“Should I do yoga or Pilates?”
I hear this question a lot. As a yoga teacher, I am naturally inclined to say yoga. However, I recognise the usefulness and appropriateness of both systems, depending on the person and their circumstances.
Let’s explore the similarities and differences between Yoga and Pilates.
Yoga is an ancient system of healthcare and spiritual inquiry. What most of us consider yoga is really only a fraction of the entire body of Ayurvedic medicine. Hatha yoga consists of specifically applied breathing and postures. There are many branches of hatha yoga, including Astanga and flow styles (vigourous, stimulating), Kundalini and tantric lineages (spiritual), and everything in between. The objective of yoga is to heal the physical body and prepare body and mind to sit in contemplation and, eventually, meditate profoundly. The stilling of the mind is paramount in yoga.
Pilates, is a system of exercise developed in Germany by Josef Pilates. Setting out to align and strengthen the body, Mr. Pilates believed that the mind, when properly oriented towards the physical endeavour, could completely dominate the body, bringing it into harmony through force of will, as it were. Thus, as in yoga, there is mental focus required, but the objectives are quite different. In our modern world, we tend to believe the the intellect reigns supreme and human ingenuity can solve any problem. For this reason, the Pilates philosophy may be more comprehensible for the beginner. It is hard to imagine what “stilling the mind” might entail until we have experienced it. When choosing between Yoga and Pilates, review your belief system: are you more materially or spiritually oriented? While yoga doesn’t have to be spiritual, I could not deny the spiritual underpinnings of the practice.
Yoga can be both dynamic or static, depending on the style. Dynamic yoga places poses in a sequence and one moves smoothly from one to the other. This can be used for warming up – the famous Sun Salutation, for example – or the whole series can be built around flowing vinyasa-s. More static styles work on holding poses. The time can be measured in number of breaths or in seconds/minutes. Yin yoga, for example, holds poses for five minutes or more, allowing deep work into the connective tissue. Some styles combine the two: Viniyoga usually takes each pose through a dynamic phase before holding the pose for a certain number of breaths. The idea behind yoga is that the subtle energy needs to flow in all parts of the body, so a practice could focus on one area (hips, chest) or indeed a whole season could be dedicated to working slowly towards a certain key pose. Again, depending on the style, because the flow styles are more “full body” and some systems work with a set series of poses that work the entire body.
PIlates is always a full body workout, but you may use certain props such as balls, stretchy bands and magic rings to focus a class. There is also simply mat Pilates which perhaps looks more like yoga. Notwithstanding, some yoga styles, such as Iyengar, use props. Pilates is focused on aligning the joints, toning the muscles and strengthening the core abdominal musculature.
Correct breathing is important in both systems. In Yoga, breath and movement are co-ordinated and interdependent. Inhaling for opening movements (extensions, lifts), we exhale to close (flexions, lowering). The breath brackets the movement. That is, the breath is longer than the movement, beginning before and finishing after. Most Yoga classes involve a component of “pranayama” or breathwork. This can be done during the practice, or in special gentle sequences. More often, we close the class by sitting with a straight back and breathing through one or both nostrils following a pattern and rhythm designed by the teacher.
Pilates also has specific breathing patterns, but they are distinct. Inhaling to open and exhaling the close is usually observed, but this pattern is reversed in some exercises. In strength work, we are taught to exhale when applying force (think of a weightlifter’s grunt when squatting). Pilates uses this technique for its strength component. In Pilates, the navel is usually held in. However, with tensed abs, we can produce “paradoxical breathing” as we draw breath, . Paradoxical breathing is a breathing pattern in which the pressure in the lungs increases due to intake of air, but the lung volume does not increase (the lungs can’t expand because the tensed abs limit diaphragm movement). Paradoxical breathing is the hallmark of anxiety and even trying it for a few seconds brings on quite a nervous feeling. Try it yourself: pull your abs in then breathe deeply a few times. That heady feeling? The brain’s response the the increased lung pressure. So, while Pilates will produce more toning and strengthening than yoga might, it can have undesired secondary effects due to the breathing. When deciding between Yoga and Pilates, review your personality and challenges: are you nervous, anxious and looking for mental peace? Or are you more interested in toning and firming?
Adaptations for Breast Cancer Survivors
A yoga teacher with a good training will know how to adapt yoga poses (and flows) to minimise their potential harmfulness to irradiated and/or post-operative areas. Bear in mind that this somewhat eliminates styles in which a set of poses “has to” be practised as a sequence. If these sequence is what the teacher CAN teach – and many 200-hour trainings teach their teachers only set sequences, not how to sequence postures – then a practitioner who “cannot” do the equence will put pressure on herself, the teacher and the class. We need a therapeutic style for breast cancer work, so make sure your teacher knows how to adapt both postures and sequences. Bear in mind that yoga teaching is economically unrewarding and some teachers will be under pressure to fill their classes at any cost. Bear in mind, also, that some teachers might be unaware of their limitations. By reading this post, you are gaining the knowledge necessary to assess your potential teacher and decide.
Astanga-style flows are awesome for the fit body, but tend to include quite a few arm balances. Bear in mind that even the ever-famous Downward Dog (Adho-mukha-svanâsana) is an arm balance. This seemingly simple pose puts pressure on wrists and arms, requires full range of motion in the shoulder joint and requires that Serratus anterior be stretched. All of these factors make Downward dog a tough pose for breast cancer patients. I am not saying “Don’t do it”. I am saying – assess carefully just how important this pose is to the final objective of yoga – stilling the mind through body and breath work – and decide if a class that involves a lot of Downward dog is the BEST option.
Kundalini classes also tend to work set kriyas – sequences – but are probably easier on the breast cancer survivor as the âsana element is less important. There tend to be poses that work pretty intensly the abdominal region, so those with shoulder drop might find this imbalance makes some kundalini poses more challenging.
Bikram is out because of the heat. Too dangerous for lymphedema.
I practice and teach Viniyoga. It covers all the bases when it comes to adaptation of postures and sequences. The therapeutic aspect of Viniyoga also makes it more useful when working with the very personal journey each breast cancer survivor is coursing.
Pilates is subject to the same general contra-indications I mentioned about Astanga and flow styles. It may be difficult for a teacher to adapt a class to one single student. Arm balances for core work may be unavoidable. It may be left to the student to adapt the poses, rather than receive specific instructions about how to do so. Pilates will be great for bringing the shoulders back into alignment and keeping the shoulders joint stable, but again, interview your teacher and decide if they are the person best able to help you.
Gentle physical exercise is a must for breast cancer patients. How tough you want to go is up to you, but it also depends on where you were when you were diagnosed. Did you have a good level of physical fitness, or had you been making excuses for too long? How old are you? Have you any extenuating circumstances like injuries or co-pathologies? Answering these questions helps you to decide what your goal is. But, really, I urge you to go slow at first, and keep a steady pace over time. This will bring greater rewards, over time, than plunging in and risking injury and setbacks. Either yoga or Pilates will do you a great service. Find a teacher who knows and inspires confidence, a class that is nearby and at a time that you can manage. Consider taking a private class, just to give the teacher time to know your history, your limitations, and to teach you how to modify the postures that you will find in the group class. Most important of all is to stick with it!
If you can’t find a group class in your area, why not start one yourself? Find three other breast cancer patients – not too hard, sadly – and contact a teacher. Be pro-active and believe that this is a fundamental part of your healing journey. Om.