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Understanding the Differences: Yin Yoga vs. Restorative Yoga

Updated: Jun 11

As a yoga teacher trainer, I often encounter students who wonder about the distinctions between Yin and Restorative Yoga. At first glance, these styles might appear quite similar—both involve long-held poses, the use of props, and a deep sense of relaxation that sometimes looks like students are on the verge of losing consciousness (in the best way possible). However, despite these surface-level similarities, Yin and Restorative Yoga are fundamentally different in their purposes and effects on the body and mind. Let's dive deeper into each practice to uncover their unique benefits.

Restorative Yoga: Embracing Deep Relaxation

The primary goal of Restorative Yoga is to calm the nervous system, providing profound rest and relaxation. Here are the key principles:

  • Facilitate Nervous System Pacification: The entire practice is geared towards soothing the nervous system.

  • Release Postural Muscles: Props are used extensively to support the body, allowing postural muscles to fully relax.

  • Create a Beneficial Relationship to Gravity: The body is positioned in ways that foster a sense of repose, often with the aid of props.

In a Restorative Yoga class, the body is supported in gravity, encouraging a state of rest. While some poses may involve a gentle stretch, the intention is relaxation rather than stretching or adding tension. The stretch should "fade" into the background, allowing the practitioner to focus on relaxation.

Poses in Restorative Yoga are typically held for 5-10 minutes to enable the nervous system to unwind fully. Props are crucial in this practice to ensure that no part of the body is left unsupported, creating a feeling of being grounded. For instance, if someone’s knees are on a bolster but their heels are dangling, we’d add blocks or blankets under the feet to support the heels.

The body is generally kept in a soft state of flexion, promoting a sense of peace. Even in a restorative backbend, the emphasis is on quiet and calm rather than activation. To enhance this feeling of peace, the body should be kept warm—think blankets, socks, and even woolly hats if needed. Judith Hanson Lasater, a leader in restorative practice, advocates for a "safe, dark, and warm" environment, aiming for absolute comfort.

Yin Yoga: Embracing Sensation and Mindfulness

In contrast, Yin Yoga focuses on applying healthy tension to the connective tissues of the body. Here are its key principles:

  • Apply Wholesome Tension to Connective Tissues: Targeting tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules to promote health and hydration.

  • Relax Muscular Effort: While muscles are relaxed, the connective tissues are stressed.

  • Cultivate Mindfulness at the Edge of Sensation: Encouraging awareness and presence amidst the sensations.

Yin Yoga targets the connective tissues rather than muscles, creating a steady, moderate tension to maintain their health. Although Yin Yoga also avoids muscular effort, it welcomes sensation (including healthy discomfort) to address the connective tissue, aiming for a "stretch" of 50-80%.

Props are used in Yin Yoga to support a safe relationship with gravity, but not to eliminate it entirely. The goal is to find a personal, beneficial edge of sensation, where one might feel tension, achiness, or stretching—never sharp or acute pain. In this practice, the body does "hang out" in space to some extent, unlike in Restorative Yoga, where full support is provided.

The experience of relaxation in Yin Yoga comes through navigating the intensity of sensation rather than avoiding it. While providing tension to the connective tissues, this practice can induce a profound state of relaxation, sometimes even leading to drooling and snoring. However, this relaxation is achieved via a different route compared to Restorative Yoga.

Final Thoughts: Honoring Each Practice

Both Yin and Restorative Yoga offer beautiful and valuable practices. However, their unique gifts can be diluted if the styles are merged inappropriately—teaching Restorative with stretching or Yin with too much support. By clarifying and respecting the distinct intentions of each style, we can more fully appreciate and share their unique benefits.

In our quest to access parasympathetic tone and deepen our practice, let’s honor the unique paths of Yin and Restorative Yoga, embracing the rich tapestry of sensations and relaxation they offer.

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