Is Pilates, Yoga?

Updated: Oct 12, 2018

The more I practise both the more I actually see them as two of the same but with different names. I would suggest that in the West we feel a great need to label things, primarily for a speed of reference. It doesn’t just happen with Pilates and Yoga, but Yoga itself gets divided into various different labels. I will look to remove these labels and show just how much these two practises share. I hope to challenge the notion that they are separate and we have to sit on one camp or the other.

I aim to make it accessible for both ‘Yogis’ and Pilates practitioners. The sacred Yoga texts were written originally in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. I will be using Sanskrit words, but will give the words meaning and translations. The language is extremely complex and poetic, so any translation is someone’s own perception of the text. Pilates is a little simpler. The ancient Pilates text…now a whopping 73 years old…was written in German. Much easier to translate thankfully. Now let’s get DEEP!

This could be a Pilates Rollover, or it could be Plow Pose in Yoga.

Classically, Pilates was 34 exercises found in Joseph Pilates’ ‘Return To Life Through Contrology’ (1945), but today it is a whole host of movements guided by the six principles- Breath, Centre, Concentration, Control, Flow and Precision- found in the same book. Yoga is far harder to define and I would suggest, completely subjective. In the West we widely practice the Asanas, which are the 3rd of the ‘Eight Limbs’ found in the ‘Yoga Sutras of Pantajali’. In Sanskrit, Asana is translated as posture, and in the Yoga Sutras it is said to be ‘Posture is that which is firm and pleasant’ (2:46). This is the goal to provide the platform for Pranayama or breathing exercises, and meditation. The only Asana, or posture here is being seated. In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, ‘Asanas make one’s body and mind steady, keep one healthy and light of limb’ (1:17). It is the first time that we read and see Asanas as being more than just sitting. Pilates or Contrology ‘develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit.’ (Pilates, 1945: 27). These clearly correlates with the definition of Yoga Asanas from Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Asanas are just one area of Yoga. Using the definition of Yoga as ‘restraining the mind-stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms (Vrttis)’ (Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali 1:2) sees big similarities to Joseph Pilates’ statement that ‘Contrology is complete coordination of body, mind and spirit’ (Pilates 1945: 27). Both Pilates and Yoga are more than merely movement of the body. They encompass mind, body and spirit/soul.

Pilates states ‘above all, learn how to breathe correctly’ (Pilates, 1945: 31). This is completely in keeping with the Yoga Sutras’ 4th Limb of breath control, or Pranayama. There are Asanas and ‘Controlling the motion of the exhalation and inhalation follow after this’ (Yoga Sutras 2:49). Lateral breathing- which ‘is the preferred mode during the practise of Pilates’ (Isacowitz & Clippinger, 2011: 7)- is actually found in later texts such as ‘Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha’ (1969). Pilates also uses a Percussive breath in The Hundred which can be likened to Bhakstrika Pranayama in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (2:62), with the breath being ‘pushed out not only more forcefully during exhalation but also with a percussive emphasis’ (Isacowitz & Clippinger, 2011: 7). Whilst there are many more Pranayama practises, Pilates can be seen to utilise breath control.

The control of breath leads to the 5th Limb of Pratayhara. Whilst this is classed as sensory withdrawal, it is definited as ‘retraining the Prana by directing it either to the exernal or internal object’ (Yoga Sutras 2:51). This ‘direction of Prana’ can be translated as a control of energy (Prana, put simply, is a Sanskrit word for energy), with control being one of the principles of Pilates. ‘Good posture can be successfully acquired only when the entire mechanism of the body is under perfect control.’ (Pilates 1945: 40) All of our Prana is being directed to the movement or muscle control, which in turn leads to a withdrawal of the senses.

After Pranayama and Pratayhara, the Yoga Sutras say ‘The mind becomes fit for Dharana’ (2:53). The 6th Limb, ‘Dharana is holding the mind on to some particular object’ (Yoga Sutras 3:1) or concentration. Pilates says to ‘Concentrate on the correct movements EACH TIME YOU EXERCISE’ (Pilates, 1945: 32), which led to it becoming one of the principles. This concentration on the exercise can be said to lead to the 7th Limb of Dhyana. ‘An unbroken flow of knowledge to that object is Dhyana’ (Yoga Sutras 3:2). The object in this example is the exercise. Are we getting deep enough yet?

In Return to Life Through Contrology, Pilates writes about more than just the six principles. Although it is not really talked about in classes, he says ‘experience has nevertheless taught us that only a small minority really achieve thorough cleanliness’ (Pilates 1945: 39). This ‘internal and external cleanliness’ (Yoga Sutras 2:40) is known as Shaucha and is part of the 2nd Limb of Niyama. Whilst Pilates doesn’t state to go to the lengths suggested in Hatha Yoga Pradipika (eg. ‘Bastih: Get into water up to the naval and sit in utkatasana resting the body on toes, the heels pressing the buttocks; insert a small bamboo tube into the anus (and contract anus); this will help draw water into the stomach; then shake it. [2:26]), they both have dedicated a large proportion of the text (in relative terms) to cleanliness. We can also find ‘so many persons express such great surprise caused by their realisation of the resulting sensation of uplift’ and ‘With the mind, body and spirit functioning perfectly as a coordinated whole’ (Pilates, 1945: 28 & 41) is very much in keeping with The Yoga Sutras 2:41; stating ‘There also arises purification of the Sattva, cheerfulness of the mind, concentration, conquest of the organs, and fitness for the realisation of the self’.

One of the shaucha cleansing rituals of a neti pot for nasal rinsing

Both Yoga and Pilates place an importance on the diet. In Hatha Yoga Pradipika it is said that ‘Yoga is destroyed through…over eating’ (1:15). Pilates devotes 2 out of the 19 of actual text, saying ‘The principal point to remember with regard to diet is to eat only enough food to restore the “fuel” consumed by the body and to keep enough of it on hand at all times to furnish the extra energy required on occasions beyond our normal needs and to meet unexpected emergencies.’ (Pilates 1945: 35). Neither go into exact details of what to eat, but they both emphasise a lightness of diet.

Now I know ‘Yogis’ are going to say that the Asanas are designed to move energy and open Chakras. Chakras are essentially energy centres and whole books are written on them (I would highly recommend Hiroshi Motoyama’s ‘Theories of the Chakras’) so I won’t go into details here. But Yoga uses what are called the Bandhas (or locks) to control the flow of energy. The Bandhas are first encountered in Hatha Yoga Pradipika. To perform Uddiyananabandha it states to ‘draw back with effort (the abdomen) above and below the navel’ (3:59) and for Mulabandha ‘contract the anus and draw the apana upwards’ (3:61). In contemporary times Mulabandha is described in ‘Moola Bandha: The Master Key’ as a ‘perineal contraction’ (Buddhananda 1978: 3) which differs from anal contraction, but that could be explained by translations. In my opinion there are distinct parallels between these two Bandhas and the Pilates principle of ‘Centre’. The ‘Centre’ has several meanings such as the centre of gravity, but is primarily known for referencing the core, or ‘In Pilates this is referred to as the powerhouse’ (Isacowitz & Clippinger 2011: 2). This ‘can be described as the area from the bottom of the rib cage to a line across the hip joints in the front and to the base of the buttocks at the back.’ (Ibid: 17) For most Pilates teachers I have studied with or been taught by, the Pelvic Floor and The Transverse Abdominis are the two main focuses of the powerhouse. Whilst I would say that the contraction of these areas is not to the same degree as in Yoga, they relate directly to Mulabandha and Uddiyananabandha. Even Jalandharabandha, which is instructed as ‘Contract the throat and depress the chin firmly against the chest’ (Hatha Yoga Pradipiki, 3:70) is almost as exactly how Joseph Pilates states to be in certain exercises; ‘Whenever you read the word “rolling” in the exercises, be sure to hold your chin pressed tightly against your chest’ (Pilates, 1945: 31). I personally- just like many contemporary Pilates teachers- wouldn’t cue it in that way, but the words are almost exactly the same. Pilates in my opinion can move energy and help to work the Chakras, which is why I developed and teach what I call Kundalates.

With all this I am not saying that Pilates is Yoga. That would be naïve and disrespectful to the tradition/religion/philosophy. It can be said that Yoga’s goal is Samadhi (which could be translated as Enlightenment), so Yoga’s goal in the sacred texts has nothing to do with Asanas; they are just a vehicle. Contemporary Yoga has become to many a moving meditation as Pratyhara, Dharana and Dhyana come into their practise. But this can be brought into almost anything that you do, including Pilates. In my opinion, Pilates is just the same as Vinyasa, Yin or any other type of Asana practise, in not actually being Yoga. Both Pilates and Yogasana can have massive benefits to people’s holistic well-being, but if you are not spiritually inclined, going to a Vinyasa class (and I’m not picking on Vinyasa here, but citing it as an example) is just a form of movement exercise. If you are spiritually inclined, I would argue that going to a Pilates class can be as spiritually awakening as any Yoga class. I believe that the difference is that the word Yoga carries an exotic notion to many Westerners, particularly in their game of spiritual one-upmanship. May I propose that if we were to actually reach Samadhi, and be able to practise Samyama- concentration, meditation and enlightenment (Yoga Sutras 3:4) – upon Yoga, that it would no longer exist as a label, or in any form.

Let me leave you with this quote:

Ego is constantly attempting to acquire and apply the teachings of spirituality for its own benefit…We become skilful actors, and whilst playing deaf and dumb to the real meaning of the teachings, we find some comfort in pretending to follow the path.” (Trungpa, 1973: 13)
[ACCESSED 09.08.18]

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