on coping with stress and mental illness with healthy habits: exercise, meditation, and my 30 days of yoga

I am afraid to write this post.

For no good reason. It’s not a complicated post. I did a thing, and it was good. I want to tell you about that thing, and explain why it was good. Simple.

Except, I have ALL OF THE FEELINGS about this thing. And a great deal of THOUGHTS too.  With a fair bit of snark thrown in for good measure because, come on guys, yoga. I love it, but there is also so much crazy hippie bullshit to snark about.

And on top of all of that, to explain why I have so many thoughts and feelings about this relatively small thing, there is so much context I would have to explain. Basically, I could write you a small book about yoga and tangentially related thoughts and feelings, but I don’t WANT to write a book, I just want to write a post, which means I have to narrow down and focus and decide what I want to say and then spit it the fuck out and be done with it already. But nothing I say will be right because there will always be more stuff I COULD have said but I don’t want to write bajillions more posts on yoga because I’m not that kind of blogger and and and…..

gah. phew. DEEP BREATH.

Ok. I don’t know why I’m having such a hard time with this but I am, and I need to get past it, so here’s the deal. I’m going to do the best I can with this, and then YOU are going to ask me questions if there is something you want to know more about, and if you never want to hear about my crazy hippy bullshit hobby again, you can tell me that too. And then we will all move on and I will get back to posting weeklyish like the good old days of a few months ago.

So here goes.

If you struggle with anxiety or depression, or you have physical ailments that are aggravated by stress, or you’re just super super stressed at the moment, etc, etc…. eventually someone (or many someones) will suggest to you two “easy” remedies: exercise and meditation.  This is both good and bad. Good, because exercise and meditation are in fact known to be effective at reducing stress-related symptoms a statistically significant percentage of the time. Bad, because nine times out of ten the advice giver will either say or imply that you “just” need to exercise/meditate.   As in, “just that easy”.

“Just.”

No. Just… no.

As stated previously, exercise and meditation can be good for your mental health. Often, they’re great, or even life-changing. But the implication that they are somehow simpler or morally superior interventions compared to any number of other stress-reducing and/or mental illness-treating tactics is not in any way fair or productive. Because a) so long as your coping tactics do not cause harm to anyone, they are just things you do to get through the day and have no moral value negative or positive and fuck anyone who tries to convince you otherwise and b) they aren’t easy. Not by a long shot.

Let’s start with exercise. Say you’re depressed, and have been for awhile. You decide to start exercising in hope of some relief.  And for the sake of argument, let’s say you aren’t a terribly athletic person, or at least haven’t been for awhile. So you lace up your running shoes full of trepidation, and maybe shame for how your body looks and feels in your workout clothing. You step out the door, warm up for awhile, and then start running. In thirty seconds, you’re out of breath and feel like hell. You’re wondering why you thought this was a good idea. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt here and say that, despite being depressed and unmotivated and having a hard enough time just putting your shoes on, you looked up some decent work-up-to-running program, like Hal Higdon’s interval programs or Couch to 5k. So after that first interval of running that makes you feel like you want to die, you walk for a bit and then you do it again. And again. And again. And then you go home, sweaty and tired.  A beginner’s workout isn’t anywhere near enough for a runner’s high, so at best you’re feeling about the same as you did when you left… and that’s assuming you made it this far without falling apart into tears and/or extreme frustration. Tomorrow, on top of all the baseline lack-of-motivation, you will be very sore. But you probably need to do this at least a good dozen more times before noticeable and sustainable improvement in your mood occurs. And that’s assuming that it works.

Obviously, this is just one scenario. Running is, after all, a pretty rough way to start, what with horrible gym class memories to fight, stress on joints, having to work up slowly. But all of the options will have downsides. Exercise classes will give you the motivation of an instructor and classmates, but that means you’ll have to face other people, and you’re already convinced you’re the laziest, stupidest, most worthless slob on the planet. Swimming requires seeing yourself in a bathing suit. And so on ad nauseam.

Which is all why normal, healthy, non-stressed/depressed/anxious/etc folks have a hard enough time getting into an exercise habit. Because it’s hard, and most of the rewards come slowly. For someone whose brain is exhausted/frazzled/actively trying to sabotage them, it’s an almost infinitely difficult mountain to climb. Of course, people do do it, which is admirable. But there is no “just” about it. That’s like telling someone to “just” go train for a marathon.

On to meditation. Specifically, “mindfulness meditation”, the type of meditation that has been meaningfully studied by psychologists/neuroscientists/doctors/etc and shown to have positive effects on one’s overall sense of well-being, as well as specific symptoms. This type of meditation is essentially about cultivating a state of mind in which you are a non-judgmental but highly aware observer of whatever it is you are experiencing in the moment. Typically, early mindfulness meditation training consists of exercises in which you are asked to focus on either sensations in various parts of your body, the sensation of breathing, or the stream of thoughts running through your head. You are then supposed to sit still for an extended period paying attention to those things without judging what you are feeling or thinking.

First of all, in case it isn’t obvious, non-judgmental observation is NOT exactly a strength of depressed, anxious, or stressed people. Arguably, this is one of the reasons why meditation practice can be so helpful for exactly those people, but it also makes starting out particularly, and sometimes prohibitively, hard for such people.

Secondly, note again what it is you’re being asked to focus on. Body sensations and breath…. hmm, that sounds like a great way to trigger a fucking panic attack in someone who is extremely anxious and has a history of panic attacks, which often begin with slight shifts in body sensations or with shortness of breath. (Truth: I have ‘meditated’ my way in to more than one panic attack.) And then focusing on the thoughts running through your head…. hmm, that sounds like a fantastic idea for a suicidally depressed person. NOT.

All of which is why starting meditation while in a state of extreme mental distress is actually not at all recommended. It says in this very helpful book written by the guy who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction as a treatment for mental and physical ailments. That is a book ABOUT using mindfulness techniques to manage depression, and it says right in the goddamn introduction that if you are currently experiencing severe depression, you should seek other treatment FIRST, returning to the mindfulness practices only when you are already on the road to recovery. I think the same should apply for anyone experiencing acute distress of any kind.

I’m not telling you this to shit on exercise and meditation. Quite the opposite: I’m here to tell you about how yoga is amazing for me because it neatly combines exercise and meditation and a few other handy things into one daily practice that reliably makes my life more awesome. I’m telling you this because I cannot stress enough that it was not easy or magical for me to get to a place where this could be true.  It took lots of fumbling and trial and error and there were many tears.  I’d like to imagine that this post will save a few people SOME of that fumbling and pain, but nothing I can say will make meditation, exercise, yoga, or any other healthy habits easy to establish and stick with. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES is anyone reading this allowed to use what I say here to tell anyone, including themselves, that they should “just” start ______ing and that will fix all of their problems like magic. Nothing good lies down that road, I promise you.

Continuing on. [Apologies, this post is going to be epically long.]

I started receiving treatment for my depression and anxiety about six years ago.  I went to the school counseling office for talk therapy and meds, and those were super helpful in a lot of ways, but I wasn’t suddenly all better. Basically, my whole world got a few shades brighter and I gradually reframed a number of things in my head to make certain situations/people less distressing, but I was still prone to occasional panic attacks, and perhaps most importantly, I still took semi-regular journeys into the scary part of my brain. I wasn’t living there anymore, sure, but I still saw more of it than I wanted to.

For awhile I was just straight up a petulant child about this. I wanted to be FIXED damnit, not just somewhat less broken. But eventually I got off my ass and realized I’d have to start trying other things. And I did. I realized quite quickly that exercise made a HUGE difference now that I had the motivation and energy (yay drugs!) to keep it up for more than a few days at a time. I also took part in group therapy that was focused on using mindfulness techniques for managing anxiety. That was equal parts enlightening and excruciating. Some days I was so miserable I sincerely wanted to rage quit. Other days I’d walk home from classes doing my mindfulness homework for the week–maybe something like “Focus on the experience of going somewhere. Feel the sensation of walking. Notice how the air feels on your skin…”–and I’d catch myself feeling peace, or even joy. It was so, so difficult, but I could feel myself s l o w l y training my brain to have a setting other than “frantic, painful introspection”.  I was learning how to be okay with just “being”, even if it was only for seconds at a time.

Both of those things only worked when I could maintain a habit, which was hard. My life was changing fast, at this point… I was applying to grad schools, then off on interviews, then moving across the country. Over time I’ve gotten better at re-initiating regular exercise after an interruption, but meditation was harder. Recall, meditation was hard enough for me to learn in the setting of therapy… on my own, I found it nearly impossible. So essentially, I knew I had these tools, but I struggled to use them consistently.

Fast forward to my second year of grad school. During that first year, I had had the worst panic attack/series of panic attacks of my life, been seriously physically ill and in and out of the ER repeatedly, got hit by a car on my bike, and oh yea, I broke up with my abusive ex-boyfriend who then proceeded to harass me via phone and email for months. It was an intense year, to say the least.

But second year, things have mostly smoothed out, and I’m trying to settle in to my lab and my project. I’ve fought hard for my health and sanity, so despite the fact that I’m majorly overloaded with work, I’m trying to be good about exercise–I bike to and from campus (~6 miles each way) and several days a week, and on the days I don’t ride, I go for a run at lunchtime. Meditation isn’t really happening, and I’m still stressed, but managing I think.

Cue the muscle spasms.

Lots of people get tight/sore muscles when they are super stressed. That part isn’t at all remarkable.  I happen to carry my stress/tension in my neck and shoulders, which is unfortunate for someone who also works at a computer or a lab bench all day and is therefore prone to repetitive stress/posture-related pain issues from those activities. This issue had been escalating to the point where I was always in pain and often lost sleep because of it, but I was trying to push through, because painful muscle tension was something I’d dealt with before. And then one day while I was out for my run, I had a sudden stabbing pain in my neck.

It was excruciating. Even knocked the breath out of me a little, the first time, because it was unexpected. But I stopped a moment, caught my breath and rubbed at my shoulder, and then gritted my teeth and started up again. Almost immediately, a second one.

I ended up walking back to the lab. The spasms continued to hit at random, and so relatively quickly I found my way to my doctor. She could have given me muscle relaxants, but those are a short-term fix and didn’t get at the habits that were causing me to hold tension in those muscles. Instead, she prescribed physical therapy.

Physical therapy was good in that I got some reassurance that what I was experiencing was real and that I wasn’t just being a big baby about it–my physical therapist was astonished at how much the range of motion in my neck and shoulders was reduced because of the tension.  When I told her about the campus doctor from my undergrad school who had told me, essentially, to suck it up and deal because it was “all in my head”, she visibly shook with anger as she launched into a tirade about how callous and irresponsible that was… and that felt good to hear. She also taught me some stretches that helped with the pain and harassed me into setting up the more-ergonomic computer workstation I still use today.

But physical therapy was expensive and hard to schedule, and it mostly got me down to “painful, but able to turn my head and not having spasms”. Certainly BETTER, but not ideal.

And then someone (I think my doctor?) suggested yoga. I’d done yoga in the past and liked it, but had never done it consistently due to the difficulty of fitting classes into my schedule and paying for them. But suddenly I had a damn good reason to make room in my schedule, and also had access to cheap classes at the school gym.

Yoga was better than the best physical therapy. I had class twice a week with a great teacher, and within my first few classes I looked forward to every one, even when I was sore or tired. Exercise that made me USE my arms and shoulders got those muscles warm and loose, and then stretching and meditation helped them stay that way. I was in so much less pain, it was WONDERFUL.

But the benefits to my neck and shoulders were only the beginning. I realized that meditation in the context of yoga was much easier for me than sitting meditation in isolation, and I started intentionally using yoga as my way into mindfulness meditation. I also started to get physically stronger, which felt amazing (and made rock climbing easier… but that’s a story for another day). In general, I found it easier to relax.

Very quickly, yoga became an essential part of my recipe for sanity. I kept it up for awhile, and it helped me survive a lot of chaotic and miserable shit when the whole realizing-I-had-to-leave-grad-school-thing happened. But the cheap yoga classes were dependent on my being a UCLA student. When I graduated, they were gone.

Yoga classes are expensive, and I was scrambling for work and trying to save my pennies, so my goal was to practice on my own. I did… sometimes. But life was chaotic, and gradually I let it slip.

Which brings us up to a little over a month ago, when a friend shot me a facebook message with a link to the YogaWorks one-month pass deal. “Want to do this with me?” HELL YES I DID.

And so began my 30 days of yoga.

Sort of, anyways. I’ll be straight with you, I didn’t go to class EVERY SINGLE DAY for a month. I wanted to, sincerely, but especially at the beginning I was super sore and forced to take a day off or a super easy class every 3-5 days. As I got stronger and more familiar with what my body could and couldn’t handle, I managed to go about 6 days out of 7. So realistically, this was 30 days of doing yoga MOST days, rather than 30 days of yoga.

But technicalities aside, how did this whole thing work?

Well, the studio class deal was almost ridiculously convenient. There are 2 studios within 3 miles of me (in opposite directions), and one within a few blocks of my yoga-buddy’s apartment.  Each studio has classes all day, and the bigger studios have more than one class at a time. So every day I’d figure out where I needed to be for tutoring, interviews/job hunting, or social commitments, and then figure out when I could fit in a class at whichever studio was most convenient to get to from my other activities. I ended up being that asshole who carries her yoga mat everywhere (trying desperately to keep from smacking people with it on the bus) and always has workout clothes in her bag, but it worked.

Doing this at the same time as my friend was lovely.  We had the accountability and camaraderie that comes with undertaking a project together, and we had someone to bitch to when we were incredibly sore or took a class we didn’t enjoy. Once or twice a week, we went to a class together, which always something to look forward to. There was chilling and chatting before and/or after, mutual knowing glances and eye rolls (and sometimes snarky ranting after class) when the teacher said some particularly egregious bit of pseudoscientific hippie nonsense, and sometimes celebratory frozen yogurt after a particularly tough class. And we got to revel in the benefits together.

So lets talk about those benefits. A lot of the changes were familiar and expected–the increased sense of calm/lowered anxiety, the looser but stronger muscles, the slow lifting of some of my lingering sadness and angst about job-related issues. But I’d never gone so frequently before, nor had I experienced having my pick of a range of levels, styles, and teachers. So I was surprised at just how BIG the impact was.

Within a week, my mood was significantly impacted for the better, and I started to feel less paralyzed and helpless about being underemployed and broke.* Before yoga, I was starting to withdraw from certain social circles because questions about my job search had a 50% chance of reducing me to panic and/or tears, but now I was able to discuss things calmly or smoothly change topics without getting too rattled. Basically, I became less of a raw nerve and started to find a greater sense of stability.

Going so frequently made a difference in the physical aspects as well.  When I’d done yoga in the past, there were certain things that I just did not seem to get any closer to being able to do, and so I had kind of accepted that my flexibility and strength in those areas were either permanently limited, or would take months or years to improve.  But two weeks in, I shocked myself when I realized I could reach PAST my toes, having somehow developed more flexibility in my lower back and the backs of my legs than I’ve had in my entire life.  At the beginning of the month, my friend and I just watched whenever a class we attended went into difficult inversions like handstands or headstands, but near the end of the month a lovely and patient teacher helped me figure out my headstand, which I can now reliably get into on my own using a wall.

The meditative aspects of yoga are still difficult for me, but I’m getting better. Yoga itself can be a sort of moving meditation, as most styles involve instruction to focus on various sensations created by the poses, and that kind of meditation is easiest for me. It is really difficult to slow my mind down, and a flowing, steady, repetitive stream of movements helps me do that. After an hour or 90-minute practice, I’m usually in a meditative enough space to actually enjoy seated or reclined meditation for 5-15 minutes.  Maybe someday I will get strong enough in my practice to be able to practice meditation on it’s own, but for now I’m fine with using yoga as the vehicle for reaching a more calm, mindful place in my head.

 

I’m still no yoga master by any means. Yoga classes are generally given levels by roughly this system:

1 — True beginner’s class, everything slow and explained

1/2 — Beginner’s level difficulty, but starting to introduce harder poses and giving less instruction on the most standard ones

2 — True intermediate. No extremely advanced poses, but may be fast paced and vigorous or may involve very long holds of the poses, depending on the class/teacher style.

2/3 — Pretty intense. Starting to approach the most difficult to learn poses and those that involve the greatest degree of flexibility and strength.

3 — Highest level, reserved for long time practitioners in incredible shape, as well as instructors and those in instructor training.

I started my month taking mostly 1/2 classes and ended it taking mostly 2s. I’ve taken a handful of 2/3s and I can survive, but I do modified versions of some of the poses and take more breaks than most students. I still take level 1 or level 1/2 classes on days where I need a bit of a break, and there are still some poses taught in level 2 classes that I can’t completely do. For instance, I’m still working my way up to handstands.

One of the lovely things about yoga though, is that it’s really not about the level, or the poses you can or can’t do. Sure, you will find hyper-competitive/A-type-personality people in many classes who are all about getting into the fanciest postures ever. And most people do have goals, poses they are slowly working up to. But most teachers (and ALL good ones) repeatedly emphasize that the important part is the practice. It’s about showing up and doing what is best for your body that day. A certain amount of pushing one’s self is encouraged, but there is an equal amount of focus given to “listening to your body” and not forcing things. It’s considered better to do “easier” poses or sequences repeatedly and correctly than to achieve a more difficult pose just to be able to say you’ve done it. For a driven, self-critical perfectionist like myself, this attitude/philosophy that is built into yoga is one of its most beneficial aspects.

Speaking of which, here is a list of the things about yoga that are good for me:

  1.  An attitude/philosophy of focusing on the practice and the journey without excess focus on “results.”
  2. Deep, sloooooow, deliberate, and repetitive stretching, which helps with muscle tension and pain while increasing overall flexibility.
  3. It’s a regular physical activity that is easy to approach in a healthy way regardless of where I am currently at physically (see #1).
  4. It’s a meditative practice that I can actually do.
  5. Now that I’ve established the habit, I can easily do it ANY day, WHEREVER I am, for little to no cost.

My yoga habits have changed since the 30 days ended. The studio classes were absolutely lovely, but full-price monthly passes are expensive and as I pick up more and more work, classes are hard to fit into my schedule often enough to make the pass worthwhile. Theoretically, I’ve learned enough different sequences now that I could practice completely on my own without any kind of instruction, but I still find that having some direction helps me pace myself appropriately and continue to improve, so for now I’ve settled on online classes from YogaGlo. I picked them somewhat at random–they were one of the first hits when I searched for online classes, I liked their site interface and class/teacher selections, and they had a free trial, and that was enough. I’ve been very happy so far (Jason Crandall is my favorite of their teachers), and I still have a long list of classes in my queue that I’m looking forward to.

My ideal goal is daily practice, but my only hard and fast rule is that I do not go more than one day in a row without practicing, which means at minimum 15 minutes on the mat. The best thing about my 30-day yoga experience is that I established this as a habit that I am comfortable in and confident maintaining on my own, and above all I don’t want to let go of that again. So far I’ve been hitting about 5 days/week doing 45-90 minutes a day. I want to get better about doing at least a bare minimum practice either first thing in the morning or right before bed on my super busy days,  but I’m not kicking myself too hard about it.

*Job stuff is still hard to deal with, and I still wish I were in a better place, but yoga has made a big difference in how happy and productive I am day-to-day.

 

As promised, that was a super long post and doesn’t even begin to cover all the things I have to say about yoga. But the basics are here, and it’s DONE. So if you made it this far, THANK YOU, and please ask me any questions you have in the comments.

8 thoughts on “on coping with stress and mental illness with healthy habits: exercise, meditation, and my 30 days of yoga

  1. I love this post. (I love them all, really.) You bring up such awesome points.
    THIS:
    “Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES is anyone reading this allowed to use what I say here to tell anyone, including themselves, that they should “just” start ______ing and that will fix all of their problems like magic. Nothing good lies down that road, I promise you.”

    YES. I love that. And the crazy thing is, people like me (ie. people who have never been depressed and 100% DO NOT UNDERSTAND what it’s like) need to know these kinds of things.

    I’m so glad you’re keeping up with your yoga practice and that it’s affecting you in such a positive way. 🙂

    I can definitely attest to yoga’s muscle-restorative aspects. Last year when I was training for a 10k, I started experiencing severe pain in my right shoulder blade. At first I thought it was the way I was sleeping, and I tried to sleep on my back instead of my side. But after several weeks of consistent pain, it becaome clear that my running was causing my back pain. It got so bad that I had to take a break from running in order to rest my BACK.

    I’ve been practicing yoga now once a week for 6 months, and my back pain is GONE. Yoga has changed my running posture, and I’m continuing to work on correcting 25 years worth of bad posture in general. But seriously, yoga does amazing things. Child’s pose, in particular, has been a HUGE benefit when my (undiagnosed) anxiety starts to flair up. I’ve definitely taken steaming hot showers and done child’s pose on the floor. (Did this after I got fired from my job in Costa Rica, for instance.) Extremely helpful.

    Also, what is it about meditation and panic attacks? I’ve never had a shortness-of-breath problem, but I have a very very big fear of not being able to breathe/suffocation/drowning/claustrophobia. Basically anything where you can’t breathe. And occasionally during meditation, my deep breathing turns into panicked panting because I somehow fixate on the fact that I can’t get enough air into my lungs (despite having done so consistently my entire freaking life) and I start to freak out and obsesses over it.

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who does that, because I feel completely NUTBALLS when I do.

    You’re posts are awesome, Keely. Don’t stop posting.

    ALSO: this one time I almost accidentally joined a hippie yoga cult. I’ll have to tell you about it sometime. You’re bit here reminded me of that lol: ” With a fair bit of snark thrown in for good measure because, come on guys, yoga. I love it, but there is also so much crazy hippie bullshit to snark about.”

    1. Hehe. You WILL have to tell me about the hippie yoga cult. In exchange, I might write a whole post snarking on hippie bullshit I’ve encountered in yoga classes.

      As always, thanks so much for the feedback. Glad to hear the post was interesting, and that it resonated. (Child’s pose on the floor in the shower? GENIUS.)

      As for the panic attacks and meditation… totally not nutballs. Meditation is very different from how we’re usually taught to approach the world, and it can be terrifyingly unfamiliar. Also, when you’re focusing inward there IS a weird element of claustrophobia, as if being aware of being in your body suddenly makes you feel trapped in it. Good meditation teachers expect this panic, and try and prepare people for it and guide them through.

  2. Srsly, well done on publishing this post. I really like it and I might come back with comments/questions later. In the meantime, I have to find places to live to view this week.

    Finally, yay, yoga! But omg yes to snarking at the hippy bullshit. As a scientist……arghhhhh! *eyeroll*

    1. Aww, thanks. Good luck finding places to live!

      As for hippy bullshit, I think I need to do a post on all of that. Something of a “translating hippy bullshit for scientifically-minded yogis”, including a “if your teacher won’t shut up about any of the things on this list, you are totally justified in stifling a laugh/not coming back” section.

  3. What an awesome post. I deal with a lot of (undiagnosed) depression and anxiety, so I often get demotivated with my own training and end up stopping a couple of weeks, feeling guilty and useless about stopping, but not starting again, and the cycle goes on ad nauseum. But on the good days, exercise really is a great way to feel good about myself, and even if I’ve done nothing else productive that day, I still feel like I’ve accomplished something.

    Personally never got into yoga before (not that I tried all that much, to be fair), but my mom did for a while and she swears even though she stopped ages ago, she still retains some of the flexibility and balance that she’d gained back then. Maybe I’ll give it another whirl sometime, because I really am impressed by the fitness and strength people practicing yoga exhibit. And who couldn’t use some flexibility, balance, and mindfulness in their lives? 🙂

    …Gone off on several tangents here. Yeesh. But seriously, awesome post (much like the rest of them. I pretty much devoured your entire blog in one go a bit after I first found it, heh :D), it was great to read and reminded me of things I often forget. Also, your little freak-out about writing the post in the beginning was utterly adorable. Reminded me a lot of myself when I’m having multiple thoughts (at high speeds and varying stances) on the same thing. The rambling is inevitable. But ever so charming.

    1. D’aww, thanks.

      Obviously, I do highly recommend yoga, but due to the big range in styles and levels of hippy bullshit, “yoga” refers to a very, very broad range of things. If you give it another shot, I’d highly recommend trying a couple different styles/studios/teachers if you can. Some styles are very balanced between exercise and meditation while others lean strongly in a specific direction, some emphasize flowing series of postures and others do long sustained holds, etc.

      1. My pleasure 🙂

        This is true. I only recently discovered the incredibly diverse amounts of yoga styles and what they’re for. Blew my mind a bit, haha. But thank you! I’ll definitely keep that in mind for when I decide/am able to venture into it. And shall remain impervious to the inevitable doses of hippie bullshit (except to snark at. I can never resist a good snark).

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