Feel the Earth Element in your body with these three yoga poses

EarthElementMountainNext weekend I am teaching a yoga workshop called “Elemental Yoga” at the Central New York Pagan Pride Day Festival in Syracuse, New York. I’m very excited. This is the first time I’ve ventured out of my comforting Adirondack mountains to teach yoga to strangers, so I’m also a bit nervous. I have been doing lots of grounding work over the past few weeks, drawing nourishing energy from the earth, while at the same time inviting my vision for the workshop down to the physical level so it will manifest.

Yoga always helps me stay grounded and centered, but these three simple poses are my go-to poses when I need a quick refocus.

  1. Mountain pose. Tadasana is the basis of all standing poses in yoga. It embodies the grounding energy of the root chakra and brings awareness to your postural alignment. Stand with your feet no wider than your hips and your toes forward. Soften your knees, spread your toes and balance your weight between the balls of your feet and the center of your heel. Drop your tailbone and reach the crown of your head up, lengthening your spine. Relax your arms by your sides. Close your eyes and imagine your weight dropping into your feet, like you are trying to be so heavy that no one can lift you off the ground. You might sense your feet sinking into the floor or, if you are outside, the ground. Keep your knees slightly bent – if you lock them it will be harder for you to keep your feet heavy.
  2. EarthElementLotusLotus pose. Padmasana originated in the meditative practices of ancient India and is still used by modern-day practitioners. This centering posture presses your sitting bones, your physical “roots,” firmly down. Due to the hip and knee flexibility required, full lotus pose, with both feet placed on the opposite thighs, is not available for everyone. If you find it difficult, you can modify by bringing just one foot onto the other thigh (half lotus pose) or simply crossing your ankles (easy pose). If you practice Padmasana regularly, be sure to alternate which leg is on top to avoid developing imbalance in the hips. Once you get settled in your seat, lengthen your spine, lower your chin slightly and become aware of everything that is touching the surface you are sitting on. I find that just a few minutes focusing on my physical connection to the earth is calming and helps me to feel present.
  3. EarthElementCobraCobra pose. It is difficult to get closer to earth energy than to have your belly on the earth in Bhujangasana. Lie face down and stretch your legs back, feet hip-width apart, and press the tops of your feet into the floor. Place your hands under your shoulders, fingers spread, and hug your elbows to your sides. Keeping your pelvis pressed into the floor and straightening your arms as you make space to do so, lift your heart. Relax your shoulder blades down your back, draw your lower belly slightly off the floor and lift the top of your sternum. Draw your ears away from your shoulders, lengthening your neck. Feel the tops of your feet, your thighs, your pelvis and your low belly on the earth. If you are in a time of transformation or change, add extra oomph by closing your eyes and imagining you are shedding your skin, slithering out of whatever you are letting go of in order for change to happen.

Keep these 3 things in mind when you try yoga with weights

Arm rotations in tree pose require extra focus.

Arm rotations in tree pose require extra focus.

When I decided to combine my yoga teacher training and personal trainer certification and teach a yoga with weights class, I looked around at the programs out there and couldn’t find one that satisfied me. Instead of taking a training that did not offer everything I was looking for, I created my own. My Earth & Fire: Vinyasa Flow Yoga with Weights classes are structured to be safe and designed to stabilize the core in every pose or movement. I borrowed from yoga, pilates and weight training and built all the moves into a flow.

Unless you live in the eastern Adirondacks in New York, you will need to find a yoga with weights class near you if you want to try it. (Or ask me about doing a session on Skype.) When you take that class, keep these things in mind:

  1. Keep it light. Yes, you should keep your attitude light, but what you really need to do is choose light hand weights. If you’ve never worked with weights before, 1 or 2 pound weights are enough. If you have, pick a weight that is less than you usually lift. When you are holding your arms out with a weight in each hand in Warrior II, you don’t want to be slowly tearing your rotator cuff. Since you’ll have to focus on holding a pose as well as what is going on in your arms, it’s safer to downsize your weights. The weights I offer my classes max out at 5 pounds.
  2. Engage your whole body. As you are pressing weights overhead in Warrior I, is your alignment degrading? The weights are just one part of what’s going on. Ground through your legs and feet and always, always, always use your core muscles. Maintain a neutral pelvis and support the low back by drawing the lower abdominals in and up and tucking your tailbone. Keep the shoulder blades down unless you are targeting their movement. Bring your chin down until your ears are directly above your shoulders and keep the neck as soft as possible. The true challenge of practicing yoga with weights is not the number of reps, but doing those reps without sacrificing your alignment.
  3. Breathe. I know I shouldn’t have to say this, but I have learned from my own practice and observing my students that whenever something new is introduced or the going gets rough, we forget to breathe. When I teach Earth & Fire, all the movements are timed to the breath. That might mean those movements are slow, and that’s okay. First and foremost, keep breathing throughout the practice, and fire up your Ujjayi breath.

I love my yoga with weights practice. The strength training has supported my regular practice by building the muscles that allow me to have fun in inversions and all sorts of balance poses. It’s also great cross-training for the running and hiking I do, and the yoga and weights give me a double-dose of bone density maintenance. Keeping those three things in mind, give a yoga with weights class a try.

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Come for the Restorative Yoga, Stay for the Cat

Cats give great adjustments.

Cats give great adjustments.

Restorative yoga is lovely and deeply relaxing. I enjoying teaching restorative classes and workshops, and one of my favorites is a workshop I created where participants learn how to prop restorative poses with just one folded blanket. This gives them the opportunity to recreate the practice at home without having to invest in bolsters, blocks and straps.

I thought I would share a short one-blanket restorative sequence with you. I particularly like this sequence because the transitions are smooth and easy. You’ll go around in a circle as you move from pose to pose. Rather than write it out, I set up my camera in the backyard to record a video of the sequence for you.

It was a good idea. It was a gorgeous, sunny day. However, our cat was outside enjoying the weather, too. If the cat knows there’s yoga happening, she has to get in on the action. I’ve nicknamed her “the 4-pawed Reiki master” because she loves to give paws-on, energy-laden adjustments.  Needless to say, I didn’t get to record the video without the cat.

If you’d like to try the restorative poses, ignore the cat, who shows up just past the 3-minute mark, and listen to my voice. If you like cats, then enjoy watching her climb on me, rub my face with her head, and get in the way during transitions.

Either way, thanks for watching.

 

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Yoga for Cyclists: 4 poses to stretch and strengthen your ankles

During the years I trained for triathlons, I spent many hours on my bike. I wish I knew then what I know now. Last year I explored cycling and yoga as part of a continuing education program and have put together a series of workshops for cyclists. The first workshop addresses the pain and strain that can develop in a cyclist’s ankles and feet.

Repetitive pedaling creates stress and muscle shortening around the ankle complex. Tightness in the calf muscles can contribute to poor foot alignment, plantar fasciitis (pain on the bottom of the heel) and increased stress on the Achilles tendon. In addition, pulling up on the pedals with bike shoes can strain the anterior shin area. Regular strengthening and stretching of the ankles and feet can help correct these problems. These four yoga poses are great for the ankles:

downloadTrikonasana (Triangle) By bringing your focus to your feet and ankles, you can enjoy some lovely lengthening in your calves and ankles. Root down through the ball of the forward foot and the outer edge of the back foot. Draw your inner ankles up and your thighs toward each other. Keep your lower body engaged as you lengthen your spine.

straddle-forward-bend_-_step_2.max.v1Prasarita Padottanasana (Standing Straddle Fold) Stretch the outside of your ankles and your calves while strengthening your inner ankles. Stack your hips over your heels and press the outsides of your feet into the floor as you lift your arches. Tip your tailbone up. Deepen further by contracting the quadriceps (muscles in the front of the thighs), which pulls your kneecaps up toward your hips.

Upward Facing DogUrdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog) Point your toes back and press the tops of your feet into the floor. As your hips move forward into the backbend, your shins and the front of your ankles lengthen.

airplaneAirplane to Hip Flexion Balance Flow Any time you balance on one foot, you are strengthening the entire ankle complex. Moving between two balance poses adds another layer of challenge. Begin in the Airplane variation of Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III) with the arms extended back like wings. Lifting the upper body, draw the knee of the extended leg forward and up towards your chest, then transition back to Airplane. Move slowly back and forth, matching your breath.

A regular yoga practice is wonderful cross-training for any of the endurance sports. Make a daily date with your mat.

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A fun balance pose yoga sequence for your vinyasa practice

Playing in Ardha Chandrasana during a recent trip to Florida. I love balance poses!

Playing in Ardha Chandrasana during a recent trip to Florida. I love balance poses!

How has this week of the Grand Cross been for you? I’ve been feeling balanced and energized. I’m getting stuff done – stuff like creating sequences for my vinyasa flow yoga classes. I love balance poses, and since I’ve been enjoying so much balance in my life I decided to share a balance flow that I like to play with. Give it a try. The worst that can happen is some  less-than-graceful transitions.

Start in Mountain (Tadasana). Inhale your arms overhead, then bend your knees for…

Chair (Utkatasana). Drop your arms to shoulder height, wrap your arms with the left arm on top, wrap your right leg around the left leg and make your way into…

Eagle (Garudasana), balancing on the left foot. Keep your weight in your left leg as you straighten your left knee, bring the right foot to your left inner calf or thigh and lift your arms overhead into…

Tree (Vrkshasana). Drop your right hand, lift your right foot behind you and grab your toes with your right hand. Press your foot into your hand to come to…

Dancer (Natarajasana). Release your foot, reach your right hand overhead and reach your right leg behind you, finding yourself in…

Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III). Keep reaching back with your right foot as you bend your left leg, put your right toes down and lift your torso for…

Crescent Lunge (High Lunge Variation). Spin your right heel down, open your torso to the right and drop your arms into…

Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II). Straighten the left leg and move to…

Triangle (Trikonasana). Shift the weight into the left leg, take a chance and reach for the floor in front of your left toes as you lift your right leg for…

Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana). Rotate your torso until you’re looking at the floor and bring your arms to your sides like airplane wings. You’re in…

Airplane (Virabhadrasana III, variation). Bend your left knee while crossing the right leg behind the left and come down to a seated position, right leg bent on the floor, left knee lifted, left foot outside the right thigh. You are ready to twist to the left into…

Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana). Without using your hands, see if you can stand up on your left leg into Airplane again. Reach your hands to the floor, bend your left knee and put your right toes down into a…

High Runner’s Lunge. Press the right heel down as you swing the left leg back and up into…

Downward Dog Split. Open the hips more by bending the left knee and lifting it towards the sky as the left foot drops towards the right hip. Then square your hips to the floor and swing your left knee under your chest to set it down behind your left hand in…

Pigeon (Eka Pada Rajakapotasana). Fold forward first, then lift your heart into the full Pigeon pose. You can bend your right knee and reach back for your toes with your right hand to add a quad stretch. Release Pigeon, make your way to your hands and knees, then drop your chest and chin and flow into…

Cobra (Bhujangasana). Press back to…

Downward-facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Step your right foot between your hands, spin your left heel down and lift your arms overhead for…

Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I). Drop your arms behind your back, interlace your fingers and, keeping your feet grounded, fold from your hip to lower your torso over your right thigh. Drop your head towards your right instep. Come up with a flat back and return to Warrior I. Then reach for the floor and step the left foot forward into a…

Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Lift to standing, reach your arms overhead and bring your hands to your heart to end in…

Mountain (Tadasana).

That’s it! After you do the whole sequence once, don’t forget to do the other side by balancing on your right foot in Eagle. And always give yourself a few minutes in Savasana at the end of your practice.

Enjoy! And if you’re not feeling balanced, don’t worry. The astrological craziness should calm down after the solar eclipse on April 29th.

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Watch out for creeping shoulders in these 7 yoga poses

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

Keep space under the ears in Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist).

If you’re an alignment junkie like me, you need to check out Katy Bowman’s blog “Alignment Matters!” In one particularly good post she reminded me why I need to be so careful in my yoga practice not to let my shoulders creep up my neck towards my ears. Yoga asanas provide an opportunity to correct some of the muscular imbalances I’ve created as I go through my activities of daily living, but only if I don’t bring those same movement patterns onto my mat. Stop reading this post for a moment and notice where your shoulders are. Have they crept up your neck? If you have creeping shoulders, here’s seven asanas where you’ll need to stay aware of them:

 

  1. Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I) Bring your arms over your head, shoulder width apart, palms facing each other. Could you get your arms up there without your shoulders climbing towards your ears? Drop the tops of your shoulders down so your shoulder blades move onto the back of your ribcage and feel the tension melt out of your neck and jaw.
  2. Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) I see shoulder creep in Vira II all the time in my classes, as well as in my own practice. Float your arms out to the sides until they are shoulder height and hold them there. Notice where you start to feel the “burn” of the isometric contraction that’s keeping your arms in place. Is it in the tops of your shoulders and the sides of your neck? That’s the result of shoulder creep. Drop those babies down and feel the muscles in the tops of the arms take over.
  3. Paripurna Matsyendrasana (Seated Spinal Twist) You’ve got one hand on your knee, the other on the floor behind your back and you’ve just twisted to the side. Before you even think about turning your head to look over your shoulder, check out where that shoulder is. Are you trying to keep your spine long by lifting up with your shoulders? Untwist, drop the shoulders down and, instead, lift the bottom of your ribcage away from your hips. Now make the twist with your shoulders relaxed and lots of length in your lumbar spine.
  4. Bhugangasana (Cobra) You want your heart to move forward through your arms in Cobra, but if you’ve got a bad case of shoulder creep you may find yourself dragging your heart up by your shoulders then squeezing your shoulder blades together to push the heart through. Not only is that building tension in your neck, but you’re limiting the ability of the thoracic spine to lengthen into a beautiful backbend. As you lift into your next Cobra, slide your heart forward as you lift, keep your elbows hugging your sides and let your shoulder blades slide down without moving them towards the spine. Lift your ears away from your shoulders and lift the top of your sternum towards your throat and feel your heart open.
  5. Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold) What? My shoulders just have to hang there. How can they be creeping up my neck? Watch somebody new to yoga, especially someone who is tight in the hamstrings or in the low back, try to get deeper into a forward fold. The knees lock, the low back rounds and the shoulders pull the upper back towards the legs, tightening around the neck with every breath. Yes, it happens. I’ve seen it. Worse, I’ve done it. (Hey, I was a yoga newbie once too.)
  6. Trikonasana (Triangle) Sitting right where you are, lift your shoulders up and in towards your ears. Now turn your head to one side. Feel that pinch where your neck meets the top of your shoulder? Bring your head back to center, drop your shoulders back into the relaxed position they were in before I told you to lift them and try the head turn again. Better? Next time you try to look up at your hand in Triangle, remember that.
  7. Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge) If you can’t get your hips very high in Bridge, it might be that shoulder creep again, only this time it’s the neck crunching down into the shoulders that’s causing the problem. Before you lift your hips, relax your shoulders and drop your chin towards your throat so the bottom of the back of your skull is resting on the floor. You’ll feel the back of your neck lengthen out of your shoulders. Once you’ve lifted, keep your chin tucked and move your shoulders towards your hips as you draw them behind your back. Now the heart can lift too, allowing the hips to lift higher.

 

Katy’s post shows what shoulder creep does to Downward-facing Dog. Next time you’re on your mat, notice where else your shoulders start climbing your neck. In which poses do you need to correct shoulder creep?

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Free your inner chaos and flow through Dancing Star

“One must still have chaos in oneself to
be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Dancing star in my art journal.

Dancing star in my art journal.

Do you pay attention to the folks who pay attention to the stars? If you do, you know that we’re in the thick of it right now. There’s a planetary alignment called a Grand Cross going on and it’s stirring up all kinds of stuff. (There’s a great post here about what to expect this week.)

I created this vinyasa yoga flow sequence, which I call Dancing Star, in 2011, but it seems appropriate to share this week.

The circular pattern of the flow fills the whole mat, and the ever-changing focal points give you a nice sense of the cosmic chaos. The movements flow through five-pointed star and dance in and out of triangle pose on the way around the mat.

Roll out your mat, free your inner chaos and be a dancing star.

stand in tadasana
reach overhead and fill your lungs with a big inhale
as you exhale, fold into uttanasana
lift halfway up, hands to shins, and extend your spine
jump (or step) back and lower yourself to chaturanga dandasana
lift to urdhva mukha shavanasana
reach back into adha mukha svanasana
lift your right leg behind you into a down dog standing split
step your right foot forward between your hands into
runners stretch
spin your left heel down, reach your left arm forward
then up, lifting you into
virabhadrasana II
straighten your right leg and bend to the right
into trikonasana
lift your torso upright
turn your right toes toward the side of your mat and feel
five-pointed star
drop your arms down
sweep your hands together in front of your heart, then
press your hands overhead
open your arms back to shoulder height
turn your left toes toward the back of your mat
and bend left into trikonasana
lift out of triangle, bend your left knee and take
virabhadrasana II
windmill your arms to the floor framing your left foot
in high lunge
step back to plank and take the vinyasa to down dog
lift your right leg behind you
step your right foot forward between your hands
and flow from lunge to virabhadrasana II to
trikonasana to five-pointed star
(you should be facing the other side of your mat this time)
bring your hands together at your heart then press them overhead
turn your left toes to the front of the mat
and flow to triangle then warrior II and back to lunge
step back to plank and vinyasa back to down dog
now you’ve circled all the way around your mat
you’re facing front again
repeat the flow, beginning with your left leg this time
you’ll circle around in the other direction
when you flow back to down dog facing the front of your mat
hop (or step) forward
lift halfway up
fold deep and let go
come up to standing, reaching your arms overhead
return to tadasana
smile
you’ll make it through
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3 post-run yoga stretches your body will thank you for

Just as the mental calm created by a regular yoga practice permeates the rest of my day, my asana practice tends to show up in my other physical activities, especially running. In addition to being aware of my breath, I also adjust my posture to Tadasana (mountain pose) as I run – lifting the front of my pelvis, engaging my core, relaxing my shoulders back and down. And Uddiyana Bandha has gotten me up more than one tough hill.

Post Run Pigeon

No surprise that when I need to stretch after a run I turn to the asanas. If you’re looking for a few good post-run stretches, here are my favorites:

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) is my go-to pose after every run. Folding forward into what I affectionately call “lazy pigeon” opens the piriformis on the front leg side (nasty little muscle that thinks nothing of pinching your sciatic nerve if it’s tight) and stretches the hamstrings and glutes. The hip flexors of the extended back leg get a nice stretch, too, and they deserve some pampering after a run, especially if you’ve been on hills. The key in pigeon is to keep the hips squared and level, rather than collapsing to one side. Keep drawing the hip of the back leg forward and breath through that juicy stretch in the other hip.

Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog pose) opens the backs of the legs and, with a few minor adjustments after you’ve settled in, opens the low back. As your heels sink toward the floor you’re lengthening your hamstrings, gastrocnemius and soleus (those well-defined calf muscles that let everyone know you’re a runner) and glutes. With a reach back through your tailbone you can lengthen the sides of your waist and decompress the lumbar spine a bit, which is nice after it’s been your shock absorber for a few miles. The diaphragm and intercostals also get a stretch. Know what they’ve been doing? Working really hard helping you suck in oxygen.

Janu Sirsasana (head-to-knee pose, or half forward fold) gets to all our favorite muscles down the back of the extended leg – hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus, piriformis and glutes. Up in the torso you’re opening lats and obliques. You’re also hitting the hip adductors in the bent leg. Since deepening in this pose requires some help from the breath, you’ll feel your heart rate come down as you focus on breathing deep.

Take five minutes in some yoga poses after your next run. Your body will thank you. And who knows? Maybe yoga will start sneaking into the rest of your life.

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False Summits and Forward Bends

The view from one of Noonmark's false summits.

The view from one of Noonmark‘s false summits.

Some of our favorite mountains in the Adirondacks High Peaks region, like Baxter, Rooster Comb and Noonmark, tease us with false summits. They appear when we’ve been walking for what seems like forever, drawing us hopefully on with glimpses of blue sky through thinning trees. There’s relief, satisfaction and, often, a beautiful view, all ending abruptly when one of us notices the trail marker beckoning us back into the trees to continue up the trail.

I thought of false summits while leading a yoga class through a series of forward bends. We were working on moving to the edge of the stretch, lengthening our spines when we inhaled, releasing further forward with our exhales. The edge is uncomfortable and, like a false summit, makes you think you’ve gone as far as you can. Unless you give yourself time and muster up the fortitude to continue on, you’ll never know what the view looks like from the top.

For the false summits of our forward bends, we can thank musculotendinous sensory receptors called Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Through their reflexive actions, the GTOs help to regulate muscle stiffness. Low-force, long-duration static stretching, felt in the hamstrings during Paschimottanasana, brings on a temporary increase in tension as the muscles lengthen, the first “edge” we discover. Don’t give up there because, after seven to 10 seconds of holding and breathing, your GTOs activate and the muscle tension temporarily releases. Another exhale and you’ll find yourself deeper into the bend.

The muscle quickly reestablishes its stretch threshold and a new edge is reached. You may work through a few before you reach your true edge, provided you can stay patient, focused and breathing smoothly throughout the process. After practicing consistently for a period of weeks or months, the muscles will lengthen more or less permanently, so you’ll be able to go further forward before reaching the first edge. As a result, the true summit of your yoga pose keeps getting further away.

The true summits of the Adirondack mountains keep getting further away, too. The Adirondack mountains are still growing, at a rate of about one millimeter per year. Some days, when it seems like we’ve been walking forever, I’m sure the mountain has gone through a recent growth spurt. Climbing these mountains requires patience, focus and lots of breath.

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Seeking Eagles

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo.

Photo of a Bald Eagle taken at the Toledo Zoo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Taped to the wall behind the yoga studio’s reception desk is a snapshot of a bald eagle, captured by one of our yoga teacher training graduates. Bald eagles are native to the Adirondacks, although they had to be reintroduced in the 1980s after DDT use in the 1960s all but wiped them out. Now they are spotted throughout the Adirondack Park, but, unfortunately, never by me.

I enjoy practicing and teaching Garudasana, known in English as eagle pose. In deference to the presence of America’s bird, it seems fitting to wrap arms and legs into the look of a perched eagle at our Adirondack yoga studio. Exclusive to North America, the bald eagle could not have been the intended reference in the Sanskrit name. There are Indian spotted eagles and short-toed eagles, but it is generally agreed that the name honors Vishnu’s mount Garuda, a massive half-man, half-eagle known for devouring serpents.

Eagle Pose at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Eagle Pose at Split Rock in New Russia, NY

Here in the Adirondack mountains, surrounded by so much of the natural world including the elusive, at least to me, bald eagle, I can’t help but bring the spirit of that beautiful bird into my practice of eagle pose, despite its Indian origins. As a shamanic totem, the eagle represents access to higher planes of consciousness. Borrowing the eagle’s strong wings and courage, you are free to fly to great spiritual heights.

Being birds, the eagle is associated with air, but they have sturdy legs to walk on the earth and hunt over water, and thus are grounded while seeking spirit and also carry the cleansing energy of water. This is very balanced energy, fitting the balance of eagle pose. Whether on my mat or on a rock, I embrace Adirondack bald eagle energy in Garudasana. Perhaps, after enough practice, I’ll finally get to see one.

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