Archive for October, 2012

I love music.  It is the soundtrack to the most important events in my life.  There are certain songs that wrap up moments in time so that I can unwrap that moment simply by pressing play.  My time in Costa Rica was no exception.  And so here is my playlist.  This will hopefully be mildly entertaining even if you weren’t there with me.

1.Big Jet Plane—Angus and Julia Stone

This has quickly become my new 2nd favorite band (the band holding this title may change weekly but never displaces my most favorite band The National).  ‘Big Jet Plane’ was played during the first student solo class and then it just kept popping up on the yoga deck.  We had an awesome sound system that blasted music onto the deck and into the jungle and this song probably came on about once a day.  When I boarded the ‘big jet plane’ taking me back to the states, I closed my eyes, listened to this song and could almost feel the warmth of the Costa Rican air staying with me.

2.  Slow and Steady – Of Monsters and Men

So this was my 2nd favorite band until the previous band came along.  I woke up a few mornings in Costa Rica with this song playing in my head.  I would sing it to myself while getting dressed and then I would walk up to watch the sunrise, plug my ipod into my ears, play this song, write in my journal and just feel like life couldn’t possibly get much better than that present moment.  Plus, it’s an awesome song to yoga to.

3.  We are Never Ever Getting Back Together – Taylor Swift

So sue me.  I love this song.  I started singing it one morning before 7am practice and before you could say ‘Jake Gyllenhal’ I was playing it to a roomfull of half-asleep yogis who all started singing with me.  And then it became a favorite for the Gaia House Girls’ Underwear Dance Party (don’t ask…when you live with four other girls and suffer through cold showers, sometimes you need a dance party to warm up.)  So of course, we had it playing in the class that we taught as a group.

4.  Hallejuah — the Justin Timberlake version

I wandered into the main house on the last night at Anamaya to find four of my friends lying on the floor, legs up against the tall stools at the kitchen counter.  I joined them in this state of repose at the one empty stool.  By request, this song was piped over the speakers and we listened in silence.  We watched the geckos that ran around on the ceiling.  There was a butterfly that kept landing just out of reach of this one gecko and they continued this constant game of chase…almost caught..fly away…land again to begin the game anew.  It was this amazing thing to observe and it would never have been seen if we hadn’t taken the time to just recline on the floor and look up in silence.

5.  Paradise—Coldplay

I wasn’t crazy about this song before my trip to Costa Rica and then things changed.  Because we were in paradise after all….and when this song came on I just felt the need to pinch myself and grin like an idiot.

6.  Starships—Nikki Minaj

My fabulous friend Lissa is returning to Florida to teach yoga to children and so for her solo class, she asked us all to pretend that we were 5-8 years old.  Easy breezy.  She taught a deliciously fun class in which we did yoga poses but were fooled into thinking we were birds.  We grew our wings, broke out of our shells and looked out of our nest for the very first time.  To test our wings, we flapped around the yoga deck to this song.  Being able to dance in a yoga class makes me happy like a 5-year-old.

7.  Gangham Style

I never promised that these songs had to be profound.  But this one is good for dancing.

8.  Big Red Machine—Justin Vernon and Aaron Dressner

This was the opening song for my first ever solo class.  It was such an amazing feeling to be in front of a roomful of friends, guiding them through opening meditations.  I have begun a new movie of my life…that of a yoga instructor…and therefore, this song is in the opening credits.

9.  Omaha — the Counting Crows

The downside about meeting cool people at yoga school who are from all over the place is that they are….well, all over the place and therefore difficult to visit.  This song is for my new friend Chelsea, from Wyoming, because we plan to meet ‘somewhere in the middle of America.’

10.  Diamonds in the Sun—Girish

This song has two lines as lyrics.  The first line is a Sanskrit mantra that goes “Lokah samastah sukhino bvhantu.”  The translation is ‘may all beings be happy and free’ and it’s the first mantra that we learned as a group together.  It was played for us once before in practice and then it came over the speakers during our final savasana as a group.  It was an incredibly emotional moment as we prepared ourselves to say goodbye to an incredible place, amazing people and life-changing month.  The second lyric line is “We shine like diamonds in the sun, every one of us.”  And so we do….

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My time in Costa Rica was an immersion.  That’s technically the term used to describe a yoga teacher training that takes place over the course of a month.  But it makes sense.  I was completely immersed in yoga, in self-study, in new friendships, and in a jungle paradise for 28 days.  I was so completely immersed that it felt like I had been there forever and not at all at the same time.

                Thursday was our last day of class.  Our instructor Jackie led us in a final practice filled with fun poses and no alignment points (she was teaching to a room full of yoga instructors after all—we could align ourselves dangit).  Together we sang along to the music occasionally and delighted in the new strength and flexibility of our bodies.  At the end of practice, we were asked to hold one arm up to the sky and one arm out beside us. 

                The hand that reached to the sky grabbed for our power, harnessing it and pulling it in.  The hand out to the side sent that love out to those in the world around us.  We held our arms out in this position for a number of minutes.  My shoulders began to burn.  “You’ve been through tougher things than this,” Jackie said.  “So keep your arms up.  Don’t give up on yourself.”  After all, what happens on the mat is often a reflection of what is happening for the person.  Tears began streaming down my face.

                At breakfast, my tears continued.  I started getting scared about going home, about losing all this strength I had just acquired.  I expressed these feelings to a friend.  “You didn’t put your arms down once during that exercise did you?” she asked me.  I shook my head no, laughed and then started to feel better. 

                After our final exam, we met back on the deck for 108 sun salutations.  For those not fluent in yoga speak, it’s basically 108 push-ups, 108 toe touches and then some.  They were divided into four rounds—one dedicated to ourselves, one to our family and friends, one for Mother Earth and the final one as a thanks to the divine and the confidence that the universe will keep taking care of us.  Fun tunes blasted over the speakers and we sang to a rainy day over the jungle.  Then, we meditated for an hour and eight minutes. 

And with that—classes taught, exams passed, suns saluted and minds calmed—we were declared yoga instructors.

The next morning, on our final day, Mother Nature must have felt the love from our sun salutations because she blessed us with a perfect beach day despite a forecast to the contrary.  We strolled down the hill to a small town where we now felt like locals.  We bought final gifts, lazed on the beach for hours and then a few of us indulged in a final mocha chiller.  Side note: take a group of people and deprive them of alcohol, unhealthy food and unlimited coffee for a month and this thing called a mocha chiller turns into something to be spoken of with complete awe and reverie.

After dinner that night, we were entertained by a fire dancer and the woman who taught us aerial silks before the dance music got going on the yoga deck.  Later, as people drifted off to their separate ways and to bed, a few of us noticed that the stars were brilliant.  We sat on the edge of the deck, saying little and listening to soft music.

I had been letting the sunrise wake me up while in Costa Rica but on Saturday, my final morning, I wasn’t willing to wait.  I set my alarm and walked up from my cabin in the dark and set out my mat.  This morning I would greet the sun—and she was surely showing off.  I’d be there in mid-pose and just gasp in amazement at the beauty, all the while wondering how I could leave this place.  Slowly, others started to wake and join me and we moved together, smiling as we caught each other’s eyes.

The goodbyes were rough, as goodbyes tend to be.  28 days prior, we were complete strangers.  And then, in those four weeks, we became immersed in each other’s lives.  Secrets were told, lives were shared, laughter was echoed, and fears were admitted.  We watched each other change.  We watched each other become teachers.  And day in and day out, we just kept coming back together.  And then, just like that, we had to part.

Ten of us drove to the local airport where we boarded a plane just big enough for us and our luggage.  The runway ran about the length of a football field before literally ending in the ocean.  We squealed at takeoff and delighted the pilots by singing our newly learned Sanskrit mantras. And then, even the ten of us had to disperse, little by little, until finally I was boarding a plane alone—the way I had arrived a month prior.  So I became the strange lady who cries on the airplane at takeoff.

But much like I know that my goodbye to some of my new friends is really just a ‘see you later’, I also know that the end of my time at Anamaya is really just a beginning.

Namaste y’all.  And to my yogi tribe—Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.

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Unpacking the Final Bag

I have a friend in Colorado who scolds herself by saying “Silly Emily.”  Her name is Emily by the way.  She says it in a laughing manner so that instead of beating herself up, she can just laugh at the fact that she has done something against her better judgment.  Or she’ll say it when she knows that she has neglected to do something that would make her feel happier.

                I packed my running shoes and sports bra for my month long trip to Costa Rica.  I lugged them over a thousand miles and since I arrived, they have been sitting at the bottom of my little clothes cubby in my cabina.  Because I didn’t feel like running my first week here; and then it was just kind of fun to not wear shoes at all.  I thought that the copious amount of yoga I was doing would compensate for the lack of miles under my feet; I thought I would somehow be OK not being a runner for a month.

                Silly Ashley.

                Our instructor promised that we would all get to our breaking point at some point during this journey of ours.  It was too much to be in this yoga bubble all of the time.  We would be mentally tested by not only studying for mid-terms, but also by (and perhaps even more by) studying ourselves.  And then we moved into the physically exhausting portion of our training—as we all started to practice teach, our days consisted of taking 5-6 yoga classes a day.  On Friday night, I broke.

                My body was exhausted and I started to take residence in my own head a little too much.  I left the group of people hanging out in the main house at about 8:30 pm and went to bed.  For the first time since I arrived, I started to feel truly homesick.  I took comfort in the fact that everything would be better in the morning, with a fresh sunrise to wake me up.  And then it was a headache that woke me up at 4 a.m.  I rolled around in bed for a while and then had a little cry while talking to one of my roommates.  It helped to get the words and the tears out as she reassured me that my feelings were most likely pretty normal amongst our group.  Everyone is entitled to a bad day—even in paradise.

                That morning, I kept my headphones in my ears for most of the morning, losing myself in music and trying to coax myself back to normal, trying to snap out of it.  It was working and by lunch, I was pretty much back to a good spot.  And then it hit me — I needed to go running.  I laughed at myself for not figuring it out sooner.  We had the following day off so I started to plan my run and I delighted in the simply the plans themselves.

                And when Sunday morning rolled around, I unpacked the socks and shoes that had been stored in a grocery bag for three weeks.  My mind eased in to the return of the old habits—lacing up the shoes and putting my Ipod on my arm.  I told my roommate to alert authorities if I wasn’t back in time for breakfast (always delicious here at yoga school on the days off) and I told her which road I planned on taking. 

                Those first steps felt like coming home.  The muscles started working and I picked up my pace, dodging the mud puddles that had been created by the previous day’s rainstorms.  If I haven’t mentioned it yet, we are residing on the side of a mountain—-so my run up the road had a punishing incline.  As my lungs started heaving, I switched to the yoga breath that I have been practicing these past few weeks.

                At a ‘T’ in the road, I hung a right onto a road that was more rolling.  There was a farm to the right and I gave the cows an “Hola” as I cruised past.  I sang along to the music that pumped into one ear.  I left the earbud out of the other ear so that the music could be accompanied by the sound of birds erupting all around me from the jungle.

                And then about halfway through my run, I had one of those moments where I had to pinch myself.  I was in a foreign country, running on a dirt road, surrounded by postcard-worthy beauty.  There was not another soul to be seen.  The moment was mine.  I would be returning to yoga school where delicious coffee and new friends awaited me.  The 24-hour headache slowly started to melt away and my mood immediately improved.  And all it took was a little run.  Silly Ashley indeed.

                And then I got a $30 mani/pedi on the yoga deck before spending the day laying on the beach and shopping for jewelry.  OK, now I’m good; can I stay here forever?

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Playing on the Mat

I taught my first yoga class today.  And I didn’t puke.  We’re easing into it here at yoga school and starting off with a group class.  My roommates and I were responsible for coming up with an hour and twenty minutes worth of yoga poses.  We also had to have a theme.  Pretty quickly we decided that we wanted to have a fun class.  These days we are doing 6-8 hours of yoga a day and our group had a challenging sequence planned.  Therefore, in an effort to get our classmates to not hate us, we chose a theme of ‘playing on the mat’. 

We introduced the class by reading “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”  During a challenging flow portion of the sequence we tricked the class into doing the Hokey Pokey.  And then, we led the cool down with a trip to the zoo (we saw cobras and camels and frogs, oh my!).

For those of you not too familiar with yoga, a class is ended in savasana, a pose of deep relaxation.  One can choose to do some inspirational readings to the students during this time.  And my group mates decided that they wanted me to write a poem for our class. 

At first I said no.  Then I said yes BUT I wasn’t going to be the one to read it.  And then I said I would read it BUT I wouldn’t say that I was the one who wrote it.  But I’ve been working on my throat chakra lately so I relented.

A few classmates requested a copy of the poem…so I give it to you here…


Run and run

When you were young

Through the wet grass at high speed

Mud squishing between your toes

Laughter ringing in your throat

You didn’t question things so much then did you?

The fireflies in the mason jar could easily light up your world

What’s so different now?

Run and run

These days of yours

Are nothing to be afraid of

There are still rainstorms in which you can dance

And stars that beg to be stared upon

Small wonders that beckon your laughter

Run and run

When you were young

You knew the secrets of the world

The answers were found in cartwheels and playing games of tag

Out of breath, you reached for life and found it every time

And it’s still there with a mason jar waiting for you to catch it

Go on now….



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Doing the Poses

So there are quite a few yoga poses.  And here at yoga school, I am slowly learning the alignment points of each, the anatomically correct terminology for the muscles being stretched, and the assists that I can provide my students in each pose.  There are gentle poses in yoga—mountain pose looks like “just standing there” to your average non-yogi and there’s a pose called Corpse Pose in which you just lay there.  On tough days, it’s my most favorite pose.

                There are poses in which you are a warrior…or a dancer…or, god forbid, a pigeon.  There are poses that challenge your quads, engage your core or require you to be all bendy in your shoulders.  Some require balance, some require strength and all of them require that you keep breathing.  When you start doing yoga, there are some poses which quickly become your favorite and others that you tend to dread when they are called out in a sequence.

                And then there’s a final category of poses that just look super cool.  These are the arm balances and inversions.  They are the poses that you watch other people do in your intermediate level class and wonder if you’ll ever have the yoga coolness capacity to perform them.   And then the first time you do them—-well, it’s just a feeling of awesomeness.

                I had been attempting Side Crow for a while.  Instructors walked me through it during a couple different classes.  Basically, it’s a pose in which one balances the entire weight of their body on their two bent arms.  Then, if you are super duper cool, you shoot your legs out to the side.  In all attempts I would either do a crash landing, or worse, never achieve takeoff.

                During our first day off here at yoga school, a group of us went to the beach.   Being the dorks that we are, we used our day off to do yoga on the beach.  “Side crow is easy, really,” said one of my classmates.  “You just do this.”  And with that she just flipped herself in the air.  I watched, I put myself into position and then tried to hoist my sunscreen-oiled legs onto equally slippery arms.  No luck—I ended up sprawled in the sand.

                A few days later, we were assigned to our teaching groups.  Our first attempt at being a yoga instructor would be with three other people, each of us teaching a twenty minute section.  While one person taught, two people would walk around giving assists and one person would demonstrate the poses at the front of the class.  My group began discussing our theme and which poses we wanted to hit.  We decided that the pose we would work up to in the sequence would be…drumroll please…side crow.  And with the order we determined, I would be the one doing the demonstration.

                So now I had a deadline.  I had to get my side crow in the next week and a half.  So I practiced during my free time.  And my yoga muscles are getting stronger —so I had that going for me.    But I still just couldn’t figure out quite how to lift my body in the air.  All of the sudden, I would feel like I weighed about 500 pounds and my arms were made of toothpicks. 

                And then, one day, I placed my hands on the floor and planted them strongly.  I bent my arms and felt the power in them.  I turned my bent knees to the side and slid one elbow just below my hip and the other one just above my knee.  And then I leaned forward, trusting my strength, trusting the earth beneath me.  And it happened.  My legs just floated up into the air.  And then, a few attempts later, I shot them out to the sky.  And that feeling of getting a new pose in yoga—-well, it’s a pretty cool feeling.

                I’ve always loved yoga for the fact that it mirrors life in a million little ways.  And perhaps these tricky poses, these challenging poses are the most perfect example.  Because you could hang out forever in the poses that make you feel safe and secure and be alright as long as you kept breathing.  But sometimes you have to test your strength to find out if it really exists.  And it might take some faceplants before you get to a place of complete balance.  But it’s all worth it—the frustrations and the failures—to get to that place where you can truly fly.

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I asked my instructor the other day if it was possible to fail the meditation portion of yoga teacher training.  She laughed.  I wasn’t kidding.

                Every day at approximately 3:30, we sit as a group on the yoga deck, close our eyes and go to our happy place.  We started at 20 minutes and are gradually working our way up.  And me…I’m struggling.  See, I’ve always been quite the daydreamer.  And I’ve been known to be quite energetic.  And my mind likes to juggle a million things at once.  It’s why I’m such a good waitress.  So there I am, on the deck, sitting cross legged and breathing deeply and my mind just spins and spins.  And then I fidget.  And then I start thinking about what we’re going to have for snack time (we have snack time at yoga school…its awesome).  And then I look at the clock.  And then I run screaming into the pool.  Actually, this last one has not happened yet.  But wait.

                The good news is that I now have something that I can blame completely for this inability of mine.  I’m a Vata.  You’re a whatta?, you ask.  We’ve just started studying the Ayurveda here at yoga school.  And again, cliff notes; but basically it’s a form of medicine that treats individuals based on body types and behaviors rather than treating symptoms.  So we’re reading Perfect Health by Deepak Chopra and there’s this quiz you can take to determine your category (called a dosha—another word not recognized by my spell check).  It’s kind of like one of those quizzes you take in Cosmo magazine to find out if you’re a Savvy Saver or Sassy Spender or something ridiculous along those lines.

                So I’m reading the Vata questions and looking over my shoulder to make sure that someone isn’t playing a trick on me because this quiz…well, it’s like they were in my head.  Your mind is very active, sometimes restless, but also imaginative.  Uh, check.  You don’t tolerate cold weather as well as most people.  Must be why I always enjoyed après skiing more than actual skiing.  Your moods change easily and you’re somewhat emotional by nature.  Guilty as charged.

                The whole idea behind Ayurveda is to stick to a diet that complements your dosha to achieve optimal health.  After further reading, I got some good news (dairy, pasta and spicy foods are healthy for me!) and some not so good news (red meat and brussel sprouts are not).  P.S.  If you think I’m being facetious about the brussel sprouts, you’ve never had them cooked the way I cook them.  But I digress.  Damn Vata mind of mine.  But Ayurveda also extends to the type of yoga one should be practicing in order to balance their tendencies.  Ever heard of Yin yoga?  It means you hold your poses for a real long time to release connective tissue.  Basically it’s meditation for the entire body. 
                Yesterday was our Vata balancing day and I giggled uncomfortably as our instructor said that she’d be leading us through a Yin yoga class that would require staying still in our own minds.  I think she looked directly at me as she said it might be tough for some of us.   But I had this awesome day leading up to Yin hour.  I swam and read by the pool during breakfast break and got a facial at lunch break.  I swear if all school was like this then I would be the smartest person…ever.  But again, I digress.

                So we’re in pigeon pose, which, for the non-yogis is a pose in which one leg is bent in front of you and the other leg is straight out behind you and you’re laying on the floor trying to breath like a normal person.  It’s an intense stretch for your hips and glutes and we were going to get all yin and hold the pose for five minutes.  I started out breathing deeply and trying to let my thoughts go, imagining my mind as a Teflon surface that nothing could stick to, as suggested by the instructor.  There were so many thoughts that I didn’t even know where to start.  And then I had an idea.  Sometimes, people will use mantras in yoga to settle the mind.  These can be traditional Sanskrit mantras or it could just be an English phrase of your choosing that makes you feel balanced.

                It was then that I had an idea.  I’d been getting angry at myself for my inability to meditate.  But since reading about the doshas and discovering that I was a Vata, I accepted that perhaps there would always only be so much stillness that my mind could tolerate.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t work on the calming aspect of things a bit….but while I do, a little gentleness is needed.  So I began to say these words in my head—“Forgive this crazy mind of yours.  She’s capable of beautiful things.” 

                I took this mantra again into meditation.   And I didn’t levitate or see visions or even really get my mind to go blank at all.  But it was easier.  And just when I was almost to the point of opening my eyes and sneaking a glance at the clock, there was a sound of something running across the roof of the yoga deck.  We all opened our eyes as a little monkey then jumped into a tree right in front of us and looked at us in wonderment.  Meditation was broken with squeals of disbelief that something could be so flippin’ cute.  The monkey ran across the roof again and to a stand of trees on the opposite side of the deck, where he joined about half a dozen other monkeys.  We watched as they put on a show, swinging and jumping from branch to branch.

                “Look what you guys manifested,” said our teacher.  And perhaps we did.  Maybe there were others on that deck forgiving themselves for not being perfect.   And the monkeys were not only a reward, but a reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously. 

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I did the required reading for the throat chakra and felt a sense of relief.  I totally got this chakra, I thought to myself.  The book made it sound like it was all about speaking your mind, not telling lies, finding your voice, etc.  That’s cool, I thought, I got that under control.

                Before class that morning, a fellow yogini and I were discussing the novelty of being back in school after so long and we were laughing about how we were reverting back to our childhood ways of being good students, for fear of getting called out more than anything else.

                “I’m such a pleaser,” she said.

                “Me too!” I said.

                So then yoga practice began and our instructor starts talking about how the throat chakra really deals with the will….how it’s the path between the heart and the mind.  Basically, if you’re a pleaser, living life according to what others may think; then you’re lying to yourself…so you’re really just lying.

                And guess what?  If your throat chakra is blocked, you manifest this in your physical body with a sore neck and upper back and ear problems.  Flashback to many doctors appointments for ear issues and good money spent on massage therapists.  Well, crap.  I gotta work on this chakra too, I thought.

                So there’s that.  But what I really want to talk about is our field trip because being back in school also means that you get to go on field trips.  And that day, we would be practicing karma yoga.  Basically, it means that you give if you have it to give.  It’s the yoga of action, of selfless giving.  So for us, it meant we were going to do a beach clean-up. 

                But here’s the catch.  One of the yogic exercises that goes along with the throat chakra is to hold silence.  That means no communication with others, verbally or otherwise.  So before we left, we ate breakfast in silence, coffee slurping and forks scraping against plates.  We then boarded a old school bus to take us down to the beach, the wheezing and grinding of brakes the only sound accompanying our ride.  We were given black bags for trash and green for recycling and set loose upon a stretch of coastal paradise.

                My roommate motioned to me silently about working together as a team and we set out with one black bag and one green bag and began to pick our way back into the forested area of the beach where the tides had pushed bits of Styrofoam, plastic bottles and random shoes.  We collected silently and I noticed that a man stood across the street, holding a machete and watching us with curiosity.

                After a few minutes, he wandered over, machete in hand.  We nodded our heads hello and he grabbed a coconut from the ground.  “Coco?” he asked us and then followed the question with rapid Spanish.  I broke the silence with a good ol’ “No habla Espanol” and he set to hacking open the coconut.  When he had opened it and carved a small hole in the top, he passed it to us and motioned for us to drink.   We passed it back and forth, the water refreshing and occasionally dripping down the front of our chins.  He kept speaking in words that we didn’t understand and when we finished drinking, he took the coconut back, hacked it in half and gave us each a piece.

                “Victor,” he said, pointing to himself.

                “Muchos gracias Victor,” we said, after introducing ourselves.  He gave us a wave and walked away and we continued to silently pick up trash.   The irony does not escape me—a beautiful human exchange made in mostly silence, and without a shared language.

As the day progressed, we began to gradually use our words, using them as necessities for communicating important beach clean-up things (including ‘ew gross, look at this’ of course).  We amassed bags and bags that day, making more beautiful the beach that brought us so much beauty.  We did it because we had it to give.

When we returned to Anamaya, we were rewarded with passionfruit cinnamon smoothies and a delicious lunch of durado, mashed plantain and a carrot salad.  The clouds of the morning broke away and we spent our lunch break by the pool, laughing uncontrollably at times.  And they say karma’s a bitch but I guess if you treat her nice and put in your time dealing with your throat chakra and picking up trash, she will reward you with coconuts and beautiful moments.

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