Recently while planning my CF Yogi class for this month, I did an Instagram poll that revealed just how many of our CF Yogis didn’t know the difference between Yin and Restorative yoga (71%)! So I thought I’d give a quick primer on the differences between these two slower-paced yoga practices.
It’s true that Yin and Restorative yoga do have a lot in common, at least from the outside:
- They are both slow-paced practices
- They use minimal muscular effort
- They use poses on the floor that have a lot of similar shapes
While it’s true that many Yin and Restorative poses look similar from the outside, they feel entirely different from the inside — because the intention behind them is actually quite different. Here are three major ways that I see Yin and Restorative as distinctly different from each other in my experience.
On a physical level, Yin is intended to strengthen deep “yin” tissues, bones, ligaments, joint capsule by producing gentle, healthy stress. Our bodies need some stress to stay healthy, as it sends blood flow and vital nutrients that keep our bones strong—if you don’t use it, you lose it. On the other hand, Restorative yoga is intended for healing, completely letting go of all stress (physical and mental).
On an energetic level, Yin is about balance. The Yin and the Yang are two aspects of the whole. You can see in the symbol how the two colors together complete the circle. The light represents the Yang – bright, outward, movement, visible, and masculine qualities. The dark represents the Yin – dark, inward, static, invisible, and feminine qualities. In terms of the body, our muscles are dynamic and flexible, very “Yang” in nature. Our bones, ligaments and joints are deeper and not as stretchy, more “Yin” in nature.
They are all part of the same whole. If you look closely at the tajitu (or “yinyang” symbol), you can even see that there is a dot of Yang within Yin, and Yin within Yang. Neither is complete without the other.
In most Western countries nowadays, yoga has become a very Yang practice, emphasizing dynamic movement and flexibility. But the health of our Yin tissues is also important, and unfortunately overlooked by many modern yogis. The Yin style yoga practice fuses those physical and energetic intentions to help us bring us into balance.
Restorative yoga has a yin-like energetic intention because it is slower and deeper than what we experience in an active “yang” class, releasing all muscular effort and letting the pose and gravity do the work for you. However, because our intention is to create NO stress in the body, it doesn’t target the physical “yin” tissues (bones, ligaments, and joints).
Both stress and rest are essential for healthy exercise. But equally important is that we treat our yin tissues in a yin way, and our yang tissues in a yang way. Remembering our intention is important.
“Stress has many negative connotations in our culture because we forget the ‘rest’ part of the theory. But to have too little or no stress in our life is just as damaging as too much stress. There is a yin/yang balance here that leads to health. Too much of anything is not healthy.”Bernie Clark, The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga
In Yin, it’s really important that we pay attention to the physical sensations we feel in the area we are targeting. Once we know the intention of a pose, we can start giving our attention to the sensation to bring ourselves to the “Goldilocks zone” – not too easy, not too hard, so we can hold that place for time. It helps us get more comfortable with uncomfortable sensations. Restorative on the other hand, steps back from the ledge to where you feel completely comfortable and safe.
Imagine that in Yin yoga, you are on an adventure and the trail leads you to the edge of the cliff, you come close enough to the edge that you can peer over the side, but stay really mindful of where you are and bring all your senses in to keep yourself safe. In doing so, you safely exercise your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and expand your body’s comfort zone by hanging out there on the ledge for a while.
That said, remember that we absolutely don’t want to cause pain in a Yin practice. Yet one of the biggest complaints people usually have with Yin yoga is that they find it painful! It could be because somewhere along the line an instructor pushed them too hard, but a lot of the times it’s that we push ourselves too hard out of a sense of competition or pride.
Why would you push yourself to the point of pain? It is our mind wanting to push ourselves too far and causing pain. If you perceive a painful signal from your body in a Yin pose, you’ve gone too far and owe it to yourself to step back. It’s better to find a variation that is not painful so you can hold it for a longer period of time.
In Restorative yoga, awareness of our physical sensation is not as crucial because we’re not creating those stresses. Since we are looking for healing, we want to feel completely safe in the pose. We are nowhere near the cliff in Restorative yoga, if anything we’re back in our coziest den where we can recover from the adventure we had out on the cliff this morning. In this place where you see no threat at all, we’re activating the rest and digest part of the nervous system (parasympathetic).
Tuning in to the physical sensations in a Restorative pose is beneficial because of our own mindfulness practice, but we don’t have to be as vigilant as we do in Yin. In Yin, awareness of physical sensation is essential. In Restorative, it is optional.
While both Yin and Restorative yoga involve holding poses for a long time, they differ in when and why to come out of the poses.
Because Yin is producing physical stress, you don’t stay in poses for more than a few minutes at a time (typically 3-5 minutes). It is relatively more work to stay in the poses than in Restorative yoga, committing to holding the asana for time. When you come out of the pose, there is a “rebound” where you feel the release of the stress—it’s really the best part of a Yin practice, and it can make you eager to come out of a pose to experience it!
In Restorative yoga, you make yourself so comfortable that time can just fly by, or sometimes you unwittingly even drift off to sleep. We make ourselves feel so cozy and safe that sometimes we almost don’t want to leave a pose! Restorative poses may be held for 10-12 minutes, or even more. But because we don’t want to create any stress, we want to make sure that we come out of a pose while it’s still comfortable. If we start to feel stress from a pose, it’s (past) time to come out.
In both cases, you want to give yourself plenty of time between the poses, as well. In Yin there will typically be more time spent on the “rebound,” and in Restorative there will be more time on the settling and letting go of residual muscular tension.
My Experience Exploring the Unexplored
As a naturally fidgety person, I was always more drawn to the “yang” practices with a lot of movement involved. It took a long time for me to really explore these slower styles of yoga, because I could never seem to get myself to settle long enough to really get the benefit of the practice.
In studying Yin and Restorative yoga myself I finally began to experience and understand them, and I’m excited to teach my first pure slow practice for CF Yogi in this month’s 50/50 Yin & Restorative class. We’ll be starting with an intro to Yin for the first part of the class (the stress part of the exercise formula), and then finishing with a Restorative sequence (where we’ll focus on rest).
While I still gravitate to the yang of yoga in my personal practice, I’m also learning to love the yin. The more I practice Yin and Restorative, the more they feel like home.
People with CF, plus their caregivers and families that provide their support system, are welcome to join our free 50 / 50 Yin & Restorative class funded by an Impact Grant from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. This slow-paced evening class on Thursdays from Feb 4-25 at 4:30 PM PST / 7:30 PM EST blends Restorative yoga with an intro to Yin. Registered CF Yogi participants can join from the class schedule in the member portal. Not signed up yet? Register here!