Introduction to Yin Yoga

How It's Different From Restorative Yoga

Woman performing butterfly yoga pose
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The hallmark of yin yoga is that poses are held for about three to five minutes at a time in order to the stretch the connective tissue around the joints and bring the practitioner to a state of mental calmness. The most prominent advocate of this method is the American teacher Paul Grilley, who learned the basic floor stretching techniques from Taoist Yoga teacher and martial arts expert Paulie Zink. Grilley also studied with Dr. Motoyama of Japan, whose research posits that our connective tissue may actually be the key to discovering subtle energy channels in the body, which are called nadis in yoga and meridians in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Despite having an advanced asana practice, which is supposed to help prepare the body for meditation, Grilley found himself uncomfortable when he began to attempt long, seated meditations. Yin yoga directly addresses the demands that sitting still in one position for a long time places on the body by taking stretching beyond the muscles. Grilley also discovered that holding the postures over a longer period trained the mind to remain calm and ignore distractions. Sarah Powers, who studied with Grilley, is another well-known teacher in this field. She was a key figure in the dissemination of Grilley's teachings.

Yin and Yang

In Chinese philosophy, the yin yang symbolizes the duality and interdependency of the natural world. Things that are yang are moving, changing, and vigorous. In contrast, things that are yin are still, static, and calm.

The majority of western yoga practices have evolved into being very yang: lots of movement, with an emphasis on stretching the muscles. Muscles are yang, while connective tissues like tendons and ligaments are yin. Sitting for meditation is more yin, and therefore requires a practice that is geared toward this use of the body. While joints like the knees and ankles are fragile and easily over-stretched, the body also contains joints in the pelvis, hips, and lower spine that are naturally much less flexible. It is these joints that yin yoga primarily addresses.

Sitting with a pose over time, possibly in discomfort, is very different from moving quickly from pose to pose as in a flow practice. In flow, if we don't like a posture it will be over soon. Yin allows for the possibility of staying with something, even if we don't like it. It's a good antidote to a pleasure-seeking yang world.

Yin Poses

Yin poses are derived from traditional yoga poses, though they have been renamed to distinguish them. Thus, cobbler's pose becomes butterfly, plow pose becomes snail, and pigeon pose becomes sleeping swan. These postures have similar shapes to their yang counterparts but are taught with an emphasis on relaxing the muscles over the course of several minutes.

Yin vs. Restorative

Though Yin Yoga and restorative yoga are similar in that poses are held for long periods, they have fundamentally different purposes. It is possible to get yin benefits from doing restorative poses, but the goal is not relaxation. Restorative poses are typically much more supported using props. In yin poses, gravity helps intensify the stretch. Some poses, such as dragon (a version of lizard pose), would not work as restorative poses, which are typically done in a supine or prone position.

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  • Grilley, Paul. Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice. White Cloud Press. 2012.

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.