Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
In recent years, as we find ourselves continually seeking rest and regeneration, “restorative” yoga practices have become a fixture in many yoga classes. But there’s “restorative yoga” and then there’s “Restorative Yoga.”
There are two relatively passive movement styles that are taught with the intent to provide rest: Yin and Restorative. Yin Yoga is characterized by coming into a posture that stresses your body and remaining there for a somewhat extended time, whereas a Restorative Yoga posture supports you and your body in the effortless experience of prolonged rest. I often describe Yin Yoga as a series of WTF moments followed by Savasana, whereas in Restorative Yoga, I need to be cajoled out of each posture.
They seem completely different, right? They are. But I’ve taken many a Yin Yoga class that was called “Restorative Yoga” and vice versa. As a practitioner of both, this can be incredibly frustrating.
The confusion between these two practices, which are frequently lumped together under the label “restorative,” can be seen everywhere from YouTube videos to studio classes. While both promise restoration and lend themselves to a less performative way of practicing asana, each asks you to approach the poses completely differently. This is reflected in everything about the practice, including the pose names, the alignment, the use of props, the intention behind using physical stress versus creating emotional rest, and the length of time you linger in each.
It’s imperative for yoga teachers to name practices correctly so that students can reliably receive what they seek. And it’s equally relevant that students understand the difference between the two approaches so you can offer your body what it needs when it’s asking for it.
How, then, do we distinguish between these two beneficial styles of yoga?
The difference between Yin Yoga and Restorative Yoga
The considerations behind each style of yoga and their respective manners of approaching the poses are many.
According to the wisdom of the ancients, everything is interconnected, including nature, our bodies, and our energy. This plays out in various belief systems across time and cultures, each of which experienced the world through the lens of nature’s moods.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), everything is related back to the five elements in nature: fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. Each element corresponds to a different season, and each season influences a different organ. In turn, the state of the physical body informs and influences energetic pathways in the body, known in TCM as meridians. Similar to what South Asian texts describe as nadis, these channels determine where energy moves through us—or fails to do so.
Yin Yoga is based on this ancient East Asian belief system of eliciting energetic flow along specific meridian lines in the body. For example, the role of the urinary bladder is to allow what is not useful to the body to flow out of us. The urinary bladder meridian does the same thing with energy. With Yin Yoga, we can compress and stress the urinary bladder meridian in forward folds and backbends to release unhelpful energetic stuff held in the body.
We can certainly focus on Yin Yoga poses that stimulate an energetic tune-up correlated to the time of year, but we can also utilize our understanding of these energetic meridians to create flow whenever and wherever we feel stuck.
The concept of harmonizing energy in the body is also a principle of Restorative Yoga, where it relates not only to balancing the energetic lines (nadis) and energetic centers (chakras) but also to pacifying the nervous system.
Judith Hanson Lasater is known for popularizing Restorative Yoga. A disciple of BKS Iyengar, Lasater learned the Iyengar approach to using straps, blocks, bolsters, and chairs to help students find alignment in active postures. Lasater then adapted this concept to using props to support the body for rest.
While many assume that this style of yoga is for practitioners who are older or recovering from injury, Restorative Yoga has become recognized as a practice by students across all types of situations, and is increasingly included in the growing movement for yoga for social justice and community repair. In her book Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma, Gail Parker suggests that Restorative Yoga is a necessary balm to the harm caused by a racialized society.
Students sometimes stumble upon Restorative Yoga and experience something they can’t truly name. It’s not sleeping, but it’s close. There is an experience of ease in the body, mind, and spirit that we might find unfamiliar until we are eventually able to name it as “rest.”
Restorative Yoga helps us find a non-sleep state that allows us to sit with ourselves in uncompromised comfort, with some measure of freedom from thoughts, feelings, and body. Lasater defines this state as ashunya, the last and most elusive stage of Savasana. It’s a place of profound rest where all thoughts go away and you come out wondering, “What just happened? Where was I?!”
Restorative Yoga has the potential to bring a quality of Savasana in every pose. As we go deeper and deeper into the practice, that ultimate state of relaxation, ashunya, becomes more accessible.
2. Stress versus rest
Yin Yoga is a practice of resilience whereas Restorative Yoga rehearses rest.
Yin Yoga asks us to enter each pose while leaning into three principles: To take yourself to an appropriate edge, to find stillness there, and to remain in stillness for a period of time.
In a typical Yin Yoga practice, practitioners are guided into poses that load the joints and leverage gravity. Then they are asked to feel into their Goldilocks position, which is where they experience a level of challenge they can sustain for 3-5 minutes in stillness.
We unintentionally stress joints any time we engage in movement. In Yin, the stress is intentional through sustained load on the joints as experienced through the lens of body awareness and student agency. For this reason, each Yin practitioner’s shape will look different not only from one another’s, but from their own version of the same pose in a more active vinyasa, or yang, class.
Finding your edge doesn’t mean going to your end range of motion. It means going to a place of challenge that is appropriate for your body, mind, and spirit in that moment, which can look very differently on a high-stress day in which you might be holding tension in your body versus an early-morning practice when no one has yet gotten on your nerves.
Because we’re not pushing or pulling ourselves into a pose in a Yin practice, the posture takes on a more relaxed shape even though much work is happening. We let go of all muscular engagement to receive the pose in stillness. Here, we may draw on our yoga tools and notice what is needed to calm the mind stuff and stay in this pose. Is it more breath awareness? More softening?
In Yin, there is a moment after we release the pose when we experience a visceral sensation of increased blood circulation and energetic flow coming back to the places that were being stressed. Paul Grilley, who founded Yin Yoga with Sarah Powers, describes this as the “rebound.”
Whereas Yin Yoga embraces stressing joints, Restorative Yoga supports every aspect of the body in an attempt to relieve tension. In Restorative Yoga, props fill in the negative space under the body so that it may rest in alignment.
In a typical one-hour Restorative Yoga practice, the practitioner is guided into two to four poses in which they’re invited to experience a quality of Savasana in each pose. Blankets, bolsters, pillows, yoga blocks, and straps are used to prop the body for deep rest within each posture.
The home practitioner has the added benefit of using a chair, ottoman, or sofa for additional comfort in Restorative favorites such as a variation on Viparita Karani (Half Legs up the Wall with your knees bent and calves supported) and Salamba Navasana (Restorative Boat or Supported Bridge Pose).
There are so few poses in a Restorative Yoga class because the practice involves allowing students to marinate in them, blissfully, for 10-20 minutes. (Some teachers allow less time in a pose, often due to the psychological discomfort many students experience in lingering that long in stillness.) If a pose isn’t blissful, you’re welcome to rest in another shape until the next pose. Student agency is paramount.
In Yin Yoga, the usual rules of postural alignment are thrown out. We use what we know about proper and safe alignment to get into each posture, but then we let go of all of those constructs. Rounded spines, knees slightly bent, relaxed necks, and an overall surrender to gravity within the basic shape of each pose are acceptable in Yin. In fact, they’re an integral part of the practice.
Yin is a practice of introspection, interoception, and reception of the poses, not external observation or performance. Because of this, deep listening to yourself in order to find your version of the pose, one that fits your body, is the main practice itself.
While we also practice surrender in Restorative Yoga, it is in part a surrender to the props that are holding and supporting us. This encourages a complete letting go of effort as well as any thoughts and concept of time.
4. Time and temperature
In Yin Yoga, it’s common to stay in each pose for 3-5 minutes while bypassing muscular effort and getting into the deeper connective tissues. Stiffer tissues—including the ligaments, joint capsules, and tendons—which are less compliant than muscles—slowly respond to the stress through lingering in the postures.
Yin is typically practiced in a non-heated room on a body that has not been exercising for the same reason. The intention in Yin Yoga is to bypass the muscles being activated, so we set up conditions accordingly. This is also why Hanumanasana (Splits) might feel incredibly accessible in a heated room after dynamic movement, but more challenging in a non-heated room without warming up. There is no such thing as warming up of the fascia and ligaments, there is only the time and patience it takes for them to become less stiff.
Bernie Clark, author of The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, describes this rationale through an understanding of “yin tissues” versus “yang tissues.” Yin tissues (think connective tissues such as fascia) are stiff and, therefore, require more time to become pliable than yang tissues (think muscles). We spend minutes rather than seconds in Yin poses. Part of the learning process for those new to Yin is not engaging their muscles, which allows the connective tissue to take on the tension instead. In Yin Yoga, Clark says, we allow “the stress to soak into the tissues.”
Restorative Yoga offers an opportunity for the practitioner to rest and find ease in an environment curated for calm. Most poses last 10-20 minutes. Warmth helps to access calm, so blankets are used not only to prop the body but to cover up as body temperature tends to drop as we enter a more relaxed state.
While it is a common belief that no props are required in Yin Yoga, that’s not necessarily true. Blocks, blankets, and bolsters can help you create many shapes, including heart-opening and hip-opening poses. A strap can allow you to access a quality of containment—a sensation of being held without pushing or pulling—as well as extension of the arms so that rest in your upper body is possible.
In Restorative Yoga, we rely on props under any part of the body necessary to elicit rest. To that end, part of the practice of Yin poses is to resist resting in them. The objective is to be aware of the challenge of the pose and to develop tools of mental mastery to be able to remain in that discomfort for time.
The function of both styles of yoga
Whether it is the pursuit of calm or resilience, both Yin and Restorative styles are designed to bring you into a quieter state of body and mind. Lean into the murmurings of the voice within you that asks for more softness, more stillness, more peace. Listen to yourself. Hear what your body, mind, and spirit are telling you they need. Then watch how your nervous system appreciates you.
About our contributor
Tamika Caston-Miller, E-RYT 500, is the director of Ashé Yoga, where she curates yoga experiences and trainings in service of collective healing and community repair. Having begun her yoga journey in 2001 with a home practice, she now holds advanced certifications and training in Trauma-Informed Yoga, Somatics, Yin Yoga, Restorative Yoga, and Yoga Nidra. Tamika’s journey has been informed by chronic pain and injuries, social justice for QTBIPOC communities, the battle between shame and compassion and quest for ancestral healing, and the love for the practice and philosophy of yoga.