Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Pilates vs. Yoga

Photo credit: Chris Fanning,

Pilates and Yoga have gained significant popularity over the last 10 years with athletes of all sports, genders, and ages. Many studios are now offering pilates and yoga for kids. They have both become the cross-training choice of many endurance athletes. I have taken a series of classes in both basic yoga and pilates. Yoga, the older of the two disciplines (originated in India over 26,000 years ago), literally means "union". This union is between the mind, body, and spirit. There are several different branches of yoga (8), but the one we mostly identify with is described as Hatha Yoga, which refers to the practice of physical postures and poses (asana). Depending on the tradition of the instructor, classes can combine these postures and poses with relaxion and meditation to acheive a therapeutic healing of the mind, body, and spirit. Pilates, originally developed and taught by Joseph Pilates 80 years ago, is a series of exercises that are performed with the goal of elongating the muscles of the spine, developing core strength (the powerhouse: abdominals, postural muscles, gluteals), muscular control, and balance. Both disciplines are very concerned with quality of movement and being connected with your body in order to control movement. A meditative state of body awareness can be acheived with both disciplines in order to have a therapeutic stress relieving component.

All of that being said, I find that there are great benefits to both. As with all types of fitness and strength activities, I believe one has to identify their own goals when beginning a program whether it be going to the gym for a workout or starting a yoga class. The word that comes to my mind is balance. In my experience, yoga poses tend to focus more on flexibility. This is not to say that the poses don't require strength, because I can tell you that this is far from the truth. There are several poses that I couldn't even start because i didn't have the strength to hold the position. On the other hand, Pilates classes seem to focus on strength and control. To be honest though, some of the movements in the class I had trouble performing because, you guessed it, I wasn't flexible enough. To solve these dilemmas, I found that many of the pilates and yoga instructors would incorporate movements from both disciplines to supplement those deficits. I'm by no means an expert in either of the disciplines, so I don't know to what extent they overlap, but I did find that many of the movements overlapped each other i.e. flexibility movements in pilates and core strength movements in yoga.

Balance is the key. In my field, I see muscle imbalances everyday. I can see a muscle imbalance from a mile away when i'm watching a track meet. There's millions of opinions out there as to the cause of these imbalances. Is one muscle too tight? Is one muscle weak? Is the joint or joints hypermobile (too flexible)? Why are they in this state? Do they have a faulty postural habit (sitting on feet)? Do they have a faulty movement pattern (squatting or bending)? Have they had an injury or surgery that caused this compensation? Do they have a genetic trait (true leg length difference)? The list goes on and on. I believe that in most cases the cause of muscle imbalance is a combination of two or more of these.

Too often, I see athletes that have chosen to focus on only one part of the puzzle. For example, a runner who runs 50-60 miles a week and does yoga twice a week comes into the clinic with hip pain. In this situation the person was focusing on flexibility and neglecting stability. Their hamstrings, glutes, piriformis, and lower back muscles were above average for range of motion and flexibility, but their hip strength (buttock muscles and abdominals) were weak leaving muscles that were being overworked in order to control the hip and pelvis while running. Correcting the muscle imbalance with functional hip and core strength allowed them to return to running. This is just one example of many.

I am not saying that everyone who does either yoga and pilates and is a runner is going to end up injured or with a muscle imbalance. I know many athletes who do both, just one, or neither and never have a problem. My goal is to make people more aware of balance between strength and flexibility in order to perform better. I did both at separate times and felt stronger while running. I felt like my body was more stable and was able to be more efficient during workouts. Yoga definitely made me more fluid and relaxed while pilates made me feel longer and more powerful.

If you are injured or question whether you might have a muscle imbalance that might be hindering your performance there are many good (and some, not so good;) articles on the internet. Consult a sports medicine physician, physical therapist, or athletic trainer for a postural analysis or movement screen to identify problem areas.

Both pilates and yoga are great options for cross-training. Just remember to keep balance.

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