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Successful Yoga-Pilates Fusion

by Kelly McGonigal, PhD on Feb 18, 2010

When Pilates and yoga first hit mainstream fitness over a decade ago, instructors enthusiastically fused these traditional methods with everything from kickboxing to weight lifting, disco and rollerblading. While many of these fads have fizzled, the fusion of Pilates and yoga remains a popular combination—and one that has continued to mature since the hundred was first introduced to downward-facing dog.

What Do Pilates and Yoga Have in Common?
In the modern fitness environment, Pilates or yoga enthusiasts may have misconceptions about the other system. Many participants and instructors have an exaggerated sense of the differences, dismissing the one they don’t practice as “only core strengthening” or “only stretching.” Even the legendary origins of each system seem worlds apart: Joseph Pilates, a German gymnast and bodybuilder, developed his exercise system during World War I while imprisoned in a British internment camp. Yoga, on the other hand, has its roots in the thousands-year-old Vedic traditions of ancient India.

Despite these different origins, Pilates and yoga have much in common. Shirley Archer, JD, MA, author of Pilates Fusion: Well-Being for Body, Mind, and Spirit (Chronicle Books 2004), says, “It’s clear that Joseph Pilates was exposed to yoga, and many Pilates moves are inspired by traditional yoga moves.” Valentin, owner of Pilates Body by Valentin in Dublin, California, explains that Pilates and yoga share eight key principles:

  • breathing
  • relaxation
  • concentration
  • centering
  • control
  • precision
  • whole-body movement
  • balanced muscle development

“Understand these principles and be able to cue them verbally and visually. They should be ingrained in your practice,” advises Valentin. Starting with what unites the two systems will help you teach a successful fusion class and make even hardcore Pilates or yoga enthusiasts feel at home in your classes.

Find Your Focus
Valentin notes that offering fusion classes can be a great way to introduce an unfamiliar discipline to club members. Casting a wide net means you attract participants who might otherwise be intimidated by or uninterested in a particular format—but it also means pulling in a wide range of expectations. Archer says that managing expectations is one of the biggest challenges of a fusion format. “People may be drawn to Pilates for its [reputed ability] to create a dancer’s body. Others may be drawn to yoga for its reputation for relaxation and think it’s a gentle workout.”

The reality of the class may surprise or disappoint participants with high expectations or a limited understanding of the two disciplines. This can lead to tension in the classroom and poor retention rates. Valentin admits, “I have had yoga students walk out of a class feeling that it was not what they wanted.”

Tom McCook, founder and director of Center of Balance in Mountain View, California, recommends explaining the benefits of each movement to help keep everyone from athletes to office workers interested and invested in the exercises. “Tell them how and why. Get their attention, and have them see the value of what you’re teaching at each stage of the class. Tell them how it will help them use their bodies in an efficient way, or how it will help lower-back and neck pain. Get them to buy into it.”

All of these instructors agree that a successful program begins with a clear identification of the class’s target audience, focus and benefits. Linda (Freeman) Webster, wellness supervisor for Aurora BayCare Sports Medicine and owner and director of Guru Fitness®, both in Green Bay, Wisconsin, says, “The only way to sell a fusion class to a program director is to have a well-thought-out class design. Be able to define the intention of the class and the atmosphere you want to create; be able to demonstrate it to the director; be able to train other instructors on the format; and give a class description that truly tells the student what to expect and why the class is valuable.”

Read much more about Pilates and yoga fusion in “Yoga-Pilates Fusion: The State of the Union” in the online IDEA Library or in February 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.

Photography: Center of Balance

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About the Author

Kelly McGonigal, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter