Serene lady relaxing and meditating on a yoga mat in a cosy house

What is Restorative Yoga? How is it different from Yin Yoga?

by Moya McGinn Mathews | ERYT-500

These are questions that I often field among yoga students. My simplest answer is that restorative yoga is for everyonewhile yin yoga is not necessarily for everyone. Both yin and restorative yoga appear very simple and still, but we know that we cannot judge from appearances.    Yin yoga is simple, but simple does not mean easy. Yin yoga is stretching, applying deep stress to the tissues, and this stretching and stressing activates the nervous system. It’s intense! Certainly we use mindfulness and breath to remain calm under the stress of a yin posture, but this is a very different experience than a restorative practice.   Restorative yoga invites us to dial down the intensity and curb our addiction to stimulation. The primary physiological aim of a restorative yoga practice is to manipulate the nervous system to a parasympathetic dominant state.

Allow me to briefly digress and, at the risk of oversimplifying, unpack some scientific jargon about the sympathetic vs. parasympathetic nervous system, the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is constantly active at a basic level to maintain homeostasis. It is active in all our interactions with the external world, as we process and interpret stimuli. When necessary, it prepares the body for the intense physical activity of fleeing from or combatting danger, so is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response.  This response releases hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, speeding the heart rate, slowing digestion, shunting blood flow to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions, to give the body a burst of energy and strength. When the perceived threat is gone, our biological systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response.  Unfortunately, in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen enough.   The nervous system might regularly be propelled into fight-or-flight mode by stressful encounters in traffic or at work, leaving us no where to run and no place to hide.  This chronic stress can cause damage to the body, mind and spirit.

We need techniques to trigger the relaxation response. Restorative yoga postures help us learn to relax, restore, renew, and rest deeply and completely.  We all work very hard in our lives, and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to rest.  The body needs both sleep and conscious rest and relaxation to maintain health and vitality.

What are the benefits of Restorative Yoga?

During deep relaxation, all the organ systems of the body are benefited.  A few of the measurable results of deep relaxation can include the reduction of blood pressure, the lowering of  serum triglycerides and blood sugar levels in the blood, an increase of the “good cholesterol” levels, improvements in digestion, elimination and fertility, and the reduction of muscle tension, insomnia and generalized fatigue. This is the rest-and-digest response.

Everyone can do restorative yoga, including people recovering from surgery, whether heart surgery or hip replacement, people living with a difficult diagnosis or undergoing cancer treatments, pregnant women and postpartum mamas.

Restorative Yoga comes out of the lineage of BKS Iyengar, who pioneered the use of props to support yoga practitioners in still positions of opening to promote healing at every level.  To maximize the healing benefits of a restorative practice, we attend to the architecture of the pose with care and precision, so that healthy alignment is supported in the structure of the body, healthy and comfortable joint space is supported, and lines of energy are open and free.  Restorative yoga is not stretching, but opening, still and supported.  My teacher, Judith Hanson Lasater, studied with B. K. S. Iyengar in Pune, India, and is one of the preeminent restorative yoga teachers of our day. She teaches that the practice of yoga is fundamentally a practice of kindness and compassion toward oneself.  I’ve heard her say, “These poses are magic. The magic is YOU HAVE TO DO THEM!” 

Bolsters ready? Let’s work some magic!


About Moya: Moya has been teaching yoga since completing the Yoga Center of Minneapolis 230-Hour Yoga Study teacher training in March 2006. She has thousands of hours of teaching experience with students of all ages and abilities, from beginning yogis to teacher trainees.

 Want to specialize in Restorative Yoga Teaching? Join Moya this June 2-4 for a weekend devoted to this specialty training! For more details: click here!