When I first discovered Yin Yoga several years ago, I was drawn to it because it seemed to provide a bridge between my yoga practice and my meditation practice like nothing else had before. Since I’ve been immersed in Yin (and have trained in Restorative, too), I’ve noticed that people often wonder – what’s the difference between Yin and Restorative?
On the surface, they look similar. Both are very mellow yoga practices done primarily on the floor, using plenty of props and holding the poses for minutes at a time. Both styles can have incredible stress-relieving benefits, and the repertoire of poses even overlaps somewhat. But, they are not the same!
In my observation, one of the main distinctions is that in Restorative, one is encouraged to rest both physically and mentally. In Yin, the poses are approached more like meditation postures, keeping the mind more alert and present, avoiding zoning out, so we can cultivate mindfulness. This is absolutely not meant as a criticism of Restorative. I love both, and think there’s a time for rest and a time for meditation. But, this aspect of mindfulness in Yin Yoga (especially as taught by Sarah Powers) is the main reason I first fell in love with it.
Along with the mental alertness, Yin Yoga also embraces a bit more sensation in the poses, stretching to a sustainable edge. In Restorative, the objective is not so much to stretch, but to gently open the body and breath while balancing the nervous system. I’ve heard people say that the difference is that Restorative uses props (like bolsters, blankets, blocks, etc.) and that Yin doesn’t. I passionately disagree with that! (I explain more about props here.)
Back to the topic at hand, Yin Yoga also works with the energy body in some specific ways that are different from Restorative Yoga. “Yin” and “Yang” are Taoist terms, alluding to the fact that Yin Yoga draws upon wisdom from Traditional Chinese Medicine, using the stretches to stimulate the movement of Chi along the body’s energy meridians.
Lastly, the repertoire of Yin Yoga poses mostly favors the legs, hips, lower body, and spine (though not exclusively). Restorative Yoga, on the other hand, is full of delicious supported backbends. But, this is also where I tend to mix the two styles together in my teaching and practice. Those bolster backbends are a great way of including the upper body meridians in the Yin practice, and I believe that if you practice them with the same vibrant attentiveness as any other Yin pose, then they fit seamlessly within your Yin practice.