Restorative Yoga and Yin Yoga are not the same yoga. They do share some similarities and to the outside eye they may, to a certain degree look the same, but they have very different intentions and need to be recognised as different kinds of yoga. This is important so that people can make good choices about the yoga that will best suit their needs.
Very often the terms "restorative" and "yin" are used interchangeably to describe the same yoga practice. They can even be written up on a class schedule using these interchangeable words. They are not the same thing.
In every Yin Yoga Teacher Training that I facilitate, someone will always ask me what the difference is between these styles of yoga, which tells me that there is some confusion around their differences. There is a very important distinction to be made, as some students really need a Restorative practice where a Yin Yoga practice might be too much for their bodies and nervous systems. Yin Yoga can definitely leave you feeling "restored", but that does not make it "Restorative Yoga" in the true sense of what Restorative Yoga has to offer. So to help clarify the differences, (and also to point out the similarities), here are my top 5 differences between Restorative Yoga and Yin Yoga:
5. Stress on Tissues
In Yin Yoga, the physical intention is to place stress on particular target areas, which are either big myofascial groups and/or joint capsules, connective tissue, bones and superficial fascia. Often it is a combination of all of these kinds of "yin tissues" that fall across a particular region (target area) of the body, for example the glutes and outer thighs, or the entire back. The word "stress" is a provocative word, as we usually associate this with a not-good feeling (I came to yoga to de-stress not be stressed!). The word "stress" in this context could be replaced with "load" but essentially, we are placing a certain amount of force through the yin tissues of the body for therapeutic reasons. This force need not be any more intense than a 7/10 feeling (which is subjective and is still therapeutic if it is 1/10), and the time in which a student stays in this manner is suggestible, not dogmatic. Every yin pose needs to be followed up with a "rebound" which is essentially a moment of restorative yoga.
If the target area was a site of injury for a student, (depending on how recent the injury was), then this might not be an appropriate posture or practice for them. If that student had multiple injuries, or a connective tissue disorder, or even a chronic illness that greatly affected their energy levels, then Yin Yoga may not be the right practice for them at that time and a Restorative Yoga class or practice might be a better fit for the time being. Having said that, sometimes older chronic injuries where the body is stiff and tight can improve really well with the inclusion of Yin Yoga. Under the guidance of a good (and trained) Yin Yoga teacher, a student who has significant chronic injuries may find that Yin Yoga is a good choice to help increase mobility and flexibility in their body.
In Restorative Yoga there is no stress placed on the body whatsoever. It is not a stretch class, it is not active in any way, except for the slow transitions in between the restorative shapes and setting up your props. The intention is to arrange the body in postures where the body is completely supported. So you will see a restorative yoga shape accompanied by many props. The essence of a restorative shape is to create effortlessness, where a student may have the experience of complete physical relaxation. Of course, many students that practice restorative yoga are moving through chronic illness, stress, or trauma healing which means that relaxation of body and mind can be fluctuant, however the intention of effortlessness is a beautiful foundation to support the student in whatever state they arrive in.
By having a completely supported body, without any stress on the physical tissues, the intention of Restorative Yoga is much more focused on calming and harmonising the nervous system. For the student who has a lot of injuries in their body, or a lot of stress in their mind, they may find that Restorative Yoga is a wonderful stepping stone in their recovery, and that down the track Yin Yoga might be the next exploration, or they may find that Restorative Yoga is the perfect yoga for them. Even for the student who is not injured or mentally stressed, a Restorative Yoga class in the mix of their usual yoga diet can be a lovely way to power down, rest, and relax.
4. Time spent in each posture
As well as the intentional stress placed on the body's tissues in a Yin Yoga posture, the time spent in the shape is also a key element of the practice.
Depending on the yin shape, a student could be in the pose anywhere from 1-6 minutes (it is important that students also know they can come out of the pose at any time so that they are not pushing through pain or feeling competitive pressure). The time plus the intentional stress are the two most important ingredients for the physical therapy of yin yoga to occur. The time spent in the shape gives the yin tissues the ability to temporarily lengthen, which creates a phase change in the fluid held in that tissue, sometimes called the "melt" by bodyworkers who do the same thing to a clients tissues through the pressure of massage and release techniques. The tissue is then "rested" in the rebound in order for it to settle before any further stress is placed upon the body. The rebound is just as important as the time spent in the shape itself.
A Restorative Yoga posture will take some time to set up. You might be placing a bolster under your spine, blankets under your thighs, cushions under the feet, and even an eye pillow over the eyes. Once everything is in place, the body needs some time to settle in (the mind usually needs a bit longer) and so the time spent in a restorative yoga shape could be anything from 5 to 20 minutes depending on the way the teacher guides the experience for the class. It can take the body a while to let go of the habitual gripping and tensioning of muscles, even when we think we are deeply relaxed, people are often still sucking their tongue up to the roof of their mouth or squeezing their teeth together. The long amounts of time in a restorative yoga posture really allow for a progressive unwinding of these muscle memory programs, as well as gentle consistent focus on easy breathing. After a little while, you may even feel like you are floating on top of the props.
3. Number of postures in the practice
This flows directly on from the above point. If a student is spending 20 minutes in a restorative yoga posture then the number of postures included in that practice will be very small. I have been to restorative yoga classes where there have only been 3 postures for the entire class so you can imagine the feeling of unrest a student could have if they thought they were attending a Yin Yoga class, or even a slightly more active class, and there were only three postures. This is why it is important to be clear about the intention of the practice (as well as the teacher being clear about expectations during the practice). If too many postures were attempted in the class it may feel rushed, and the feeling of "dropping in" may not have enough time and space to be felt.
In a Yin Yoga class the number of postures can also be minimal. In a 60 minute class, including time to open and close the practice and allowing for rebounds, there might only be 6 or so postures. Depending on whether those postures were symmetrical or not, I count time spent on one side of the body, for example Sleeping Swan on the right hand side, as one posture. This will need to be balanced out on the opposite side of the body. By the time both sides are complete, that may have taken approximately 12 minutes. Students often remark at how quickly the class is over and how they wish it would last for longer.
2. The lineages and philosophies
Both Restorative and Yin Yoga have their roots in Hatha Yoga. This is where the asanas have come from. So they both have Indian origins to some extent. The familiar looking hatha yoga shapes in a Yin Yoga class will have a different name however. So what you may know as Pigeon Pose, Yin Yoga would call Sleeping Swan, what you might know as Hero's Pose, Yin Yoga would call Saddle pose and so on.
Because of the fairly passive nature of Yin Yoga postures, new names were given to the asanas by Paul Grilley in order to help students develop a new relationship with the yin version of the posture. Many of the hatha yoga postures have a more muscularly active intention, and so the yin aspect of the pose needed to be called something different.
Yin Yoga is also heavily influenced by Daoism and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Probably because one of the first influencers of what we call Yin Yoga today was martial artist Paulie Zink, who practiced a style of yoga that was focused on stretching the body. Paulie Zink was a teacher of Paul Grilley who alongside his wife Suzee Grilley developed the style of Yin Yoga that we practice today. One of Paul's other mentors was Hiroshi Motoyama; a clairvoyant Shinto priest who was able to see into people's energy bodies, and could therefore identify blockages in their energetic meridians.
From these two major influences: martial arts and energy healing, as well as the understanding of how the meridian lines travel through connective tissue, the long held stretches in Yin Yoga are understood to stimulate and unblock the flow of qi throughout the body as it travels through superficial fascia. You would be forgiven for thinking Yin Yoga originated in China, because of the frequent references to meridians and TCM, but it really does originate from India, with a daoist philosophical influence. The equivalent of yoga asana in China would be Qi Gong and/or Tai Qi.
1. Healing potential
There is so much healing potential in both of these styles of practice. Any kind of practice that helps people to slow down and reconnect with their breath is going to be very soothing to the nervous system.
Restorative Yoga is primarily about restoring health to the parasympathetic nervous system, or what is commonly called the "rest and digest" branch of the nervous system. When people have been through trauma, chronic stress, burnout, illness and grief, sometimes the "fight or flight" mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system can get jacked up and does not know how to switch itself off again. When people are in this state, they can feel constantly on edge. They may find that no matter how much they consciously try to relax their muscles, soon enough they are gripping and tense again. That is a sign that the nervous system does not know if they are safe, and it is on guard to protect. The trouble is that this can became a deeply wired program in the nervous system as a result of intense life experiences, and despite the logical attempt to relax, a person is simply unable to do so.
Because Restorative Yoga is slow, simple and deeply supporting, the intention is to give the body and mind so much space and rest that the nervous system can gently begin to rewire its' "fight or flight" state, into a softer state. A good example of that moment of "letting go" is sometimes experienced by students during a Yoga Nidra guided meditation where it almost feels like the body shifts down in gears in a tangible drop. That feeling, is the feeling of the nervous system relaxing, and for those people experiencing high levels of anxiety and physical hyper vigilance, every opportunity they get to "drop in" to that feeling, helps the nervous system to re-harmonise.
Many students of Yin Yoga report the same kind of relaxation response occur during their practice. Yin Yoga also shares the characteristics of being slow, grounding, and spending lots of time in one place. In a world where we are encouraged to burn out at work and home, the simple act of doing slow yoga is deeply healing on its own. Both Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga practices will also have lots of encouragement to focus on slow even breathing which can be very soothing to the nervous system.
Yin Yoga also has the aspect of healing physical tissues and unblocking the meridians via the long held stress plus rebound for particular target areas. Hiroshi Motoyama's extensive scientific research led to the conclusion that our energetic meridian pathways travels through the water rich dermal layer of the skin, otherwise known as our superficial fascia. This is the predominant yin tissue of the body that we target in a Yin Yoga practice. The very nature of connective tissue, being more collagen than elastin, means that it needs at least 2 minutes to be stimulated in order to help the fluid within the fascial web undergo a phase change of the "melt" described earlier. This "melt" is what liberates and unblocks stuck energy. The rebound is a very important moment of posture aftercare, where the fascia is rehydrated; pulling fluid back into its web. Yin Yoga essentially helps to wash and hydrate the superficial fascia, and so good hydration before and after class is a great idea.
The holding of the pose also stimulates the cells within our fascia that make new collagen; our fibroblasts. The mechano-stress is picked up by fibroblasts during the time spent in the yin shape. This is the same mechanism used by the body when any healing of damaged tissue needs to occur whether it is a blood vessel, a bone, or a muscle.
Yin Yoga actually encourages our yin tissues: joint capsules, ligaments, and tendons to become stronger over time. Remember that we are stimulating these tissues, not aggressively stretching them to the point where you are shaking and holding your breath. Which also means that old, damaged, stuck planes of fascia may also become more hydrated and mobile from a steady consistent Yin Yoga practice.
Whether you choose a restorative or yin practice, there is abundant healing potential available to you. It may just depend on whether you need a completely passive and effortless practice, or if you are up for a little more physical stretch and sensation.
Hopefully you now feel more informed about the important distinctions between these different styles of yoga. Of course, nothing quite compares to the actual first hand experience of something. If you have never been to a Restorative Yoga class, maybe you now is the time to try it out? Likewise for Yin Yoga, attend a class and feel more confident about what to expect and what the practice has to offer you in your life.
For more information on Yin Yoga and tissues of the body check out: