Edge, Time and Props: What is the Difference Between Yin and Restorative Yoga?

There have been lots of discussions about yin vs. restorative yoga. Is one better than the other? Should you use props in yin? Where is the line drawn between the two?  Personally, I feel the difference simply comes down to ‘edge’, ‘time’ and emphasis. As discussed in my previous post the emphasis in yin is a gentle stretching of the connective tissue while softening the muscles, in restorative yoga the emphasis being is deep relaxation with no strain in body or mind.  Edge is used to describe the amount of sensation/stretch felt in the pose and time is the duration of the pose.  For example, in a yin pose you might feel quite a strong edge in the target area of the pose and hold it for 3-5 minutes, in a restorative pose you might feel little or no edge and hold for 5-10 minutes.

What about props?

Props may be used to help the body stretch, strengthen, balance, relax or improve body alignment. Restorative yoga poses tend to involve a lot of props to ensure the body is completely supported and thus feels safe to completely relax. It also means the poses are comfortable to be in for extended periods of time. For example in the restorative child's pose pictured below; there is a blanket for padding under the knees, the abdomen and chest rest on the bolster which raised at one end to provide extra support for the head and neck. If desired extra blankets can be placed under the ankles and between the hips and heels.

While fewer props are used in yin they can still be very important in helping students experience a pose more comfortably and safely. They allow students to hold an appropriate edge without over stretching (e.g. placing a rolled up blanket under the knees to protect tight hamstrings in a forward fold.) They can also be used to help relax other part of the body not directly involved, in particular supporting the head and neck so they are not dangling and adding additional strain to the shoulder girdle. In the yin version of child's pose below there is only a blanket under the knees for padding. If the forehead if it does not easily touch the floor, a block or  folded up blanket my be placed underneath it to avoid straining the neck and back. Some people also enjoy having a block or blanket between their hips and heels for a little more support for the lower back.

Yin and restorative yoga are both wonderful additions to a traditional yoga practice and offer peace from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Why not come to class and give them a try?


Yin, Yang and Yoga - What is Yin Yoga?

Yin yoga is a slow, meditative style of yoga where poses are held for several minutes at a time. A relative new addition to the yoga world, yin is becoming increasingly popular, but people often are often unclear about what it really is. Keep reading for a brief guide below.

Yin and Yang

In Taoist philosophy, the concept of yin and yang describes the duality of life where everything interconnected and natural forces exist in complementary pairs.  Nothing is every completely yin or completely yang as one cannot exist without the other and they combine to create something greater than the sum of their parts

Literally translated yin and yang mean bright and dark. More generally, yang attributes are energetic, rapid and dynamic things, whereas yin attributes are calm, slow and steady.

Yin Yoga

Modern yoga has come a long way from its origin as few seated poses designed to prepare the body and mind for long periods of meditation. Over the years more and more athletic practices with an emphasis on ‘yang’ elements (muscular strength/ flexibility and an elevated heart rate) have become the norm.

However, increasing numbers of, even very advanced, practitioners were starting to notice that despite years of dedicated ‘yang’ practice their bodies were ill prepared for the subtle rigours of meditation. Sitting still challenges the body in a very different way; well-trained yang muscles are largely still and the yin connective tissue and joints take most of the strain.

Yin yoga emerged to bridge the gap between the modern yang forms of yoga and seated meditation. In a yin practice the aim to gently stress the connective tissue (fascia/ tendons/ ligaments) and joints so they acclimatise to stillness.  These 'yin' tissues have no direct blood supply and therefore respond much more slowly to change. Hence, yin poses are held for much longer than you would in a regular yoga class, typically 3-5 mins but sometimes as long as 10, to give the body time to adapt.

Yin postures mainly target the big stiff joints of the body involved in sitting e.g. hips, pelvis and lower back.  They often stem from traditional yoga poses but are given alternate names to delineate the different emphasis e.g. pigeon is re-named swan.

Lastly, yin yoga also works on energy channels within the body. These energy channels, called meridians in the Chinese system or nadis in the yogic system are believed to run throughout the electrically conductive fascia of the body (see research by Dr Motoyama or Daniel Keown). Stretching the fascia as we do in yin poses stimulates the meridians, helping to clear blockages and promote healing within the body.


Yin Yoga for Chronic Pelvic Pain and Inflammation

There is a saying in yoga circles that new teachers appear in your life when you are ready for the lessons they have to give. This was definitely the case for Yin yoga and I.

Yoga has been one of the most constant parts of my life since I started in 2003. It has seen me through university, my PhD, moving countries, emotional upheaval and, of course, becoming a yoga teacher! However, until recently, it was only the strong dynamic forms of yoga that I was drawn to. I found peace in yoga when I was pushing the edge of my limits. The strong practice felt the ideal complement to my other activities or running, cycling and aerial circus. Rushing from activity made me feel alive and strong.

My body had other ideas though…. Eventually, worn out from all my frantic activity, it made me stop dead. In late 2014 I was hospitalised with a kidney infection which lead me into a dark tunnel of chronic pain.

The infection appeared to clear quickly, but unfortunately I was left with constant pain in my bladder and an unshakeable exhaustion that made a short walk feel like a marathon. Months of tests and antibiotics followed but no underlying cause could be found and the specialists were left shrugging their shoulders. It was incredibly frustrating and without the support of my wonderful partner I would have gone mad.

Thankfully I was still able to teach yoga even though I could no longer practice in the same way. In the middle of it all the studio owner suggested I go and do a Yin yoga teacher training as she was looking to expand it at the studio and though it might be a good fit for my mellow teaching style. I was happy to give it a try and pottered off to London a month later to take a course with Norman Blair. Although I was looking forward to learning how to teach Yin yoga, I was in no way prepared for the powerful effect it would have on my life.

The best thing about the course was that it was taught in an experiential way. Yin poses are held for a long time which meant Norman was able to teach the theory while we were practicing the yoga. Using, what at the time seemed like, a bewildering array of props he’d set us up in a pose and then start talking. Norman has a vast amount of knowledge and would interleave the material with stories and anecdotes pausing briefly to allow us to switch sides or poses.  The common thread was the art of finding an appropriate edge that could be held safely for the duration of the pose. Cultivating a mindful state, which allows you to listen to the sensory feedback from your body, and a softening breath are the key parts of this process. Additionally, Norman also emphasised the careful use of the afore mentioned props to support the body at the right point, making it feel safe enough to relax fully into the pose.

By the end of the first day, I was amazed to notice that the pain in my bladder had lessened. Tracking back I realised this was the first time I had softened the muscles in my stomach and pelvis for as long as I could remember. The pain came back overnight but I was very intrigued to see what would happen over the rest of the course. Sure enough the pain eased again and I began to feel on the verge of a breakthrough.

I spent the rest of the course trying to figure out what was going on. The poses I found most helpful were wide leg forward folds because they stretched my inner thigh and pelvic muscles and taught me how to soften them. I learnt how to use my breath to expand around the sensation and dilute it, rather than tightening and trying to pull away from the pain.

On returning to Oxford I continued to practice Yin daily, combined with seated meditation. I found the mediation helped to draw my attention away from the pain and keep the softness in my muscles once the Yin poses had loosened them. Gradually, over a period of about eight months the pain kept decreasing and then melted away. My energy levels slowly increased and I was able to start picking up some of the threads that I had had to let go of. Not everything however. These days I’m much more careful about resting when I need to and I’m more selective about what I spend my energy on.

Mainly though I’m just so grateful that Yin came into my life when it did and for its profound healing effect. I feel lucky to now be able to teach Yin yoga to others as well. And most of all I’m thankful for the amazing people who helped my get to this point today.