Non-vegetarian Yoga Instructors?

Via on Mar 25, 2009

greengrass50

One of my jobs for this publication is to interview yoga instructors (very respectable people in my humble opinion). I’ve been shocked to find that about half of those interviewed are not strict vegetarians.

While I am not judging them, I am curious as to how carnivorous yoga teachers justify breaking the number one rule in this ancient tradition.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (basically the Raja Yoga bible) outline the path to enlightenment through yoga, step one being yama, or what not to do. Among these yama vows is ahimsa, or non-violence. Traditionally, practicing non-violence includes a vegetarian diet. Many Hindu temples in India won’t allow people in if they eat eggs, let alone cow.

To quote Pancham Sinh’s translation of The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (aka the hatha yoga bible), possibly the oldest surviving text on Hatha Yoga: “Food injurious to a yogi: bitter, sour, saltish, hot,…intoxicating liquors, fish, meat,…etc., should not be eaten.” In a later passage, the text clarifies: “Success cannot be attained by adopting a particular dress. It cannot be gained by telling tales. Practice alone is the means to success. This is true, there is no doubt.”

And here’s a quote from Stephen Sturgess, a practitioner of Kriya Yoga for 35+ years. In The Yoga Book, he writes “A vegetarian diet is essential for one who wants to follow a spiritual life. If you sincerely wish to progress and grow from the ordinary and materialistic life to a higher spiritual consciousness, then it becomes important to live on a vegetarian diet. For there are certain foods that help the mind and body to become more refined, and others that keep it down to the consciousness level of an animal.”

It should be clear to all yoga practitioners that the tradition instructs to follow a strict vegetarian diet. In this day and age, we aren’t hunter-gatherers – we choose our foods off the shelf. Yoga, on the mat or off, involves choice, intent, and restraint.

Now, I trust the yoga teachers in America to instruct me how to do a push-up, but how can we learn a sacred tradition from teachers who break the root precepts?

Please enlighten me.

Bonus, via Sharon Gannon: Yoga & Vegetarianism:

Sharon Gannon on Yoga and Vegetarianism from SwanRiverYoga on Vimeo.

About Ryan Nadlonek

Ryan combines his passion for the "yogic" sports (rock climbing, snowboarding, surfing, skateboarding), his love of musical exploration, and his dedication to a healthful lifestyle, living yoga in all aspects of his life. He is certified in Prana Flow Vinyasa Yoga by the amazing teacher Shiva Rea and draws from his studies in Qi Gong, Ashtanga Vinyasa, Buddhism, Bhakti Yoga, and Trance Dance to lead fun, creative and powerful classes with wild tantric explorations into the present moment. He teaches vinyasa classes at Divinitree Yoga and Art Studio in Santa Cruz, California (divinitree.com). Ryan also leads ecstatic kirtan and has been performing tabla and mridanga with kirtan leader Jacob Duran in the Santa Cruz kirtan community since 2009. He has worked as a journalist and photojournalist for Climbing Magazine, the Colorado Daily Photo, 808 Scene Zine, and the Elephant Journal.

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44 Responses to “Non-vegetarian Yoga Instructors?”

  1. Aubrey Hackman says:

    I do not judge yoga instructors that choose a non-vegetarian lifestyle, but I can say without hesitation that these ancient texts are correct… in this day and age especially. If yoga means to yoke, to connect with the divinity of being, then one cannot live their lives like an Ostrich with their head stuck in the sand bc they will miss the whole point. Eating a non-vegetarian diet (even a little here and there) is doing just that. Not only does a meat diet promote violence of which there is no lesser or greater degree (meaning a chicken raised on a nice organic farm feels the same pain that a factory farmed chicken does), but it is destroying our environment. It wastes more water than any given product in this country (the production of flesh for consumption.) You CANNOT call yourself an environmentalist and eat flesh of any kind. If you want to connect to the divinity of being, you must connect to the earth and take responsibility for your own actions. I hear a lot "I just feel better when I eat meat." Well sure, that may be true, I myself grew up on meat and potatoes, but since when is the practice of yoga about the egotistic "I"? There is a shift going on across this country and more vegetarians than ever before and it's not because people are falling asleep, it's because they are waking up.

    • Chris in Texas says:

      Aubrey, I could not agree more!

      And we are not living the value of ahimsa if we forgo animal products but then treat our fellow humans with anything less than compassion in every situation. I submit that to live it truthfully, we should strive to live it through our diet, words, deeds, ans thoughts.

  2. Shannon Faber says:

    I have to disagree.
    I have been a yoga teacher for three years, and I’ve explored vegetarianism as a way to practice ahimsa. However I don’t think that being a vegetarian is the only way to practice ahimsa in my life. I’ve always said that if I had to see where my meat came from or kill it myself, I wouldn’t eat meat at all, and it’s very easy for our society to be blissfully ignorant to what goes on in slaughter houses. But there are times when eating meat actually allows me to be less violent in my practice of life. (1)

    • aillapan says:

      how is it that "eating meat allows you to be less violent"?
      that sounds a lot like justification to me. There's not such a thing like "blissfully ignorant", because you know where meat comes from, you just DECIDE not to think about it.
      I totally agree with the article, by the way,.

  3. Shannon Faber says:

    I maintained a vegetarian diet until I became pregnant with my first child. During my pregnancy, I found it truly difficult, even with supplements, to get the proper nutrition I needed to healthily grow another person without eating meat. I know many vegetarians who are able to maintain their diet during and after pregnancy, but my yoga practice has taught me above all to truly listen to my body. And I needed to eat meat. After my daughter was born, I tried to ease meat back out of my diet and found that my breast milk decreased significantly, to the point that I would have had to start giving her formula. It seems more violent and selfish for me to malnourish my body and to compromise the well being and health of my growing child than it would be for me to consume the meat of another animal when my body needs it. (2)

  4. Shannon Faber says:

    There are also times in my life where consuming meat actually allows me to practice nonviolence. I am the only person in my family or group of friends who has practiced vegetarianism, and while many around me were understanding and accommodating, a lot of times I was presented with home cooked meals, made mindfully and with deep passion and love that included meat. I could choose to refuse the meals, but at what expense? By refusing to eat the Christmas Eve fish dinner that my grandmother has put her heart and soul into preparing for a week, I am not only hurting her feelings, but causing feelings of resentment and creating inner violence. There can also be a stigma that can come along with being vegetarian. Beryl Bender Birch, author of power yoga and member of PETA put it very well: “I think if you refuse meat and announce it’s because you’re a vegetarian, you’re projecting a position of superiority that may make the person offering the meat feel less spiritual than you.” (3)

    • Jagadish says:

      I have been going to my parents house for years since becoming vegetarian. I agree its possible I have had an egoistic mood, but I think its also possible to sincerely feel I am not superior than those that consume flesh. At any rate, over time my family has become accustomed to my dietary choices, and now they voluntarily try to facilitate my diet; and my family members are conservative people. If you stick to your principles, in a mood of humility, who can fault you?

  5. Shannon Faber says:

    In some situations, I believe how you approach what you are eating is more important than what you eat. If I can mindfully consume food that was prepared with kindness and love with a grateful attitude for the animal that died to sustain my energy, it seems to be far less violent than refusing the food and causing violence elsewhere.
    While most people agree that practicing ahimsa includes not eating meat, the Yoga Sutra does not list any specific foods for following a “yogic diet”, and even if it did, it’s highly unlikely that the foods prescribed in India thousands of years ago would be appropriate for each of us today. (4)

  6. Shannon Faber says:

    As far as trusting yoga teachers who consume meat – that, like vegetarianism itself is a personal choice. If learning and practicing ahimsa for you means studying with a spiritual teacher who doesn’t eat meat, I’m sure you can find a teacher that you connect with and can learn from. But there are many excellent yoga instructors across America who are caring, conscious omnivores – Anna Forrest being one of them. Yoga Journal did several polls and national surveys, and they discovered that only about 12 percent of people who practice yoga say they are vegetarian. That leaves 88 percent of yogis who consume meat at least some of the time. Would it be fair to say that all of those people have less of a yoga practice, or are getting less benefit from living their yoga? As a teacher, I feel that it is my job to share the journey of yoga, help people live authentically the way that it works best in their lives, and above all to listen to their bodies. Just like one asana is never the same for any two people, so are the yogic journeys of our lives, and no teacher or student should ever be told they are less valued because of the way that they practice. (5)

  7. rachel says:

    I find I often crave a cigarette. Nobody ever says to me "That must be your body telling you you need a cigarette" I spent a large part of my life addicted to a drug. So when I crave eggs or fish why do people assume that my body is telling me I need them? Partly because we live in a culture of addiction and denial. We are addicted to animal protiens. Animal proteins are incredibly tamasic. They weigh our bodies down keeping our bodies attached to the earth in an increasingly vata imbalanced world. We overly intellectualize things. The reality is this- we are conscious beings trying to bring about a positive shift for ALL life on the planet. We deny that this effects our yoga or the global consciousness we strive for. Suffering is suffering, and as the buddha said "Desire is the root of sorrow" The exact word he used was avidya, or non vision. As yoga teachers we are visionaries. To not try to uproot suffering of any kind is to condone it's existence.

  8. Casey Feicht says:

    continuing the conversation, I had to comment on blog, I realize I may have lost students due to this which is sad, but I felt I needed to share the teachings as I believe them.

    Every person is responsible for how they feel and whether they perceive harm has been done (ie people offended by your choices… this is what makes yoga so juicy and life challenging, is' a constant process of enlightenment, and since I have stopped eating meat I am a more compassionate and kind person, instead of non harming I like to think of ahima as kindness and compassion!

  9. guy says:

    Isn't eating plants killing to?

    • your servant says:

      Eating plants is also killing, and sages taught that there is karma associated with eating plants, though it is far far less than consuming meat. It is also the reason that the bhakti traditions offer vegetarian foods to the Divine Source, Rama, or Krishna, etc. The Divine source graces the food and removes any karma that may be involved in eating it.
      Also…no violence is involved in obtaining fruit…it falls from the tree even!

  10. guy says:

    I understand now Thanks Aubrey

  11. NonVegYogi says:

    This vegetarian brahminism is what caused Patanjali and Hatha Yoga to disappear from India in the Medieval era. It also led to the spwaning of various Tantra and Yoga groups dedicated to Shakti or the female force which justified the eating of non-vegetarian food for strength and muscle building and treated non-vegetarian food as a prasad of the goddess. Being fanatic about food is not Yoga and vegetarians cannot claim a monopoly over teaching and practicing Yoga. Nor can the vegetarians claim a monopoly over human values. The trader caste in India, the Banias, have always been vegetarian but they along with the Brahmins are responsible for the worst economic exploitation of people from other communities. In other words, they might have been vegetarian in terms of food but were completely non-vegetarian when it came to having people and their lives for breakfast. Food has always been held to be an important but tertiary factor (as compared to Sadhana) in Yoga and it should be acknowleged and practiced as such.

  12. ADD says:

    The Buddha ate meat. The Dalai Lama tried being a vegetarian in the 1960s, developed jaundice (hepatitis), and was ordered by his doctors to eat meat again.

    • calclements says:

      Both Buddha and the Dalai Lama followed the wandering monk's rule of "eat what you are given." But the Buddha was clear that killing animals for food was to be avoided. The Dalai Lama now has a vegetarian kitchen. See: http://worldpeacediet.org/DalaiLama.htm

      • Jagadish says:

        Reminds me of a story of the "eat what you are given" rule….one monk following this rule with his begging bowl was given some food by a leper, whose finger fell in the bowl. He ate the finger….are we on that platform?

  13. emmysydney says:

    I’m a meat eating yogi, and only recently had the courage to admit that!

    I suffered from an eating disorder for 6 years, and cutting out meat used to = cutting out calories for me. As part of y recovery I had to learn to accept nutrition back into my life, to feel that it is ok to give my body what it needs.

    Yoga really helped me get through the tough times. In fact, the final breakthrough moment for me that opened the door to recovery occured on my mat. I am eternally grateful to my practice for that. So for me, it saddens me that some in our community pressure others to give up meat, without questioning why they might have chosen to eat it. Surely you can give your fellow yogis the benefit of the doubt – they have probably heard about ahisima, they understand the principles of non-violence, so surely they have made their choice for reasons they don’t feel the need to broadcast?

    Anyway, I am going to keep eating meat, and keep practicing yoga. For me personally, growing as a person and learning to love myself means these two go hand in hand for now. I think everyone should be free to make this decision for themselves.

    Namaste

  14. IY Magazine says:

    Yes, as far as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, it's true that there was some talk about him being vegetarian and then non-veg for health reasons, however, this is the statement from his official website (http://www.dalailama.com)
    "His Holiness's kitchen in Dharamsala is vegetarian. However, during visits outside of Dharamsala, His Holiness is not necessarily vegetarian." There is no further explanation given, though it is reported he encourages all his monks to be vegetarian. There is a good list of links to interviews he has given on the subject here: http://rawveg.info/buddhistvegetarian.html.

  15. Sarah says:

    People shouldn't get so hung up on being vegetarian, but rather being a respectatarian! It is unfair to say that someone cannot be an effective yoga teacher if they eat meat. There are plenty of fruits and vegetables that are products of violence; no animal may have died in their production, but workers may have suffered as well as the environment. I believe it is more important to buy local and eat organic than it is to be a strict vegetarian or pescatarian. I do recognize the health value in eating less meat and mostly greens as well as the environmental cost of meat production. The meat industry in the US is cruel and violent towards animals, workers and anyone who speaks out against the industry. However, I must also think about the underpaid banana farmers, mal-treated undocumented agriculture workers and families of those who have lost their loved ones to cancer due to pesticide exposure whenever I visit my local grocery store, co-op or farmers market. To reduce the ahimsa debate to vegetarians versus carnivores is oversimplifying a vast and complicated issue. Let us not forget the environmental and social impact of our dietary choices even if we choose to forgo meat.

  16. vanessa says:

    I am curious what you think of yoga instructors that get breast implants?

    • Tricia Ptak says:

      Personally, as a matter of fact they would get in the way. Ahimsa is not the only issue here, what about Samtosa, being content with the body that God gave you? Perhaps an evaluation of Aparigraha would remind us that non-grasping at physical perfection that society forces on us is relevant as well. Yoga has been the force that has broken the chains of my bodily fixations, insecurities and has given me the ease of existence that allows me to celebrate my "imperfectness."

  17. ARCreated says:

    I was once a meat eating yogini and instructor and often had many of the same reasons for eathing meat as stated here. I invite everyone in the discussion to not get too attached to whatever their opinion is either way…you may end up eating your words :) I think i was a good teacher before…but I believe I am a better teacher as a vegan…I do not EVER preach to my students about it…I feel, believe that people will come to it when they are ready. I believe as a TEACHER it is my responsibility to more closely follow the steps to hold myself to a higher standard so that I can be the best channel to teach…

  18. ARCreated says:

    I think you can be an incredible yogi and eat meat — I just sort of believe that you can't go to the next level with meat in your diet (ps I agree that eating local organic is just as important) I have to say that one of the reasons I found veganism is because my teacher did not guilt or push or shame me…she simply lived the example and gave me info and when I was ready I came to it…and I have truly moved forward in many areas since making that commitment. I also do not put alcohol in my body, or prescription medications or any chemicals if I can help it (organic cleaning products etc) …for me it's about being the clearest channel possible… and that is no "superiority" it was an admission that I need LOTS of work and I can get more done without distractions… but I ask if you get "offended" or "angry" when people suggest you don't eat meat examine that reaction…

  19. ARCreated says:

    meat eating yogis? of course they are on their path where they are…maybe students will feel more comfortable with them and gets them started on their journey. Perhaps we need not worry about it so much…put the info out there and let people come to their place on the journey as they are ready …Of course I don't mind nudging — soooooo if you are still eating meat I suggest "the world peace diet" book :)
    if you aren't heatlhy on a vegan diet maybe it isn't your time — I "tried" it once about 15 years ago and was a pale sickly person…and for many years assumed it wasn't healthy and NOW?? as a vegan I am healthier than I have ever been… the mind/the reason/ the belief plays into it…lower your meat consumption and go vegan when it resonates with you.
    Live Love

  20. [...] of the Jivamukti Yoga Method, Sharon is the beautiful half of a powerhouse partnership with husband David Life. Gannon identifies [...]

  21. calclements says:

    There is a lot of non-truth surrounding the corporate production of meat, which is where 99% of the United States obtains animal products. This is difficult to bring up in a yoga class, however. People don't mean to cause unnecessary harm. I practice ahimsa through a vegan diet because slaughterhouse practices are horribly violent (See http://www.earthlings.com/ or read Gail Eisnitz's book Slaughterhouse which has been reviewed at http://www.meat.org.uk/slaught.html) and because the health benefits of a 100% plant diet are wonderful. (See "The China Study.")

  22. ashley says:

    I totally agree with you. It's similar to the commandment thou shalt not kill, yet millions of so-called christians still call themselves so while eating their standard american diet. It just makes sense that becoming vegan would be the natural path that evolves from a yoga practice, once you become conscious of how you feel after you eat and where you get the food you eat.. eating meat and animal products is counterproductive. People can argue on about free-range chicken and organic grass fed beef all they want- but the animal is still suffering an act of violence and the land is suffering degradation from the production of the food, which you will see (or maybe you already feel this way) isn't really "food" at all.

  23. Lisa Rice says:

    Yoga teachers in this country should be labeled "Asana Teachers." Very few, if any, are truly teaching Yoga.

  24. Will says:

    To each, his own.
    We are all on our own unique paths.
    Awareness, intention, and respect are most important.
    What is right for one, may not be right for another, no matter what was written thousands of years ago.
    It is up to the individual to decide what is right action.
    Away with conformity.
    Namaste.

  25. pooikuan says:

    Didnt in Ayurveda, it mentioned that every one has its own body constitution? There is no one diet fits all. PItta dosha for example has higher demand for calories and hence having meat in their diet suit them better than being vegetarian. I'm of Pitta dosha and tried being vegetarian, and ended up eating alot of junk food because I'm constantly hungry. End up harming my body more than better.

    • martytribble says:

      I am a pitta and vegan for 2+ years and vegetarian for 10. I am constantly hungry as well, but I don't use that as an excuse to take the easy route and eat animals, high fat or junk food. I manage my time well so that I have food on hand whenever the urge hits. I eat a bunch of bananas every other day and tons of other fruits, nuts and seeds. I stay fueled and satisfied, without choosing junk food, because I choose to take good care of my body. This is about making choices. I choose to educate myself and eat well, in a way that (to my best knowledge) doesn't hurt myself or others. I feel that if we are honest, it is not that we can't, it is that we don't care enough to find a way. Peace.

  26. [...] are some yoga schools that are super strict on being a vegetarian and then there are some teachers that have alternative ideas such as know where your food is coming [...]

  27. greateacher says:

    I really dotn give an "FFF" what Pattanjois otr Bram-whom-ever said.. I need a small amount of animal protein to remain balanced and focused without getting weak.
    There ar edifferent blood types.
    I tried vegan veg and rice with tofu an doccasional eggs diet and kept feeling dizzy etc.. Bodies differ.

  28. Yoga yukta says:

    Well, there is more behind being a vegetarian for a successful yoga practice. I have published a post about it on my website here: http://yogayukta.com/720/yoga-and-vegetarianism-s

  29. martytribble says:

    Some of these comments seem to come from "don't tell me what to do' and 'leggo my Eggo' and "I am right and you are wrong' mentality. What if we went a little deeper, what if this went beyond right and wrong? What if we asked, what is possible? For those who have 'tried' veg or vegan and felt unwell or weak, did you ask a vegan professional why? There is a lot to know about eating well, and when we begin eating well we can experience detox and healing in our guts, which can make us not feel well. Eating animal products is an 'easy' fix for a temporary feel good because their bodies are closer to ours genetically and their flesh, ovum and lactation fluids are assimilated quicker. We feel better (not great, but better), so we assume then we HAVE to eat animals. If you are interested in stepping off the path of temporary ease and choose a diet that not only will heal the imbalances in your body but also heal the planet, then check out Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and consult a life-long vegan doctor to be sure you are taking care of your individual needs. http://pcrm.org/health/diets/

  30. john says:

    There’s a trend here….. the pro-eat whatever you want replies are ‘me’ focused, and the pro-veg posts are other focused..

    “I need” “I want” sooo Manipura… figure it out, make the adjustments, we are omnivores. you can thrve. Yes, you. can thrive on a Veg diet.

    Your body does not need animal flesh. I believe that you think you need it, but. in reality, you do not need it. you want it.

    Vegans are not vegan for the Vegan, they are Vegan for the animals not harmed by the Vegan.

    peace to all beings.

    -j

  31. Shakti says:

    to forgo meat.
    May we contemplate the difference of our physical constitutions and nutritional needs ; men who have never had a menstrual cycle in their entire life? Men or young females who have never been pregnant or given birth to a child or a few? Adolescents and children? The sick and injured? Wasn’t the practice of yoga asana to teach and strengthen our bodies to sit in mediation? Weren’t they men who wrote down the sutras?
    Don’t we need to fuel our bodies due to season and circumstance?
    I grew up eating 3 veg and meat every night. I hated the thought or sight of killing animals from childhood and no yoga philosophy taught me that but I ate with appreciation everything I was given and never questioned it. I have had a physical job my entire life and need to fuel my body very wisely for that profession. I have given birth to 2 very healthy babies but nearly died from loss of blood during the second birth. First Chinese medicine given to me at the time was chicken broth to regain my strength. I have practiced yoga since I am 16 and it has saved my life. I also TOTALLY gave up meat for 3 years on my spiritual journey and ended up in hospital from some sort of depletion. I have also been a single mum and couldn't afford meat or expensive organic produce and during that time my children and I were always ill. To be a single mum you simply need a bit of yang to keep you going or you burn out which I speak from experience. If I had a life of leisure, a desk job or could just sit and meditate all day I am sure that I could be a vegan too. Sometimes it’s not about "me" it’s about respect and gratitude if we are given food from others wallets, it’s about being in service of others,being the career for others and therefore making choices to stay strong or even just awake without resorting to drugs of course although I am sure that coffee is an entire new topic amongst yogis . I now have the privilege to shop better quality food, even grow my own and have my own free range eggs. All of this though often comes down to wealth. This kind of yoga snobbery and I am right and you are wrong turns me off yoga and yogis fighting over their own pure styles and what they should eat and how they should behave. It reminds me of differences in religion and is so far away from my thoughts that I believe yoga to be. I want to learn yoga from an honest yoga teacher who is true to themselves whether they are a carnivore, omnivore or grass eater. If I want to learn a yang style Yoga (asana) to strengthen my physical body then I am not going to achieve that practice with a skinny pale body that looks like it needs a good steak but one day if I have the privilege to grow very old I will have strengthened my body to go deep into mediation and air and ether towards the end of my life when doing handstands is not of importance anymore. In Peace

  32. the percentage of animal products a human being needs to thrive is Zero. Animals products are a want, not a need. Consuming animal products blows off the foundational practices of Yoga such as Ahimsa, Asteya (yes, they are stolen lives) and Aparigraha, (it’s just plain greedy and selfish to plunder the earth to suit ones taste buds)… For the first time there are more Vegans than Vegetarians in the USA. The Wave of compassion is rising. C’mon in, the waters fine. peace, to all beings, even the ones humans have deemed tasty. -j

  33. Leo says:

    Ahimsa is not broken by eating meat. You are just another misled western preaching an extremist dogmatic interpretion of hindu scripture.

  34. Bob says:

    If you are a yoga teacher and you eat meat, or drink alcohol, or smoke, you are on the path. You are accumulating negative karmas. You may also be accumulating some positive karmas. You have not mastered yourself. You have not even mastered the basics. You are caught in the web of ego, greed, fear, delusion. You do not yet know yourself. You may have mastered some of this and memorized some of that and you may think you are great. You may sit and meditate and feel good. But your karma prevents you from reaching the deepest depths. Teaching anything beyond asanas is tricky. You cannot teach that which you do not know.

    The essence of what is to be taught is something which is transmitted. Something which manifests in deep understanding and refinement, not excuses and conveniently revised truths.

    I would trust a yoga teach who eats meat, or consumes alcohol, to teach me how to correctly do an asana. Beyond asanas such a yoga teacher can teach me that we cannot stop eating meat, or drinking alcohol, or smoking until such desires become deeply rooted. Changing your behavior for the wrong reasons does not avert negative karma. Aversion is also a form of attachment. It is pointless to lecture or question someones habits. We arrive when we arrive, and if we arrive, and not a moment sooner.

    Your karma is your own. You cannot cheat. You cannot fool yourself. You cannot move on until you have mastered yourself.

    An exception would be a yogi who has completely mastered themselves, in which case they can do no harm.

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