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Trauma-informed Yoga for Healing with Bill Brown

Updated: Mar 12

In this episode, Bill Brown speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires, on his work with the Prison Yoga Project.

  • The harm punitive incarceration causes for the incarcerated, staff, and families.

  • Working with the body to discharge unresolved trauma

  • Yoga as a tool for tapping into embodied wisdom


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Bill Brown, C-IAYT, is the Executive Director of Prison Yoga Project, a non-profit organization that seeks to create a cultural shift toward a healing-centered approach to addressing crime, addiction, and mental illness through trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness. Bill began working with PYP in 2013 and has served in Federal, State, and County facilities. In 2016 he began offering training with PYP in trauma-informed yoga for incarcerated people and assumed the Executive Director’s role in 2018. He is a contributing editor to the Yoga Service Council/Omega Institute’s book Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System. In his downtime, Bill enjoys the creative outlets of photography and cooking and is an avid reader of science fiction.


Trauma-informed Yoga for Healing with Bill Brown Transcript


Vita Pires: 

Okay, welcome. I'm Vita Pires, the Executive Director of Prison Mindfulness Institute. I'm very happy today to be here with Bill Brown, the Executive Director of the Prison Yoga Project. It's an organization that seeks to create a cultural shift toward a healing centered approach to addressing crime, addiction, mental illness through trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness. 


Bill began working with PYP in 2013 and has served in federal state and county facilities. In 2016, he began offering training with PYP in trauma-informed yoga for incarcerated people and assumed the executive director's role in 2018. He's also a contributing editor to the Yoga Service Council's Omega Institute book called Best Practices for Yoga in the Criminal Justice System. Welcome, Bill. 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah, welcome. Thanks. Thanks for having me. 


Vita Pires: 

You've been teaching this yoga in prisons for a very long time. Maybe you could just begin to share a little bit about what drew you into working in prisons and about your work in general. 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah, okay. It's interesting because it wasn't something that I initially sought out. I came to yoga practice late in life. I was in my 40s when I first began practicing yoga. I'd always had an interest in Eastern religions, in Buddhism, in particular, Tibetan Buddhism. I grew up in Denver and a friend and I would go up to the Karma Zone, Chögyam Trungpa's meditation forces of karmic action in Boulder. 


And so, that was my first introduction, but I was never able to sit still long enough to develop a decent meditation practice. And then, later in life, I relented to some friends that were begging me to come to yoga class, and I finally gave in, and I went to my first yoga class. In it, I got into a pose called Pigeon, which, if you're familiar with yoga, can be pretty intense. You've got one leg tucked up under and you get a very deep stretch in the hip. 


I got into a pigeon, and I started to cry. I really didn't know why. I didn't understand what was happening. Same thing happened again when I got into savasana. I described that as feeling, you know, just this overwhelming sense of relief and being at home in my body, really, for the first time in my life. I was immediately hooked into yoga. I started going 2-3-4 up to eight times a week. The studio is going to offer yoga teacher training. I signed up for that. Not because I wanted to teach yoga, but I just wanted to understand what this transformation that was happening for me was. 


I always had anger management problems, really severe anger management problems, and that was abating as all these emotions were released from my body through the practice. In that yoga teacher training, James Fox, the founder of PYP came and gave a little afternoon workshop. He introduced the idea of yoga as therapy to me for the first time. And so, when he came back to the studio to do a weekend training, I signed up for that. And within six months, I was going into Donovan State Prison here in San Diego offering yoga to the folks incarcerated there. 


What I have discovered since then is a real strong affinity for the people that I meet in prison and jail as people who are generally impacted by some sort of severe developmental trauma and whose lives were altered based on a momentary poor choice, and generally not something that was done in a thoughtful way. When we feel threatened, our bodies just act. That was my experience with my anger and the rage that I would feel. And so, I felt a connection there. 


And also, just a recognition of the ways in which our society is really just failing to care for people who have experienced that kind of trauma that leads to crime or addiction. Of course, mental illness is not really treated if you don't have access to private health care. And so, the three largest providers of mental health care, the Cook County Jail in Chicago, Rikers Island in New York, and the Twin Towers in Los Angeles. So, if you're poor, you get your mental health care by going to jail. 


And so, these are the things that I've seen about the system that really drew me in into this work. I was working as a software developer before and little by little just earning a living wasn't going to do it for me when there was something that I could dedicate my life to that had purpose and meaning. Yeah. So, that's how I got started in this work. Almost, I don't know, not by accident, but not intentionally. But the ways that it has changed me have been really profound. I would say change for the better for the most part. 


Vita Pires: 

Wow. Great. Thank you. Inspiring. So, when you talk about yoga, do you teach yoga just from an Asana base or do you include the whole yogic philosophy? 


Bill Brown: 

Well, yeah, absolutely. The whole yoga philosophy. Yoga is probably one of the most misunderstood words. Everybody when they encounter yoga, they think of that asana practice, and maybe they think of the breath practice. I don't want to say that those aspects of it aren't important, because they do help you reshape your nervous system and restructure the balance between the amygdala, that threat detector that communicates with our body to trigger habitual reaction when we feel unsafe. And then the part of the brain, the mid prefrontal cortex, that allows us to notice what's happening in our environment and in our bodies and make a reasoned decision and maybe suppress an impulse. 


So, there's real value in that work, especially when you take that Asana practice to be more of a dialogue that you're having with your body, listening to what's happening in your body, and then working with the poses or the breath work in order to induce a particular nervous system reaction, either increase energy, invoke a stress response or release the stress response. 


I think that this is sort of fundamental because when we're in a state of fear, a state of unsafety, which if you've got trauma that's stored in the body, the body is communicating that you are unsafe to the brain, as well. And so, it's very difficult to do the type of work that I think, you know, when we start to look at yoga as this way of peeling back the layers of how we've been socialized or domesticated and the beliefs that we've picked up about reality that create ignorance so that we're not seeing clearly. If you're in that state of unsafety, it's difficult to do that second process. 


Oftentimes in our programs, we don't really push that second process so much. The way that we facilitate our yoga programs, and especially given that we're working inside prisons and jails where people are told what to do with their bodies constantly, what we're there to do is offer an opportunity to participate in an experience, and through the recognition of what they're feeling and noticing within themselves, that becomes the teacher. 


I feel like as we start to manage those feelings of unsafety and start to let go of that fear-based reactivity, that will just naturally be the parts of our mind that are more concerned with cooperation and empathy and compassion, they just start to emerge. When we feel safe and when we feel at ease and awake and aware of what's happening in our surroundings, our natural impulse is to connect and to draw together and to support one another. And so, if we create the conditions for that to happen, it just kind of naturally flows in that direction. So again, just not something that we feel we need to push. It just seems to emerge as we do the other work. 


Vita Pires: 

The path quality just kind of emerges through the process. Do we know the prisoners' take to it as a path that they're going to get on? 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah. I mean, it is remarkable. In a lot of ways, the punitive incarceration in the environment is almost the exact opposite of what yoga and mindfulness have to offer. It is an environment that absolutely creates a sense of unsafety. There's a cruel irony in that for folks that are going up against a parole board. The parole board wants to hear you take responsibility for what you've done. Do you have remorse? Do you understand why you did what you did? In other words, do you understand the trauma that you experienced? And have you rehabilitated yourself? 


I say that it's a cruel irony, almost sadistic, because the conditions for that rehabilitation and the conditions for accepting responsibility are the punitive incarceration system and the environment that it creates are the least conducive to that path. And so, when you introduce these practices, it's like the antidote to that environment. It becomes something for the people that go that direction, yeah, becomes a lifestyle. 


When people will ask, like, do guys really want to do yoga? Because there's this image of hard prisoners. My experience is just exactly the opposite. I see more kindness and compassion between the men that are in our programs than I do in everyday life oftentimes. I've got two different classes that I offer at Donovan State Prison and 25 spots in each class. I've got 75 people on the waitlist. Yeah. 


We need to scale up. I'm two out of five yards. We need to scale up from two practices a week to 20 practices a week just to meet that kind of demand. It's almost a necessity to do something to manage your stress in that environment. Especially if you're somebody that's coming in with trauma because it's just compounding that. It's layering trauma on top of trauma in that environment. 


Vita Pires: 

Like you said, you have a waiting list of 75. Are most of the people that come to your class doing it voluntarily or have they volunteered? 


Bill Brown: 

Oh, yeah. Yeah, we wouldn't. Well, there are situations. 


Vita Pires: 

Do you offer a good time for your classes? 


Bill Brown: 

What's that? 


Vita Pires: 

Do you offer good time? Does the facility offer good time? They'll get prisoners to come only for the good time. 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. Good interrelating questions. Voluntary. We stress the importance that programs be voluntary because you can't force somebody to practice in a way that is going to be beneficial to them. And so, there are situations where we have incentive-based housing units in jails and they will require that everybody who's in that IHB participate in the programs that are offered as a condition of being in that environment. 


When they come into the room, the first thing we tell them is that I understand that you are required to be here. Beyond that, there is no requirement from me. If you choose to lay on your mat or sit for the entirety of practice, that's fine. That's your choice. I would love for you to give this a try. And then, make your decision based on what you notice about how you feel after trying out this practice. But I'm not going to require you to practice. 


This also requires educating the facility that this is how it is and so the officers don't go, "Get up. Show some respect and do the practice. He comes here and gives us time." Because that happens. We've had people come in to lay on the mat for six months. And then one day, all of a sudden in the middle of practice, they get up and they start practicing. And it's just like that was their moment. That was what they needed to ease into it in that way. 


So yeah, you cannot force this on anybody. It's just going to backfire. They're just going to resist it if they feel like you're making them do something that they don't want to do. And then, in certain places like in California CDCR, they offer repeat rehabilitative achievement credits. So, folks are in time off their sentence for participating in RAC approved programs, and our programs are RAC approved. I do believe that it may draw in a few people who are only there for the credit. But I also have a number of people who show up for practice, even though they're not on the roster. 


In certain facilities, the custody officers are okay with people not on the roster being in the room practicing. And so, if there's an open mat, yeah, stay for practice. And while I do enjoy that people are and believe that they deserve credit time off their sentence for programming, a reward is the other end of the stick. The carrot is the other end of the stick. And punitive justice is about the stick. And so, those carrots are just another form of punitive justice. There has to be an intrinsic motivation that's present for people to really get the benefit out of following this path. Yeah, so it's a great question. 


Vita Pires: 

Yes. We teach mindfulness-based emotional intelligence and mindfulness practices, etcetera and not, you know, just a little bit of yoga and movement in it. But in the classes that we have in certain states, all the programs are all based on that cookie thing. We're giving you the time off. They have classes that are, you know, volunteer, per se. They only want to put you into the life skills section if you're going to offer this incentive. 


I do the same thing. I do the same approach. You don't have to meditate. You're welcome to sit here and pray or just be silent and enjoy the silence because they do like that to come place. If you want to, that's fine. We all need sleep. And so, it's sometimes, you're right, it does take. One person I remember took three years. In the third year, she was all in. Just 100% in. And she was like, "Okay, I get it." But it took a long time. A lot of classes, so yeah. 


Bill Brown: 

People do their thing. Whatever we're doing, we're doing out of a sense of self preservation. And maybe it's not a really well adapted coping skill but it's what we relied on for our survival. So, you don't want to just take that away from somebody. I think that this gradual approach is here for you. You know, and that eventually, yeah, somebody's going to just be naturally drawn into it. Because it will seem like a superior coping skill to what they might have been doing before. Yeah, three years. Thanks for hanging in there. 


Vita Pires: 

They are doing this. 


Bill Brown: 

Oh, wow. 


Vita Pires: 

Like a lot of resistance. 


Bill Brown: 

I think about the type of interpersonal trauma people have experienced. Can you see this tattoo? I do this. Trust nobody. This is such a common thing where people and the world have let them down so much, why should I trust you? But then how do you get past that? You show up. Every week. And you're open, and you don't try and force something on somebody or tell them they need to be a different way. 


This is something that I think is under-appreciated in this work that mindfulness is important. Yoga is important. There are real genuine benefits to that. But that's not going to happen if the relationship isn't there. If you're coming in a way that's inauthentic or if you're coming in with an agenda and attachment to the outcome, then that is going to get in the way of an authentic trusting relationship developing. 


Josephine, one of our advisors in Sweden, she calls folks that are incarcerated extra perceivers. I love her English or Swedish to English translation of this idea, hyper vigilant, you know, a wall up, and you don't tear that wall down. The person who put it up needs to be the one to take it down. And getting that relationship right. And just the same too, you know, when we do the practices. I had an opportunity after, what was it Saturday before last, we wound up just being able to sit in the room for two hours after we'd done a practice. And about a third of the guys stayed behind. We just sat in a circle and shared and got deep. 


One of the guys said to me, "I think the most valuable part of this is the time that we get to spend together after class because the practice gets us into a space where we're able to feel comfortable sharing in a vulnerable way." Yeah, that's it. It's this community and sense of togetherness and mutual support and being able to be vulnerable. That really is the healing that's happening. 


Vita Pires: 

I mean, I taught in juvie for years. I'm a kundalini yoga teacher. I actually tried to bring in basic yoga. These guys were there. They were so contracted. They were so contracted they had no flexibility. And they were kind of embarrassed about the fact that I'm six years older than them and I could bend over, and they can't, you know, that kind of thing. I've given them the fast Kundalini moves. They all laugh at that. And then, you're right, it kind of breaks down. Then, we just had a big laugh about the whole thing. And then, they really enjoyed it. It isn't about trying to be flexible and do yoga moves or anything like that. 


Bill Brown: 

Well, and the humor that emerges. I feel this. I joke a lot when I'm facilitating my classes, my practices, because I think that laughter is so connected. And yeah, this is another reason why it's like, you know, if the goal is to get more flexible, or the goal is to be able to do this pose in some sort of optimal way, then this is going to wind up leaving a lot of people out. I mean, too old, too stiff and male, is an excuse. Right? 


And really, if we shift the focus of the practice to be on recognizing, particularly when we're in a stress, a stressed state, and then applying some simple tools in order to shift our nervous system in a different direction, then it doesn't matter what kind of body you're in. You're able to practice that. If it becomes about the mindful awareness of whether we're in a sympathetic nervous system or parasympathetic nervous system activation, then it becomes more accessible to everybody. 


This is something that this practice that I have on Saturdays, I've got folks that come in, in walkers. I've got guys that can freehand stand in the middle of the room with no problem. And so, somehow, I'm going to facilitate a practice that is going to be accessible for both of them. It may not be as physically demanding as what some people could do but they have plenty of time to practice in a more physically demanding way or to work out. And so yeah, shifting the balance towards mindfulness absolutely makes it more accessible for everybody. 


And you, hats off to you, because you're dealing with a mind that's still developing and that is programmed to push against authority in order to form peer groups. And so, you're going into a space where we're biologically programmed to resist. 


Vita Pires: 

I mean, I just kind of gave up the agenda and just showed up. And then, they enjoyed it. We did all kinds of things. We listened to music. We played games. We talked. We did circles. We drummed on the table. We did listen to some tapes of meditation. They liked some. They didn't like some. We were open about what they liked and what they didn't like. 


Have you ever worked in jails? Because you know, like during COVID, we have been working on Zoom in a few jail systems. Jails have a constantly changing population. You can't really get a foothold with the same group being on week after week. You may only have one chance to see somebody and give them something that could be useful for them. 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah. Yeah. In California, you know, they did this prison alignment because the prisons are so overcrowded that they moved people who had nonviolent offenses into local jails. So, the average stay went from 90 days to over a year. And of course, jails are not physically configured to hold people for that long. You don't have access to outdoor spaces. You don't have room to move around. So, in some ways, this was really harmful for the folks that are serving longer sentences in jails. 


Here in California, we may have people for, I mean, there's a woman at Las Colinas, the women's jail here in San Diego County, who is doing more than 14 years. I mean, it's so different all over the whole United States and around the world. But, you know, typically, yeah. We have a practice in San Diego Central Jail. One week, I went there. It was a very odd week because only two guys showed up. 


I remember them so well. One gentleman was over six feet tall and just thin as a rail. The other guy couldn't have been, you know, maybe five foot three, and just round. I thought they were just the strangest pair. I asked them, "What made you want to come to yoga?" And they said, "Well, I've been looking forward to this since last week, or since Wednesday." And I said, "Well, you've never done yoga before. What happened on Wednesday?" 


"Oh, well, we were in our computer class. Everybody was kind of out of sorts. And so, one of the fellows said, you know, why don't we do some of that yoga and see if we can get into the group." And so, they brought yoga into their computer class as a way of preparing themselves for the computer class. And I thought, "That's brilliant." And so, whatever it was that they had done for this one guy, the taller guy had worked, and he wanted to come to yoga class ever since. And so, he had his friend who's healthy, who was concerned and said, "Come to the yoga class with me." 


We get down to the end of practice. And I asked, you know, how was that? The taller guy said, "Well, you know, great." I mean, his energy was completely different after that one practice. He told me that he was a homeless man. He said that he would wake up in the morning and he just walked. He walks all day long until he gets so exhausted that he can sleep. And so, this is how, you know, severe anxiety. And this is how he copes with it. I said, "Well, what do you do in here?" And he said, "Well, when we can get out of ourselves, then I just do a circuit around the day room." And so, he paces laps around the day room. 


And I said, "Well, what happens if you're locked down?" And he said, "Well, when we're on lockdown, I just sit in my cell, and I shake." And I said, "Well, what are you going to do now if you're on lockdown." He starts doing sun salutations, just standing sun salutations. I thought, great. I left that day. I was coming back the next week, and I'm really looking forward to seeing these two guys again, and I came into the room, and they're gone. They're not there. And this is the way it is oftentimes with jail that you might have somebody who comes in once, but already, he had felt a shift for him and had picked up a tool that was going to be useful and helpful for him in a situation. So, I felt satisfied with that. 


Then about six months or so afterwards, I was subbing in another one of our programs, and I came into the room. I'm standing there. I got my mat set up and greeted people as they came in. And this guy walks up, and he puts his hand on my shoulder, and he just looks me in the eyes. It took me a second. I thought, "Oh, my God, it's you." And he smiles. And he nods. And he's like, "Yep, it's me." And I said, "You're like, a whole different person." And he says, "Yeah, I'm a changed man." 


He says, "I practice yoga every single day. This has saved my life." I wish that I really could capture the degree to which he's changed. I mean, maybe just having a bed and a roof over his head and food was a part of it. But God, he was so centered in his body, and so present to me, and just like, I mean, I really wish I could follow up with him and see where this all went in the intervening years since I've seen him. 


I mean, just like for me, you know. It's the same thing for me that one practice that I get into, and I have this release. The pigeon on the right-side laying on my back in savasana and feeling at peace, that's not tied to nothing. I mean, I grew up in a home where anger was a daily thing with my father, but I had a medical trauma. When I was four years old, I broke my femur. 


In the course of setting my femur, they have to pull the leg in traction, right, because the muscles of the quadriceps and the hamstrings are so strong, they have to pull the leg apart to get the bone to set and hold it there. Well, they had wrapped the bandages too tight around my heels, it caused gangrene. And so, I lost a part of my foot. And for four days, you know, I'm four years old, heavy cast on myself, trying to relieve the pressure that's on my foot. 


And so, I'm lying in a hospital bed, and I'm lifting up my hip to try and relieve the pressure. Meanwhile, a part of myself is literally dying and nobody is coming to help me. Nobody's coming to help me. And in that state of exhaustion and holding but failing to really help myself, I developed this mantra that God doesn't love me. And this is sort of the loop that had been playing in the background in my mind for my whole life. 


When I got into yoga and I started that practice, that trauma held very acutely for me. I think for most people, it's held more generally in their body, or maybe it's that crouching, you know, if you're trying to protect yourself, or if there's another physical position that you might have been in when you experienced trauma. When that started to release, my nervous system started to shift and change. It was that first yoga practice that I got into that I felt something so profoundly different for myself than I was used to, because of the experience of living in this body that was carrying trauma that it hooked me in, you know, but I had the resources. 


I had access to a yoga studio, and I had the money to sign up for an unlimited yoga package at an expensive yoga studio. And when the teacher training came around, I had the money to sign up for the teacher training. When it came to yoga therapy, I had the money to do my yoga therapy program, and most people don't. "I don't have one. I could not pay for a yoga teacher training at this point in my life. I don't have the financial resources for that." 


Vita Pires: 

Are there scholarships for people?


Bill Brown: 

This is our policy. We offer tiered pricing on all of our training programs. There's a community rate, which is generally below market for other training. And then, we have a supporter and a benefactor rate that are suggested, where you get the same access as everybody. Everybody gets the same access but if you can afford to pay more, we give a receipt for tax deduction of the additional amount paid. And then if you request a scholarship for our foundational training, we immediately send people a link to register for $100 off and an explanation that if this is more than you can comfortably afford, just write back to us and let us know what you can afford and we're going to send you a link to register at that cost, because nobody is turned away. 


We do the same thing with our yoga teacher training, which is much more expensive for us to run. But 50% of the people receive scholarships. The average scholarship is about 50%. And so, we have people who are paying almost nothing. It's amazing. It's blowing my mind. Yoga teachers, one, Yoga Alliance and their standards don't really recognize the impact that it has on the nervous system. 


And so, in your anatomy requirements, there's nothing to talk about the nervous system. So, in our yoga teacher training, we fix that. The assumption is that you would be offering this inside a studio. And so, with our yoga teacher training, it's specifically geared towards offering it in non-studio settings, whether that be prison or jail, hospital, school, homeless shelter. 


Vita Pires: 

Are they offering these in post-release facilities? 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah. Yeah, transitional facilities. So, there's a woman who had been through our first cohort, her name is Celeste, and she's an older Black woman, somebody that we gave a significant scholarship to. She is now going into her community in Alabama and offering in recovery centers. And then also at a community center. I just got an email or a scholarship request from a young 21-year-old, Black man, who had been to her community center class, and it's like, I want to practice yoga, I want to learn to be a yoga teacher. And so, you know, I just am so happy to know that what we're doing is changing the face of the community, of people who practice and teach yoga. 


I can't wait to see what the impact this is going to have over the next 10 years because it's so necessary, like in our world, to spread this type of work. Yeah, we're facing challenges now that do not require a physical response. Our bodies evolved to respond to stress with a physical response. And most of the responses that we need today are empathy or an intellectual or reasoned intellectual response. And if we're just surrendering to our amygdala, then we're doomed as a species. We have to cultivate a different way of being in the world. And it is a conscious choice to engage in these practices that help us to manage that habitual or instinctual response, and respond more appropriately to reality as it is.


Vita Pires: 

So, we're about at time, but I want to ask you one last question. What advice would you give to people who aspire to want to teach in prisons? What advice would you give them? 


Bill Brown: 

Yeah, just really understand that this is very serious work. And that the people that you are going to meet have experienced a significant amount of trauma and grief, and so be prepared for what that is like. The best way that you can prepare yourself for that is to focus on your own practice and make sure that you are ready and, in a place, where you can hold space. 


Some people will refer to it and I think you mentioned lifestyle skills. Like, I'll teach you something about managing your stress. That's not how it works. I walk into a room and people start to either feel more at ease, or more uncomfortable based on my presence, and this goes for every space that we walk into. Are you able to walk into a room in a way that immediately helps people to coregulate, to start to regulate based on your grounded-ness and your centeredness. 


So, doing your own work, I think, is absolutely essential. And then going in with your eyes wide open, and, you know, understanding the paths that have led people acknowledging biases and things like structural racism and poverty and how all of that contributes to incarceration and your own positionality within it and understanding all of that but then letting it go and showing up in a very authentic way so that you're not trying to be something that you're not in this situation. 


Ultimately, I think if you are somebody who is motivated by compassion and showing up in an authentic way, it doesn't matter who you are in terms of your social, political, economic identity, people are going to respond to your humanity, more than they're responding to anything else. At least that's been my experience.


Vita Pires: 

Thank you. 


Bill Brown: 

Thank you. 


Vita Pires: 

It was very inspiring to meet you. I really applaud your work and hope that it flourishes for many eons to come. 


Bill Brown: 

We're experiencing a period of rapid growth actually. It's good to see from a social standpoint and what it means about really recognizing that care is superior to punishment if we really want to change our society. 


Vita Pires: 

Thank you so much, Bill. 


Bill Brown: 

Thank you. 







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