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.
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Great Blog addressing the differences between the two types. It helps those of us that like to teach ‘gentle’ yoga better explain the benefits as well as giving the more physical yoga credit for its benefits. Thanks Kristine for your work and your sharing with the rest of us saving us tons of research and learning.
You’re such a bright light in the yoga community Aurora, your comment means a lot to me. Thank you.
I so appreciate your “difference” or the entire point of YOGA always seemed to me to assist with that internal focus and “sensing” where the body is “speaking” this is an entry point for ongoing awareness …..and mindful awakening that is what all earnest seekers are longing to exxpereine.
I didn’t realize there was a public debate. I can certainly attest to the results of the study as a practitioner tho. I teach two yoga classes per week one hot viyansa and one restorative. I practice gentle and restorative 4-5 times per week and those classes are a much better support for my life than vinyasa. I get my vigorous exercise thru tennis and weightlifting so my yoga practice is definitely focused on rest, healing and centering. Thank you for this post and sharing the study with the community.
Thanks Toosdhi, I appreciate the work you are doing!
Thank you Kristine. Loved reading this!
Thanks for sharing. I also love the gentler yoga and teach women with health issues. When healing gentle is where we must begin. Loved the research that supports this. I have learned that from my own healing. Both have things to offer our bodies, but healing, chronic pain, and just overly busy people need the gentler yoga. That is my belief.
I agree! Thank you for sharing.
Having come from a very strong fitness background, i was introduced to yoga via a fitness based yoga programme here in the UK where I taught hybrid Yoga/Fitness classes for many years. I know I was definitely ‘one of those’, (and much younger person then) who thought that the Restorative/gentle yoga etc was for those who ‘struggled’ with stronger yoga. However….years later I have read a lot, studied in lots of areas of Yoga, and now run Restorative Yoga sessions. I have opened my eyes to it all. I spent years in the fitness world…and even though I love cardio, conditioning, resistance training etc AND still teach Vinyasa, all with amazing benefits! But it is so beneficial and hugely important for our fast world to look outside the box and introduce slower paced practices to their Yang way of life. Thank you Kristine, always so interesting and making it so clear to understand with scientific evidence to back it all up and bring it across to the wider communities. 🙂
Thank you Kate, what a fascinating journey you’ve had! Sometimes I think all that’s needed for many folks to “get it” is a little more experience. I appreciate you!
Thank you for sharing this research. Almost daily I find myself educating people and my students about the benefits of more slow and gentle asana practices. I use all I learned from the Subtle Yoga Revolution Teacher Training in all my classes. Just last week I told someone I teach Yoga as an Innercise instead of an exercise and they loved this term. I appreciate the work you do, Kristine! It has supported me, my clients, and my students.
wow Twyla that is so awesome! Your students are very lucky to have you!!!
Thank you once again Kristine. You are a treasure. I’m grateful to have found you in the middle of the vast ocean we call the ‘Internet’.
My students (most of whom are in retirement) appreciate a slow mindful, gentle practice. And those worker bees in the hustle-bustle-house-holding stage of life ask for longer shavasana. As my wonderful and wise father used to say; “Untie the boat and let it float.”
We are ONE
Thanks for sharing the study and your great description of the benefits of restorative yoga.
I’ve been teaching active and restorative for many years and certainly both movement and stillness
are much needed by all of us to find a good balance in body, mind, heart, spirit. Time to get my