The American cartoonist Scott Adams once observed, “There are two types of yoga: the kind that hurts like crazy, and the kind that looks like you're sleeping." Yin yoga definitely falls into the latter camp. So named because its originators were steeped in the Chinese traditions of Taoism and Chi Kung, and because its passive approach is the complementary partner to more dynamic, 'yang' styles like Ashtanga, it's the ultimate go-slow yoga. Superficially similar but with a subtly different intent, a Restorative yoga class also looks, from the outside, like a slightly awkward nap. In fact there's a lot going on behind the scenes, as the body relaxes and the nervous system responds to the chance to rest. Both of these 'brands' are recent additions to the yoga family, having only taken shape over the last 30 years – although the key elements of the practices are much older.
Yin yoga targets the deep connective tissues of the body, below the muscular level with which the more active styles of yoga mainly concern themselves. By holding passive postures for a long time – anything from one to twenty minutes – students of yin yoga aim to gently stretch the joints, tendons and fascia, getting deep down into ingrained patterns of tension and freeing up the body from at least some of the restrictions that creep up on us as a result of age and sedentary lifestyles. The postures of yin yoga particularly target the hips, pelvis and lower back, an area of the body which is home to important energy centres according to both Chinese and Indian traditions of esoteric anatomy.
Restorative yoga aims to give an experience of bone-deep relaxation. Like Yin yoga, it does not require muscular effort and instead emphasizes passive postures, held for extended periods. However, there is more emphasis on comfort: bolsters, foam blocks, blankets and other props are used to pad and hold the body in position so the student can completely let go. Restorative yoga is more concerned with flexing the spine and easing the muscles that support it, rather than opening up the lower body.
What happens in class?
Although these two styles are quiet, simple and not at all dynamic to look at, that doesn't mean there's nothing going on. A yin yoga class requires a good deal of mental discipline, and very mature judgement about where your 'edge' is. It can also involve considerable discomfort (though never actual pain, as long as you're doing it properly). You simply take the position, settle into the stretch, resolve to be still – and wait. And wait. While you wait, you may find that your mind performs crazy somersaults, sends strange sensations through your body, does everything it can to keep you busy – until finally it throws in the towel. Deep calm descends, and as the class progresses many students sense waves or pulses of energy moving more freely through the body.
A restorative class also brings you face-to-face with what the Buddhists call 'monkey mind'. Here, though, the physical sensations are less distracting as the body is fully supported – for example, a backbend might involve lying back against a carefully propped and angled bolster, with the hips and the head further supported by folded blankets. There should be a feeling of gentleness and ease about the practice, accompanied by a deep withdrawal of the senses (in Sanskrit, pratyahara – one of the key elements of classical yoga).
Yin yoga is not a standalone form of exercise – in fact, I would argue it's not really a form of exercise at all; it has more in common with meditation. It's popular with active yogis who recognise the need to complement their physical practice with something quieter and more passive. Many ashtanga devotees also try to fit in regular yin sessions, for example. It can also be really useful during periods of tiredness or recuperation from illness or injury, as it helps the body to marshal its energies and stay mobile without using up precious physical stamina.
Likewise, restorative yoga is great for low-energy days and for recovering from strenuous physical activities. It's completely accessible: good restorative teachers are trained to cater for all types of physical restriction, weakness or disability.
Who should avoid it?
Look, if you're already radiating calm, or if you have a tendency to physical inertia (dare I say, laziness?), you won't get as much from these very static yoga classes. You'll probably love it as an experience, but perhaps what you really need is something that gets your juices flowing and your energies up. On the other hand, if you're a movement junkie who regularly exercises to the point of physical exhaustion or injury, and can't bear the thought of sitting still for 90 minutes, yin yoga might be just the ticket! Often, the yoga that we need is not the kind that immediately appeals to us.
Having said that, if you are generally fatigued and in need of an energy boost, whether through illness, age, lifestyle or recent stress, slow yoga is a safe haven – it's what you want, and what you need.
Otherwise, there are no real contra-indications other than your own level of common sense: like many forms of hatha yoga it's a safe practice as long as you don't try to show off. Listen to your body's pain signals, and learn to recognise the difference between a safe stretch and a damaging one.
What will it do for me?
At a physical level, these styles of yoga can increase joint mobility and ease restrictions in the deep fascia (connective tissues) of the body. They are deeply calming to the nervous system, helping regular practitioners to cope with stress and anxiety.
Yin and restorative yoga both feel very grounding. All the postures are done sitting or lying down, and there's a strong feeling of 'coming down to earth' which most students find comforting. Long-held, passive postures are extended opportunities to observe and become more intimate with your internal world, on both physical and mental levels. And the practice of gentle, yielding yoga tends to foster better self-care and compassion towards the body.
Finding a teacher
The US is the home of slow yoga: names to conjure with in yin yoga include Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers, while the queen of restorative yoga is Judith Hanson Lasater. All of them teach workshops in London quite regularly, and you'll find teachers they have trained spread across the UK. There's no central database for yin yoga teachers as it's not a trademarked brand, so you'll have to Google your way to a class and try it out. If you're in London, Norman Blair is a popular yin yoga specialist. For Restorative yoga teachers near you, check Judith Lasater's on-line list.
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Click to buy Yin Yoga: Outline of a Quiet Practice