Restorative Yoga VS Yin Yoga, the Difference Explained

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Mental health and self-care have taken center stage globally over the last couple of years and the importance of having accessible self-soothing tools in times of distress has never been more evident. The CDC reports that the percentage of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety or depression increased from 36.4 to 41.5 % from August 2020 to February 2021.

Now more than ever students are gravitating toward more meditative, quiet, and stationery styles of yoga such as Restorative and Yin which are highlighting how rest and stillness can be antidotes to chronic stress. After a Restorative or Yin class, many yogis are finding that they feel like they just came back from a long and relaxing vacation.

These restorative practices offer a way to reap the benefits of daily yoga practice without as much exertion and movement as a traditional vinyasa-style yoga class. According to a 2021 ClassPass report, Restorative and Yin yoga styles are becoming among the most popular calming and restorative type workouts. And the numbers are growing each day.

But it’s important to know the difference between Restorative Yoga VS Yin Yoga, as a lot of the time students get confused about what makes them different since both are technically restorative type classes that serve to relax and move us into stillness.

In this article, you will learn the difference between these two restorative practices. We’ll be exploring the following topics:

  • Restorative Yoga vs Yin Yoga, Why Aren’t They The Same?
  • Key Elements Of Yin Yoga
  • Benefits Of Yin Yoga
  • Key Elements Of Restorative Yoga
  • Benefits Of Restorative Yoga
  • Restorative Yoga vs Yin Yoga: Understanding The Difference And Choosing The Right Practice
  • The Best Time To Practice Yin Yoga
  • The Best Time To Practice Restorative Yoga

Whether you have ever struggled with relaxation, self-care, or meditation, here’s how incorporating these restorative yoga practices into your daily routine can serve you. 

a woman using props in a restorative yoga child's pose

Restorative Yoga vs Yin Yoga, why aren’t they the same?

Although both these practices are considered restorative, think of Yin yoga as restorative with a lowercase r and Restorative Yoga with a capital R. Though Yin does induce feelings of relaxation and stillness like Restorative yoga, Yin is about loading weight onto certain areas of the body to release tension and feeling it, whereas Restorative yoga is about loading all the weight off and feeling close to nothing at all.

When it comes to yoga, many practitioners come to yoga to relax or alleviate some type of stressor or discomfort that’s either mental, physical, or both. It’s no surprise these restorative practices have become so popular over time.

A 5-minute Restorative or Yin pose you can pop into at any time of the day when you’re feeling burnt out or a boost can feel more accessible than a typical yoga class with active yoga poses especially when you are dealing with high stress, an over-stimulated nervous system, illness or injury.

Weighing the benefits of Restorative yoga vs Yin Yoga is important in helping you determine which is the right one for you and how you can benefit from either one or both. If you are new to these restorative styles of yoga it can feel overwhelming to try to teach yourself how to properly practice and train your body but if these practices teach us anything it is that less is more and even one part of the pose contains within it the entire spirit of the entire pose.

In essence, all yoga is technically restorative so with focus on the inner landscape journey instead of worrying about how it looks, try to steer your attention to how it feels.

a woman using props in a restorative yoga bound angle pose

Yoga can be understood as a set of behaviors that develops a holistic
experience of the body, mind and heart. It is a process of fully inhabiting
ourselves and our life in a radically engaging and inquisitive way. Through
this training we develop a healthy capacity to literally take up residence in
our bodies, minds and hearts, which can then lead us into simple presence. Presence is a quality of being that is open and aware. This body-mind presence serves as the ground for compassion and wisdom to emerge within us.

Sarah Powers, Insight Yoga (former student of Paul Grilley)

Key elements of Yin Yoga

Yin yoga’s roots are far-reaching and can’t be credited to one or two specific individuals but can be thought of as a team effort. It is a newer form of yoga that started in the west around the late 1980s but it’s also considered to date back thousands of years ago with the ancient rishis and sages of India.

In 1989, Paul Grilley (Yoga / Anatomy Teacher) was watching a Martial Arts competition featuring Paulie Zink (American martial arts champion, Taoist yoga teacher, and well-known practitioner of Monkey Kung Fu) and he noticed how extraordinarily agile and flexible Paulie was. Paul has been a long-time yoga practitioner but still struggled to find comfort in an easy seat during meditation. This led him to reach out to Paulie who would reveal to Paul that by holding the pose for a long period of time he could stretch tight connective tissue and move stagnant prana through specific energy channels.

Later down the road, Paul Grilley met Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama (Shinto Priest from Japan) and through Dr. Motoyama’s teachings, Paul began to see the connection between the asana practices he had been doing and Dr. Motoyama’s theory of the meridians which rooted in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). These were the ingredients that created what we now call Yin yoga.

a woman using props in a restorative yoga twisting pose

With all these paths intertwined, it’s safe to say Yin yoga has a colorful past that is as spiritual as it is scientific given its ability to clear the mind and release tension while also stretching tight and hardened connective tissue that might be inhibiting our range of motion while in yoga poses.

Although many people believe Yin Yoga is all about holding the pose, it’s actually about consciously choosing to stay. Students practice yielding to the (sometimes uncomfortable) sensation that comes up when we apply pressure to certain areas of the body.

Yin focuses on intentionally applying stress to the joints to release stagnant fascia and tension that might be blocked in the energetic or physical body. It is a still practice where yoga poses are held for an extended amount of time, typically between, 2-5 minutes, and sensation is encouraged. It can lead to greater flexibility in the joints and improved range of motion in the hips, shoulders, and spine.

Consider your will and your body as two dancers, moving in total unison. Too many beginning and even experienced yoga students make their yoga into a wrestling match—the mind contending with the body, forcing it into postures that the body is resisting. Yoga is a dance, not a wrestling match.

Bernie Clark
a woman using props in a restorative yoga legs up the wall pose

If You Can Feel It You Are Doing It

When it comes to Yin yoga, if you can feel it then you are doing it. The compression you feel is normal although you never want pain or needle-like sensation. Practice staying and remaining open instead of holding and gripping.

As we settle into quiet and stillness, our Yin aspects of being and our contemplative, receptive
qualities are all enhanced. People think Yoga is about doing but it’s actually about receiving.

We want to enhance our capacity for body-mind vitality and integrity and this involves allowing ourselves to apply the balm of a healing restorative practice onto ourselves. By pulling and compressing the connective tissue gently we maintain their pliancy within their natural ranges of motion and move tension out of the body for improved mobility.

Benefits Of Yin Yoga

  • Tension release
  • Creates elasticity in the muscles and joints
  • Stretches the muscles away from the skeleton
  • Compresses and stretches the connective tissue (fascia) of the body that might be bound up or saran wrapped inhibiting muscle mobility and range of motion
  • Yin Is Like Accupunture You Give Yourself
a woman using props in a restorative yoga pose

Key elements of Restorative Yoga

Although the yoga authority was known to teach a more vigorous, alignment-based style of yoga, BKS Iyengar can be the one to credit for the development of Restorative yoga.

He noticed early on his teaching journey how pain, illness, or injury can cause a student to strain in poses. This led him to experiment with props and modifications in order to make yoga accessible for all his students. Naturally, Restorative yoga was born out of this as a means to help the ill or injured restore and recover. In 1970, Judith Lasater, a student of Iyengar would later popularize it in the west and can be credited for further developing its teachings.

Many times teachers incorporate pranayama breathing techniques into their classes as an anchor to cultivate presence in the pose and greater soothe the nervous system.

Through controlled breathing, we enhance the quality and mobility of prana within.

Props, Props, PROPS. This practice is all about the utilization of props to facilitate relaxation and stillness. However, don’t let the lack of props discourage you from practicing Restorative yoga. Get creative and play around with different items around your house like towels, pillows, blankets, and anything else that can offer comfortable cushiony support as you melt.

With the spine being the superhighway between your brain and body, a strong focus is applied to the flexion of the spine and working with inversions, twists, backbends, and forward bends.

The greatest luxury in an over-scheduled life is simply unfilled time.  Learn to do nothing. Lie on your couch and look out the window.  No music, no cell phone, no talking, nothing.  We all crave more space and the cooling balm of uncluttered time.  Invite emptiness into your life whenever and wherever you can.  Soak in the silence and stillness to be found somewhere in your day. This practice is anything but a waste of time. It feeds the soul and nourishes our life.

Judtih Lasater
a woman using props in a restorative yoga pose leaning over a bolster

If You Can’t Feel It You Are Doing It

The goal of Restorative yoga is to practice active relaxation and bring it back to a state of balance and into the now. Restorative yoga focuses on deliberate stillness and relaxation of the nervous system. As you allow your body to melt onto your props, the props relieve your body and bones of their regular support and action roles thus quieting your nervous system.

It connects us to sensation which is always happening in the present moment.

We are in constant movement. And what surprises a lot of students when they try a restorative class is how the body is always moving even in stillness. This is why many new practitioners to the practice find it extremely difficult to lie still and some simply hate this the first time they try it (I am guilty of this). This practice can be one a lot of yogis have resistance with.

Practicing stillness and active rest when we are constantly running at 200MPH can be tough. Many fall out of consistent meditation practice constantly because of this. And that is what makes restorative yoga an advanced practice. It’s a work in not a work out.

When you can relax the entirety of your body and let go, allowing tension to slowly release from your body and get quiet in the stillness that is when true listening occurs.

Restorative yoga works to bring your body and mind back into harmony. It doesn’t relax your body, it allows for your innate relaxation to be uncovered.

a woman using props in a forward fold restorative yoga pose

Benefits Of Restorative Yoga:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves immune function
  • Positively enhances fertility
  • Reduces and alleviates tension headaches
  • Rejuvenates and wakes up a dull and tired mind for improved productivity during the work day
  • Stimulates the Para-sympathetic or Healing Branch of the Nervous System
  • Improves creativity and mood
  • Opens us up to the quality of Loving Kindness towards One-Self and Others

“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

Siddhartha Buddha

Restorative Yoga vs Yin Yoga: Understanding The Difference and Choosing The Right Practice

If Yin yoga is about the tissues and joints, then restorative is about the nervous system. Both practices are about inviting a state of “allowing” so that we can rest and restore.

Both practices allow for healing and natural regeneration to occur and also a time to go inward and allow ourselves to release. But when it comes to Restorative Yoga vs Yin Yoga, which one is the right fit for you?

Here are some markers that might help you determine which one is right for you.

Yin yoga is best for:

  • Building Strength and flexibility
  • Actively stretching connective tissue and sustained effort
  • Improving posture
  • Keeping your joints healthy and mobile
  • Releasing trauma and emotion stored in the connective tissues of the body
  • Bringing negative thought patterns into your awareness so that you can work with them and release them
  • People who sit at a desk all day or lead an active lifestyle with a lot of movement
a woman doing a restorative yoga vs yin yoga childs pose with a bolster

Restorative yoga is best for:

  • Stress release
  • People who deal with an abnormal amount of stress and anxiety on a daily basis
  • Passive Stretch, No sensation, and very light stimulation
  • Practicing Breath-work
  • Creating a sense of safety in the mind and body
  • Reaching a state of mindful rest (think yoga Nidra— a sort of receptive trance practice)
  • Cultivating contentment
  • People who find it difficult to unwind after a normal day of work
  • Those who struggle to find time for themself

“ There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting world views as dictated by one’s nervous system and the specific environment of our experience.”

Deepak Chopra

The Best Time To Practice Yin

Aligning the practice to best fit your needs and align with the rhythm of your daily life is very important. Yin is a cool practice making an early morning practice when the muscles are cool, is a great time to practice. Another great option is practicing Yin yoga in the evening as it is a restorative practice that can ease you into the rest of your afternoon and ready for bed.

Or maybe it’s during the middle of your day when you are needing a break from work or a boost to head into the second half of the rest of your day. In the spring or summer season to balance the energy of yang (active) summer season brings.

Whenever life has been very active or you’ve been traveling it’s also a good idea to practice. During your moon cycle for women. Regardless of when you practice, just remember to tap into your intuition and you will always practice at the correct time.

a woman using props and a chair in a restorative yoga pose

The Best Time To Practice Restorative

You will feel some benefit from these poses no matter what time of day you practice. Choose a time when you feel the least rushed. Experiment with what feels natural with your body’s rhythm.

Many find benefits in doing a pose in the morning as later in the day they might not find the energy to get into the poses. Others enjoy the afternoon since the demands of the day are done and they can feel refreshed for the rest of their evening. It’s also ok to come into a Restorative pose after an active yang practice.

Practicing a full restorative class once per week ( Some people love to devote Sunday as a Restorative day) or sneaking it into 5 – 10 minutes of your daily yoga practice can also be beneficial. During times of stress, injury, and life transitions it can be useful to increase your practice frequency. You can do a restorative anytime that feels good to do.

Bringing it all together

In the words of Judith Lasater, savasana doesn’t create relaxation, savasana reveals relaxation. When it comes to Restorative yoga VS Yin yoga, both have enormous benefits for any and all yogis who are ready to embark on either journey. It’s all about tuning into your specific needs.

Whether we are trying to stretch and release tension in Yin yoga or relax, melt and listen inward in Restorative, there are worlds to be discovered in both practices.

Restorative and Yin styles of yoga are giving people what they need in this post-pandemic world and that is rest, relaxation, and release. The question both practices ask of us however is this, in a world that is busy always doing, can you do less?

If you are interested in learning more about yin or restorative yoga, check out these articles. Happy practicing!

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Anna is a lifestyle writer and yoga teacher currently living in sunny San Diego, California. Her mission is to make the tools of yoga accessible to those in underrepresented communities.

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