Restorative vs. Vinyasa: Some Research
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | September 2, 2022
A few times I’ve been accused of having an anti-vinyasa agenda and divisively pitting exercise yoga against more traditional yoga practices. But that’s never been my intention. When you’ve been told that you are a “beginner”, “gentle”, “not real yoga”, or “a waste of time” teacher (and all those are real epithets BTW), but you think that if people just gave it a go, they might actually discover something amazing and different in slower yoga practices, then you have some work to do. If you want to be relevant, you have to get really good at differentiating what you do from the mainstream stuff.
Anyway, there haven’t been that many studies looking into the difference between slow, mindful yoga practices and faster workout type yoga. So, I was pretty excited to see this one.
Researchers sought to compare the cognitive effects of restorative yoga versus vinyasa yoga in breast cancer survivors who were previously sedentary. They had two groups – one practiced restorative yoga three times a week for an hour for 12 weeks. The other practiced vinyasa (which researchers called “vigorous yoga”) for the same amount of time over the same period. Both groups were supposed to practice on their own for 12 more weeks.
The restorative group showed significant improvement in overall cognitive function and also significant improvement in what’s called “fluid cognitive function” – which is about the capacity to solve novel problems, and to process and integrate information.
The vinyasa or “vigorous yoga” group did not show any significant improvement in overall cognition, or in fluid cognitive function, but they did improve their crystallized cognition scores. (“Crystalized cognition” is the amount of stuff that you’ve learned over time).
So, here’s a little commentary on this study.
To me, it makes sense that folks doing three hours of restorative yoga a week improved overall cognition and problem solving skills. I think this is partly, or maybe even largely, because they were given three hours of intentional rest per week – which the brain and body desperately need for healing. Most people in our hyper-speed world do not get this much real rest every week (sorry, Netflix and wine don’t count). There’s some research which suggests that slow mindful stretching may have some positive benefits including reducing inflammation.
Breast cancer can be a highly stressful diagnosis, even when folks get to the cancer free remission stage. Having significant amounts of time to rest and nurture oneself each week could possibly be a huge factor in mitigating the health-eroding effects of intense stress and improving cognitive function.
But why didn’t the vinyasa group experience the same benefits?
Well, vigorous vinyasa classes tend to share similarities with fitness classes – which mean they are likely to confer similar benefits – cardiovascular and pulmonary health, muscle tone, strength, and increased proprioception. But they do not necessarily offer the same level of nurturing – to the mind, neuroendocrine immune system, intrinsic muscular tension, etc. (which all can affect cognition) – that is available with restorative. I could also go down the cortisol and menopause rabbit hole here – over-exercise may dysregulate diurnal cortisol curves in menopausal women. It may, in some cases, contribute to overall HPA axis dysregulation or allostatic load, thus have a detrimental affect on cognition.
Restorative yoga (and, possibly other slow, mindful yoga) provides an opportunity to uncouple from cultural hyper-speed in order to access essential mental and physical rest. Rest is one of the most important components of any significant healing work. And rest is not particularly valued in our culture. So, perhaps having to show up three times a week for an hour of deep rest conveys invaluable benefits beyond the cognitive for folks – and being part of a study meant that they didn’t have to feel guilty about not doing “real yoga.”
Another key point is that restorative classes provide the opportunity for interoceptive awareness skill building – i.e., noticing how your body feels, tuning into your breath, adjusting positions to find greater comfort, tuning into new sensations as they arise and subside, feeling gentle, pleasurable stretching sensations, etc. which may also support cognition.
Interoceptive awareness is a skill that is quite difficult to build when you are moving your body quickly, trying to follow instructions, breathing quickly, and trying to maintain both proprioception and balance. All of those activities trump attention to internal sensations (and the inner knowing they convey) because they are essential for survival – and survival is always the number one bio-imperative.
Clearly vigorous yoga has many benefits – there’s more than 50 years of strong research demonstrating the benefits of cardio exercise. I would never dispute that.
But, in some ways, this strong research is a double-edged sword for those of us who teach slower more internal yoga practices. On one hand it’s great because it can convince some folks to get some exercise. On the other hand, when it’s applied to yoga, many people think restorative and gentle yoga practices can’t possibly have benefits because they are not cardio oriented. They think that gentle yoga, chair yoga, restorative, etc. is for people who can’t do “real” yoga. And that the benefits of yoga come with the burn.
This study suggests otherwise.
It tells us that restorative practices have different benefits – not better, just different, and equally important. The public is just starting to tune in and there’s a lot more education that needs to happen – which makes me wanna go drape myself over a bolster and breathe for a bit.