Sensation and Repose: Yin and Restorative Yoga

Consider a curious bystander, strolling by the window of a yoga studio.  He or she may see a group of students on the floor, head down in surrender. There are many props scattered around the mats and the bodies lie slumped in stillness, in what looks like a comfortable position. They are straddling a bolster, perhaps.  Naturally, anyone not actually experiencing the class may think the class was on the Restorative side.  This class is not your usual flowy Power Vinyasa with standing poses and sweat.  And when this anonymous prospective yogi decides to pick up a schedule at the door, the bubble font reveals the words: Yin/Restorative.

Yin and Restorative yoga are quite often described interchangeably in class descriptions.  Anyone looking to begin or deepen their practice can be left scratching their head when they enter a labeled Yin class expecting a little R & R and are called upon to become aware of their deepest physical, and oftentimes emotional layers, in a given asana (pose).  That is because Yin yoga targets the connective tissue of the body– the bones, ligaments, and joints–through passive stress, in often supine positions.  Restorative yoga is meant to be a practice that uses props to physically support the body so that a yogi can exert minimal effort in a position.  This encourages the parasympathetic nervous system to switch on and promote relaxation. 

clouds over a curving mountain road at sunset

The Yin in the modern Yin yoga tradition can be seen through the lens of the classical Taoist principles of Yin and Yang.  Yin is the feminine aspect of the two, and is associated with the moon (cooling poses) while Yang is considered a dynamic, masculine qi or chi energy (life force) inducing practice, and is associated with the sun (heating poses).  Although the roots of Yin and Yang yoga have blossomed out of the principles of Chinese medicine, it is the western appropriation that has cultivated this tradition.  In Yin yoga, the body is put into positions that are designed to strengthen and mobilize the joints in order to release the sensory depth of the stagnant, tight and uncomfortable parts of the body such as hip flexors and knees.  Poses are held for an extended period of time so that they may give way in the body, bringing sensations to the surface (physical and yes, emotional).  In these poses of surrender, in a state of passivity, we cannot avoid our inner life. It is apparent in the quality of the ease we find in our practice. The sensations of Yin can even be described as a volcanic opening of prana (chi), extreme sensation, and, well, the opposite of the relaxation we come to expect when we see the word “restorative” in a class description. 

Here’s where the confusion ultimately lies.  It is in that word “restore,”–which many of us take to mean “soften” or “ease”–that plays an integral part in how we define and practice Yin yoga.  In this case it does not exactly equal comfort.  In Yin yoga to restore means to rebuild, re-experience, re-lease, which can release and stretch the fascia, or deep muscle tissue.  When you’re in a Yin pose, like pigeon for instance, for a long period of time–that is, several minutes–our experience of the pose can cause sensations to volley up and down like a strongman carnival game.  The vitality and vulnerability that a Yin pose can exhume into awareness can be healing nonetheless, which is also the prime goal of Restorative yoga, as we know it.

Restorative yoga as we picture it comes from the ancient Indian tradition of Hatha Yoga, and most recognizable in the teachings of BKS Iyengar, author of Light on Yoga, among others.  He was an instrumental figure in spreading knowledge of the yoga sutras and his own teachings to the world.  When he was developing his practice, he would use objects he encountered, such as trees, chairs, and even boulders to wrap himself around, in an attempt to find that ease so sought after while sitting in meditation, and to improve his overall health.  The assistance of props provides added support for the spine and the surrounding muscles, especially for those recovering from injuries.  In an aptly named Restorative class, props are used to assist in opening rather than stretching the body, and in a way that is aimed at achieving a sense of relief rather than deepening a posture to arouse a physical responsiveness.  Restorative yoga activates the (parasympathetic) rest and digest system, slows the heart rate, conserves energy, and releases the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. 

On the outside an asana assumes the same outward shape no matter what the class is labeled. Poses crossover all the time across the many categories of yoga classes and traditions.  You will often hear poses being called by different names in a Yin verses a Restorative class because although the pose bears the same shape, the activity in the body is observed through a different perspective, and oftentimes elicits an entirely different response in the body.  For example, in the Hatha tradition Cobra pose, the legs as well as the arms are activated, anchored to the floor, pressing down.  The muscles are contracted.  In the Restorative version of the same name, a rolled blanket can be placed underneath the pelvis, elbows on the floor, or a chair can be used with the hands wrapping back on the seat or resting on the knees.  In Yin’s Seal pose, the legs are soft, pelvis sinks into the mat and the arms support the chest while the energy reaches towards the sky from the crown of the head, both elongating the upper back while releasing the tail bone towards the floor.  The sensation becomes isolated as the weight from your center of gravity sinks down. 

clouds in the sky and trees over a lakeshore

Some believe these two types of yoga, since they have elements of each other that overlap, they are the same, and it simply is not true.  What is true, is that the student goes into a position mindfully, slowly.  Poses are held for a lengthy amount of time.  Yet while there are similarities, the intention, the inner work, the energetic experience and mental rollercoaster that Yin can catalyze, tells a very different story.  Both practices, however, bring us back to ourselves, and, as in all types of classes, aim to facilitate a control of the mind toward allowing what is true for the yogi to come into awareness, and realize their own power as well as their tenderness. Yin Yoga and Restorative are practices much needed in today’s predominantly Yang society. It gives us a chance to return to our center, focus on our breath and rest the mind in order to allow vital healing to take place and gather some of our hidden strength along the way.

When it comes to definitions, it makes sense that the semantics are intertwined when their intentions and origins are what isolates them.  Although both practices were largely cultivated and exploited here in the English speaking world, calling them by the same name (even separated by a hyphen or slash) does a disservice to them both, and can discourage and confuse a student who has a particular physical need, injury, or intention.  This is like saying that wading in a river and jumping into the ocean waves are alike because you can call them both swimming.  Yet the blunder is understandable, especially since they have components of one another within each of them and are equally essential to a healthy and complete yoga practice.  

Diana Benigno


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