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Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

Yoga Vs. Pilates - Which Is Better?

Over the past decade, people have increasingly come to see fitness as a mind-body experience. This trend is an excellent one; a mind-body approach to exercise keeps you interested longer and in the long run, it's more effective too. The mind controls the body - if you engage your awareness, you perform any task more effectively. And if your mind's engaged there's less room for boredom to set in. All forms of physical fitness can, and should, utilize both mind and body, but there are many exercise techniques which are just naturally mind-body experiences. The two most popular are - as you no doubt know - Yoga and Pilates. People who are interested in adding a mind-body component to their exercise routine often ask, "which is best - Yoga or Pilates?"

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Actually, there's no real "Yoga versus Pilates" debate - each one has a different focus and approach. Whether you gravitate towards one or the other really depends on your personality and own personal philosophies. If you have the time you can even do both without a lot of overlap - your muscles and flexibility will be trained from different angles and actually benefit. Most people, however, only have time for one or the other. Here's a brief overview to help you decide which one is right for you.

Keep in mind that neither discipline is new - Yoga originated in India and has been around for thousands of years. It was brought to the Western world more than a hundred years ago and was popularized by people like Paramahansa Yogananda and Indra Devi in the middle of the twentieth century. It has increased in popularity since the 1960s counter-culture movement and today it is a mainstream form of fitness. Pilates is a mere youngster by comparison - it was created in the 1920s by a German, Joseph H. Pilates, who built upon rehabilitative techniques he used on wounded soldiers during World War I. When he relocated to the United States prior to World War II, dancers soon embraced the movements, which helped them recover quickly from injuries and made their bodies long and lean. Only since the mid-1990s has Pilates made inroads into mainstream fitness, but it has been catching on very quickly for the same reasons that dancers liked it so much - nearly everyone wants long, lean muscles, combined with truly functional fitness.

The biggest difference between Yoga and Pilates is more philosophical than physical. While Pilates takes a mind-body approach to exercise, Yoga's view involves mind, body and spirit. Its principles come from Hindu ideals and its approach is decidedly Eastern in nature. In reality, this should bother few people outside of those with fundamentalist religious beliefs - Yoga's Yamas and Niyamas (suggestions for living) bear some similarities in principle to Christianity's Ten Commandments (they're not quite as stern as the Commandments, however). Yoga's teachings encourage us to be kind to all beings, including ourselves, and to search for balance in our lives and lifestyle. You won't find any of this in a Pilates class, which only focuses on mental concentration, breathing and movement.

The physical differences between Yoga and Pilates derive from their contrasting outlooks. Yoga's approach is holistic, emphasizing balance in all areas - equally strengthening all muscle groups, creating mental and physical balance, encouraging moderation in everything. Pilates mainly works on the core muscles in your trunk (called the powerhouse), and building strength there above all. Yoga, for the most part, involves static poses, which are held while exploring your breathing, physical feelings and emotions. Pilates is about moving in ways that help strengthen your powerhouse, including your stabilizing muscles. Yoga emphasizes flexibility over building strength (although it enhances both), while Pilates emphasizes toning over flexibility (but, again, it enhances both).

The choice between Yoga and Pilates depends on what you are looking for. If you want an exercise that improves flexibility while toning your muscles - especially those abs - then Pilates is probably your better choice. If you want to concentrate a bit more on flexibility and a little less on toning (perhaps you're getting your strength training elsewhere), and you are also searching for something that helps reduce stress and gives you an opportunity for some quiet time, then you should try Yoga. If you have strong religious convictions, you may also be better off with Pilates, although many Yoga classes these days offer little or no philosophy and are acceptable for all religious persuasions. Either choice is good - you're enhancing your body's health in a way no other form of exercise can accomplish.

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