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Is Deeply Stretching Deeply Relaxing?

Top half shows a Restorative backbend. Bottom half shows a Yin backben.
Restorative VS Yin

When inviting someone to Restorative yoga recently I was asked, "Is it Yin Yoga?" I realised in that moment that people don't always understand the difference between YIN and RESTORATIVE yoga practices.

Although both Yin and Restorative have people holding poses for a long time, the goal is very different. Yin yoga practice is meant to stretch tissues. Restorative practices relax the body. There is value in both of these goals, but when you are going to a class, can you tell the difference?

Your Yin postures will invite you to come to the edge of your range of motion. The implication of this is that your connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia) are as lengthened as they feel able to be. You will likely need or want some props to help you stay in this position. As you stay in the pose, you might be agitated by the intensity of the pose, but you'll be encouraged to stay with it, to explore your response to discomfort. Do you want to quit? Do you want to push through? What is your mind doing? As you stay in the pose, with this kind of stretch, for about 3 – 7 minutes, the connective tissues will begin to lengthen. Because of the tissue composition, when muscles are stretched, they bounce back to their original position and shape. When connective tissues are stretched for long periods, they adopt the new shape and position, and can stay in that lengthened state for up to 72 hours. We call this "creep".

Connective tissue connects muscles to bones, and bones to bones. And when we stretch these tissues, we can loosen these bonds, which can make joint unstable. So if you've done some of this kind of stretching, static for long periods, and then try to go for a run, there is a chance that your hips or your knees are more likely to be injured, as those joints are less stable.

I'm not saying that Yin yoga is a terrible practice that you should avoid. Many people really enjoy their Yin practice, and have learned to couple this with more active practices. But the purpose of Yin yoga is to change the shape of some of the stiffer tissues in the body.

Restorative yoga might look like Yin, but will feel very different. When we come into a Restorative pose, we prop the body so that we can support it here, to relieve the load of being in that position. We might add extra blankets so that the head is higher up, or roll blankets under the arms so that they aren't stretching the shoulders. It can be challenging to teach a whole class of people because you need a lot of props! We want to be able to find rest and relaxation in a posture, and once we're there, we will often stay for 10 – 20 minutes. If you become uncomfortable while in a Restorative pose, I would hope (at least in my class) that you would alert me so that we can make the changes you need to come back to a feeling of rest.

When we can find that kind of rest, the nervous system can settle, and we often find that tissues that were holding tension let go all on their own, without the stress and strain of being stretched to their maximum.

You are welcome, of course, to choose the practices that you want for yourself. But if you are hoping to have a restful class, chances are that Yin yoga will not be the practice you want. And if you go to a Restorative class that uses very few props, it's likely a Yin practice you are attending.

For some people who have a trauma histories, Restorative yoga can be too much quiet, too much stillness. If this is you, and you'd like to explore Restorative yoga, please get in touch — I have extra tools to support you as well.

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