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Nature Therapy

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Nature therapy in Rocky Mountain National Park

Nature therapy is an important part of Ayurvedic teachings, but one often under-emphasized because at the time the texts were written, human life was still interwoven with the natural environment. Lets take a few minutes to consider how nature therapy can play a part in our self-care.

The average American spends only 7% of their time outdoors, with the rest of their time being indoors or in their automobile. Given that some of the outdoor time is just walking in the parking lot, that doesn't give much time for nature. Even children nowadays spend only about half an hour a day outside, while nursing home residents are typically outside for only minutes a week. Often our vision of 'exercising' is to drive to the gym, exchanging one indoor environment for another. Another popular form of exercise is mall walking. In an indoor mall you don't have to worry about heat, cold, rain or mountain lions. But you also don't get any sunlight, fresh air or nature.

Ayurveda places various aspects of nature therapy among shamanam, or pacification of doshas as well as among rutucharya or seasonal routines. Some of the important ways to calm down disturbed doshas and remove toxins include maruta seva or 'taking the air' and atapa seva or sunbathing. We can practice taking the air by strolling, sitting on the porch or patio or spending time in a park or garden. Sun therapy can be as simple as making sure we get a twenty minute walk in daylight during the winter months, or sitting in a pleasant, sunny corner for a cup of tea. Doing yoga outdoors, especially sun salutations, is highly recommended for both sunlight and taking the air. When Sadananda and I are on vacation, a favourite part of each day is chi gong outside. Some of my happiest memories of each place we have visited involve chi gong in the garden or park!

The classical Ayurvedic text Ashtanga Hridayam spells out types of nature therapy for each season. In winter the author, Vagbhat, recommends getting sunlight whenever possible without becoming too chilled. As spring arrives, more time outdoors is recommended. "Spend the middle of the day in forests, parks or gardens with cool breezes, lakes and ponds and filtered sunlight, enjoying the sound of the cuckoo and the beauty and fragrance of flowers." There are no cuckoos here in Colorado, but the sound of the mountain chickadee is equally thrilling. And just lately it has been so refreshing in our garden and as we stroll the neighbourhood--all the beauty and fragrance of lilac, iris, and the pungent sweetness of chokecherry blossoms as well.

In summer, picnics are a recommended self-care activity. "Daytime should be spent in forests with tall trees reaching the sky, obstructing the hot rays of the sun." Extra outdoor time can be gained by sleeping on a terrace or back patio, with good exposure to the cooling rays of the moon. And on warm autumn evenings, Vagbhat encourages us to sit on the terrace or porch, dressed in white and enjoying the moonlight.

While getting into deep nature in forests and mountains is ideal, it may not be feasible on a daily basis. Tending your own garden--or even patio garden--is a readily accessible form of nature therapy, as well as walking in a park or strolling through neighbourhoods enjoying other people's gardens. Songbirds delight us in residential areas and we can use bird feeders and the like to encourage them. At Alandi we eat outdoors on the porch or lawn whenever the weather permits--gaining a double benefit by combining mealtime with outdoor time.

How can you increase your time in nature? Can you bring a lunch to work and eat it in the park instead of sitting in a restaurant? Can you start a garden or help with a friend's garden? Can you add outdoor walking to your exercise routine? Soothing and refreshing, nature therapy is a great way to stay in balance.

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Aroma of propolis, beeswax, honey
Mingles with lilac and iris
Fragrant May garden!

Yoga for the Mind

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Perform action, Arjuna, established in yoga, renouncing attachments and even-minded in success and failure--yoga is equilibrium. Bhagavad Gita, Ch 2 v 48.

'I wonder what he thinks of me?' 'Did I get a good grade?' 'Why didn't I get that promotion?' 'His car is newer than mine.' 'I wish I were as pretty as her.' 'One day I'll have as much money as him.' For most of us, if we are honest with ourselves, internal dialogue of this kind is constantly going on. Our mind analyzes our successes and failures, judging and comparing, planning and fearing for the future. Yet as Bob Dylan reminds us, in Love Minus Zero/No Limit:

Some speak of the future

My love she speaks softly

She knows there's no success like failure

And that failure's no success at all.

All our judging, comparing, analyzing, hoping and fearing creates a state of constant stress and anxiety. So next we want to relieve our anxiety by doing some yoga. And yoga postures, or asanas, offer excellent stress-relief. Yet yoga is far more than a workout, an exercise program, a sport or a hobby. Yoga means to yoke the mind--to yoke the small self who runs around worrying to the Self that never changes. This is yoga for the mind. Bhagavad Gita, the conversation between Arjuna, representing the individual self, and Krishna, representing the changeless Self, is the instructional manual of yoga for the mind. Krishna, the charioteer, is the yoga teacher, Arjuna the perplexed yoga student, and the yoga studio is dharmakshetra, the battlefield of everyday life.

To use the owner's manual to the mind that Gita provides, you first have to appreciate what model of psyche you are driving in this life. Krishna offers not just one but three distinctive methods of yoga for the mind, suited to individuals of different temperaments. These temperaments are described in Ayurveda as vata, pitta and kapha prakriti. The vata individual has an airy, spacey nature and a lot of mental activity. Vata's mind is constantly on the move, thinking, fantasizing and philosophizing. So vata needs to train the mind through the yoga of wisdom and the path of meditation. The pitta person has a fiery nature, high ideals and plenty of ambition. Pitta is always busy with so many important things. The pitta person is a person of action. So pitta needs to train their mind through the yoga of action and the path of work. And the kapha type has a watery and earthy nature and is sentimental and caring. Kapha is loving and loyal but gets deeply attached and possessive. So kapha needs to train their mind through the yoga of devotion and the path of love. Now let us take a look at each of these yogas in more detail.

The yoga of wisdom is known in Sanskrit as jnana yoga. The essence of this path is to separate the unreal from the real.

The unreal never is; the Real never is not.

This truth indeed has been seen by this who see the True. Gita 2 16

It is our inability to distinguish the real from the unreal, the ephemeral from the permanent that causes us immense stress and worry. We all desire happiness, yet when we cannot distinguish what is real and true, unhappiness is bound to follow. We seek our happiness in things that cannot last forever, rather that being anchored in the changeless happiness of our true nature. In his famous poem Adonais, Shelley writes:

The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

Stains the white radiance of Eternity,

Until Death tramples it to fragments. -- Die,

If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!

Shelley, meditating on the death of his dear friend Keats, points to death as the opportunity to awaken 'from the dream of life.' Yet we can also awaken from the dream while still very much alive, through the path of meditation. Just as we like to have a nice yoga mat for our asanas, we begin our practice of the yoga of wisdom by creating a special place to meditate. When possible, we can meditate out of doors in a beautiful and peaceful spot. But we can also create a special meditation spot in our home. If we have enough space, we can designate a room for meditation; otherwise, we can set up a special corner or even fix up a large closet as a 'cave'. Meditating regularly in the same space is a support for our practice. Our meditation seat should be made of natural fibers. Bhagavad Gita suggests grass, deerskin and a cloth cover. I like to practice on a felt rug; others may prefer a cotton zabuton and zafu. Use your special seat only for meditation.

Next, we need to take our seat correctly, sitting with a straight back and neck. Krishna in Bhagavad Gita suggests meditating with open eyes, gaze directed to the tip of the nose, while other lineages and traditions recommend closing the eyes gently. Engaging in the yoga of wisdom is easier said than done. Not just our practice time, but our whole lifestyle needs to be designed to support awakening. If we overeat or don't sleep enough, we will be dull and sleepy in our meditation practice. If we don't eat enough, or over-stimulate ourselves, our mind will be agitated and will not settle. Throughout the day, it is important to attend to a lifestyle that is balanced and supports our meditation practice.

Even for Arjuna, a great warrior and Krishna'sclosest friend, the yoga of wisdom sounds daunting at first.

O Krishna, the mind is so restless, turbulent, strong and obstinate.

Trying to control the mind is like trying to gather the wind! Gita 6 34

The answer is to have great patience and never give up. Little by little, step-by-step, one practice session at a time, the mind becomes less turbulent and we inch closer to the goal of the yoga of wisdom--a mind like a lamp in a windless place, never flickering away from the knowledge of the Real.

Karma yoga, or the yoga of action, is essentially about carrying out all our activities without feeling, 'I am the doer.' So often our mind gets caught up in our activities and the results we expect to see in terms of fame, wealth and reputation. Our energy is being drained in pursuit of results that are at best temporary.

As a young woman, I spent a year working eighty hours a week as a junior doctor in a country hospital--on call night and day. I was in charge of men's ward, women's ward, coronary care, intensive care and emergency room. Whenever I sat for meditation, either I became sleepy or my beeper rang. From there I spent a year and a half in an enclosed contemplative abbey. I worked very hard there too, growing vegetables to feed thirty nuns and getting up before three in the morning to chant psalms. Finally I was a reunciant in India with 'nothing' to do--nothing except pounding my clothes on a rock in the river every day and walking miles along hot, dusty roads to get a bowl of rice or a cup of water. I saw that in all these varied conditions of life I was engaged in action and that my contemplative practice also flowed through these different lifestyles.

He who sees the inaction that is in action and the action in inaction,

He is the wise person, the yogi, the all-accomplishing. Gita 4 18

I also experienced a great revelation when I left the abbey. As a doctor I was quite indispensible. Yet when I re-emerged after eighteen months in seclusion, I saw clearly that everyone had been perfectly fine without me! I was not the doer. Various actions flowed trough me, be they suturing lacerations or moving molehills or scrubbing a sari. These actions did not change or affect who I really am. And so it was that on the hot and dusty roads of central India, I learnt the yoga of action. Do the duty that comes your way without caring about the fruits-- in terms of gain and loss.

Renouncing the fruits of our actions does not give us license to do our actions in a careless or half-hearted way. When we perform any action for its own sake rather than for a result, the action itself requires our full attention and must be done with utmost excellence. As Bhagavad Gita says, 'Yoga is skill in action.'

As we come to bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, we move from the head and hands to the heart. Nowadays we view the heart and mind as separate, but in ancient times the heart was seen as the seat of the mind. So bhakti yoga is yoga for the mind--the heart-mind. Like karma yoga, bhakti yoga can be practiced throughout our daily life.

Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give

Whatever austerity you practice, do this, O Arjuna, as an offering to Me. Gita 9 27

This simple practice of 'offering it up,' as we used to say in the abbey, imbues all our daily actions with the radiance of devotion. This path is considered as the Royal Road or the king's highway. The metaphor here refers to the fact that other roads are narrow, winding and circuitous, whereas the king's highway is broad and straight. In contemporary language, we might say that bhakti yoga is an expressway. No education or qualifications are needed for this easy type of yoga for the mind. We can practice bhakti yoga when we sit up at night with a sick child, stand in front of a classroom or clean up after an elderly incontinent parent. We can also practice while we enjoy a concert or make love to our beloved. Remembering that the person we are serving, enjoying or relating to is simply a form of God, we offer all our experiences in service of the Divine.

Although we have been discussing three different yogas, the fact is that they are integral to one another--it's just a matter of emphasis. The practitioner of the yoga of wisdom still has to work, as I did when living as a wandering renunciant. So when working they need to bring their wisdom into play in practicing desire-less action. The karma yogi can only practice in daily life with a basis of wisdom acquired through meditation. And the bhakti yogi needs wisdom and karma yoga as a foundation for developing genuine devotion. In the end, all forms of yoga for the mind lead to the heart, love and devotion. This devotion flows not just towards an abstract ideal of the unseen divinity, but also expresses itself towards the visible form of the divine, meeting us in each moment in each person, in each living being, we encounter.

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Water Lily, Orto Botanico di Padova by Sadananda

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An old woman is speeding down the highway when she is pulled over.

Highway Patrol: "Do you realize you are doing ninety miles an hour?"

Old lady: "Officer, I need to get there before I forget where I'm going."

He lets her off.

For many readers, as for this old lady, memory may be a concern. Perhaps you are over forty-five, and have begun to notice that you walk into a room and forget why you went there. Perhaps you are going through menopause and wonder where your brain went. Perhaps you have cared for a parent or grandparent with dementia and fear that their fate will be yours. Perhaps you have suffered a car accident or skiing accident and have experienced cognitive impairment since then. Perhaps you have noticed that throughout your life, you never had as good a memory as your peers. Although we may, reluctantly, take these changes for granted, both current neuroscience and ancient Ayurveda offer ways to support and improve memory and brain power.

Back in the seventies, when I was a medical student, the brain was seen as a fixed and static organ. Your brain could grow until about age twenty-five, after which neural pathways became fixed and neurons (brain cells) began dying off in enormous numbers. As we students engaged in our rituals of heavy drinking, we grimly reminded each other that we were speeding the death of brain cells. We figured we were intelligent enough to spare a few; but we saw no hope of brain improvement or regeneration after graduation. Past twenty-five, we knew it was all downhill. People over forty were 'over the hill,' those over sixty were seen as elderly, with little to no chance of anything except slow decline.

Today, a generation of over-sixty Boomers see themselves as anything but elderly or over the hill. In Western astrology, the Boomers have Pluto in Leo, accounting for the childlike nature of this peer group. Boomers, whatever their age, tend as a generation to perceive themselves and young, special and full of promise. And right in time for the graying of the Boomer generation has come the discovery of neuroplasticity. As experienced by stroke survivor Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and described in her book My Stroke of Insight, new neural connections can be made and new neurons generated in certain areas of the brain at any point during our lives. Our brain is not a machine that slowly wears out but rather a work of art completed only when we take our final breath.

If my brain is a work of art, why can't I find my car keys? Perhaps it's time for some master classes. According to Ayurveda, a problem is only addressed when we treat the cause. So let us have a look at the root cause of memory problems. To begin with the viewpoint of Western medicine, we need to look at the biochemistry of brain damage. Just as your car burns gasoline and produces exhaust fumes, your brain burns energy and produces waste products of combustion, including the pesky molecules called free radicals. Free radicals can damage your brain and other tissues by oxidation. As a piece of metal will rust when exposed to the oxygen in the air without protection such as auto body paint, your brain will 'rust' (not literally!) if not protected from free radicals. One form of 'brain rust' due to oxidation is amyloid plaque, associated with Alzheimer's disease.

From the standpoint of Ayurveda, we look at the body in terms of the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha. Memory problems are related to the vata dosha, a combination of Air and Space. If you have had memory issues throughout your life, perhaps your Ayurvedic constitution has a high proportion of vata. The elder years of life are a vata time of life and see an increased incidence of memory problems. And accidents and injuries are experiences that disturb vata and may be associated with memory problems. So from a Western point of view we need to deal with oxidation and free radicals and from the Ayurvedic standpoint we need to manage vata and nourish brain tissue to support memory and cognition.

Antioxidants are the brain's protection from oxidative damage by free radicals. Anything that lowers the amount of antoxidants available for your brain to use could lead to spaciness, brain fog and memory issues. And we seem to have created a way of life designed to lower our antioxidants. Lets begin with the Standard American Diet. High in refined carbohydrates, processed meats, sugar and trans fats, this diet not only has little to offer in the way of antioxidant support, it also directly adds to our oxidative stress. Add junk food and diet sodas containing aspartame, and the American diet seems almost calculated to court dementia. Looking beyond diet, we live in a toxic world. Chlorinated tap water, pesticides, solvents and heavy metals are just a few of the brain toxins, too numerous to name, that find their way into our food, water, air, workplaces and homes. Many of the medications we routinely use, including birth control pills, painkillers, blood pressure medications and statin drugs for cholesterol lower our body's antioxidant defense system. So of course do recreational drugs, cigarettes and excess alcohol consumption. And as we age, our bodies manufacture fewer antioxidants, so we need to get more from food. Stress, sleep deprivation, electromagnetic fields and and sedentary lifestyles also add to our 'rusty brain' problem. No wonder fourteen percent of the US population over seventy suffers from dementia!

Both cutting-edge Western medicine and Ayurveda would agree that you can boost your brainpower and extend the 'use-by' date of your higher brain functions with a program of diet, exercise and appropriate supplementation with specific substances to support your brain. To look at diet first, many Western experts now recommend diets such as the DASH diet, the Mediterranean diet and the mitochondria rejuvenation diet. All these plans emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, with limited quantities of meats and minimal sugar and fried foods. Dr Terry Wahls developed the mitochondria rejuvenation diet after she was struck down with a severe form of multiple sclerosis. Wahls claims to have healed herself with a diet that includes an entire dinner plate of colourful fruits or vegetables at each meal as well as fish and grass-fed meat.

The colour in fruits and vegetables tells us a great deal about their antioxidant content. The rich golden and orange colours of carrots, winter squash and mango speak of beta-carotene. Green foods offer beta carotenes and lycopene, as do red foods like tomatoes. The deep red of beets and prickly pear fruits offer unique betaine antoxidants, while crimson in pomegranates and concord grapes hold the promise of polyphenols. Deep purple foods like purple cabbage are rich sources of anthocyanins. Brown foods such as whole grains contain B vitamins. And while refined white foods, like white bread, white sugar and white rice, are major culprits in 'brain rust', some naturally white foods such as onion, garlic and cauliflower are excellent sources of glutathione. Eating a rainbow every day is a great way to support your brain.

Ayurveda suggests a vata soothing diet to improve brainpower. Emphasize warm, well-cooked foods, sweet and sour fruits and soaked nuts and seeds. Soups, stews, casseroles, dals and kitcheris are all recipes that enhance availability of absorption of nutrients. Put simply, it does not matter how nutritious your diet is, if you cannot absorb the nutrients. Use of digestive spices such as cumin, coriander, fennel, ginger, cinnamon, clove and mustard seeds help our digestive fire, agni, the root of health according to Ayurveda. Among these, pride of place goes to turmeric, which not only enhances digestion and absorption but also boasts a deep yellow colour that speaks of its amazing, brain supportive antioxidant content. Looking deeper, vata is dry and needs a good supply of healthy oils. And the myelin in your brain needs to be supported by fat-soluble nutrients and fatty acids. So healthy oils such as ghee, sesame oil, coconut, sunflower, mustard and olive oil, as well as oily foods such as nuts, coconuts and avocadoes are helpful both for your vata and your brain. Raw, unpasteurized milk from grass-fed cows is regarded as a supreme brain food. Almonds are another famous brain food in Ayurveda and are now known to be an important source of the neurotransmitter precursors phenylalanine and l-carnitine. A drink made from almonds blended into warm milk and spiced with saffron, cardamom and black pepper is a superb Ayurvedic brain food.

Nutrient depletion due to over-the-counter and prescription medications is an important area not to be overlooked. If you regularly take painkillers, birth control pills, antacids, antidepressants, statins or medications for high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes, you are at risk of nutrient depletion that could impair your brain function. In The Better Brain Book Dr David Perlmutter offers specific supplement regimens for each of these medications. I highly recommend getting this book and following the regimen suggested for you.

Anther important way to improve your brainpower is exercise. So can you actually exercise your brain? There is a plethora of computer programs available for brain training--and a dearth of evidence to show that such programs really work, or accomplish anything truly useful for everyday life. An article published in Nature in 2010 suggests that brain-training games do not significantly improve brain function--and there is no evidence to show that such cognitive games will realistically help prevent dementia. On the other hand, activities such as reading, listening to music, playing chess and searching the Internet can indeed enhance brain function by engaging more parts of the brain. But the most proven way to maintain and strengthen brainpower is exercise. Physical exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, improves blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain, enhances hormone release, and stimulates brain plasticity.

While many benefits for brain function can be found with any type of aerobic exercise, there is one specific physical activity that offers immense potential benefits for the brain. Yoga has been shown to improve remote memory, mental balance, attention, concentration, delayed recall and immediate recall, verbal retention and recognition in menopausal women and to improve cognitive functioning in type 2 diabetics. In a recent study published in the Journal of the Indian Academy of Applied Psychology, a long-term regular yoga practice improved concentration, memory and mental health in healthy individuals, suggesting yoga has a preventive as well as therapeutic benefit in cognitive functioning.

Paradoxically, sitting still, doing nothing may offer immense benefits for the brain--if sitting still means sitting for meditation. Author and researcher Richard Davidson has done significant research in the area of neuroplasticity and cognitive functioning. Meditation leads to increased connectivity in the areas of the brain related to memory, learning and emotion. The brain becomes richer and more complex, with increased folding of the cortex. In the brains of long-term meditators, there is increased high amplitude gamma activity, as the brain becomes more synchronized and large assemblies of neurons (brain cells) work together with greater synergy. A dedication to mediation may improve brainpower to the point of ultimate human potential.

Ayurveda emphasizes lifestyle changes and enhancements as part of a balanced program of wellbeing. Important lifestyle changes that can improve brainpower and reduce vata relate to sleep, habit-forming substances and social interactions. Sleep is important for brain repair and regeneration, neurotransmitter production and information processing. Ayurveda recommends 'early to bed and early to rise.' According to the teachings of yoga and Ayurveda, the early morning hours are extremely important for brain synchronization and mental clarity and should be dedicated to meditation, yoga and chanting. Traditionally, practitioners of the Vedic sciences chant Gayatri mantra at sunrise and perform agnihotra, a Vedic fire ceremony. Gayatri mantra is dedicated to the radiance of the rising sun and invites this radiance to illumine our minds as the world awakens from the darkness of night. Chanting Gayatri mantra improves cognitive functioning and brings enhanced mental clarity. Performing the agnihotra fire ceremony at sunrise and sunset is also said to improves mental clarity and bestow brilliance to the mind.

If we want to improve our brainpower, it is important to let go of habit-forming substances such as tobacco, recreational drugs, excess alcohol consumption and white sugar. It is also vital to tend to our social environment. The human brain is designed to operate within a rich social milieu, with supportive long-term relationships, meaningful interactions with an array of people and energizing community activities such as dance and singing. Modern lifestyles with alienated suburban environments and long commutes may leave us lonely and isolated unless we make efforts to make rich social engagement a regular part of our lives.

As our bodies age, our ability to manufacture many of the antioxidants that support our brain declines. Hence supplementation is helpful in maintaining memory and brainpower. Dr Perlmutter suggests supplementation with B vitamins, vitamins C, D and E, coenzyme Q 10, and other antioxidants that may be insufficient in our diet. Ayurveda also recommends special types of supplementation for the aging brain, although these take the form of herbs rather than typical supplements. The Ayurvedic discipline of Jara Chikitsa or care of elders is the ancestor of the Geriatrics of today. But Jara Chikitsa is not about caring for debilitated seniors in special 'memory care' facilities. Rather, the aim of Jara Chikitsa is to ensure a vigorous, healthy old age. The emphasis is on quality of life and preventive care. Accordingly, from age fifty on, it is important to use specialized herbs and herbal remedies known as rasyana or rejuvenatives.

An extremely well known general rejuvenative is the herbal jam chyavanprash. Brahmi is an herb famed for its capacity to sustain and improve memory and cognition and may be taken as a tea. Tulsi, now widely available in natural groceries as a tea, is not only a delicious beverage, but also an important brain rejuvenative. Specialized herbs such as ashwagandha, shatavari, bhringaraj and guggulu are also used to delay ageing and improve brainpower. Because Ayurveda always considers the individual constitution, it is better not to go it alone when choosing rejuvenative herbs. An Ayurvedic practitioner can select the appropriate rejuvenative regimen for your individual needs. Your body will benefit from rejuvenatives when it is ready to absorb and utilize them. So a practitioner may recommend herbs and regimes to cleanse toxins and improve digestion before you begin a program to improve brainpower through rejuvenative herbs.

Everyone, from schoolchildren to college students to elders can benefit from a diet, exercise plan and lifestyle that enhances brainpower. The cutting edge science of neuroplasticity, together with the ancient teachings of Ayurveda and yoga offer the prospect that old age may not be a time of fuzzy brain and mental decline, but rather the crowning years of sharing our accumulated wisdom as we paint the final strokes of that great work of art, our brain.

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Spring Self Care

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Photo by Sadananda

Spring is the time for cleansing! This is an ideal time for a Pancha Karma cleanse to detoxify, rejuvenate and prevent Spring allergies. Visit your Ayurvedic practitioner to plan your cleanse. It doesn't have to be expensive. Many practitioners have a Home Cleanse option that costs very little.

If you can't make it to a Pancha Karma center or Ayurvedic practitioner, try a Kitcheri Fast--a week of Cleansing Kitcheri, castor oil self-massages and ginger baths. Come off your fast carefully, leaving allergenic foods such as wheat, dairy, soy, peanuts and nightshades until a week after your fast, and avoiding alcohol, smoking, sodas, white sugar and junk foods during and for at least ten days after your fast. In Spring, eat plenty of bitter greens, including unsprayed tender dandelion greens from your garden.

Self Oil Massage is a daily brisk massage with warm, castor oil to loosen toxins and excess doshas and begin to bring them into the digestive tract for elimination.

  • Oiling must be done on an empty stomach (at least 3 hrs after last meal), so for most people the morning is the best time.
  • Oil from head to foot, with most attention to head and feet. Continue at least 1/2 hour
  • Warm the oil by putting a small plastic squeeze bottle of it in a sink or bowl of hot water for several minutes.
  • Be sure to have old towels available to sit on and for under your feet (you will also need old towels for drying yourself after the sweating.
  • Let the oil soak in a few minutes while you prepare your bath. Be sure not to become chilled at any time.

Ginger/baking soda bath:

  • 1/3 cup each of dried ginger & baking soda for each bathtubful of tolerable hot water (avoid excessive heat.)
  • Be sure the bathroom is warm. Avoid getting chilled at any time.
  • Have extra "oil" towels available.
  • Soak after oiling and then get out when begin to sweat.
  • Cover with towels and continue to sweat in the warm bathroom until you are beginning to cool down.

Do's & Don'ts for sweating:

  • Don't eat before sweating.
  • Be careful of your slipperiness after the oil massage! don't slip & fall!!
  • Do not overheat in any of the methods, you should just be breaking a mild sweat over your whole body, not getting red. Sweating may start at the top of your body and work its way down. Be sure the bottom is sweating also.
  • After sweating be careful not to get chilled - take a shower (again, careful not to slip on oil in tub!!). One tip to remove excess oil from hair--put shampoo on hair before wetting hair in final shower. You may need to suds more than once. OR just don't worry about oily hair right now. Leaving on a light coating of the oil won't be a problem for the days of the treatment .Better not to use soap on the skin at this time.
  • Be sure that you're not getting dehydrated from the sweating - drink plenty of Fluid Replacement Tea. Recipe: 1 quart of filtered or spring water; 1/4 cup Mint; 1/6 cup Gotu Kola/ Brahmi; 1/4 tsp salt; 1 small squeeze lime
  • Carefully clean the bathroom and tub after oiling and sweating to avoid slipping.

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Raindrops sparkle
On hyacinth and lilac
Fresh snow on the foothills.

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As I mentioned in my last blog, lack of sexual satisfaction is quite a common complaint among women attending our clinic. Yet a rich and fulfilling sex life brings health benefits on physical, emotional and spiritual levels. Enhancing sexual satisfaction is an important part of wellbeing. Last week we offered some recipes and remedies to improve libido and ojas. Today, let's take a look at some other resources that can help us fulfill our sexual potential. In the ancient world, female orgasm was believed to be necessary for conception, so the woman's sexual satisfaction was regarded as essential. And sex-ed in ancient times did not consist--as it seems to do today--merely of information on sexually transmitted diseases and how not to get pregnant. Erotic education was seen as important for all women and was imparted to teenage girls by way of instruction by an older aunt and by richly illustrated pillow books that could be helpful even to those who could not read. Today, many wonderful resources are available to women who wish to tap in to some of this ancient sexual wisdom.

Resource list for women's sexual health

  • Understand your anatomy in a new way, to maximize orgasmic potential:

Women's Anatomy of Arousal by Sheri Winston is the must-have book for women who want to increase their sexual pleasure through understanding thier own bodies.

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  • Ayurvedic texts recognize that women can ejaculate--in fact, female ejaculation was considered normal and necessary for sexual health in ancient times. Today it is recognized that 'some' women do ejaculate but often forgotten that all women have this potential.

Female Ejaculation and the G Spot by Deborah Sundahl is a helpful step-by-step guide for women who want to develop the ability to ejaculate.

  • Cultivate your sexual energy through the Healing Tao.

Healing Love through the Tao: Cultivating Female Sexual Energy by Mantak and Maneewan Chia offers guidance in the Taoist techniques that enable women to cultivate and enhance their sexual energy and includes strategies for making menstruation more easeful.

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  • Support sexual and reproductive health with Jade egg practices. Every woman, young or old, sexually active or not, should own and use a jade egg to enhance sexual health and reduce menstrual and menopausal problems.

Emergence of the Sensual Woman: Awakening our erotic innocence by Siada Desilets is the best book I have found for learning and developing this important practice. Ideally, obtain the Jade Egg Essentials triad--the book, the jade egg itself and a CD that is really helpful to talk you through your practice. Do your jade egg practices at least twice a week for optimal wellbeing.

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  • Develop intimacy with your partner by setting aside time each week to get to know yourself and each other better.

The Art of Sexual Ecstasy: The path of sacred sexuality for western lovers by Margo Anand offers intimacy-building exercises to do together week by week. Each study session could culminate in lovemaking--but it doesn't have to. Many couples have found this resource helpful in building sexual, sensual and emotional intimacy and enriching their connexion.

  • Learn Taost sexual practices together using a CD set

Sounds True offers a great CD set Taoist Sexual Secrets taught by Rachel Carlton Abrams and Lee Holden. Good not only for women's wellness but also for helping men learn ejaculatory control.

Resources like these listed here can help you enhance your wellbeing through supporting intimacy, ecsasy and reperoductive health!

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Women are endowed with tremendous sexual capacity, from multiple orgasms to female ejaculation. Yet women who come to our Ayurveda clinic often express dissatisfaction within their sexual lives. There are many factors that may hold women back from attaining their full sexual potential: trauma, physical health problems, unsatisfactory intimate relationship, lack of training on the part of the woman or her partner, to name but a few.

It would take a book rather than a short blog to address all these concerns. So today we'll just look at the most simple scenario. You're happy with your partner and were enjoying a good sex life until something affected your libido. That 'something' could be an illness, a stressor or a hormonal change such as pregnancy, nursing, or your menopausal transition.

First of all, check with your doctor. Specifically, ask about your thyroid. If your thyroid is under-functioning, that will flatten your libido. And many stressors do lower thyroid function. All your hormones--sex hormones, thyroid hormones, adrenal hormones--are controlled by a multi-tiered system. The higher centres of your brain talk to your hypothalamus. Your hypothalamus talks to your pituitary and your pituitary talks to each endocrine gland (the glands that produce hormones). The glands in turn talk to the pituitary. It's a finely orchestrated system, but if one instrument is out of tune, the whole symphony goes wrong. And so if stress throws your higher brain centres out of tune, the end result could be problems with your thyroid and or your sex hormones.

From an Ayurvedic standpoint, we're dealing with ojas, that mysterious core energy that governs your general wellbeing. So we could try some simple recipes that enhance your ojas and tone your nervous system and endocrine glands. It's also a good idea to see an Ayurvedic practitioner for a holistic look at your overall wellness and balance.

Special Ojas-building recipes:

  • Shatavari Kalpa: Roast an ounce of Shatavari with one or two tablespoons ghee in a cast iron pan until light brown and add two tablespoons turbinado sugar, two pinches saffron and a pinch of cardamom. A teaspoon of this recipe can be taken in the morning or at bedtime with a cup of warm cow's milk or almond milk.
  • Shatavari Ghee: This is a special ghee medicated with shatavari. Take a teaspoon twice daily followed by warm cow's milk, warm almond milk or warm water.
  • Ashwagandha milk: Drink a cup of warm milk at bedtime. Stir in a teaspoon of Ashwagandha and two pinches of nutmeg. Ideal for vata women or in winter.
  • Almond Restorative Drink

Ingredients

10 raw almonds

1 cup pure water

1 cup milk

1 Tablespoon organic rose petals

1 tsp ghee

1/32 tsp saffron

1/8 tsp ground cardamom

pinch of black pepper ½ tsp of sweetener

Directions

Soak almonds and water together overnight.In the morning, drain off the water and rub the skins off the almonds. Bring the milk to a boil. Pour the milk in the blender with the peeled almonds. Add rose petals, ghee, saffron, cardamom, black pepper, and sweetener. Blend until smooth. Drink 3-4 times a week.

  • Non-dairy Almond drink

Ingredients

10 raw almonds

2 cups pure water

20 raisins

1 Tablespoon organic rose petals

1 tsp ghee

1/32 tsp saffron

1/8 tsp ground cardamom

1 pinch of black pepper

Directions

Soak almonds in 1 cup of water overnight, and soak raisins in 1 cup of water either overnight or for several hours. In the morning, drain off the almond water and rub the skins off the almonds.In a blender, add the raisins AND their soaking water with the drained and peeled almonds. Add rose petals, ghee, saffron, cardamom, black pepper. Blend until smooth. Drink 3-4 times a week.

  • Date Milk Shake

Ingredients

4-5 whole dates

1 cup whole organic milk

2 pinches cinnamon powder

Instructions

Boil milk until it foams once. Turn off heat. Put milk, cinnamon and dates in automatic blender. Blend until dates are ground fine. Serve warm in winter, room temperature or slightly cool (not cold) in summer or if a strong Pitta imbalance exists.

  • Vegan Fig shake

1/4 c. coconut milk
1/2 c. filtered water
2 large or 3 small figs cut in small pieces;
use dried figs if fresh are unavailable
1 date, pitted and finely chopped
dash of cinnamon

Place all ingredients in blender and puree at high speed until
smooth and frothy. Yum.

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Vijikarana is that which produces lineage of progeny, quick sexual stimulation, enables one to perform the sexual act with women uninterruptedly and vigorously like a horse, makes one charming for women, promotes indestructible and infallible semen even in old persons. Charak Samhita.

If I had thought ahead, this blog could have been ready for Valentine's. But I'm sure the topic is of year-round interest and especially as we head into spring! There are really three key aspects of male sexual rejuvenation:

  • Good diet and lifestyle
  • Ejaculatory control
  • Special Ayurvedic recipes known as vajikarana or aphrodisiacs.

Good Diet and Lifestyle

Young men: Burning the candle at both ends is not good for your sexual energy. Sleep and rest are needed to make semen. And Shakespeare's famous quote, "It promotes the desire but takes away the performance," applies to both alcohol and marijuana. These substances have both immediate and long term effects on your sexual functioning. Smoking cigarettes, which used to be seen as sexy, not only makes your mouth, skin and breath smell bad, it also constricts the blood vessels which need to dilate to give you an erection. And--eat real food! The only sexually rejuvenating thing about pizza is garlic.

Older men: Diet and lifestyle are crucial for your sexual health. Obesity, diabetes, pre-diabetes and high cholesterol are all bad news for sexual potency. These kapha conditions can gum up the blood vessels that supply your penis and even damage the nerves as well. So stay low-carb, have plenty of fruits and veggies, and exercise daily for sexual health just as much as for heart health. Job stress can wear away at libido--keep your priorities in place. Some blood pressure or cholesterol medications may harm virility. Depending on your individual health situation, an Ayurvedic practitioner might be able to help you avoid the need of such medications. Prevention is better than cure!

Ejaculatory Control

Typically, we in the West think of male orgasm and ejaculation as more or less synonymous. But men, like women, can experience different kinds of orgasm, which don't have to involve ejaculation. Developing ejaculatory control helps you conserve your sexual energy as well as please your partner more--especially a female partner. Learn ejaculatory control with the help of an excellent book, Taoist Secrets of Love: Cultivating Male Sexual Energy.

Special Vajikarana Recipes

  • Ashwagandha milk: Drink a cup of warm milk at bedtime. Stir in a teaspoon of Ashwagandha and two pinches of nutmeg. The aphrodisiac effect comes on first and the soporific effect an hour later. Ideal for vata men or in winter.
  • Rose milk: Stir of spoonful of rose petal jam into a cup of warm milk and drink at bedtime. Rose petal jam (gulkund) is avaiable from Indian grocery stores or Maharishi Ayurveda outlets. Use the ashwagandha recipe in cold weather and the rose recipe in summer.
  • Shatavari milk: Drink a cup of warm milk at bedtime. Stir in a teaspoon of shatavari. This recipe is good year-round for pitta men.
  • Triphala vajikarana: Leave triphala paste left overnight in an iron vessel. Next day, mix it with licorice tea and take with ghee and honey. This is the best one for kapha men.
  • Almond and rice dessert is a delicious vajiakarana and can be eaten prior to or after lovemaking.
  • If you're feeling adventurous, try making urad dal kheer (payasam). This traditional recipe is found in the Ananga Ranga Sutra, a classical manual on the erotic arts.
  • Your personal vajikarana formula: Visit your Ayurvedic practitioner to receive a personal vajikarana formula tailored to your needs.

Various kinds of nutritious and palatable food, sweet, luscious and refreshing liquid cordials, speech that gladdens the ears and touch that seems delicious to the skin, clear nights mellowed by the beams of the full moon and damsels young, beautiful and gay, dulcet songs that charm the soul and captivate the mind, use of betel-leaves, wine and wreaths of flowers and a merry, careless heart; these are the best aphrodisiacs in life. Sushruta Samhita

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Next time--sexual rejuvenation for women!

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As spring approaches you might be thinking about cleaning out closets and drawers or scrubbing paintwork. According to the ancient texts of Ayurveda, in spring we also need to clean out kapha from our bodies. During the winter months, kapha has accumulated in the form of excess slime, mucus and phlegm. We might be noticing post nasal drip, stuffy sinuses, cough, breathlessness, sluggishness, lethargy, weight gain or a tendency to fall asleep after eating. These are all symptoms of kapha buildup. As spring comes and the snows melt, kapha liquifies. This could result in spring colds or allergies. So during the spring season we need to expell excess kapha.

The time from mid March to early May is ideal for pancha karma, a special Ayurvedic cleasing program tailored to individual needs. You might have heard about pancha karma but imagine that it is an expensive process done in a resort or spa, or something you need to travel to India to experience. But while these are possible ways to go though pancha karma, you can also do PK (as we like to call pancha karma) in your own home at minimal expense, or receive some treatments from a local PK therapist, who will provide therapies as indicated by your Ayurvedic practitioner. However, you will need to get a few days off work, just one reason why it's important to plan ahead!

Before starting your week of pancha karma, you will need to prepare your body with a month of cleansing herbs. So this is the time to visit your Ayurvedic practitioner to discuss pancha karma. During your pre-PK visit, your practitioner will:

  • Asses your overall health history to see if PK is appropriate for you this spring
  • Give attention to any habits such as smoking, drinking alcohol (more than a glass a week), bingeing or drinking coffee. If you have an active habit, there's a danger you will slip back into it right after PK and do yorself more harm than good.
  • Give suggestions for cleaning up your diet in preparation for PK
  • Create a personalized cleansing formula to prepare you for PK
  • Create your personal PK plan and co-ordinate with other care providers such as PK therapist
  • Ensure that you have all the needed products for your cleanse, such as specialized oils etc.

Even if you're not doing PK, spring is still a good time to re-evaluate your diet and habits and take some cleansing herbs. After all, it's Lent, a tradtional time to give up bad habits! Enjoy some special recipes such as Cleansing Kitcheri, Liver Cleanse Sabji or Daikon and Mustard Greens. And check in with your practitioner for a spring tune up.

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There's a whispering of spring in the air! This year Valentine's Day will be closely followed by Mahashivaratri, the Great Night of Shiva. These two celebrations of life, love and fertility bring the reality of spring nearer. In Boulder County, mountain bluebirds will soon be returning. Great-horned owls and golden eagles are starting to build their nests, yellow mahonia blooms in the foothills and butterflies may venture out on sunny days to sip the oozing sap.

The weeks between now and mid March are a transitional period between the warming and vata soothing regimens of winter and the lightening and cleansing of spring. The windy weather of early spring and the sudden snows and cold snaps are drying and roughening. So we still need to wrap up warmly, keep our homes warm and avoid cold draughts. In England we have a saying, "Ne'er cast a clout 'til May is out." This roughly translates as: 'It's better in this season to be overdressed than underdressed.' Keep going with your oil massages, soups and broths, but start using nasya (nose drops) as well. Ask your Ayurvedic practitioner to recommend the best spring nasya for your body type, or make your own ginger-rose-jaggery nasya, consisting of a decoction of equal parts fresh ginger, organic rose petals and jaggery. Jaggery, a product made from boiled down sugar cane juice, is avaialble in Indian stores (and Mexican markets too). This preparation is tridoshically balanced, the coolness of rose balancing the heat of ginger.

As you start transitioning your diet from winter to spring, begin adding some green salads and cooked bitter greens. Take a lighter breakfast than in winter. And enjoy recipes that are both cleansing and grounding, such as Daikon Sabji with Mustard Greens, Cabbage and Chickpea Soup and Beet Raita. Gently begin your spring cleansing by taking triphala. Steep half a teasoon of tripahala in boiling water for ten minutes, strain and drink at bedtime.

Take some time on Mahashivaratri, February 17th, to chant, pray or meditate and have a great early spring!

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Playing the Irish Washerwoman

The summer before last, I was staying with my sister Kate in rural Donegal, in the West of Ireland. One morning, I heard my brother-in-law, Sean, playing Irish fiddle while my niece, Emily, played penny whistle. I stepped into the room and began accompanying them with claps. "I know that song, The Irish Washerwoman," I remarked. "I must have played it long ago for my violin grade exams." At that, Sean thrust a fiddle into my hands.

"Play it! Play The Irish Washerwoman!"

Sean had thrown me a challenge. True, after years of instruction and thousands of hours of practice, the violin wasn't exactly new to me. But there had been a multi-decade gap since my violin student days. And, even for an adept classical violinist, Celtic fiddle is a chance to begin anew, with fresh styles and techniques. Would I take up the challenge and make room in my already full life for something new and different? Or, once I returned to my normal routine in America, would I go back to 'business as usual'? Would Irish fiddle be anything more than a holiday fling?

What makes us respond to new challenges? And what holds us back, keeps us in the same rut, doing things because we always do it that way? When we take on something new or do things differently, our entire mind-body complex has a chance to grow, developing fresh roots and branches. Underused muscles are trained, fresh synaptic connections made, new friendships created. If the call of the new is relocation or travel, new vistas open up to us. If we undertake something novel in our current location, we discover unforeseen venues and social circumstances, experiencing our old hometown in a different way.

Yet paradoxically, we may be avoiding new challenges precisely because of the potential benefits they offer. More often than not, we cling to old patterns that have long reinforced our sense of identity--ahamkar, the illusory identification. We hold these patterns in our musculature, resisting the new yoga class or exercise routine that could help to re-pattern us. We cling to old emotions in our fat, continuing to eat the comfort foods that fill our fat cells. We create routines and thought patterns that may not serve us but promote our sense of me and mine. "Me, I'm so busy. Me, I'm so overworked. Me, I'm so undervalued. Me, I'm so important".

Opening ourselves to new challenges and letting go of old patterns are two inner revolutions that go hand in hand. We need to let go of habits that don't serve us in order to make room for new interests and activities. And we need fresh stimulus and new input to divert us from the deeply-rutted road of old habits. For example, we could take a morning walk with a friend instead of meeting that friend for coffee. According to Ayurveda, unhealthy habits are best reduced gradually and healthy habits are best introduced slowly. If we typically eat out, we could begin by planning one day a week to cook. Perhaps we cook with our significant other as a social activity and enjoy a meal together. Gradually we acquire kitchen utensils and ingredients and begin collecting recipes. The food is better and less expensive and soon we are cooking twice a week, then three times a week. Cooking becomes a hobby, then a passion and eventually we find we have become a gourmet cook and we're giving dinner parties and organizing potlucks. Now eating out is just an occasional treat and home-cooked food is our lifestyle. We have a new skillset and a deeper appreciation for food and eating.

Although there can be many benefits to taking on a new challenge, not everything that is novel is necessarily beneficial. As we all know, 'New!' is a favored hype word in the world of marketing. As a society we have taken on an attitude of 'because we can.' We have dammed rivers, built vast cities, conquered space, split the atom, cloned sheep and genetically engineered our food 'because we can.' When faced with the opportunity to get out of a rut or break a pattern, it's important to ask why. What is the benefit of this new activity? For people leading a mediocre and stultifying life in the late fifties and early sixties, 'wife-swapping parties' came into vogue--still known and practiced today as the Swinging lifestyle, perhaps because the latter phrase sounds less sexist than 'wife swapping', which implies that women are property. No doubt Swinging is challenging, at least at first, and no doubt it is perceived as something new. The question is--does it benefit? Is it a challenge worth taking?

Opening our lives to new challenges requires discrimination as well as willingness and perseverance. In Vedic dharma we are taught that there are four legitimate aims of life--dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Of these aims of life, artha or wealth and kama or pleasure are pursued under the umbrella of dharma, that is, in accordance with the divine order, or in alignment with the true nature of things. Dharma is an overarching principle that invites us to free ourselves from the sway of craving, anger and ignorance. Dharma can only be set aside when we enter the dynamic of moksha or liberation. Within the dynamic of moksha, our whole being is consumed by the passion for the welfare of all. Rules no longer apply only because we have no inclination at all to do anything that would harm another being. As St Augustine said, 'Love and do what you like.'

In the two examples given above, home cooking and 'wife swapping', kama or the pleasure principle is involved. Once we begin to derive pleasure from cooking at home, we want to do it more and more. This starts to benefit our health, our pocketbook and our relationships, as we take up the challenge of pursuing kama in accordance with dharma. In the 'wife-swapping' example, there is an opportunity to pursue kama outside dharma. Fuelling our craving, we soon become satisfied only by more and more extreme stimuli, becoming enslaved to that which we supposed would 'free' us.

The call of the new can be the clarion call of awakening or the siren song of seduction. When our life is shallow, when we live on the surface and lack meaning, we yearn for the new, yet we often choose the siren's song to lull us asleep amid the mediocrity. Instead, we can hold ourselves ready for invitations to deeper meaning. Sometimes, 'do what most you fear to do,' can be a good guideline; inviting courage, revealing a profound challenge that leads to growth. Overcoming our fears and limitations, we become stronger and fuller, living life with more depth and enthusiasm. But first we need to check in and see what part of us is fearful. There is no need to do what our conscience fears, but every reason to do what our old patterns dread.

A new year is a time to experience a sense of willingness to take on new challenges, readiness to encounter what these challenges bring up and discrimination to discern how to respond to the various challenges and invitations that present themselves. Is this a life-giving opportunity or a diversion from our path?

Eighteen months after my visit to Donegal, I'm still practicing fiddle daily and connecting with Sean on Skype for lessons. Despite all the difficulties of taking on something new, I am making time to renew my childhood love affair with the violin. I'm gaining upper body strength, honing my musical skills, nourishing my Celtic roots and making some great new friends. And I'm working on my classical violin skills as well. Slowly I'm overcoming performance anxiety and letting go of the fear of failure. I have a wonderful new stress release activity at end of a busy day. I'm glad I took up a challenge, because it has brought more joy into my life!

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I was gifted this Zephirin Amelot violin when I was ten years old!

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Self Care category.

Recipes is the previous category.

Specific Conditions is the next category.

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