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01.03 Stretching out of your body

Local experts say Pilates & yoga are different, but both are good for you

Pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez) is the newest exercise craze to sweep the nation, bringing with it a plethora of infomercials, equipment ads, and endorsements by celebrities like Jennifer Anniston and Christie Brinkly. This is no passing fad, however; Pilates has been around for much longer than people think, and loyal Worcesterites are glad to attest to its value as a source of exercise and wellbeing. The question many people ask however is can Pilates stand up to yoga, a similar exercise form with a much longer history? Most experts in the fields of both Pilates and yoga say yes.

In recent years, Worcester has developed its own thriving Pilates community, with BodyMind Balance studio on Grove Street as its locus. Tammy Plaxico opened the studio in May of 2000. She believes that yoga has had a great influence on the Pilates she teaches, and she stresses that Joseph H. Pilates, the German physical trainer who developed the Pilates repertoire in the 1920s, actually studied yoga and eastern philosophy extensively.

As a result, he created a method that successfully “married Western and Eastern philosophies of exercise,” Plaxico explains. Pilates combines rigorous physical strengthening with an Eastern emphasis on breath control and body control. Accordingly, both yoga and Pilates require a certain amount of internal focus and concentration.

Plaxico maintains that, although the two practices stem from similar routes, yoga and Pilates are, contrary to popular belief, quite different in nature. Yoga is very focused on poses and holding these poses, whereas Pilates is more about “the movement through or the connection between poses.” As opposed to “static pictures,” Pilates offers more of a “sense of connection.” “Someone might call it ‘liquid yoga,’” she explains.

Pilates is popular with a wide variety of age groups. Plaxico says these are “people looking for an exercise program that is physical as well as mental, people that can appreciate Pilates as a discipline, as a technique to be studied, people that are willing to invest time and understand that all good things take time.”

Although successful courses have been taught on and off at both the local YWCA and the Jewish Community Center, BodyMind Balance is one of the major Pilates facilities serving central Massachusetts, with people traveling from all over the state to take advantage of its resources.

However, a smaller but equally valuable resource exists about twenty miles west of Worcester in West Brookfield. There, Jill Hoffman teaches Pilates at the Betty Gunderson School of Dance. Hoffman has studied yoga as well, and feels that both methods have their benefits. She claims, though, that Pilates “attends to the core muscles of the body in a way that yoga does not.”

Pilates strengthens and lengthens the muscles that support and stabilize the spine and, subsequently, the entire body, leading to a healthier neurological flow. “No other exercise has ever focused on that,” claims Hoffman. To Hoffman, Pilates is about “starting at a healthier base and being more aware of where you are in your body.”

“Most people live in their heads,” Hoffman claims. “Where people are stuck in their body, I teach them to stretch out of it.”

Hoffman describes the breathing methods of Pilates and yoga as being very different. Yoga uses abdominal breathing, whereas Pilates uses both anterior and posterior breathing. Basically, yoga calls for a deep belly breath and an expansion of the abdomen, while Pilates calls for the abdominal muscles to maintain a contraction the entire time, so that the whole abdominal cavity is being used a “power force.”

With Pilates, “there is a lot of flexibility. So it’s very user-friendly,” explains Hoffman. In yoga, there aren’t many opportunities to alter poses. In Pilates, positions can be modified to accommodate people’s individual posture or health problems. Standing positions can be used in cases of osteoporosis, for instance, and these methods offer the same challenge to the muscles.

Of course, there are those that prefer the more ancient, spiritual tradition of yoga to this newer, more physical method of Pilates.

Greg Hurd, Director of Outreach at the Bancroft School of Massage in Worcester, is one such person. Bancroft has offered both yoga and Pilates in recent years, and Hurd has participated in both. “Having done both, I’m much more drawn to yoga,” he says. “It works you in healthier ways…Pilates is great for strength-building, but yoga helps you on much subtler levels.”

Yoga can contribute to the development of positive energy and aid with health matters such as organ or spinal complications or mens and women’s issues, he claims. Yoga also increases flexibility whereas Pilates, which focuses more on the strengthening of the abdomen, does not.

Yoga is slow-moving and focused on working the “energy core,” and Pilates is more focused on working the “physical core,” Hurd explains. “Pilates asks you to hold your stomach in, while yoga wants you to stay relaxed, not trying to hold it [your stomach] tense all the time.” If you’re going for the chiseled look, Pilates is better, but if you want that toned, lean-but-still-strong look, yoga is for you according to Hurd.

What becomes apparent from all of these distinctions is that both yoga and Pilates have their benefits. As Jill Hoffman explains, it’s very difficult to say that one is better than the other. In the end, she says, “The beauty of choice is that there is no one way that’s the best way. It’s what’s best for you. The end goal is for wellness, and anything that can contribute to that is a good thing.”

“The beauty of choice is that there is no one way that’s the best way. It’s what’s best for you. The end goal is for wellness, and anything that can contribute to that is a good thing.” Jill Henderson, Pilates instructor

If you’re going for the chiseled look, Pilates is better, but if you want that toned, lean-but-still-strong look, yoga is for you according to Bancroft School of Massage’s Greg Hurd.