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Yin Yoga Vs. Restorative Yoga: Understanding the Difference

As a teacher that offers both restorative and yin yoga I get asked all the time.

What is the difference between restorative and yin yoga? Are they really any different?

And why should I take one of these classes?

From the outside, restorative and yin look very similar, but when you break them down they are quite different and I am here to settle once and for all the true differences and similarities between yin and restorative yoga. 

Where Did Yin & Restorative Yoga Come From?

First, let's dive into each practice, and explore their foundations and roots.

Restorative yoga and yin are both relatively new onto the yoga scene having both been popularized within the last 50 years, but they come from two different lineages.

Restorative yoga was founded by B.K.S Iyengar in the 1950s as a way for students to be able to work on their alignment in postures through long holds, but take all of the pressure off of their bodies and muscles using lots of props and to tap into the rest and digest system.

This practice was to ideally be used when students were injured, sick, or needed to rest.

This practice was then popularized by Judith Lasater, a disciple of Iyengar and one of the co-founders of Yoga Journal.

It has since become a staple of many yoga studios and teachers as a relaxing and decompressing style of yoga used for, well, restoring. 

Yin, yoga on the other hand comes from the traditional Hatha yoga lineage and was started in the late 1980s by Paulie Zink. This style of yoga is designed to help open up the fascia (connective tissue) to improve flexibility and mobility through long holds.

This style of yoga was first called “yin yang” yoga and was created to be a stark contrast to the more dynamic movements of hatha or vinyasa yoga.

More recently this practice has been popularized by Paul Grilley and his student Sarah Powers who each have taken their own spin on the practice. 

The Main Differences Between Yin & Restorative Yoga

The main reason that people believe restorative yoga and yin yoga are the same thing is because from the outside, the practices look similar.

They both include long holds, often utilize props, are slow and introverted practices, and focus on opening the body over time instead of through dynamic movement.

If you were to watch both classes from a window outside you might not think that they are that different. But they are. 

To anyone who has practiced both styles you know that they feel very different in the body. While restorative yoga feels relaxing and restful, so much so that at times I have had to wake students up while in postures, yin yoga feels much more intense, and you will not be taking a nap during that practice anytime soon.

The reason that they feel so different in the body is for two main reasons.

Restorative Yoga Focuses on Relaxing and Resting the Muscles

This means that restorative yoga uses gravity and props to take all of the tension off of your body so you can rest.  Restorative yoga is designed to help the body rest. 

Yin Yoga Focuses on Opening and Stretching the Fascia

Yin yoga uses gravity, body weight, and props to intentionally put tension on your muscles and joints to open the connective tissue. Which leads me to the second main difference. Restorative yoga focuses on the muscles, and yin yoga focuses on the connective tissue. Yin yoga is designed to open the body in a whole new way. 

What They Have in Common

While both practices utilize props, restorative yoga overall is much more prop heavy.

Coming from the Iyengar lineage it is to be expected that there will be props galore.

It is not uncommon for a restorative practice to require several blocks, blankets, straps, and even chairs or walls while yin yoga typically utilizes some blankets, blocks and bolsters to help support you in the deep poses. 

They both utilize long holds, but traditionally restorative yoga will have longer holds since it is a passive opening (up to 20 minutes) where yin yoga holds feel intense and are not usually held longer than 5-8 minutes.

To get a quick feel for the differences between the use of props in these practices a quick search of restorative yoga frog pose vs yin yoga frog pose will show you two very different expressions of the same pose, one of which looks very comfortable and pleasant to hold for minutes and the other looking more intense and very far from restful. 

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Who Should Practice These Styles? 

Yin yoga and restorative yoga can be extremely beneficial for many students, but for different ways.

As already mentioned restorative yoga is very restful and helps to tap into the rest and digest system in the body and allows the muscles to relax and heal, while yin yoga focuses on opening the fascia.

Depending on your student’s goals and physical health you can help guide them to the right practice.

Although, it is my personal opinion that a well rounded physical practice includes a combination of restorative, yin, and dynamic flow as each has their own benefits for the body and mind.

But here are a few things to consider when helping your students choose which style is best for them. 

Restorative yoga is extremely beneficial for students who need to slow down, rest, and turn inward.

This style can be practiced by nearly anyone regardless of their physical capabilities and can be easily modified for students. It improves your heart health, circulation, and mental well being.

It can be a great compliment for students who are physically active in other regards or may be a part of an intense training routine and needs rest days, or someone who is mentally or emotionally worn down and burnt out. 

Yin yoga is extremely beneficial for students who want to increase their flexibility, mobility, and cultivate their joint and tissue health.

This style helps to increase flexibility and mobility, stimulates your internal organs, and improves the health and range of motion for your joints.

This can be a wonderful style for people wanting to improve their flexibility and range of motion, but may be practiced with caution for students who have joint injuries, tissue damage, or struggle to get up and down from the floor.

Always make sure that students are consulting their physician before starting any new kind of movement or practice. 

If you are a yoga teacher that is focusing on dynamic movement or flow practices, but you want to give your students a well rounded practice that is good for their mind, body, and spirit you may want to consider incorporating a few restorative or yin yoga poses into your next practice.

Educate your students on the benefits of these practices and sprinkle in a few long holds that are designed to benefit them and round out their practice.

This is a great way to introduce these styles, and encourage them to try a full restorative or yin practice.

It is important to remember that a full yoga practice, is not just about the asana but also includes the other limbs as well and taking the time to slow down and engage in longer holds will give you the chance to also introduce some breath worth, meditation and concentration. 

Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith
Kelly is the founder of Yoga For You, and the host of the Mindful in Minutes podcast. She is an E-RYT 500, YACEP, and a location independent yoga and meditation teacher. She spends her days traveling globally offering trainings in restorative yoga, meditation, yoga nidra, writing blogs for beYogi, and recording meditations from her closet.