Pilates focuses on physical body strength and a strong core whereas in Yoga we seek inner and outer balance, flexibility in the hip joints, spine, ankles, shoulders, expanded muscles and ligaments around the joints which give the joints space to move. My own experience with pain in the lumbar area taught me that both are important – a strong core and strong back muscles for a supportive healthy spine. Therefore, I have been attending Pilates classes just to train the postural muscles, i.e. my core. My back muscles were already strong from regular Yoga practice. What I do now is, I include specific postures for abdominal strength in my daily Yoga practice and share it with my students in the Yoga class as well.
In Pilates you learn the precise breathing technique while you are doing abdominal work. I assume you know many exercises to work on your abdomen but you may not know the correct breathing technique. However, this is not the only secret to getting strong abdominal muscles. In postures where you have to lift the trunk you should be aware of and have to work on your trunk as well. The chest must be open, groins long, shoulder blades down the back and back ribs pulled in. To improve this motion, Yoga would give you better awareness in that part of your body.
In summary, if you are ‘just’ looking for a strong core you might choose Pilates. Yoga involves abdominal postures as well but is more focused on building strength and balancing it with flexibility. The practice of Yoga aims at overcoming the limitations of the body. Only in Yoga can you keep both the body and the mind relaxed, even as you stretch, extend, rotate, and flex your body. This includes attention to detail in every part of your body and alignment to the skeletal body. This accuracy and attention to detail is not merely a physical effect but involves also physiological and even psychological processes. Everyone has their own needs to keep the body fit and healthy and these will lead you to your decision.
You will notice that during every class we do headstand or the preparation for headstand if you are not ready for the full pose yet. Why is that?
Mr. Iyengar (and in fact ‘the ancient books’) call sirsana the ‘King’ of asanas. Sirsa means the head. Asana is the pose. Salamba refers to the fact that this is the supported version of the pose, i.e. we are not free balancing on our heads but use the support of the arms. Salamba sirsasana is a balancing pose as you will all have experienced only too well. However, its benefits go way beyond giving us balance and poise. By regular practising this pose the entire body is reconditioned and nourished. This happens by stimulating the endocrine system – especially the pituitary and pineal glands in the head. The pituitary gland controls the function of several other endocrine glands and is thus sometimes called the master gland. It influences growth, blood pressure, some function of sex organs, the thyroid gland and metabolism. The main function of the pineal gland is to control the circadian rhythm by releasing melatonin.
Being inverse forces the blood to the head which promotes mental clarity. Iyengar says: “The asana is a tonic for people whose brains tire quickly.” (B.K.S. Iyengar: Light on Yoga, page151). The lungs benefit, too. They become more resistant against changes in temperature which helps to prevent colds, coughs and ailments of the chest such as bronchitis and asthma. Headstand keeps the body warm.
When we stand on our feet, no effort is required as it is a natural pose. When inverted in headstand however, we need to concentrate on executing the pose correctly. Faulty execution of headstand can lead to pain in the neck, head and back. It is thus not only important to balance but to constantly adjust minutely during sirsasana.
You should not practice salamba sirsasana if you suffer from high blood pressure, when you are menstruating, when you have existing head and neck injuries. Do not attempt this pose alone if you have never done it under supervision of an experienced yoga instructor.
(Source: B.K.S. Iyengar: Light on Yoga, The Aquarian Press, 1991, London)