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Maarten A.

Immink PhD
three
Principles of
The Brain

f o r Yo gi s
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- eBook
www.integratemindbody.com
Three Principles of the Brain
for Yogis

Dr Maarten A. Immink BA, MS, PhD

I offer sincere gratitude to Swami Sivananda Saraswati,


Swami Satyananda Saraswati, and Swami Niranjananda
Saraswati who have illuminated me through yoga. Also, to
all fellow scientists who have furthered the understanding
of the nervous system.

Dedicated to all individuals who have chosen to journey on


the path of yoga.

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About the Author

Dr Maarten A. Immink holds a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Human Movement Science


from Texas A&M University, U.S.A. He has over 20 years of experience studying,
researching and teaching the physiological and psychological basis of human performance.
Currently, he holds a lecturing position in Exercise Science at an Australian university and
runs his own human performance consultancy practice that uses movement, exercise and
mental training to maximise the potential of the body and mind. He is accredited through
Fitness Australia and the Australian Association for Exercise and Sport Science.

Dr. Immink is also an accredited teacher of SATYANANDA YOGA®, an integrative and


holistic approach to yoga developed by Swami Satyananda Saraswati in Bihar, India. In
addition to offering yoga & meditation classes, Dr. Immink delivers lectures and workshops
on topics which bring together western scientific understanding of the mind and body and
yoga philosophy.

For any further information on yoga and meditation classes as well as human
performance consulting, including integral fitness training, please contact Dr.
Maarten Immink on:
email | docmaarten@integratemindbody.com
phone | Int’l | +61 4 2169 3289 Australia | 0421693289
web | www.integratemindbody.com

double click on the paperclip for a business card

NOTE: This eBook is intended for your own personal study. Feel free to make a hard copy of this eBook.
Please do not use any of its content, in whole, part or in abstract, for commercial purposes. Additional
electronic copies of this eBook can be obtained by contacting Dr. Immink or by visiting
www.integratemindbody.com.

Your feedback and comments regarding the content of this


eBook would be greatly appreciated by the author.

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Introduction

If you are reading this, then most likely we share a common interest for the
study of the biological basis of the mind and its application to yoga. This is the
area that I have been dedicated to learning about for quite some time.
Indeed, for many years I have been searching for the knowledge that would
allow me to comprehend how the brain and nervous system work and how
their function relates to the concept of the mind. This search has taken me
through many years of studying, reading and researching within the
perspective of western science. Although this approach has offered me a
wealth of knowledge, it was not until I became exposed to the science of yoga
that I truly began to see the bigger picture. Western science and yoga
science compliment each other tremendously well in terms of defining and
applying the workings of the body and mind. What I am presenting to you in
the following reading is a highlight of a massive amount of information on the
topic of the brain. This highlight includes three principles of the brain that I
have come to understand as having particular relevance for the practitioner of
yoga.

I have kept this reading as non-technical as possible, limiting the use of


scientific terminology so as to keep the material approachable for all levels of
scientific background. If you find a term or two beyond your understanding, I
invite you to use the various internet resources, like www.google.com, to
search for more information.

I hope that you will find the following principles useful for your yoga journey.

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Principle 1. Awareness takes yoga into the brain

“Use it or loose it” is often used to refer to the fact that unless we remain
active, we stand a high chance of experiencing physical deterioration. Living
a sedentary lifestyle contributes to wasted muscles, weak bones, stiff joints,
heart disease, obesity… and the list goes on. This link between regular
physical activity and a healthy body is now well established and commonly
accepted. The physical practices of Hatha Yoga, called asanas, have also
received substantial attention in terms of the benefits they offer for the
physique of the body. So popular are these body-based benefits that they
actually tend to overshadow another important component of the yoga and
health connection - the nervous system. Yoga has the powerful ability to
prevent and reverse degeneration and disease in the nervous system. The
fact that this is often overlooked is surprising since it is the nervous system
that is the master regulator of the entire body. If this system fails, the rest of
the body will surely follow.

External vs. internal effects of yoga


Focusing only on the external benefits of yoga is like eating only for taste - the
main purpose is missed. Including regular practices of asana in your lifestyle
does certainly offer physical benefits but this should be considered as an
added bonus because far greater and profound gains are on offer for the
mind. The ancient practices of yoga asana were not developed with the
intention of being merely physical outlets for the body; instead they were
intended to be a means of preparation, purification and integration of the body
and the mind for higher spiritual practices.

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Awareness is integration
What determines the depth, to which you allow yoga asanas to integrate into
your nervous system, depends on the ability to implement one factor into your
practices. This factor is awareness and it is a skill that must be developed
over time through training and application.

Asana without awareness is possible


It is actually quite possible to move without any involvement of the brain, and
therefore no awareness. Take for example reflexes. When a finger is placed
on a hot stove, the heat stimulates a sensory receptor which sends its signal
to the spinal cord activating a motor neuron (movement production nerve cell),
which causes muscles to contract and the arm to pull away from the stove.
This movement is triggered without any involvement of the brain and thus,
without any awareness. It is only after the reflexive movement has been
completed that the pain signal moves up the spinal cord to the brain and the
experience reaches your awareness: “ouch!” Similar to reflexes, it is quite
possible to practice asanas in a rather automated way with minimal
involvement of awareness. The nervous system can operate under an
autopilot-like system because it has the capability to control movements using
brain structures that function without conscious awareness. So while
performing the cat stretch pose, it is possible for your asana autopilot to take
over control of the posture. As a result, awareness drops out and you may drift
off into other non-movement related thoughts like trying to remember if you
fed the cat before the class, for example.

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Asana without awareness is limiting and dangerous
Using automated movement systems do allow you to perform multiple tasks at
once, like talk and walk, but the downfall is that you fail to be fully aware of the
movement itself. Loss of movement awareness means limited connection
between mind and the body. When an asana is performed, countless sensory
experiences are generated in the body but only a few of these can be
experienced in the disconnected mind. When there are less incoming signals
into the brain from the body, the potential for the asana to bring about any
mental benefits is diminished. Even worse, there is an increase in the
likelihood for injury since awareness is the safety mechanism that prevents
the body from being pushed beyond its physical limits.

Yoga with awareness links body and mind


Performing asana with full awareness enhances the mental benefits of the
practices because the connection between the body and the mind is
maximised. A heightened experience of the body means that there is more
incoming sensory information that is stimulating and activating the various
regions of the brain. More mental stimulation means an increase in the blood
flow to the working parts of the brain (see Figure 1) which is a vital factor in
ensuring the health of individual brain cells. Awareness also allows the brain
to benefit the body. In a well connected mind and body, more neural signals
from the brain can reach the body, allowing the control of asana to become
refined. There is also an increase in the bioelectrical energy flowing through
the nerves which energizes the body. As the saying goes, ‘Energy flows
where attention goes’. Where you hold your concentration during asana will
awaken that area of the body and will also activate the associated areas of the
brain.

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Yoga is good for the brain and awareness deepens these
effects
Including yoga asana into your lifestyle is an effective means to improve or
sustain overall health and wellbeing. Part of this means enjoying the benefits
that asana can potentially provide for function of the brain. As the brain is the
major organ which supports the mind, establishing a healthy functioning brain
is key to reaching higher levels of consciousness. Thus, the defining factor
which takes asana from just being an exercise to being a mental and spiritual
practice is the level of awareness that is involved.

Figure 1. A functional map of the cerebral cortex. As more awareness is used


during asana, more of these areas become active.

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Principle 2. The brain has its habits
(and what yoga does about it!)

As you are sitting and reading this sentence, are you aware of the sensation
of pressure of your buttocks on the chair or cushion? Having read this now
you probably are, but before you most likely were not! The fact is sensations
do drop out of our awareness and this has implications for the way that we
think and control the body. At any given moment we are probably thinking,
talking, moving, eating and/or breathing in ways that we are not even aware
of. Well, we are not entirely to blame. The nervous system has a tendency to
fall into its own habits.

Habituation affects awareness


Not really habits but actually habituation as neuroscientists and psychologists
call it. Essentially, habituation has to do with the way that sensory neurons, or
the cells of the nervous system responsible for detecting sensations, respond
to a stimulus. At first, when a sensation such as the pressure of the buttocks
on the chair stimulates a touch receptor on the skin, a strong stimulus will be
sent to the brain. If that touch sensation is maintained over a period of time
the pressure receptor will actually begin to fatigue and decrease the strength
of the stimulus signal it sends to the brain. As a result, the brain will begin to
be habituated to the stimulus, and the sensation will drop out of awareness.
The pressure is still there but the brain has now lost the awareness of that
experience.

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Habituation of the five senses
This process of habituation happens with all the five senses: touch, taste,
smell, hearing, and vision. One example is walking into a room with a foul
smell which at first is very overwhelming only to find that a few moments later
you ‘forget’ about its presence. At first, the chemicals associated with the
odour are stimulating scent receptors at the top of the nose. These relay the
signal to the brain where the experience of smell and any related reactions are
formed. As the scent lingers, habituation sets in and the brain drops its
awareness of the smelly experience. To your brain it is as if there is no longer
an odour. You can also ‘see for yourself’ the habituation process taking place
in the visual system by following the exercise in Activity Box 1.

Activity Box 1
Now you see them, now you don’t
Move a bit closer to the screen and focus
on the image on the left. In particular, hold
your gaze on the small black dot in the
center of the image. Hold it there for a few
moments until habituation takes over and
the image changes.

Once habituation takes place, you can


look away then back to the image to see if
it’s possible to reverse habituation.

Habituation of body sense


Information about the five senses, relayed by sensory systems to the brain,
keeps us informed of the events taking place in the external world. In
addition, there is a sixth type of sensory system (yes indeed, the sixth sense!)
that keeps the brain informed about the events taking place in the internal

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world of the body. This sixth sense is called propioception, which means ‘self
perception’, and relates to information like position of limbs, posture, balance,
and body segment movement. This type of information is what allows you to
perform actions like walking up steps without watching your feet or standing
upright with your eyes closed. Even though propioception is truly a special
type of sensory system, it is also susceptible to habituation. This means that
just as we can loose awareness of stimuli from the external world, it is also
quite possible to loose awareness of the body. The possibility of habituation
in the propioceptive system means that when we perform or hold an asana,
we may loose proper form or alignment without even realising it. For example,
when we hold a sitting posture, we may loose awareness of holding the spine
erect and we begin to slouch forward. When awareness begins to drop out,
the benefits of the practice are minimised and the chance of injury is
maximised due to the loss of proper body alignment. Habituation can also
affect the propioceptive information which supports good breathing function.
Often breathing can be less than optimal because habituation allows bad
habits such as open-mouth, shallow chest breathing to take control of this
important body process.

Habituation of thought patterns


Although it would make life a lot easier, there is no direct sensory system for
thought processes in the mind. In fact, it is interesting to note that the brain
has no sensory system for itself. That is, the brain is unable to experience its
own touch, temperature, pressure, pain. The pain of a headache is not
detected by sensory receptors in the brain but rather by receptors in the blood
vessels and tissue which surround the brain. Since there is no sensory
system for the brain, thoughts can only be detected by observing them with

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another thought. In other words, the mind has to always self-monitor its own
activity to be aware of what it is doing. If you habituate this self-monitoring
process, any awareness of the thought is lost. To the mind, it is as if the
thought no longer exists even though it is still very much active. Once this
happens, the thought has entered the subconscious mind.

Activity Box 2
Sensory Perception on Autopilot
A majority of our perception of the outside world
takes place without any of our awareness. This
implies that the brain automatically imposes its own
expectations in placing meaning on the incoming
sensory information. In other words, the brain sees
what it wants to see.
See the upside down portrait of a popular figure on
the right; do you recognise him? Do you see
anything different about his face? To see how your
brain automatically adjusts its perception of the face,
rotate this page 180 degrees, using the rotate
button on the toolbar.

Habituated thoughts are the origin of dis-ease


Thoughts can and do circulate over and over in the subconscious, below the
radar of awareness. As they do so, they still have the power to elicit
subsequent mental, emotional and physical reactions. At any moment, while
we go about our daily lives, externally focused, the stresses and strains of life
can generate subconscious thoughts of worry and angst. Hidden by
habituation, they may be triggering ‘fight or flight’ like physical reactions to
stress: faster heart rate, shallow rapid breathing, higher blood pressure,
muscle tension, hormonal imbalance and poor digestion. Even though you
may be unaware of the subconscious thought causing nervousness, you may
at first be acutely aware of the related physical reactions: loss of appetite,

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trouble sleeping, perfuse sweating, and loss of concentration. In time though,
as the ‘fight or flight’ state is maintained, you may also become habituated to
the physical reactions themselves, especially if this process is facilitated by
the use of recreational or pharmaceutical agents that mask physical
symptoms. With habituation, living physically, emotionally and mentally
stressed begins to feel normal. Even though the body and mind are able to
adapt to stress, when it is sustained, they begin to break down one way or
another. When this happens, a state of dis-ease presents itself. If it sounds
like a precarious situation, it is because unfortunately, in this case it often
requires a doctor’s (or other health practitioner’s) diagnosis to make us aware
that our body and mind need nurturing and healing.

Using habituation to focus internally


All is not lost though! The wise and advanced men and women, who
developed the science of yoga, were well aware of this problem and created
techniques by which to remove the veil of ignorance created by habituation.
In fact, they learned how to use the process of habituation for benefit rather
than detriment. As the mind is naturally inclined to engage in external sensory
experiences, yoga techniques allow it to do so without restraint. In time, the
natural process of habituation causes the mind to exhaust its focus on the
outside world. Now, the mind shifts its focus inward as it attends to internally
generated experiences such as propioception and thoughts. This shift of
attention from external to internal sources of experience is what is called
pratyahara in yoga and forms the basis of developing inner awareness.

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Pratyahara turns on the dormant parts of the brain
Establishment of pratyahara causes a big change in how the brain functions.
Areas of the brain that are usually dormant become activated. These areas
are found in the parts of the brain which are evolutionary the most advanced
and are said to be unique to humans. Their function is associated with the
ability to become self-aware. It is an illuminative process because activating
these higher brain centres is like turning on the lights in the darkened rooms of
a house; we can now see what has been there all this time. You gain access
to more elevated and refined levels of awareness which allows you to bring
thoughts out of the subconscious into the conscious. Pratyahara, which uses
habituation of the external to remedy habituation of the internal, is a way to
really begin to explore yourself, answering that classical question of yoga,
“who am I?” This knowledge is valuable wisdom and is empowering for it
allows you to have mastery over your mind and your body.

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Principle 3. Yoga can positively re-wire your brain

In order for the brain to be able to carry out its day-to-day functions such as
reading, communicating, and moving the body, it has to rely on well
established neural circuits which have been formed over time. This is the
basis of what is called learning. Not an easy feat when you consider that
there are about 100 billion neurons in the brain and each neuron is connected,
on average, to 10,000 other neurons! One wrong connection and we might
end up tasting colours!

Connections are made before and after birth


So how does the nervous system handle the complicated task of forming
neural circuits? Part of the task is determined genetically so that we are
actually born hardwired with the vital neural circuits that allow us to survive the
first days of life outside the womb. For example, newborn babies have
reflexes that allow them to successfully feed from the mother only minutes
after birth. While some connections are predetermined before birth, the vast
majority of our neural connections are formed throughout our lives. In this life-
long learning process, new neuron connections are formed, while some old
connections are removed, based on our daily experiences.

Neurons that fire together, wire together


The main process, by which connections between neurons are made in the
brain, is called long-term potentiation. Long-term potentiation essentially
follows the rule that neurons which fire together wire together. When, say, two
neurons are active at the same time in the brain, this occurrence is treated as

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an important event in terms of learning and so needs to be repeated.
Ensuring that the same neurons will again be active simultaneously involves
two changes. First, neurons form extensions that branch out to form new
connections with other involved neurons. Second, to improve transmission of
signals, connections between neurons, called synapses, are actively
strengthened using cellular level changes. Over time, many neurons connect
and wire themselves together forming a collective group called a neural circuit.
These circuits perform specific functions such as processing and storing
information.

Start 1 week 2 weeks 4 weeks 6 months

Figure 2. Neurons establishing neural circuits during learning.

Your brain is adaptable


Your brain has the property of plasticity, which reflects its ability to remodel
itself and change its functional structure in order to meet changing demands
that are placed on it. Rather than being fixed and unchangeable, the brain is
dynamic and always changing, characteristics that allow you to be remarkably
adaptable.

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Association facilitates adaptation
The process of learning is one example of plasticity whereby exposure to
events in our lives has the ability to shape your brain. Learning essentially
involves making new associations, linking unknown information to previously
established memories. In the brain, this involves linking new neural circuits
with already established neural circuits. For example, imagine that you have
an established neural circuit for executing a yoga posture called the seated
forward bend. When the yoga teacher calls out, “come into the seated
forward bend”, your neural circuit for this posture becomes activated and
begins to send signals to turn on some muscles and relax other muscles
allowing you to come into this position. What if the teacher one day calls out,
“come into paschimottanasana” and you have never heard this Sanskrit word
before in class? There is no association between the unfamiliar word and the
posture and so the neural circuit for the asana would not be activated; no
posture just a puzzled look. If the teacher then translates the name into its
English equivalent, then the process of association takes place. A new
paschimottanasana neural circuit becomes associated with the pre-existing
seated forward bend posture circuit. In future classes no translation will be
required since learning has allowed the brain to adapt to a new situation.

Thoughts and emotional states are associated


As you go about your daily tasks, your brain keeps itself busy reshaping itself
and making new associations based on experiences. Yoga philosophy says
that all of the experiences that we are exposed to form an impression, called a
samskara, in the mind. Whether or not we are aware of it, the mind is being
constantly shaped by the events that take place around us. We are also
shaped by the events that take place within us. Western science has provided

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support for this latter notion by demonstrating that our emotional state is an
important event that is associated in the learning process. This implies that
neural circuits that generate certain emotional states like love, happiness,
anger and anxiety become associated with the neural circuits that generate
thought processes like decision making, perception, communication, and
movement production. For this reason, our emotions have the ability to shape
our brain in a way that influences what decisions we make, how we perceive
our world, how we communicate and how we utilise our bodies. The
association is self-reinforcing since the emotion maintains a particular pattern
of thought and in turn, the pattern of thought encourages the linked emotion.
Additionally, each time the neural circuits are activated, their association
becomes increasingly stronger. If the emotions happen to be negative and
the thoughts cynical or unconstructive, their perpetuation could create a shift
of the mind towards unhappiness. It is easy to blame external sources for
discontentment, yet the real source often comes from within.

Stress shifts the brain into survival training mode


Your brain has built-in systems for detecting negative events in the
environment. In terms of survival, it is good to be aware of any threats to your
existence. The presence of negative events, which causes the experience of
stress, causes the brain to produce a particular set of emotional reactions:
fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and so on. These emotions, in turn, cause
physiological changes (faster heart rate, increase blood pressure, sweating,
muscle tension) and cognitive changes (vigilance, irritability, dwelling,
overactivity). These changes cause a functional transformation of the mind.
The higher qualities of reason, love and compassion are exchanged for lower,
animalistic, qualities which are instinctual and survival driven. Stress, whether

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it is truly life threatening or not, shifts the brain into survival training mode.
Events and experiences, even if they would normally be inoffensive, are now
interpreted as being threatening. Consequently, self-protective judgements
cause defensive reactions to be played out. Negative emotions, neurotic
thoughts and retaliatory deeds all become associated to the extent that the
brain has learned to view life as a struggle.

Meditation changes mental function


Yoga offers a way to step out of the struggle. The practices of meditation are
an effective antidote to the stress response. When the mind relaxes, objective
awareness increases and the higher qualities of the brain remain in control.
We behave as more evolved beings and life becomes an inspiring journey, not
a struggle. The influence that meditation has on brain function has recently
received quite a substantial amount of research attention. With all this
attention has come extensive scientific proof that meditation is effective for
establishing mental health. Additionally, scientific research is beginning to
shed some light on the mechanisms through which meditation changes the
brain.

Meditation relaxes the nervous system


The first influence that meditation has on the nervous system is by reducing
sympathetic drive. This is a technical way of saying meditation lowers mental,
emotional and physical tension. During meditation, the nervous system
experiences a relaxation response (parasympathetic drive) and heart rate,
blood pressure and muscle tension decrease. The body experiences other
benefits as well. Digestive, hormonal, metabolic, respiratory, sleep, and
reproductive functions all have physiological improvements. The brain itself

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shifts into a unique pattern of activity. The areas of the brain which are
normally active during day-to-day activity become dormant as areas which are
associated with higher levels of consciousness become more active. Here is
where the major influence of meditation on the nervous system begins.

Meditation forms positive associations


Meditation practices allow us to revisit previous experiences and memories in
a relaxed, aware and detached state. As the higher consciousness areas are
now actively processing these experiences, we begin to be able to see them
logically, rationally, objectively and compassionately. In the meditative state,
we are learning to view our life not in the context of our own survival but rather
in a balanced, harmonious and non-reactive manner. It is an opportunity to
identify negative thoughts and destructive reactions and this awareness is the
first step towards change. That change is further facilitated by meditation
because state-dependent learning is forming new associations between
previous experiences and the current relaxed, positive emotional state. In this
way, we are actively changing how the brain functions towards a more
evolved and enlightened state.

Wired for happiness


There is substantial scientific research to support the link between meditation
and changes in brain activity towards positive emotions. Experiments have
demonstrated greater left prefrontal lobe brain activity in Tibetan Buddhist
monks during meditation (see Figures 3 and 4). This is an area of the brain
that has been associated with happiness, optimism, self-confidence, and a
robust immune system. What makes this really remarkable is the fact that
some of the monks had experienced terrible psychological and physical

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Figure 3. A Tibetan Buddhist monk preparing to advance brain
science.

trauma as a result of the invasion of the Chinese Army into Tibet. Strong
trauma has a definite ability to influence and shape the brain in negative ways.
This is usually seen as greater activity in the right prefrontal lobe, which has
been associated with unhappiness and depression. So it seems that these
monks were able to use meditation to counteract traumatic mental debilitation
and instead learn to have a positive outlook on life, full of compassion and
forgiveness. In other words, meditation re-wired the brain to develop and
support the higher qualities of the mind.

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Figure 4. Scans of brain activity taken from a Tibetan Buddhist
monk at rest and while meditating. Note the increased levels of
activity (red areas) in the left hemisphere of the brain particularly in
the prefrontal lobe.

If you are interested in the effects meditation has on the brain, read:

Just Say Om by Joel Stein published in TIME magazine July 27, 2003

You can find this article on the World Wide Web


http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,471136,00.html

Interactive display of how meditation influences the brain:


http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101030804/om/

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