wellbeing-brand-logo

Inspired living

What's the difference between yin and restorative yoga? Find out


Yoga neck pose

Credit: Lucy Cormack

Unlike your usual yang-style yoga class, yin and restorative yoga focus on surrendering postures that allow the body to gently shift into a deep state of peace and contentment. Both disciplines aim to relax the muscles, accommodate the natural bone structure and slow down the heart rate and fluctuations of the mind with the use of props to support the body in various positions.

Yet, although they may sound similar, a comparison of the benefits of yin and restorative yoga reveals some perhaps unexpected contrasts.

Differences & similarities

While the class names and descriptions used for yin and restorative yoga often appear to be similar, and both use relaxed breathing and encourage a deepening of internal awareness to enhance the experience, the two systems are, in fact, drastically different. The distinction becomes clear when you look at their ultimate goals.

Restorative yoga focuses on relaxation. Each posture is held for at least five minutes and often for up to 20 minutes, allowing the entire body to relax as the mind becomes calm in preparation for a long-held prop-supported corpse pose. By providing a quiet environment to draw your attention inward and away from external events and situations of the world, restorative yoga focuses on cultivating full physical effortlessness, allowing the body and mind to self heal.

By providing a quiet environment to draw your attention inward and away from external events and situations of the world, restorative yoga focuses on cultivating full physical effortlessness, allowing the body and mind to self heal.

Restorative postures are deeply supported by blankets, blocks and other props to allow you to completely relax and rest. There are no set rules for the exact placement of the props, but their aim is to enhance comfort through supporting the whole body in order to induce a withdrawal of the senses.

The purpose of yin yoga is to stretch connective tissue. A yin yoga session focuses on static stresses, allowing the deep fascia structure of the body to be remodelled. The postures are held on average for three to five minutes, forcing you to relax your muscles in order to increase the stretch on the connective tissues, resulting in myofascial release of tension. Through long-held stretches without muscular tension, the act of stillness can reduce stress while stimulating regeneration. In addition to relaxing the nervous system, these stretches encourage more flexibility and freedom of movement. Many people describe yin as a meditative practice, and this meditative aspect of yin tends to attract people who are seeking to find balance in the fast-paced, stressful world of the 21st century.

Health benefits

Yin and restorative yoga have both been credited as effective treatments for relieving the symptoms of numerous health conditions. Although there are no specific scientific studies of yin yoga, it is believed that the static stresses of yin can relieve physical pain associated with sciatica, arthritis and osteoporosis. It is claimed that a regular restorative yoga practice can decrease the stress hormone cortisol, lower your heart rate, reduce joint aches and tense muscles and alleviate the occurrence of depression and fatigue. When practised regularly, both methods have been said to enhance the quality of life among patients with heart disease and cancer.

Learning acceptance

Since yin yoga requires you to find your edge of discomfort, your mind can benefit from learning to accept where that point of discomfort is. Bernie Clark, author of The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga and creator of yinyoga.com, says yin is about acceptance, allowing, stillness and enjoying the present moment. In addition, a yin attitude is about doing small, everyday tasks as if they were great deeds.

Restorative yoga’s emphasis on true rest is also about learning to meet your body just as it is. A regular restorative yoga practice can help mitigate the effects of the fight-or-flight stress response, comforting the mind and body down to the cellular level.

Which is better for managing stress?

It is difficult to compare the stress-relieving benefits of yin and restorative yoga without looking at them on a case-by-case basis. If you can’t bear the thought of being still for up to 20 minutes without any physical stimulation, as is required in restorative yoga, you may find that the more tangible sensations of yin will help relieve stress more effectively. On the other hand, you may enjoy the complete stillness of a restorative practice.

Essentially, both systems use a mind-body approach to help calm the entire being, so it is a good idea to try both methods to find which addresses your individual needs — perhaps incorporating some of both into your weekly routine can provide you with relief from anxiety and stress in different ways.

History & philosophy of yin yoga

Yin yoga has been around since the beginning of the physical practice of yoga, with the purpose of preparing the student for the deeper practices of meditation. In other words, it has the same goals and objectives as any other school of yoga, but the asana portion of the practice goes beyond the superficial or muscular tissues of the body into the deeper connective tissues.

Yin yoga as we know it today is based on founder Paulie Zink’s unique style of Taoist yoga, which originated from the philosophy, spiritual traditions and Taoist health practices of ancient China. Paul Grilley studied Taoist yoga with Master Zink for about a year in the late 1980s and learnt the beginner’s level of the art, which he then taught to Sarah Powers, who began teaching what she acquired from Grilley and changed the name to yin yoga. Grilley also incorporates his own philosophy and theories as well as those that he learned from his studies with the parapsychologist Dr Motoyama into his teachings.

Ultimately, a yin yoga class includes postures of stillness for clearing energy blockages, enhancing circulation and promoting growth.

History & philosophy of restorative yoga

Restorative yoga is unique in that, unlike other styles, its origin is relatively recent. It was popularised in the US by Judith Lasater in the 1970s for active relaxation. Lasater credits the development of these poses to her teacher BKS Iyengar of Pune, India.

The idea behind restorative yoga is to help relieve the effects of chronic stress by creating a completely supportive environment for total relaxation where you can just be. Each posture is considered a precursor to an extended savasana — even though, as a beginner, you may experience each posture as a variation of or an experience similar to savasana itself. Another distinct difference is that restorative yoga has the body fully supported so, in addition to the blocks and bolsters that you often find in a yin class, there are various folds of blankets as well as myriad additional prop options, such as belts, towels, eye bags and sandbags.

The main philosophy of restorative yoga is achieving mental, emotional and deep physical relaxation with the aid of props. A turning inward of the senses enables downtime for the nervous system, often resulting in improved sleep. For example, restorative yoga teacher and sleep researcher Roger Cole says restorative yoga and sleep complement one another, with several of his students reporting better sleep for as many as three nights after a class.

Lasater’s philosophy is that yoga is not about changing people, but about coming back to what the natural body does. Her comprehensive book Relax and Renew is a wonderful investment for exploring restorative postures in more detail.

Practising yin yoga

There are three important things to consider when practising yin yoga. First, come into a pose to a suitable edge of discomfort. Second, find stillness, cultivating an attitude of observation like you would during meditation. Third, hold the pose for three to five minutes so the muscles can relax and therefore the stretch moves into the fascia. If you cannot hold the pose for more than a minute, it is likely that there is tension in the muscles and it is therefore not a yin stretch.

Some key yin postures include:

  • Saddle (or half saddle, with one leg straight): a deep opening to the sacral-lumbar arch
  • Baby dragon: a simple low lunge that is a deep hip and groin opener
  • Caterpillar: a seated forward bend that stresses the ligaments along the back of the spine
  • Swan: a series of poses that allow gravity to do the work in opening the hips (full swan is a deep hip opener and gentle backbend as you stay on the hands with the arms straight; for sleeping swan, you come on to the elbows or lie on a bolster)

Use of props in yin yoga

In a yin pose, you can usually feel the need for increased or decreased sensation, and the use of props is for this very purpose. There are many ways in which you can support yourself in order to stay in your 35-minute yin holds using bolsters, cushions, blocks or even a rolled-up yoga mat. You will discover very quickly that you can make up your own arrangements of props, as long as you keep in mind the intention of the posture — the target area to be stretched.

Although there are no specific scientific studies of yin yoga, it is believed that the static stresses of yin can relieve physical pain associated with sciatica, arthritis and osteoporosis.

A key reason for using props in yin is to provide support to the bones so that the muscles can release. For example, in baby dragon (low lunge), if you cannot easily rest your hands on the floor due to the length of your arms or shinbones, then all your upper body weight is being supported in the hip socket, which can be a very stressful position to hold for five minutes. Using blocks under the hands can allow you to bring a bit of weight into the arms, therefore reducing the stress in the hip socket. Acclaimed yin yoga teacher Sarah Powers explains that when the bones are left hanging, the muscles will engage to support them, but when the bones feel supported, the muscles can relax and therefore the stress of the pose goes deeper into the fascia.

In practising yin yoga, props can be used to either increase or decrease stress in desired areas. For example, sitting on a block in an upright seiza pose (kneeling position) will decrease the sensation in the quads, whereas sitting on a block in saddle (kneeling and reclining back onto the floor) will increase the sensation. Blocks can be used as a simple support under bent knees in forward folds such as caterpillar (seated forward bend) to allow the bones to relax and thus the muscles to soften. Blankets are used more often as foundational supports; for example, underneath the back knee in dragon or swan (yin’s answer to pigeon pose) if you suffer kneecap pain.

Practising restorative yoga

Beginning with a few minutes of gentle movement before settling into a restorative pose or practice will warm the muscles and create space in the body to prepare it for relaxation. Make sure you gather your props before you begin practising so that your body will be fully supported and you won’t have to move around too much between each pose. Take plenty of time to get comfortable on your props, making any necessary adjustments before you start timing your hold.

One of the most relaxing of all restorative postures is reclined bound angle, a pose that is very beneficial for people with high blood pressure and breathing problems. To practise reclined bound angle, you simply recline back over a bolster, using rolled and folded blankets to support your head and limbs. A belt can be placed around the legs for additional support. Basic relaxation pose with legs elevated releases tension in the lower back and reduces fatigue from standing or sitting for long periods of time. Lie in savasana with a folded blanket under your head for support and a stack of three or more folded blankets (or a chair or low table) under your lower legs. You can also place a sandbag over your ankles and an eye bag over your eyes to keep them relaxed.

Use of props in restorative yoga

In restorative yoga, a short sequence of poses can involve a large number of props but the way in which they are arranged is often similar throughout the practice. You will most often be asked to rest in a supine position and support your head and limbs. The props should be arranged in a way that allows you to simply be rather than to stretch or feel any physical sensations.

A regular restorative yoga practice can help mitigate the effects of the fight-or-flight stress response, comforting the mind and body down to the cellular level.

Blocks, bolsters, straps, chairs, pillows, towels, blankets, balls, eye bags, walls and sandbags all have their place in supporting the body in these poses. If you find yourself still fidgeting or adjusting the props after having settled into the pose, it is a sign that they are not serving their function of support in their current positioning. The key is to take the time to get comfortable on your props and make any necessary adjustments before you settle into the hold.

Props in restorative yoga generally fall into two categories: props you lie over and props you place over your body. Bolsters, blankets and blocks are the most versatile props to lie over, as in reclined bound-angle pose. Straps and sandbags can be used to apply pressure to the body in a relatively small area. For example, a belt will hold your feet in position in reclined bound angle so your legs can relax. Similarly, you can place a sandbag across your ankles to relax and anchor your legs on the blankets in basic relaxation pose with legs elevated.



 

Lucy Cormack

Lucy Cormack is a yoga teacher and writer. She believes that the five yogic principles as identified by Swami Sivananda, including proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet and positive thinking and meditation, are the key to health and happiness.