Yoga vs Pilates: The New York Times is wrong

pilates, pilates mat, pilates vs yoga

credit: Alex Wymer

My client looked at me with a glint in her eye. "So ... what do you think of The New York Times  article about yoga vs Pilates?" Me: What? Her: They kinda bashed Pilates ... said it was good for core and not much else. Me:  Really ... Her:  Yeah, they said you can't get a good arm or leg workout from it. I looked at my client's amazingly sculpted arms and said, "What do you think?" Her:  Yeah, I thought you'd be annoyed. I've been here before ... For some reason, Gretchen Reynolds, who does most of the fitness reporting for The New York Times, doesn't have a very high opinion of Pilates. I honestly wonder if she's ever even tried it. She just grabs one study factoid here, another study factoid there, both of which reinforce her own skewed opinion, and the Times prints it. Which leaves me wondering about their moniker: "All the News That's Fit to Print." In Reynolds' most recent piece, she used a Pilates study that had a whopping NINE people in it. It's sad that I've taught group Pilates mat classes bigger than the cohort size of a study quoted in the nation's most esteemed newspaper. To wit, according to HuffPo, over the past three years The New York Times has mentioned Pilates exactly six times ... It has mentioned yoga 12 times in just the first seven-plus months of 2013. Pilates isn't even an afterthought; it's something that is occasionally called forth, usually to compare it against something "better." Sigh.

Yoga vs Pilates

Here's the thing: Pilates and/or yoga is only as good as the person teaching it. Your instructor will inform your class and guide you through a total body workout. Or not. At the end of the day, it comes down to the talent of the teacher and how well they know their craft. The other truly annoying issue is that the article only looks at Pilates mat work. It doesn't include any small props, and it doesn't include Pilates equipment, such as the Reformer or Chair. Basically it's looking at about 5 to 8 percent of the total repertoire of exercises.  Imagine if they did that for yoga, only discussing Hatha, while completely ignoring Bikram, Ashtanga, Kundilini, and the like. People's reactions would be far from zen.

The Truth:  Pilates is About the Core

Here's what I know to be true. Pilates does focus on the core ... it's what we do! Every exercise -- whether it's a bicep curl or a squat -- includes engagement of the abdominal muscles, what many instructors call the core. (Honestly I just call them "your abs," but that's me.) So you are working out your biceps AND your abs, and then you work out your butt AND your abs. It's one of the reasons why Pilates is so bloody effective at ditching the muffin top.
I tell my clients I expect you to walk in the door and suck your abs in and not let them go until you walk back out again.
Just imagine how effective that is to defining and shrinking your midsection. It's cool, no? BUT as I mentioned above, you're also doing bicep curls and squat-like moves and all sorts of other exercises. It is completely a stem-to-stern workout and I just wish I could get my hands on Ms. Reynolds for an hour so I could prove her quite resoundingly wrong. As for yoga, yes, you are working the upper body quite a bit and lots of legs as you hold those warrior poses. You are definitely working and sweating. There is less emphasis on abs in yoga ... I've never seen a yogini with a six-pack, although I have seen plenty of healthy, strong, vibrant yoginis.

Injury Rates for Yoga vs. Pilates

The injury rate for yoga is pegged at 3.5 people per 10,000. For comparison, golf is 39 injuries per 10,000 participants. Golf is a tough sport on your back, and it's one of the reasons so many golf pros do Pilates. We keep them healthy, as well as improving their game. After an extensive search on the internet I couldn't find any statistics for Pilates injury rates ... apparently it's not high enough to keep track of. So there's that ... But again, it comes back to the teachers. If you've got a good instructor, they'll keep you safe. If you don't, then to a large extent, you're on your own to listen to your body. What do you think of yoga vs Pilates? Does this seem like a silly debate the media likes to poke at occasionally?  Or do you truly think one is better than the other? Ultimately it comes down to which one you prefer. After all, some people are runners and some people aren't.  We all need to find the workout that sticks for us, and that comes before anyone else's opinion about a particular sport.

About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.


15 Responses to Yoga vs Pilates: The New York Times is wrong

  1. Lu MK August 14, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    Yes, very silly debate. A skilled instructor will pull from all her knowledge and experience.
    Good yoga teachers often throw in some Pilates-type exercises for more precise strength training.

    And OF COURSE there are loads of injuries in yoga… it’s gotten so popular that we have studies with clueless instructors popping up all over the place.

    I do, however, have clients who got hurt doing Pilates, too. It’s rare, though… while everybody I know who does yoga with some kind of ambition gets hurt eventually.

    Mostly it’s just strains, and that happens in every sport.

  2. Lisa Johnson August 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm #

    and Lu, if the instructor matters so much you’d think they’d put an emphasis on creating kick butt certification programs but instead half the stuff is online only certs … (not true for yoga and Pilates but the norm for personal trainers). Ugh.

  3. Angela August 14, 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    I do both at my gym and I don’t think of either as “better”. They both are wonderful and have a place in my gym routine. And personally, I think NY Times sucks in general.

  4. Lisa Johnson August 14, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

    LOL … I think the NYTimes has been taking short cuts due to budget cuts for a few years now … blech …

  5. TraceyJoy August 15, 2013 at 10:53 pm #

    Apples and bananas other than both being fruit that grows on trees they aren’t the same. Pilates and Yoga both are methods of working/toning/strengthening your body, mats are often included in sessions and practiced barefoot at times, other than that they aren’t the same although they are often times synonymously linked. Ridiculous debate. I personally do not care for yoga I’ve tried it many many times over the years I always go back to Pilates. It’s where my body feels the best, where my body responds to the movements. As for Gretchen she must not have been on a Reformer if she did she wouldn’t write such things. Very biased article doesn’t hold water for me nothing was proven one way or the other. As for that study what was their diet like during this 36 weeks of training?

  6. Lisa Johnson August 19, 2013 at 9:33 am #

    TraceyJoy, I’m the same as you … I keep trying yoga, I know it’s good for me … I even feel great when I leave … and then I head back to Pilates. For my body, it feels like home. :-)

  7. Georgia August 21, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    I agree that the instructor can have an effect on whether you enjoy or don’t enjoy a certain class or activity. Whilst there is certainly some overlap between yoga and Pilates, to suggest that Pilates only works the core is just plain incorrect.

    I personal do both yoga and Pilates for different reasons and derive great benefits from both. However, I personal prefer the physical and muscular effects I get from Pilates. However I think there is a big difference between matwork and Reformer. Perhaps the NYTimes author didn’t try both.

  8. Deborah August 23, 2013 at 7:50 am #

    Amen! This is awesome! :-)

  9. Lisa Johnson September 8, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Georgia, it sounds like she didn’t try both doesn’t it? Who knows … my offer still stands for Ms. Reynolds to do a one on one with me. :-)

  10. Nicola September 11, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    Why does it have to be one versus the other? I find my mat Pilates and yoga practice complement each other beautifully. For instance, a lot of yoga postures require core strength; however, if you don’t already have a degree of core strength it’s tempting to ignore the core and do more work in your arms or legs. The stronger core I get from Pilates, as well as the way it makes me mentally focus on those muscles, means I can do those postures better than if I was only practising yoga. Likewise, the static flexibility I gain from a lot of yoga postures helps me develop dynamic flexibility in Pilates.

    I’ve seen so many “news” articles pitting one against the other, never acknowledging that *both* can be part of a well-rounded fitness routine (or neither, if they’re not your cup of tea). I’m waiting for the articles comparing Barre with Pilates ;)

    And you’re totally right; in the end it’s what a person will stick with and get results from.

  11. Lisa Johnson September 11, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Oh geez, you’re right barre and Pilates is next … oy! Those two do complement each other particularly well I think. Although every barre class I took I was never happy with how they were cueing their ab work. :-) But I’m rather picky.

  12. Sherry December 2, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Hi Lisa, great article. I’m interested in doing exercises at home and am looking at many highly rated DVDs for mat workouts. I’m wondering if you think it’s okay to do BOTH yoga and pilates? Or should I focus on just one?

  13. Lisa Johnson January 27, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    It’s definitely ok to do both … maybe not on the same day, but if you’re body is happy just keep doing whatever feels good. :)

  14. Dawn Adams February 14, 2014 at 11:00 am #

    I have recently signed up for a Pilates class at the local community college. I am in my early fifties and have had car accidents that over time have damaged specific area’s. I had a disc fusion in my neck about 5 years ago. I am enjoying the Pilates class however, I have a long way to go for my body to do what my mind is asking it to do. My instructor is well informed about the medical aspects of my body. She makes sure to announce to the entire class to not push or strain to complete a movement and to make sure to breathe. I am looking forward ,in the near future, being able to relax my very tight muscles and at the same time strengthening them.


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