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Yoga and Pilates to Aid Rehabilitation

by Marie-Claire Prettyman(more info)

listed in pilates, originally published in issue 231 - July 2016


To understand the role that these Mind/Body disciplines can play in physical (or indeed emotional) rehabilitation, it is important to understand what the differences are between them.  It is an age old question, but after many, many years of teaching I have come to the conclusion that;

“Pilates uses the mind to control the body and Yoga uses the body to control the mind.”

Marie-Claire Prettyman 2016

 Cover Opposition in Pilates and Yoga

Let me explain, The Pilates Method of movement has its roots in 6 main principles;

  • Breathing;
  • Centring;
  • Concentration;
  • Control;
  • Precision;
  • Flow. 

In order to adhere to these concepts, the practitioner must be fully conscious and aware of their activity, thus; the mind is truly active in managing the body’s actions.  In Yoga, the breath work, postures, meditation and relaxation are all directed towards settling and quietening the mind in order to find a sense of deep calm and peace.

With regards to their respective values in terms of rehabilitation, we must consider whether the rehabilitation is for physical well-being, emotional well-being or both; plus a number of sub-sections which account for the individual nature of physical or emotional trauma and personal preference with regards to activities.

Physical Well-Being

Pilates focusses on the concept of ‘functional’ movement, a prescribed set of biomechanically sound exercises, which take into account breath work to aid movement and concentration to aid precision.  The form taught in many gyms and studios these days is a derivative of Joseph Pilates’ original ‘mat-work’ which was comprised of 34 ‘core’ exercises designed to stretch, mobilise, strengthen and tone the body.  A visionary, Pilates developed a number of pieces of apparatus to support his agenda of moving every body towards function; his method was malleable, allowing for variations and modifications to suit each person. For this reason, Pilates has been used by Physiotherapists and Sports Therapists to assist in their patient management, by moving the client from relying on an externalised locus of control i.e. relying on someone else to fix them, to a more ‘internalized’ locus of control, in which the patient takes responsibility for their own injury management through attending classes and committing to an exercise regime in their own time, at home or in the gym. 

As with any ‘tool’ Pilates is only as good as the master who wields it. With regards to physical or injury rehabilitation, just in the same way you can find good and bad educators, you will find ‘good and bad’ Pilates teachers.  If an injury is acute, it is probably a good idea to rest until the initial symptoms dissipate, but if it is chronic e.g. a long-term back postural related back pain, the ‘wrong’ class could cause more problems than it solves.  A ‘good’ teacher will take a full history and ask to speak with or liaise with any other treating clinicians that may be involved e.g. Chiropractors and Osteopaths or perhaps a GP. You may be asked to have a private lesson, or course of private lessons before joining a group, so that your teacher can get to know you and your body, find exercises that work and exercises that don’t and be sure that they can keep you safe even in a small group of about 8 participants.  Without screening and personal attention, they cannot possibly be utilizing the Pilates method to best suit your rehabilitation needs. If all the correct protocols are adhered to, your Pilates programme will aim to stretch and lengthen the tighter muscles whilst strengthening the longer weaker muscles, bringing balance to the peripheral structure whilst being supported underneath by the deep postural stabilising muscles of the pelvis, abdomen, shoulder girdle and vertebral column.

Yoga postures range from standing up straight to tying yourself up in knots and in this reason, it differs very little from Pilates i.e. there are varying degrees of difficulty for most of the postures; those are the ones best suited to the generic group class environment e.g. Warriors not Hand Stands. Many people associate Yoga with ‘stretching’ but there is a powerful strength aspect to the discipline which requires a great degree of physical fitness and awareness  as well as control of the breath. For most people, a generalized Yoga class can be adapted to suit beginners, intermediate and advanced practitioners; however if a participant has a particular physical need, they may not be catered for in the Yoga group in the same way as a Pilates group. Don’t misunderstand me; Yoga teachers should be walking round the room and checking to see if their participants are faring well with their postures, but the dynamic nature and flow of some classes can leave some participants lost and unsure of what they are supposed to be doing.  However, just like every other skill in the world, there are good Yoga Teachers and, not so good; but generally if you have a physical inhibition, the Pilates class is usually the ‘safer’ environment due to the precise, controlled and balancing nature of the method.

Emotional Well-Being

Given that the last sub-heading concluded with Pilates being the ‘safer’ option for those individuals seeking physical rehabilitation, you would expect that Yoga would take the crown for suiting those suffering from emotional trauma, but that may not necessarily be the case.  When considering human emotional well-being there are more factors than just what muscles should be doing what and when. Personality has a huge role to play in whether or not the Yoga practice will soothe the anxious mind and the troubled soul. Let’s start with the major positives: as previously stated “Yoga uses the body to control the mind” so on that basis, engaging the body in the physical process of movements which are fundamentally geared towards settling a busy consciousness, should lead to a reduction in the sensation of stress and with long-term practice, a long term management for the issues.  However, many individuals who suffer from stress and anxiety find it hard to switch off enough to focus their minds in postures; as beginners they may also lose the flow of the class, they may not understand what they are doing and as such the environment may drive anxiety rather than soothe it.  With meditation and relaxation again, these are practices that need to be taught and the emotionally troubled participant may find that being ‘forced’ to relax or contemplate or control their thinking may be distressing. The Pilates breath work, whilst not deep and abdominal as in Yoga, does promote greater oxygen delivery and carbon dioxide removal from the body and with that can settle ‘stress’ brain wave activity even though it’s not a demand of the practice.  The concentration needed to undertake Pilates exercises switches participants’ minds off from their outside lives and forces them to ‘switch off’ and on to something which demands attention.  This in itself gives participants time away from emotional troubles and can be very useful in combatting stress.  Yoga ‘demands’ that stress is left behind when you enter the room and for that reason, many people find that it is their sanctuary; but it certainly won’t be that way for everyone. 

The spiritual nature of some Yoga classes and the clinical nature of some Pilates classes do not appeal to all personalities, which is why when choosing an appropriate class there are more factors that just ‘which one is best’. The teacher, the location, the time of the class, the style of the class, all these contribute to determining whether it is ‘the right one’.  Just because Yoga is supposed to be calming and Pilates good for mechanical normalisation, does not mean that a participant wouldn’t get benefits from experiencing both, but it would be wise to check these key aspects before committing:

  1. How many people are there in the group?
    Are you going to be jammed into a corner unable to see or with your head underneath somebody’s armpit and unable to see or be seen?
  2. Do have a specific condition that you need your teacher to be aware of?
    If so, speak with them first and see what kind of response you get to determine whether or not you trust them with your well-being,
  3. What is the level of the class?
    You really do not want to go to a class where you are pushed beyond the boundary of what is appropriate for you on that day.
  4. Where is the class?
    It may affect your enjoyment of the class if you have to drive a long way, or if the venue is too hot or too cold.
  5. And finally…
    Do not be put off if your first experience is not a positive one; there are a multitude of teachers in both disciplines, the right one is out there for you somewhere.


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About Marie-Claire Prettyman

Marie-Claire Prettyman trained with the London School of Sports Massage; she established a sports therapy clinic from an Osteopathic centre in 2001, then trained with the Body Control Pilates Association in Pilates. She gained a Sports Science degree in 2003, then opened her first Pilates and Fitness studio offering Pilates classes, Personal Training and Sports Therapy. In 2008 Marie-Claire joined forces with Fitness Inspired Teacher training and wrote the Level 3 Pilates Teacher Training programme and CPD courses that are still running and developing today under her role as the Fitt Pilates Course Director.

Marie-Claire has worked with people with an extensive range of physical issues, including knee, spine and shoulder surgery rehabilitation, Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Chronic Pain conditions, the over 80s, dancers and those wanting to try a new discipline. She gained a qualification in teaching Yoga; then tutor, the Fitt Yoga qualification.  She was a guest lecturer in 2009-2011 on the Biomechanics pathway of the University of Chichester Sports Science degree; in  2012 she worked in the USA alongside teachers who were trained by the late, great Romana Kryzanowska.

Marie now tutors Pilates and Yoga courses plus biomechanics workshops and CPD courses to professionals; and also works as a Movement Specialist. An accident in 2014 fractured her spine which left her with a chronic lower back pain condition. Her knowledge of movement allowed her to rehabilitate her own body to a level at which she can function, but not in competitive ballroom dancing or running. She is the author of Opposition in Pilates and Yoga, published in 2015. Marie-Claire may be contacted on Tel: 07919 286419;  and

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