What’s the difference between Restorative and Yin Yoga?

Restorative and Yin yoga both involve holding poses for a length of time, with the help of props, to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (promoting rest and digest). But there are some differences between the two.

Restorative Yoga

Restorative yoga poses, if done correctly, should feel like you are doing nothing at all. By using props such as blankets, bolsters or bricks, the joints of the body are held comfortably and feel completely supported. From there you can encourage your mind and body relax into the pose. For example, in a recent class I went to, we started by folding up a blanket, lying one end of it over a brick placed at the top of the mat, and then lying down with the head on the part of the blanket over the brick. The blanket then supported the spine, coming to just above the coccyx, so that the bum was off the blanket and on the mat. Then, covered by another blanket and a bolster placed under the knees, the teacher encouraged us to take a scan of the body and start letting go of any tension.

Before my first restorative class I remember being nervous that I might miss the instructions for how to set up the props and then try to relax into something uncomfortable. However, I really needn’t have worried: a good teacher will give the instructions slowly and clearly, and there is plenty of time within the pose to adjust if something doesn’t feel quite right for you. One of the great things about Restorative (and Yin) yoga is that each student is in complete control and can make the poses their own.

If you’re at home and don’t have any these specific props, all you need is a bit of wall space, some chunky books, a chair or even a towel or some pillows. Just get comfy and allow yourself to R E L A X. You can hold a restorative pose for anywhere from 5 to 10 to 30 to 40 minutes… It’s all about listening to what feels good in your body.

Some of the benefits of Restorative yoga include increased blood circulation, reducing stress and promoting good quality sleep.

Yin Yoga

Similar to Restorative, Yin gives you time to be calm and settle into the body to become more aware of what is going on within.

In a Yin pose, we apply gentle stretch to the muscles (this is sometimes referred to as finding the “edge”) and you should feel the stretch but not any pain. Then by holding the pose for a few minutes and connecting with the breath, the tissues may start to soften.

An example of a Yin pose could be sitting with the legs wide on either side of a bolster, folding forwards from the hips and bringing the head to rest on a brick placed on the bolster. This would help stretch the hips and inside of the thighs. It would also focus on the liver meridian. In Yin, the poses work with energy channels in the body known as meridians. A teacher can choose a particular channel (like the liver or the stomach) and plan the class around that area.

Yin is helpful for increasing flexibility as well as clearing stagnant energy in the body.

I think both Yin and Restorative yoga have a reputation for being ‘easy’. They don’t have the dynamic flow of Vinyasa or the non-stop jumps of Ashtanga, but they do have their own challenges. You have to be comfortable to find the stillness of the pose and be alone with your thoughts. Sometimes I have classes where I find I can empty my mind and soften into each pose easily; and there are some days where I really struggle to turn off the internal stream of mental chatter. I can be physically still but mentally? That’s a whole other ball game.

But, as with anything, it is about practise and learning what works for you and what doesn’t, and being accepting of the times when it doesn’t work.

For me, Restorative and Yin classes are part of my yoga practise as a whole and not just isolated classes to help me relax. The things I learn when holding poses for a longer period of time also helps me progress and get more out of my Vinyasa and Ashtanga classes. For example, my understanding of the connection between the body and the breath is deeper after Yin and Restorative; and also being in control of the pose – if something is painful or restrictive, then I can adapt the pose so it suits my body. Iyengar students see restorative classes as a fundamental part of their yoga and I agree – plus it is always good to give yourself time and permission to relax and restore.

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