Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Yoga v Pilates

One of my New Years resolutions was of course to exercise more (isn't it everyone's?) but specifically to resume a weekly yoga class. I've written before about how robust and balanced I felt when I practiced regularly, and in the depths of winter I was eager to get back to that place.

Since moving to our house, my previous yoga studio in Islington, The Life Centre, has become slightly inconvenient as a place to go for regular classes - plus they cancelled the later vinyasa flow class on Tuesday nights that I could make with my hectic work schedule. So I decided to start trying classes at the studio around the corner from my house called Yogahome.

Like everything else in Stoke Newington, Yogahome is an eclectic place with a homespun vibe. Spread across two spaces, it's a bit higgeldy-piggeldy and apparently they even keep chickens out the back of the main space. I haven't met them yet, but it's nice to know they exist. Anyway, I was pretty pumped to find a place with a lot of class options so close to my home, especially vinyasa classes that start at 8pm - sometimes (okay, most of them time) it's really hard for me to get out of work for a yoga class so a later one is usually best. I signed up for a 10 class card before Christmas and promptly went to my first class the first weekend of 2013.

Only my first class wasn't a yoga class - it was Pilates. Something made me feel like it wasn't just stretching I needed but lengthening and a 'serious' workout. I'd taken a short series of beginner Pilates classes last spring that to be honest were rather boring, though the instructor did being her French bulldog named Claude to class every so often. This time I went to a Sunday Pilates class at mid-day and experienced a true mat work class: hard on the abs, soft on the back, and small stretches that shockingly leave you sore for days. I left the class feeling knitted together, a tightened, tauter version of myself with better posture. I have to say, I was slightly obsessed with Pilates after that and tried desperately to get to midweek classes as well as the Sunday class.

But then I couldn't go for a few weeks, because of a trip to Doha and a weekend out of town, and suddenly I found myself craving the movement and openness of a vinyasa flow class. So two weeks ago, I went to yoga on a Sunday instead of Pilates - and it was joyful. For the first time in a long time I felt the power of the flowing movement and syncing of breath and movement, and it was immense. I fairly floated home.

So what's the difference? Well, in a nutshell, the movements. Pilates is a series of small, precise, repeated movements that target extremely specific parts of your body. If you're type A, you'll love Pilates - it's focused and goal oriented and you walk out of class feeling strong, with your muscles pulled tight to the bone not flapping all around. Also, all of the movements are modular, so you master one movement then you "add on" to deepen the intensity or shift the focus to a different muscle.

Yoga on the other hand is big, constant, whole body movement. Poses work your whole body and take all of your breath. The goal is to synchronise movement with breath, so that your intake of air and exhalations power your movements through the asanas. There is no perfection, just constant progress towards achieving enlightenment. No one gets there, but in order to come close you have to surrender the self - this isn't about lunging deeper or longer than the yogi on the mat next to you, this is about lunging as deep and as long as your body can on that day. Walking out of yoga class I feel light, expansive, and energetic - empowered.

Though Pilates and yoga are connected, there is a stronger spiritual element to yoga; incense, chants, spiritual readings, even an accordion have all played parts in classes I've taken. I can't deny that the first time I took a yoga class I was weirded out by the recitations and bells and Buddhas, but I've grown to consider them as a broader part of the yogic ritual. By contrast, Pilates - especially the classes with machines and weights - can feel like a standard exercise class, and more than a little soulless. Yoga is exercise for both body and mind.

I went back to Pilates this past weekend for the contrast, and I'm currently enjoying the delicious ache of my triceps after arm raises. But I know that dry soon I will need a more holistic and emotional session. I'm glad I have both in my arsenal, and can deploy them at will. When I start training fully for the half marathon I entered in October, I'll need all of the stretching - of various forms - I can get!

Let me know if you're a yogi or a Pilates-devotee - I'm curious about the split!