Restorative and Yin Yoga are often confused and assumed to be the same style of yoga. Some yoga studios even use the class names interchangeably.
They are, in fact, different styles of yoga that employ distinct techniques and philosophical approaches. While some of the benefits of these practices are the same, the aim and methods not only differ, they are complete opposites.
Why do they get confused? At first glance, they appear to be similar practices because they explore mostly poses that rest close to the ground and often use props to support the body. Like most yoga practices, both Yin and Restorative Yoga can promote relaxation and stress relief.
Further confusion may come from the descriptive names “restorative” and “yin” which are not brands of yoga associated with an individual or codified sequence. As Bernie Clarke explains in a forum titled “Who Owns Yin Yoga” on the website yinyoga.com:
... the word 'yin' is an adjective and anybody can freely use this term to describe his or her practice. Yin and yang exist in complementary roles: a softer practice is yin compared to a hard practice, and even a hot room can be yin-like compared to a much hotter room. Indeed, the USA Trademark Office has decreed that a descriptive term (like Yin Yoga) cannot be trademarked --- no one can own the phrase 'Yin Yoga', thus anyone can use it.
While many styles of yoga are trademarked to distinguish and monetize a single teacher or guru’s teachings (Bikram Yoga, Forrest Yoga, Kaiut Yoga) — the pioneers of contemporary Yin and Restorative Yoga have intentionally left the landscape wild and alive, making it possible for wisdom to arise from many sources. Leading Yin Yoga teachers Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley acknowledge that the techniques are discoverable by anyone and have historical roots in both yogic and martial art traditions.
A more in-depth exploration of the history of Yin and Restorative Yoga, including background on modern day pioneers is a great topic I will explore in another article. For the inquiry at hand, no one owns Restorative or Yin Yoga. However, the contemporary practices of Yin and Restorative Yoga were named and popularized by specific influential teachers. If you are seeking a Yin or Restorative Yoga training, look to the influential and wise teachers below and their students:
Yin Yoga Luminaries
Judith Hansen Lassiter
B.K.S. Iyengar (deceased)
Misunderstandings about yoga can also arise when teachers do not share where they are drawing inspiration from and with whom they are studying. Yoga classes are often creatively hybrid, drawing from multiple styles of yoga and borrowing from other teachings. There is nothing wrong with this. As in all creative worlds, co-inspiration expands and enriches the yoga culture. For both the sake of etiquette and stylistic clarity, yoga teachers should share their creative process and illuminate who their major influences are, what they’ve been studying lately, and how it’s being assimilated into their teaching. Honoring teachers and muses and doing the appropriate research and integration is something all teachers should be tasked with.
Teachers and studio owners have a responsibility to educate themselves on the styles of yoga they offer.
While reading an article is not adequate, I hope that this break-down of the differences between Yin and Restorative Yoga will help shine a light on the value of both of these practices. Yin and Restorative Yoga are distinct in both aim and method.
The aim of Restorative Yoga is simple: deep relaxation.
Restorative Yoga promotes deep relaxation that is ideally achieved in a state of restful awakeness. While most restorative yoga teachers don’t mind if you fall asleep during a class, the value of wakeful relaxation positively impacts your physical systems and is an opportunity to reconnect with the emotional and spiritual layers of your being.
Restorative Yoga aims to remove physical discomfort and promote relaxation through body scans, gentle breathing techniques and encouraging a reconnection with feelings of peace. I would categorize Restorative Yoga as an ascension practice because it is aimed at cultivating the specific states of relaxation, joy and comfort.*
From the ease and comfort of a Restorative Yoga posture, you can exist in your “bliss body” called anandamaya kosha in Sanskrit. This layer of your being is non-dualistic. Rather than being in the Ego mind where your identity and storylines live, the bliss body is the part of you that merges with all that surrounds you. It’s a reunion with the energetic landscape from which everything arises and returns and is often felt as a pure and peaceful state. Yoga Nidra, another yogic approach that uses guided meditation, is often combined with Restorative Yoga to promote a transcendence to this blissful arena. The Restorative Yoga postures put the body at ease, and the guided meditation replaces our mental dialogue with a calm awareness of the breath, body, emotions and capacity for well-being.
The aim of Yin Yoga is more difficult to encapsulate. As I have come to understand Yin Yoga from my teacher Sarah Powers and personal practice, it is a framework for exploring our interiority and nourishing our “yin side.” Most of us are familiar with our “yang side” which is the part of us that is motivated, generative, action-oriented, progress-driven and externally validated. Our “yin side” is content, receptive, fertile, quiet, still and often hidden. Consider your “yin side” the soil from which everything grows and your “yang side” everything that emerges from the soil.
Yin inquiry asks us to descend into the soil of our body, psyche and invisible realms to embrace everything that we find below the surface.
What we find is likely to be a wide range of sensations, thoughts and emotions. All is welcome and met in a Yin Yoga practice: comfort, discomfort, neutrality, essence and complexity. Because of Yin Yoga’s readiness to meet uncomfortable positions, and how it is taught in conjunction with mindfulness practices, I consider it a practice of decision.* One of Sarah Powers’ guides to Yin Yoga is to “stay awhile” and respond tenderly to whatever arises in your system. Given the more challenging components of a Yin Yoga practice, one has to have both curiosity and resolve to explore the somatic and psycho-emotional depths that are possible.
A more practical understanding of the differences between Restorative and Yin Yoga comes from knowing the physical methods and psychological approach.
Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga have completely opposing physical methodology.
Restorative Yoga intentionally unloads the joints, muscles and skeleton so that the entire physical body is relaxed for extended periods of time ranging from 5 to 20 minutes in each pose.
Yin Yoga intelligently stresses the joints and fascia through loading the physical body, utilizing both traction and compression, in poses for 1-10 minutes.
Restorative Yoga organizes the body into a shape that provides maximum comfort and support so that muscular tension is released and joint tissues relax. Similar to methods of sensory deprivation, the design of restorative yoga is to remove bodily discomfort and stimuli to achieve a state of deep relaxation. Props, and lots of them, are essential to Restorative Yoga. Props are used underneath and on top of the body to promote ease and maintain relaxation for longer periods of time.
Judith Hansen Lassiter says that, “During deep relaxation, all the organ systems of the body are benefited, and a few of the measurable results of relaxation are the reduction of blood pressure and the improvement of immune function, as well as improvement in digestion, fertility, elimination, the reduction of muscle tension and generalized fatigue.”
Yin Yoga poses target specific structures in the body through both traction and compression to improve joint health and deconstruct patterns of restriction. In most poses, the muscles are relaxed so that the healthy stress is applied to the myofascial tendon complexes, ligaments, bones and fascia. Once the muscles are relaxed, gravity exerts the perfect amount of gentle force on the body. The amount of time spent in each pose varies from person to person and depends on which area of the body is being focused on.
Yin Yoga poses can stimulate a lot of sensation as the body acclimates from the initial feeling of a muscular stretch to sensations occurring deeper in the joint sites. The physical benefits of this approach include improving blood flow to joint tissues, maintaining and reclaiming joint mobility, softening scar tissue and unwinding postural habits.
Props are not absolutely necessary in Yin Yoga as the benefits of the poses can often be achieved by simply being where you are naturally and letting gravity “do the work.”
If props are used in Yin Yoga they serve the purposes of:
In conjunction with attending to the physical body, Yin Yoga works directly with the energy body by way of targeting the meridians (energetic channels mapped by Chinese Medicine and yogic sages who referred to them as nadis). All styles of yoga can have an impact on the energy body; very few styles of yoga intentionally target the 14 major meridians. Because Yin Yoga works directly with fascia, which is a collagen-rich highly conductive matrix in the body, the meridians located in the fascia are impacted. Yin Yoga poses are designed to traction or compress meridians to promote better energetic flow across the channels and throughout the internal organs. In her book Insight Yoga, Sarah Powers offers Yin Yoga sequences for organ support and introduces Chinese Meridian Theory.**
Along with the physical methodology, Yin and Restorative Yoga have different psycho-emotional approaches. As mentioned before, Restorative Yoga is promoting the specific state of relaxation and teachers often encourage you to reconnect with feelings of joy or bliss. In contrast, Yin Yoga employs mindfulness techniques to witness thoughts and emotions without clinging to the storylines. “Making friends” with challenging inner conditions promotes an integration of the complete psyche and can reconnect us to feelings of empathy and compassion. What we experience in our minds is often reflected in our body and vice versa. As Sarah Power’s reflects below on her personal experience with Yin Yoga, the benefits of ease and clarity often come with Yin Yoga, but the pathway taken to get there is different from Restorative Yoga.
The lengthy postural steadiness allows us to develop yin qualities of surrender and observance, a willingness to feel a greater tolerance for uncomfortable experiences. After doing my Yin poses strung together, I have found that a feeling commonly develops that is similar to the effect of a long acupuncture session. My body begins to feel very relaxed and at ease, while my mind feels a heightened sense of clarity and restfulness. —Sarah Powers, Insight Yoga page 25
Both Restorative and Yin Yoga are valuable practices to explore and provide relief from our everyday, overstimulated, agitated, and exhausted states. Both styles of yoga take us to a quieter and more still place that allows us to replenish our energy stores and reconnect with our whole being. With separate aims and methods, the differing “medicines” of Yin and Restorative may resonate with you at different points in your life.
If you’re a yoga teacher or studio owner interested in offering one or both of these styles of yoga, I invite you to hold your teaching and leadership in the highest integrity and practice and train in these styles of yoga with a qualified teacher prior to including these classes on your schedule. All of the luminaries listed above lead teacher trainings. Trainings in Iyengar Yoga continue to be offered by his senior teachers. As a student of Sarah Powers***, I am proud to be offering both a 60-hour Yin Yoga Immersion (for students who love to learn and teachers who have a 200-hour certificate) and a 200-hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training (for aspiring teachers to attain their teaching certificate).
To experience Yin Yoga yourself, please join me at a public class in Boulder or Denver, Colorado, or take a class with me on YogaDownload or subscribe to my free podcast “Yoga Sesh”.
*Ascension and descension practices are not mutually exclusive. Often, they act as portals to one another. Ascension states of ease and safety can open the human system to realms of healing that were previously inaccessible. Descension practices can yield to moments of insight or release that propel us to states of freedom. It is important to have an experienced and trustworthy teacher, healer or therapist to support explorations into both ascension and descension.
**Chinese Meridian Theory is a vast body of knowledge that is introduced, through the lens of yoga, in Sarah Powers’ book Insight Yoga. It is not a resource for diagnosing physical or mental health or for prescribing treatments. For anyone who is captivated by Chinese Meridian Theory, seek experts and mentors that help you grow and learn. Licensed acupuncturists and Chinese Medicine practitioners have invested years, if not decades, to studying this powerful medicine and are a great resource for personal healing.
***I have completed Sarah Power’s Level I and II trainings and continue to study with her on silent retreats. I am currently one of twenty-one international yoga teachers that is doing her Level III training.
By Caitlin Rose Kenney
Caitlin Rose teaches yoga to satisfy the whole being and speaks about the physical practice as an access point for widespread change in mental patterns, emotional states, and connection to spirit. Caitlin Rose is known for holding space with a calm confidence that allows practitioners to move safely, feel their experience, revitalize and heal. Her gentle demeanor and articulate instructions aid students at any level to advance their ability for precision and graceful embodiment.
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