We all know that we want less stress in our lives, and yoga is a great way to reduce it. But what’s the best way to go about it? Most people say to themselves, “Hey, I’ll just go take a yoga class” and they’ll magically feel better. Which, often, is true. But there are certain yoga styles that will help to relax the body and nervous system in different ways. For example, you’re going to walk out of a Bikram class feeling different than when you walk out of a yoga Nidra experience. So let’s explore two popular styles that fall in the more relaxing yoga category to help you determine which is the best one for you.
When we think of low-key yoga, Yin Yoga and Restorative yoga both come to mind. In fact, they often get mixed up or grouped together. What exactly is the difference between the two?
The concepts of yin and yang are pretty familiar in the yoga world. They’re two sides of the same coin. Yang is the masculine – strong, fast, illuminated, upward-moving energy. Yang’s counterpart – Yin – is the feminine – dark, moody, slower-paced, downward-moving energy. With that in mind, Yin yoga embodies the same principles. It is a slower practice, with many poses being held for minutes (sometimes many minutes) at a time. Yin yoga also incorporates the principles of Chinese medicine, so much of the sequencing involves stimulating the meridians, like in acupuncture.
The focus of Yin yoga poses is on improving the flexibility of the connective tissue of the body – namely the ligaments and tendons, which leads to greater mobility. The connective tissue is considered to be the Yin component of the body, in relationship to the muscles, which are more Yang. Have you ever heard your yoga teacher say, “The issues are in the tissues”? The long and deep holds of Yin yoga, especially in poses like hip openers, frequently bring up emotions during the practice – so it’s not uncommon to shed a tear in a prolonged Swan pose (the Yin equivalent of pigeon).
Classes can range from 60 – 90 minutes and typically involve just a few select poses. Even though the poses aren’t necessarily hard, the class can be very challenging. The poses are similar to traditional asanas but have their own unique spin and typically a more relatable English language name, like seal or swan. After a minute in most of the poses, your mind wants to get out of the shape, but your body can stay there much longer. This is where the dark part of Yin sets in, and makes it a more mental process. This can be challenging for vinyasa-loving folks who are used to a Yang-dominated fast moving practice. Classes may or may not use music.
Yin yoga is great for someone who is looking to really improve their flexibility.
1. Child’s pose – Begin by sitting on your heels and then slowly fold your torso forward, bringing your chest to your thighs and your forehead to the mat. Your arms can extend forwards or rest alongside your torso with your hands back by your upper thighs. Hold for as long as you’d like.
2. Caterpillar – Begin seated, either on a cushion or flat on your bottom with both legs extended straight out in front of you. Fold forward over the legs, allowing your back to round so the head moves toward the knees. You can let your elbows rest on your thighs or the floor, or grab the toes with your hands. You don’t need to pull, gravity will do the work to help you relax into the pose. Hold for 3-5 minutes.
3. Butterfly – Start in a seated position on your bottom and bring the soles of your feet together. Slowly slide the feet away from your seat. Fold forward and allow your back to round, with your hands on your feet or reaching forward on the floor in front of you. Your head should relax and hang down toward your legs. Continue to drop your chest towards your legs and begin walking your hands forward as you open up more in the pose. Hold for 3-5 minutes.
4. Banana – Lay on your back with your legs together and extended on the floor. Stretch both arms overhead and clasp your hands or bend your arms and grab your elbows. Keep your hips and seat grounded and then move your feet and upper body to the right, into a banana shape. Make sure not to twist or roll your hips off the floor. As your body releases into the pose, move both feet and pull your upper body further to the right. Continue to move further to the right to make more of a banana curve as you open more. Hold for 3-5 minutes.
5. Twisted Roots – Lay on your back and draw both knees into your chest. Lift up your legs to 90 degrees and wrap your right leg on top of left, like you would in eagle pose. Drop the knees to the left side and extend your arms out to the sides. Gaze towards the right hand. Hold for 3-5 minutes.
Restorative yoga is a more relaxing practice. It typically involves many props, like multiple blocks, blankets and bolsters and eye pillows, which help you to rest completely in the pose. Similarly to Yin yoga, the classes only involve a few poses and you stay in them for a prolonged period of time, but the emphasis is on letting go in the pose and feeling – like the name implies – restored.
Restorative yoga allows us to see where we are holding tension in our bodies. Through a combination of breathing, guided relaxation and slow introspection, we can release that tension and achieve a greater sense of peace, both inside and out. From a scientific perspective, restorative yoga also affects the nervous system – when you completely relax into a pose, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, promoting a sense of calm.
Classes can range from an hour to an hour and a half long. Typically you will do 4-5 poses, each held for a long period of time. The poses also require some time to set up, as the props need to be arranged in a certain way for best results. Sometimes peaceful music is played or essential oils are incorporated. The poses are focused more on gentle twists, supported backbends and seated forward fold shapes. You will want to wear comfortable, soft clothes that you can move in.
Restorative yoga is good for everyone, especially anyone who has a high-stress lifestyle or struggles with an anxious or worrisome mind as the relaxing quality of the poses can help to give a sense of peace and tranquility.
1. Supported Reclined Bound Angle Pose – Begin in a seated position and place the soles of the feet together and let the knees fall apart. Slowly lay your spine on the mat to bring your torso all the way to the floor, supporting your head and neck on a bolster if needed. Let your arms rest by your sides and relax your knees. You can also place blocks under each thigh. Hold for 1-3 minutes.
2. Supported Wide Leg Forward Fold – Start seated and spread your legs out as wide as is comfortable for you. Place a bolster or folded blanket (or two) vertically in front of you between your legs and keep a long spine as you fold forward to avoid any rounding in the lower or middle back. Once you have folded as far as you can go, place a combination of bolsters and blankets at the right height to rest your head comfortably. Stay up to 5 minutes.
3. Legs up the Wall – Line your mat up to the wall, with the short side against the wall. Start by sitting sideways near the wall and slowly swing your legs up onto the wall and let your shoulders and head lower down onto the floor. You’ll end up in a 90 degree angle with your legs up on the wall and torso on the yoga mat. If you have an eye pillow, place it over your eyes. Stay for 5-10 minutes.
4. Supported Belly Down Spinal Twist – Place a bolster along the middle of your mat, or elevate the bolster using a block. Lay your torso (with your belly facing down) on the bolster and then bend your knees up to the bottom of the bolster, in a 90 degree
angle. Turn your head either toward your knees, or for a deeper twist, away from them. Stay for 1-3 minutes.
5. Supported Savasana – Begin in a seated shape and place a bolster long-ways underneath your knees. Slowly lay your torso down and extend your legs to find a reclined shape on your back. Let your arms rest by your sides with your palms facing up. Relax completely into the pose. Hold for up to 10 minutes.