I learned about "release valves" in a teacher training a couple of years ago. We were working in groups, observing other students' mobility and looking for dysfunctional movement patterns. For example, when one of my classmates shifted into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold), you could see that her hips were excessively rotating while her spine seemed awkwardly rigid. She was able to reach her toes because, instead of sharing the load, her flexible hips were doing the work for her stiff back. I quickly started to notice how my own body was compensating for areas that were too tight, too lax, or uncomfortable.
The teacher of that particular training, Gary Kraftsow—a yoga therapist and founder of the American Viniyoga Institute—calls these compensatory release valves "avoidance mechanisms." They help us understand which parts of us we've been neglecting—out of pain, weakness, injury, numbness, shame, or fear.
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All of a sudden, I started to pay attention to all of the things I had been evading in my life. I noticed I had release valves at the office. I would sit through a meeting, quietly stewing about a decision I didn't agree with, then head to my desk, venting ungracefully to anyone I ran into. I'm not proud. I was avoiding confrontation and compensating for it with toxic negativity. At home, I kept conversations about money at arm's length. Ashamed about my debt, I preferred to hide expenses and not ask for help.
This new awareness made me realize that if you don't pull out tension by the roots, it just migrates elsewhere—that boiling water has to let off steam.
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This issue of the 2019 July/August magazine is steeped in yoga therapy and the myriad ways the practice can help us identify, confront, and heal our wounds so they don't get infected and derail our lives. The term "yoga therapy" has an official definition: According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), it is “the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.” Here, we've collaborated with both IAYT-certified and non-IAYT-certified teachers to share asana, mantra, meditation, and pranayama that can help you beat addiction (yes, your iPhone habits count), manage pain, face fears, calm your nervous system, protect your lower back, and connect to your true Self. We tap Ayurvedic psychology, medical research, and the wisdom of therapists and senior teachers for guidance on how to feel healthy and whole.
Prescribed reading also includes a look at how the yoga program at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego is helping kids and their families cope with cancer; inquiry into whether your health insurance covers yoga; transformative reader-submitted stories about yoga's power to ease depression, trauma, and anxiety; advice for navigating big change; thoughts on how restorative yoga can help heal race-related wounds; and the importance of vulnerability.
As soon as I started to recognize release valves, or coping mechanisms, everywhere—on my mat, in my day-to-day behavior, and in other people—curiosity and contemplation became constant companions. Sometimes my experiments and homemade remedies fail and I can't figure out how to dissolve my headaches, quell anxious thoughts, or recover from clumsy conversations, but I feel better for trying. Yoga, particularly breathwork, has become the salve I need to persevere. The relief that comes from embodying balance, creating space to feel my feelings, and finding the courage to speak my truth has started to heal me from the inside out.