I’ll never forget during teacher training when asked, “How many types of yoga exist?” To which one student responded, “As many flavors of ice cream.” While it got my mind craving Three Twins cardamom ice cream, I thought back to an analogy of yoga as a dense forest. According to Bernie Clark, “Modern yoga has sprung from a figurative forest of many different styles of yoga with many varied intentions. One particular tree germinating in this fertile forest about 1,000 years ago is called Hatha Yoga, which means forceful yoga.” (The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, The Philosophy & Practice of Yin Yoga pg. xvii).
From this offshoot of Hatha yoga we have what is known today as Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Power Yoga, among other disciplines. Compile this with the various takes on western yoga i.e. aerial yoga, yoga dance, paddle board yoga etc. it is no surprise that students struggle to differentiate between all the nuance that exists today. I see the most confusion surrounding classes such as Yin and Restorative – in fact, they are mistaken for one another. However, my goal is not to advocate which practice is more effective, but to shed light on the intention and goal of each practice in its own right.
I’ll first begin by defining Restorative Yoga. Just as the name implies, this class will focus on rest and relaxation of the body and mind. The practice originates from the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar, with an emphasis on optimal alignment through the use of yoga props and meticulously sequenced postures. You’ll make use of yoga blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters and the like. What’s important to bear in mind is that the goal of the practice is rest and relaxation of the central nervous system (the fight or flight response). With that said, the sensations felt in this class, I would argue, are that of neutral.
Yin Yoga on the other hand, is the application of mild, healthy stress on the fascia and connective tissue residing deep within the body. While some of the poses look starkly similar to those seen in Restorative, it’s important to understand that we are applying stress to the joints, ligaments, collagen, and fascia, not merely coasting in neutral. A vital aspect to bear in mind is the exiting out of a Yin pose. If done correctly, the practitioner is likely to experience a dull, achey sensation in the area of concentration – one should not expect that in Restorative Yoga. Now that we understand the basic differences between the two practices, it is here that I’d like to break down some of the similarities seen in both classes and why they are fundamentally different:
- Time – I believe many students mistaken Restorative for Yin due to this aspect. Both Restorative and Yin poses are held for longer durations of time compared to their Yang counterparts. For example, in Yin you can expect to hold a pose anywhere from 3-5 minutes (sometimes longer). Likewise, in Restorative Yoga, you can expect to hold postures anywhere from 7-10 minutes. While both practices share this element of held duration, the sensations felt in Yin are on a more intense scale (not painful) than a relaxing Restorative class.
- Use of Props – This is an area that I misunderstood, even as an instructor. During Yin Teacher Training our instructor came into a Yin posture, Saddle, with the use of a bolster behind his spine and asked, “Is this Yin or Restorative?” With my chest swelling up with pride, I immediately blurted out, “Restorative!” To which I was told, “It depends.” Don’t allow the use of props to confuse you from the intention of either practice. If using a yoga prop allows you to experience the mild sensations of a Yin posture then, by all means, use your props. Learn from my experience and understand that the use of yoga props is not limited to a Restorative setting. All human bodies are different, making sensation vary from person to person. If using a bolster, block, blanket, strap, chair etc. makes a Yin posture more accessible for you, it’s still Yin Yoga.
- The Poses Look Similar – The pose may look similar but the sensations are not. As mentioned previously; a Yin version of Saddle will differ drastically from a Restorative take on the pose. While the practitioner is welcome to use props in either setting, in a Yin version of Saddle the practitioner may experience mild compression in the low back and sensation across the quads. In a Restorative version of Saddle, the practitioner will most likely use more props under the spine to facilitate a deeper sense of ease and relaxation, perhaps emphasizing more of a heart opener than backbend.
While there remains more to be said of the two practices, I will leave you with this basic information. I hope I was successful in creating awareness about the goal of each practice. Again, no yoga discipline is greater or more effective than the other, and what I have provided here is my understanding of the practices as I have experienced them – nothing is absolute, not even in yoga. To reiterate the analogy of yoga as ice cream; how boring would our practice be if we consumed only one flavor. We should never cease navigating the diverse, dense forest of yoga.
Whole. Healthy. Peace.