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Stretch yourself

For those of us who regularly play sport or who are very active, there may be a point where injury forces us to look for something that is both an alternative and a cure. But it is not just the injured who need an alternative – more and more sports people are recognising that by looking after their bodies, they will be able to perform at the top level for longer. The Manchester United footballer Ryan Giggs was a keen advocate of Yoga, crediting the activity with keeping him at the top of the game until his late 30s – a time when most top players have long hung up their boots.

Which is where the question of Yoga or Pilates, crops up. A physio may offer the advice: “take up Yoga or Pilates”. The flexible 60-year-old will espouse the virtues of Yoga, and minutes later an equally mobile octogenarian will explain that she has been doing Pilates for the past 20 years. Neither of which answers my question: “Which is the best?”

The uninitiated, like me, may throw Yoga and Pilates into the same category. Both are therapeutic exercises, as opposed to lung-busting cardio activities; they both involve breathing technique; and they both promote self-awareness and body awareness. But, as I discovered, they are very different activities and within both Yoga and Pilates there are different forms of activity, which makes a straightforward comparison between the two disciplines very difficult.

Firstly, there is the age difference

Yoga is very much the elder statesman. It originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and has evolved over time. This has led to different types of Yoga, the main ones being Ashtanga, Bikram, Kripalu and Vinyasa.

In the mid-20th century Joseph Pilates introduced exercises as a form of rehabilitation. Joseph Pilates was an athlete, and his exercise was aimed at curing athletic injuries, but the practice was seized upon by dancers, who began to use Pilates to strengthen their bodies for performance.

A different outlook
While both disciplines focus on a connection between body and mind, Yoga adds a third dimension – that of spirit. Meditation creates the perfect situation in which to explore spirituality, so much Yoga practice is devoted to clearing and cleansing the spirit.
Class differences
This is a difficult one to pinpoint. Each class you walk into will be different, so it’s tough to highlight specific distinctions. At a basic level, it comes down to flexibility. Yoga classes tend to be less regimented than Pilates. Postures, sequences and variations can be combined into thousands of routines from one class to the next. The form of the class will be set by the teacher and the style of Yoga you choose to practice. Ashtanga and Bikram has a slightly higher level of structure, and often appeals to athletes who are simply seeking more flexibility rather than a mind/body/spirit connection.

Pilates classes are more regimented, and tend to follow a pattern of movement that works specific body parts, rather than achieving a ‘whole body’ flow. Some Pilates classes will use specialist machines to achieve greater strength and target specific body areas.

Meditation is another element that distinguishes the classes. Not all classes start and end with a chant, but many do. This brings in focus and dedication at the start of the session and offers appreciation for the benefits of the practice at the end of a class.

Different outcomes
In both practices, you will gain strength and flexibility. Pilates offers a total body workout, but tends to focus on aligning the spine and strengthening the core, whereas in a Yoga class balance is key. A Yoga workout will work every muscle in your body equally and 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 not the entire focus.

Take a deep breath
Breathing and concentration techniques are important to both Yoga and Pilates practices. However, Yoga uses breath work on a very deep level. In energetic flow-based yoga classes such as Vinyasa or Ashtanga, the practice is called the ujjayi breath, matching deep breaths to the movements and postures. Pilates practices keep it much simpler: you inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.

A question of choice
Always one to sit on the fence, I now do a mix of both. The result? Whether cycling or standing, I feel more in tune with my core. Someone even told me I looked taller.

But the only way to find out which activity suits your needs is to try them out.