What's the difference between yin yoga and restorative yoga?

Aug 06, 2023

One of my students, Katie Probst, wrote this beautiful article years ago about the difference between yin yoga and restorative yoga. I hope you enjoy reading, and find it helpful...

What's the difference between yin yoga and restorative yoga?

-by Katie Probst

To an outside observer yin yoga and restorative yoga seem very similar, but physically, energetically and emotionally they cultivate different shifts within our being. 


In restorative yoga the body is fully supported (with props like bolsters, blocks, and blankets) within each posture. The student is encouraged to completely relax into this support creating a restful and nurturing environment for muscle release and relaxation. 


In yin yoga the student is only partially supported by props or the earth.  They are encouraged to release the muscles in both the supported and unsupported areas, allowing gravity to intensify the opening in the unsupported areas of each pose. By letting go of the muscles and allowing the fascia to open, deeper layers of the physical body are able to release. 


This deep release of muscles without the support of a prop underneath the body creates a unique and powerful physical sensation, which requires the student’s full attention and is quite different than the overall comfort and neutral physical feelings in restorative yoga. The body is naturally released into new edges of sensation.


The benefit of stillness and support (as in the case of restorative yoga), is that the brain gets less sensory feedback and is therefore allowed to rest. It doesn’t need to process the sensory inputs and dynamism that characterize yin yoga. In this way, restorative yoga is more yin in nature than even yin yoga, as it is more still.


Different types of energetic healing also take place in the two practices. In restorative yoga we work into the areas of the energetic body that are tired and dim, but not broken. These tired areas are brightened and charged up with fresh energy or chi. In a way this is similar to replacing a dim light bulb with a bright fresh one. The light is brighter but it is coming from the same location and lighting the same environment; only the intensity has changed. This brightening of energy allows the student to more consistently feel calm and refreshed after the practice, but restorative yoga may not access the deeper levels of our energetic dysfunction.


Yin yoga works into our areas of energetic weakness. These weaknesses can be caused by physical imbalances, emotional stress, past trauma, stressful living etc. which effects the quality and movement of our chi in our organs and meridians. Yin yoga rebalances and energizes both types of chi dysfunctions: deficient and stagnant. Deficient chi lacks quality and flows in dysfunctional patterns. Stagnant chi lacks mobility and forms stagnant blockages. Both deficient and stagnant chi lead to disharmony and illness in the body. Long periods of stillness in yin yoga allows deficient chi to be reenergized while the prolonged traction in the connective tissue redistributes blocked stagnant chi. 


There are very few exercises that work to balance both deficient and stagnant chi but yin yoga is one of them. It helps the body’s chi reach a space of equilibrium allowing all the organs and systems of the body to be nourished and balanced simultaneously.  This creates an overall feeling of wellbeing in the body and promotes healing in the mind and body on a deep level. This process also allows us to discharge the excess tension that is locked in our tissues helping us heal from stress and past trauma therefore addressing the root of our energetic weaknesses in the first place. 


The rebalancing techniques of yin yoga require more energy from the student than restorative yoga since you need some healthy chi to initiate this energetic shift. This is why yin yoga is not appropriate to practice if you are very fatigued.  Since the energetic work happens at a deeper level in yin yoga it sometimes takes up to 24 hours after the session to integrate the work and notice the energetic and emotional shift the session facilitated. 


Both yin yoga and restorative yoga help us work with our emotions in different ways. In yin yoga we find stillness, but the patterns of thoughts that comes up in the less supportive postures encourage us to experience our emotional edge and push us towards growth.  On the other hand restorative yoga is also very still, but as our mind finds peace within the physical shape we move towards emotional acceptance. Restorative yoga helps ground the emotional body and facilitates a supportive internal environment. 


Once you understand the differences between the two practices you can determine which is best for you on any given day. Want a practice that encourages both physical and emotional growth and release? Choose yin yoga. Want a practice that brings rest and relaxation? Choose restorative yoga.  Experiment with different practices as your mood and body change to see which brings more balance to your body and mind.  Remember, you are your best teacher when determining which practice is appropriate for you!


Many thanks to Sally Miller’s deep insights into the workings of yin and restorative yoga and to Sarah Powers book Insight Yoga, especially page 21, for clarifying the energetic experience of yin yoga.

If you're looking for some instruction about how to relax your tongue during meditation, check out my free guided meditations! There's a 10-minute "Relax the Tongue" practice in there that I think you'll love. 

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