While everybody from Coco Lee to your grandmother seems to be doing one or the other, most people are clueless about the similarities and differences between yoga and Pilates. Before you start flexing and stretching, know your plank pose from your magic circle, and choose the right regimen for you. Inhale, Exhale Yoga is an ancient Indian exercise and meditation technique that can be traced back more than 5,000 years. It's not just a fitness regime - it's a lifestyle, baby. "It's a philosophy for how to live your life. Most people only know the physical aspect, called Hatha yoga, but it's a very small part," says instructor Frances Gairns of Planet Yoga. She says it also includes eating well, adopting certain moral precepts such as not lying, not harming other living creatures, and generally seeking a balanced life connecting you to your higher self or being. According to Planet Yoga instructor Samrat, "It's a combination of mental and physical practices. It relaxes the mind. If you focus on each of the eight chakras in your body, you not only feel physically healthier, you feel mentally healthier also." Medical research shows that yoga creates a balance in the nervous and endocrine (hormone-related) systems, which directly influence all other systems and organs of the body. This furthers the belief that yoga acts both as a curative and preventative therapy for a host of stress- and lifestyle-related elements." Everyone who has attended a Hatha yoga class can testify to the remarkable flood of calm and wellbeing afterwards. This is because yoga controls both our sympathetic nervous system (which controls the instinctive "flight or fight" response), and our parasympathetic nervous system (which controls relaxation). Strong focus is placed on the breathing, which helps to decrease anger and stress. Gairns says, "In yoga practice, Prana is the same as the Chinese Chi - a subtle energy that comes into your body via your breath." In contrast, most other forms of exercise only work the sympathetic nervous system, pumping adrenaline in a stress-driven fight or flight response." This, Gairns says, is why "most people leave yoga classes feeling calm and well balanced." With yoga, you can also look forward to a lower pulse rate and blood pressure, greater flexibility, and a wider range of joint motion. And that's just for starters. Regular practice also strengthens and tones. Unlike weight-lifting, yoga doesn't break down the muscle tissue and rebuild, producing short, bulky muscles. Instead, yoga builds long, lean muscles, giving your body a streamlined look - much like Pilates. Navel to Spine While yoga is a system based on ancient Indian wisdom, Pilates has been around for less than a hundred years. A German by the name of Joseph Pilates formulated it to help rehabilitate World War I soldiers. Having studied yoga, Zen philosophy, and ancient Greek and Roman physical regimens, the former boxer and self-defense instructor began devising a physical regime in about 1914. Coupled with focused breathing patterns, exercises would stretch, strengthen, and balance the body. The main purpose of his experiments was to rehabilitate patients who had problems moving owing to joint or muscular ailments. To achieve this, he designed an array of machines (that famously bear an uncanny resemblance to medieval torture devices), many incorporating springs for resistance and straps for the feet and hands, such as the scarily named Reformer. The most distinctive feature that differentiates Pilates from yoga is its purely physiological function. According to Streamline Pilates manager Tim Stevens, the core philosophy states, "The body must be conditioned in its entirety to achieve good health." Given this, a particular benefit of Pilates is that its effects work deeper than those of conventional exercise programs. Pilates is a resistance-based exercise, exercising the entire body in its correct posture and alignment. A major physical benefit shared by both Pilates and yoga is postural alignment. According to Stevens, posture is one of the most important elements of good health. "Bad posture causes so many problems," he says. "The relationship between the spine and pelvis is vitally important. Imagine the pelvis is a tabletop, and the tabletop is slightly crooked; then everything you put on it is going to be crooked too. So we start with the core [from the pelvic girdle to the ribcage], and then we move to the extremities later." All this abdominal contracting and releasing also works the internal organs, massaging the colon, stomach, and reproductive organs. Stevens feels it is a foundation regimen, around which other forms of exercise should be based. "We educate people about how their body works, how their body moves." He adds, "People don't come here for therapy. Pilates is very functional. It replaces the need for going to the gym." However, like yoga, there is still a strong emphasis placed on breathing correctly, as it "aids the flow of blood to muscle groups." The Difference? Ultimately, practitioners of both agree that the two regimens, while producing similar benefits, are vastly different. "Joseph Pilates spent a lot of time studying yoga," Gairms says, "but essentially, it is purely a physical-conditioning program. It needs to be more one on one, as it works by carefully isolating muscles with very fine movement. Yoga can be, if you choose to go that way, a whole philosophy for life." Therapist Chris Watts of Stretch, a practice that takes a hands-on approach to - you guessed it - stretching the body, says: "The fundamental difference is that Pilates focuses on core strengthening, which is very different to yoga's focus on flexibility." He believes the two regimens compliment each other. "In yoga, if one part of the joint is weak, you will not have good flexibility on the opposite side." Therefore, Pilates would help strengthen and balance your body. Similarly, he says, "Just strengthening, and not working on flexibility, you may find those tight tissues become less mobile and more contracted. Body-building without stretching makes your body far less mobile." The Same... • Both yoga and Pilates aid flexibility • Both keep your mind engaged throughout the entire routine • Natural mind/body approach to exercise - a more holistic approach • Both increase flexibility • Ashtanga yoga is very similar to mat Pilates, in that it involves mat-led classes that can be intense and use body resistance - plus a lot of the positions are very similar • Breathing is one of the major principles behind both yoga and Pilates. ...But Different • Pilates focuses on core strengthening • Pilates is a western technique, created in the 1920s, by Alexander Pilates, to help soldiers recover from their injuries • Pilates is physiologically correct in the western sense • Yoga uses energy and breathing and asanas that have been used for thousands of years, concentrating on the flow of prana, or chi, through meridians and energy pathways • Pilates burns more calories than yoga Instructor Lesson You can't open a magazine these days without seeing an advertisement for yoga or Pilates. Demand for qualified instructors in both now outstretches supply. So how do you know if your instructor knows what s/he's doing? Says Tim Stevens of Streamline Pilates, "Most people need correcting. If the instructor isn't correcting anyone, then you're not in a good class." Streamline Pilates: 9th Floor, CNAC Group Bldg., 10 Queen’s Rd. Central. 2537-8074 Pure Yoga: 16/F, The Centrium, 60 Wyndham St., Central and 25/F Soundwill Plaza, 38 Russell St., Causeway Bay 2970-2299 Planet Yoga: 24 Silver Fortune Plaza, 1 Wellington St. 2525-8288.