pelvis, and is one of the best ways to build core strength. It helps you learn how to disassociate your lower back from your pelvis and to lengthen your lumbar spine to prevent and alleviate back pain.

Pilates offers a different approach compared with yoga. Rather than stretching to improve flexibility, it focuses on why a certain muscle is tight and tries to solve the problem.

I have taught Pilates for runner and cyclists over the years and worked with  triathletes and rugby professionals. This form of exercise has allowed them to remain injury free and have more awareness of how their body works and how the frontline and backline of their bodies need to function in sync.

Whichever form of exercise you decide to try, the most important thing is to enjoy it and be happy with yourself that you are moving your body and keeping yourself healthy. My aim is to empower women to feel comfortable in their own skin when exercising and never to see it as a chore or some form of punishment.

In the end, the best way to decide which one is best for you, is to give both a try!

Words: Adele Smyth


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