Yin + Restorative Yoga | What's the difference?
Stepping out of your day and into the calm atmosphere of the yoga studio, you’re seeking something different.
You take a deep breath, scanning over the studio schedule. Today flowed fast from one commitment to the next and you don’t have the energy available for your regular hatha or vinyasa flow practice.
Your body is tired, holding accumulated tension. It’s asking for care, rest and nourishment.
Your mind is cluttered and weary. It’s asking for stillness, quietness, and relaxation.
When you’re ready to decelerate and down-regulate, what’s on offer? The studio recommends two classes - yin or restorative yoga. “What is the difference?” you ask.
The answer can often reflect the common confusion when it comes to differentiating these two still and soft expressions of yoga. While at the surface, they may appear quite similar, below the skin the felt experience of yin and restorative are unique.
In my many years of teaching and practice, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve attended a yin class only to be taught a sequence of restorative poses, or joined a restorative class which contained many yin postures and elements.
Even some experienced teachers often call their classes by one name when they incorporate the other. And it’s not their fault. It’s like a game of telephone – a message that metamorphizes the more people it moves through.
Yin and Restorative yoga are not only different from most forms of yoga we’re familiar with, but also quite different from each other. Why is it important to distinguish between the two? Well, whether you’re a student or teacher, each of these practices will have unique intentions, methods and benefits to offer you.
As a teacher and mentor, I find this is a subject best addressed by first observing the commonalities between the two disciplines.
To the untrained eye, they may appear to be quite similar…
They are practices that we tend to associate with relaxation and slowing down.
They are often placed in that special later evening or Sunday time slot on your yoga studio schedule, to mellow students out before bed or the week ahead.
They feature poses that are held for longer than is common in most classes.
They use a lot of yoga props to support the body.
So yes, on the surface, Yin and Restorative seem to be very similar indeed. This is where the pathways branch apart into two very different inner journeys.
Yin Yoga represents a meeting of two ancient river streams - that of traditional hatha yoga originating in India and Daoist philosophy. Daoism is a wisdom tradition indigenous to China which intersects with the theories and practices of Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Chinese martial arts.
Yet, the convergence of these traditions is very modern. In the 1980’s, Paulie Zink, a martial artist and student of Daoism, began exploring a yin approach to his yoga practice which emphasized Daoist principles and focused on supporting the flow of chi throughout the body.
The name of this practice is anchored in Daoist philosophy which organizes the universe into the energies of yin and yang. The correspondences of Yin energy are slow, soft, water and lunar energy whereas Yang energy is fast, active, fire and solar energy.
Applying this Daoist perspective to broader yoga disciplines, more dynamic forms of yoga such as hatha, vinyasa, and ashtanga which concentrate on the muscles embody more of a yang energy.
Alternatively, yin yoga focuses on the joints and fascia through a slow and internal approach. Tendons, joints, tissues, and fascia have less blood and elasticity than muscles do, therefore these areas need longer poses to gain the benefit of the practice.
Modern yin yoga was further developed by teachers including Paul Grilley, Sarah Powers, and Bernie Clark into a practice of long-held stretches designed to work with fascial networks and energetic meridian systems, while accounting for individual bone structure variance.
Much like the symbol itself, yin and yang approaches of yoga are meant to complement each other and both are needed to create an embodied wholeness.
The benefits of yin are vast. Studies suggest that this style of stretching can support us to improve our range of motion, reduce stress and improve sleep, hydrate our fascia and reduce fibrosis and inflammation in our tissue and even support bone regeneration.
This is in addition to the energetic effects of yin, which are believed to stimulate along meridian lines in order to harmonize elemental energies, support organ wellbeing, and balance emotions.
What should you expect as you step into a yin practice? Long holds of still grounded stretches guided with mindfulness and generally maintained for three to five minutes. But don’t worry, this invitation is not about chasing some extreme endpoint of flexibility, but finding and investigating a sustainable edge of sensation. We may also use lots of props to support the body and create gentle boundaries so as not to over-stretch.
Yin yoga can benefit anyone desiring to slow down and gently improve their range of motion. It is an excellent choice for recovering athletes who may wish to complement more strength or movement based modalities. It’s also a great option to explore as we age in order to maintain strength and mobility through a mindful practice.
Teaching Yin has been a favourite of mine because it evokes a beautiful introspective energy in the space. As teachers, we must skillfully use our language as it echoes in the gentle stillness of the class. Yet, a few mindful words can allow our student’s restlessness to dissolve into a quiet but profound state of surrender.
From the teacher’s mat, we observe contracted muscles release into longer, softer breaths as we guide our students through the stillness of each pose. And as students emerge from savasana, they carry that sense of calm away with them.
Similarly, Restorative Yoga relies on ancient wisdom, but also evolved in response to the contemporary life and its daily stress and pressures.
Restorative yoga is influenced by B.K.S. Iyengar, who designed a therapeutic system of yoga in order to help people with illnesses or injuries to receive the benefits of practice through an individualistic approach.
In the 1970’s one of Iyengar’s students developed restorative yoga through her personal practice during a time of grief when she went to her mat seeking physical and emotional support. Judith Hanson Lasater, the founder of restorative yoga, is a foremost American teacher and author who shares this approach with integrity and experience.
Restorative is not focused on lengthening the tissues of the body like Yin, but rather reducing the impacts of stress to facilitate healing of all kinds, body and spirit. In order to do so, restorative yoga utilizes multiple yoga props in order to hold the body in a physical state of support.
And on a deeper level, we don’t differentiate. We just feel supported physically, mentally, and emotionally as we release into the container of comfort created by the construction of the pose.
A well designed and set up restorative pose may help to evoke the parasympathetic response, which supports the function of all our organ systems: heart rate and body pressure, muscle tension, digestion, the immune system, sleeping issues, etc. And with continued practice, it may begin to re-pattern our stress responses helping to reduce anxiety.
What might you expect at a restorative class? You'll work with several props including blocks, bolsters, blankets, straps, eye pillows and more as you're guided to build supported poses with a simple policy: 100% comfort, 100% of the time. Then you'll melt into the pose for a little while, between 10 and up to 20 minutes, with gentle guidance of breath and thought activity - but the emphasis here is not structured meditation but a soft awareness of relaxation.
A restorative yoga practice is not about challenging the body or "doing," but undoing tension by resting into completely supported poses. One could even say that it’s an ideal antidote for challenges in life and can often be an appropriate and beneficial tool for students with chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, and trauma.
I love restorative yoga because of its ability to redefine our definition and felt-experience of relaxation. Relaxation is not laziness or luxury. It is imperative to our physical and mental wellbeing. And while we intuitively know this to be true, we are so deeply conditioned to push ourselves further, faster and longer without allowing ourselves the rest we so deeply deserve (and need).
What I find most rewarding about teaching Restorative is giving people that permission to simply be and rest in the moment. Ironically, the smallest change, like the angle of a bolster or the support of a blanket under the head, can create the biggest difference, followed by a long exhale or a gentle sigh - an embodied feeling of relief and support that means so much more than one might expect.
As a communal calm sets in across the studio, we can observe our students slipping below the surface of external awareness and into a quiet state that exists between the conscious levels of waking or sleeping. In that in-between, so much healing is possible. And by starting to understand our nervous systems, we can tune into them daily to begin to regulate and relieve stress outside of the practice, too.
To make it simple, Yin yoga is an excellent choice to increase range of motion and longevity through a mindful practice of stretching. Restorative yoga supports a body that needs a deeper healing and relaxation – the physical and emotional relief of nervous system regulation.
Both do have a similar end result of cultivating gentle introspective awareness and noting sensations and energy as it moves through the body.
And even though on the surface it may look ‘slow’, don’t mistake that for also being ‘easy’.Yin and Restorative both teach you to slow down and feel your way through, sometimes facing the messiness of being human.
It takes a special teacher to create that space for their students, with compassion and curiosity. But journeying with our students into those quiet spaces through yin and restorative can bring a calm connection and joyful stillness unlike any other practices.
Want to learn more about yin and restorative yoga?
Take our free course which provides an introduction to both of these nourishing practices.