Restorative versus Yin Yoga
I have been asked recently what the difference is between restorative yoga and yin yoga and which one is better. Well they are similar yet different, and neither one is superior to the other. I don’t believe any style of Hatha yoga is superior to another. I have been fortunate enough to train in restorative yoga with Judith Hanson Lasater and Eve Gryzbowski (both students of the late B.K.S Iyengar) and I have also completed yin yoga training with Sarah Powers (the yogi who gave yin its name and helped make it popular) and Jo Phee (senior assistant to Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley).
For me, it’s because the intention of the two practices are different, Judith Hanson Lasater describes restorative yoga in her latest book on it as: ‘The use of props to create positions of ease and comfort that facilitate relaxation and health’. Hence, the intention here is relaxation.
Yin yoga got its name from the two polar opposites yin and yang, nothing is completely yin and nothing is completely yang, but a yin class generally describes a slow paced hatha yoga class which involves postures that are held anywhere from 1 minute to 5 minutes or more (depending on the experience of the practitioner and which pose it is). The intention with yin is to target (stress) the connective tissues of the body (joints, ligaments, bones) in a safe way to keep them healthy as these parts of the body are not stressed (worked) in more yang styles of yoga or other physical activity generally and to balance out the yang with some yin as we need both in our lives to remain healthy. In Yin we also focus on stimulating meridians (invisible pathways in the body in the Chinese system that conduct energy) to remove chi (energy) stagnation.
The intention is to create as much relaxation as possible in restorative yoga, props are necessary and more props are used than in a yin class to prevent anything in the body from stretching, as we don’t want a stretch in restorative (only maybe an opening), so the props help prevent this from happening.
For instance, a common pose in restorative yoga is Supta Baddha Konasana (reclined bound angle pose) which is pictured below. In a restorative yoga class as taught to me by Judith Lasater, I use two blocks under the bolster, so that the bolster is elevated, a blanket (or 2) for the head and body on the bolster (to support the head and neck), an eye pillow (or blanket over part of the head). Blanket over the feet and under the hips to prevent the ligaments in the hips being stressed (stretched) and a blanket over the whole body if the student is cold. That is the ideal and is a lot of props. Obviously this isn’t always possible if the studio doesn’t have this many props or there are 20 students needing my help! But generally more props are always used. I also would keep the student (s) in this pose for up to 20 minutes! Pictured is how it would practice in a restorative class.
A similar pose is practiced in yin yoga called Lying Butterfly. I might encourage students to lie on a bolster here too (not an elevated one unless they needed to elevate it because they were pregnant or couldn’t backbend as deeply etc), and I wouldn’t use as many blankets especially ones that will stop the hips from being stretched (stressed) unless the student is feeling pain in the hips and needs to back off a little as he/she has gone past that first edge of stretch.
I also wouldn't insist on offering as much support for the head and neck given they're in the pose for a shorter amount of time and we are not looking to create as much relaxation in yin, but more stressing the deep connective tissues in a safe way, so if the cervical spine is in extension due to not having as much support and the student isn't getting any sharp pain just a tolerable dull ache (which we are looking for in yin) I wouldn't insist on so much head and neck support. However in Restorative yoga, support for the head and neck is imperative to facilitate deep relaxation due to the head and neck being filled with a number of nerve systems, if the head and neck aren't comfortable the rest of the body won't be able to relax.
In addition to this, I generally keep students In this pose for only 3 – 5 minutes in a yin class as opposed to restorative where it would be from 10 - 20 minutes.
The similarities with Yin and Restorative is that they are both slow paced, a restorative yoga class is more yin in nature than most forms of yoga, but not as yin as a yin class as it’s all relative and nothing is absolute.
Reference: Lasater, J. (n.d.). Restore and rebalance. 1st ed. Boulder CO: Shambhala, p.xi.