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What It’s Like to Be an Instagram Yoga Star with 1.2 Million Followers Living in Paradise

in Public Display of Yoga, YD News

Rachel-Brathen-yoga-instagram

She lives full time in Aruba. She teaches yoga around the world. She has 1.2 million followers on instagram. She’s @yoga_girl. Oh, and she has a new book, also called Yoga Girl. It’s a book about yoga, of course, and “spectacular photos” of her practicing yoga “with breathtaking tropical backdrops, along with step-by-step yoga sequences and simple recipes for a healthy, happy, and fearless lifestyle.”

Lest the spectacular photos lead to you think otherwise, Rachel Brathen (her real name), international instagram yoga star, is indeed a living, breathing human, and she made an appearance on Fox News today to help prove it – a stop along her international book tour.

How did it go? I’ll let the banter speak for itself, featuring news anchor Rosanna Scotto, Fox News Guy (I don’t watch enough to know his name) and Rachel Brathen, slightly condensed from the video:

Rosanna: But you know what? Besides, that she can do these great poses, she is an instructor. She knows what she’s doing, you know?

::pause::

Oh, how pretty these shots are!

Fox News Guy: There are a lot of yoga instructors out there. But you’re, like, probably the most popular in the world. How did that happen?

Rachel: I don’t know. I try to be as real as I can. I try to not show only the perfect side or having a good life. I try to show the realness of actual human living.

Fox News Guy: These pictures look pretty perfect!

Rachel: I know!

End scene.

For some background:

Last year, the newlywed spent 40 weeks traveling the world teaching yoga. Much of her travels are documented in photos. Brathen posts up to four times a day. But there’s more to it than handstands and complicated balancing sequences.

“It’s not just about the poses we do. It’s more about what comes from the heart and how you feel,” said Brathen.

It also doesn’t hurt that the backdrop for many of her IG photos are stunning sunrises, sunsets and everything in between from her island home.

“My husband takes most of the photos and we have a friend who is a photographer who helps us,”said Brathen.

Must be nice. Here goes my spiel.

Criticizing Rachel for having a slim body or being a blonde gal living in Aruba isn’t what we’re all here to do, because that’s just as wrong and mean. But (you knew there was a but coming) I find this sort of popularity and level of instagram yoga celebrity to be all of fascinating, frustrating and perplexing. Fascinating and perplexing because there are actually 1.2 million people who are that interested in a thin, attractive, blonde woman bending and contorting her body wearing very little clothing…er…wait. Nevermind. This is the internet.

Frustrating because she is perpetuating an image of yoga that is super exclusive to bendy, young, fit people who have to do fancy poses (yes, the stigma still exists…see Rosanna Scotto’s comments and the reaction from the third grader who can’t stop making dumb jokes). And maybe it’s even unintentional on Rachel’s part – is she supposed to gain weight, change her hair color and only do savasana just because? The frustration also comes because as much as she wants to show how “real” she is, what we actually receive is an instagrammed version of Better Homes & Yoga, or Cosmoyogaton. I’ve seen her book, and unfortunately it’s just a coffee table book version of her instagram feed.

Why do we obsess about yoga on the beach in front of a sunset, anyway? Skinny bodies and the perfect quinoa bowl recipes? Terrifically difficult balancing postures that 90% of us don’t need to ever do in our lives to practice our yoga? And by “we” I mean the many (millions?) of people who look at those photos on @yoga_girl’s instagram account and feel envious, wishing they could have just a slice of that gluten free, soy free, dairy free paradise pie.

That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate her for who she is. Rachel manages to handle the juvenile Fox news team members rather gracefully as she tries to teach them a little eagle arms, and that’s no easy feat. And in her interview, she does seem a little more down to earth than she may appear in her perfect photos. She’s a hardcore yogapreneur and it’s not like she hasn’t put some work into it.

We all want to live our best lives, sure, but I’m going to guess fawning over idyllic scenarios probably isn’t the way to do it. That may be Rachel Brathen’s real life, but, taking a look around, it’s not mine, and it’s probably not yours either. The good part is, that’s perfectly OK. What makes me sad, and the problem I feel this causes, is that I’m not sure how many of the 1.2 million followers remember that.

If you want a refreshing look at how yoga affects many different people, check out the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and read Body-Positive Yoga: The Aging Yoga Body by Charlotte Bell.

~

hollypenny is a writer, yoga practitioner and dimply-butted gal living in New York City. Her interests include taking long walks, meeting smart people and trying to make sense of the world. She appreciates those who dig instagram though she has somehow managed to stay far away from regularly using the app herself.

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40 comments… add one
  • Jen

    Thank you for this article. It perfectly states what’s been bouncing around in my head for a few months now.

  • Glad you posted something about Rachel. I got a press release from her PR agent and actually saved it because it felt significant to me. That a 26-year old can post pictures of herself on Instagram and garner a million followers, and the wide-eyes of those who know how to profit off of that, is a new phenomenon. I too have no bad words or feeling for Rachel, she is just doing her thing and I wouldn’t want to knock her. For me, it has more to do with the realities of new media and marketing through them.

    Here is a highlight from PR email I got:

    “Rachel brings inspiring yoga poses, personal stories of triumph and heartbreak, and bohemian beauty tips to a vibrant online community… Part memoir, part yoga guide, YOGA GIRL offers an intimate snapshot of Rachel’s life. She shares her inspirational personal journey for the first time, revealing how she went from a teen addicted to cigarettes and alcohol to a world-renowned yoga instructor.”

    “From a teen addicted to cigarettes and alcohol to a world-renowned yoga instructor” ???

    Really? Nuff said.

    • inanna

      j, i am a bit confused by your comment here. to clarify, are you saying that someone with mental health issues – which all addiction issues are – has nothing to offer as a teacher? or that someone who has overcome these is not inspiring?

      to contextualise, my life as a practitioner and teacher is about as far removed from rachel’s as it’s possible to be. practice consists of first sweeping a sea of toys off my mat, and locating blocks/belts etc that have often been incorporated into den-building. my backdrop is a stack of school books, drying school uniform next to the fire, and a sleeping baby, rather than tumbling waterfalls and tropical foliage. i loathe the commercial face of yoga – i know how it plays on my own insecurities, even though i actually am white, skinny and bendy. i also dislike the “empowerment” narrative that runs through the stories and presentations of themselves as teachers/practitioners in women such as bryony smyth-kate (equinox video from a few years ago), in which the fact that they are possibly causing a load of other women to feel bad about themselves and perpetuating body stereotypes, is wholly ignored. i actually can do “advanced” asana, but find it more challenging and of more value in terms of living my life with as mich compassion and clarity as i can muster to focus on lying quietly in s b konasana (etc). i won’t be looking at rachel’s instagram as it just isn’t even interesting to me, let alone inspiring, so i don’t know her full backstory. but i want to say that living with any kind of addiction and utilising yoga practices to do so can in itself allow those of us who have that work to do to feel an enormous amount of compassion for the suffering of others. i imagine, from my own perspective of the cold, muddy english spring, that life is probably easier in a tropical paradise – but i also know that it’s perfectly possible to be miserable while surrounded by beauty.

      i want to say that i find your comment “nuff said” dismissive, and that i think this derails the very important conversations we’re having in the yoga world about media representation, body image and unacknowleged privilege. i don’t think it’s ever quite as simple as “beautiful body/seductive (paradigm-maintaining) imagery = facile practice”. this is a form of prejudice. as matthew remski points out in his latest post calling out another blogger’s lack of understanding regarding depression, mental health prejudice is alive and well in the yoga community. you are disguising what appears to be yours by engaging with the other issues this post highlights.

      and – YES, amber!

      • inanna- “Nuff said” was dismissive (maybe not a good choice.) But I did not intend to be dismissive of Rachel. I don’t know her and I have not read all her posts or looked at much of her work. I was commenting on the PR email I got promoting her new book and the way that having Instagram followers has become a way to create products and market them. The sell point of her being a teen who was addicted to cigarettes and alcohol and became a world renowned yoga teacher at age 26 struck me as superficial and devalues whatever merit she might be offering.

        If my comment felt like I was in any way derailing the conversation about body image and male privilege then I am most sorry for that. I have made my positions on these matters clear:
        http://www.jbrownyoga.com/blog/2015/3/brogis-need-to-recognize

        I do appreciate you holding my feet to the fire.
        Much obliged.

        • inanna

          hi j, thanks for the clarification. i didn’t feel that dismissiveness was the main tone of your comment, as it seemed at odds with what i know of your work. but, i think we have to be careful with our language use to ensure that the point we’re actually making isn’t muddied by HOW we make it. i also think that as practitioners, we are at a point where it’s vital to hold our teachers, and our community, accountable to the standards they set themselves. so i thank you for your humility and willingness to engage with the question i raised – this is maybe the best way to “see” how and when we’re coming from a place of privilege (“power over”) – which by virtue of the fact that we have time to practice and comment on yoga, we must all have to some degree.

          for what it’s worth, i completely agree with you about marketing devaluing what teachers, and yoga, offer. perhaps this is a price we have to pay if we’re willing to submit to the marketing/pr machine – our image isn’t necessarily representative of who we are, just of what will best sell our product. feels like an icky tradeoff to me…but authenticity is a surefire path to poverty in my part of the world!

  • Yes, there is plenty of attention given to scantily clad women performing extreme backbends. This is the West after all, and sex and escapism always sells. I’m doing my best to include some simple, approachable and useful asana instruction on my feed so that #yoga isn’t all about sex and sunsets (and backbends and handstands). Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, but I don’t feel it’s representative of Yoga (or even #yoga).

    http://www.Instagram.com/briankroekeryoga

  • Chris

    This was a weird YD post; the headline turns out to be clickbait, seeing as the premise (by the end) of the post runs counter to the lede. If it started with the 2nd to last paragraph, and went from there maybe it would have a foundation to build on. Faulting someone for perpetuating something that they are doesn’t seem fair. And no mention of the string of posts from when her friend died last year? Those series of pictures probably lost her tens of thousands of followers – not exactly the kind of thing one does when they are all about trying to create “Cosmoyogaton.”

    I think the writer is actually onto something in all of this, but it feels like it’s not yet a complete thought, just her personal gut feeling with a cheap fox news piece to help. I mean, fox news would have done the exact same wide-eyed act had it been guruji himself, right?

    • Chris, well said, and I agree. There is a conversation to be had around what “yoga careers” look like these days – but this post feels incomplete to me. What is the author saying here other than it’s “fascinating, frustrating and perplexing” that this girl is so popular? Yes, skinny, bendy white girls sell yoga magazines and get lots of followers. We know this. I want to push this conversation further – and I hope that this post is the beginning of that.

      It seems like there are 2 visible, well-known options if you want to make a career out of yoga:

      1. Be a “yogalebrity” and travel around the world teaching workshops and retreats (and also be physically and aesthetically gifted, as all yogalebrities are)

      2. Scrap together weekly classes, substitute for others’ classes, run yourself ragged all over town trying to teach, teach workshops in other towns but pay your own travel costs and barely break even. Usually, combine this with another full time job (or support from a partner or parent with money) to actually make it livable.

      I want to know what option 3 is. I’m working on that myself. How can we use social media, online community building, and all the technology that affords us the ability to have the same type of reach that Rachel does? How do we use all that to our advantage to create a lifestyle that feels good and is also financially doable.

      How can I build my Body Positive Yoga online community to help sustain and support me financially in a way that I could never do with weekly classes in the small town where I live?

      Have other people done it (maybe folks like me who don’t look like or as bendy as Rachel or Kathryn Budig)? Who’s been successful? What’s their day look like?

      Who are the people who make a living off yoga but aren’t huge in social media (I think of my teacher, Anna Pittman in Blacksburg, Virginia, who makes a modest living off running teacher training, weekly classes, and personal coaching and still has the freedom to mostly stay close to home and have a garden and hobbies)?

      Who are the folks doing interesting things as “yoga careers” other than Option A and Option B? I’d love to have this conversation and see other folks talking about this.

    • Cathy G

      I agree. The article is rambly and alternates between against Rachel and her skinny pretty bendiness photoed against a beach and wondering about media and the fascination held by computer/instagram addiction and prey. Grow up. Get off Instagram and do the poses! Darn it!

  • k4k

    That was a weird video. It seemed as though she was at least trying to keep the focus on yoga and the foxy people were laughing at her and not showing her (or yoga) any respect. Yes, she is a yoga stereotype but they were really obnoxious and made this worse. I don’t disagree with the criticism of yoga celebrities and I am not interested in her book or her website, but still, not really her fault on this one.

  • Bryonie

    I’m curious — have you read anything Rachel has written?

    At all?

    Have you immersed yourself in her words & looked past the shape she comes in?

    Doesn’t our practice encourage us to go deeper?

    • Rosanne

      I ask myself the same questions. It comes across as the author judging based on surface appearances. I guess “I’ve seen her book” really says it all?
      Rachel regularly posts long captions with her photos and when she does it’s usually about ‘the realness of actual human living’, as she called it on Fox. I am often sincerely touched by what she shares, sometimes it hits me hard. And nothing about that has to do with the photos, how she or anything she portrays looks; it’s the sharing, the vulnerability and the spirit.

  • Asananine

    It’s hard enough to make a living as a yoga teacher. The few who manage to be successful can expect judgment from their peers when they have made it. Much of the time it is hard to separate whether the motivation is honest criticism or just plain jealousy.

    • inanna

      …and yet, as amber says above in another context, there is a middle ground. criticism and critique are not actually the same thing. discernment (satya!) is part of what i understand to be yoga.

  • David Lincecum

    Oh man. I have had it with people criticizing people who do yoga in beautiful places and photograph it. And before you say you’re not criticizing. You are! This is just another in a long line of people saying that slim white people eating quinoa and doing sunrise yoga for a camera are ruining yoga. Yoga has been ruined over and over again and is not bruised. I am sure the yogis of the 13th century were criticizing the “hatha yogis” for ruining yoga. Before you tell me I am “missing the point” or something like that. I am not. It’s just popular these days to write about the ruination of yoga because it became so commercial and mainstream and the damage its doing to young women’s body images. It’s all just mind stuff. Yoga is just fine. Let’s just stop making up scenarios where it’s a little more perfect.

  • Asananine

    It’s all part of the yoga ecosystem. There are those whose notoriety is based on criticizing those that are more popular. They usually criticize the person and then hide behind the idea that in fact they are only criticizing a general idea. Somehow they manage to project an image that they are more “authentic”. Beware the self appointed gatekeepers.

  • She teaches sold-out yoga workshops and retreats across the world, and her yet-to-be-titled book will be released in Sweden (her home country) this fall and in the United States next spring.

  • Asananine

    “Fascinating and perplexing because there are actually 1.2 million people who are that interested in a thin, attractive, blonde woman bending and contorting her body wearing very little clothing…er…wait. Nevermind. This is the internet.”

    Let’s consider the possibility that maybe they are interested in her because she has overcome obstacles in her life and is inspirational.

    The following text accompanied an instagram photo of her in camel pose in which she is neither contorted nor wearing very little clothing:

    “The less I speak the more I know.
    This is so incredibly difficult for me. It might not look it, but Ustrasana, Camel Pose, is one of the hardest poses I know. Heart openers… I can’t. Everything hurts. My heart has been slammed shut by pain and grief and death and despair my entire life. Not just now, this past year, but ever since I was little. My first big moment of grief? I was 2 and a half, when my parents separated. After that, at 5 years old when my stepdad died in a plane crash. And again, six months later when my mom decided to take her own life and leave me and my brother behind. She threw us a birthday party and wrote me a goodbye letter and then swallowed an entire box of sleeping pills with half a bottle of vodka and that was the end of my heart. Now, as chance, or faith, or destiny has it… She didn’t die. But; how do you recover from your mom purposely leaving you?
    You don’t. You learn to live with your heart boarded shut and you let yoga crack that motherfucking beating bastard open a little bit more, every single day. You try. And you keep trying. Because maybe one day, maybe one thousand camels from now… You’ll be free. And you’ll be grateful. Grateful that you have a mother that’s alive and breathing and feeling and trying and doing her best, every day.
    Just like you.”

    • Min

      I screen shot this post when she posted it – its beautiful and heart breaking and heart warming and inspiring, everything people want from instayoga – I am a fan….anyone who criticizes her gratuitous bikini shoots should read this post, and plenty of others of the same ilk – 1.2 million people following are not just there for the perve folks!

  • VQ2

    I really liked her interview with Waylon Lewis over on Elephant TV.
    She is remarkably down to earth, but her claims of putting up the 24-hour-handstands-all-the-time media empire on social media are on target. They are all about self-promotion, she admits.
    Picture painted here is that she might be the Miley Cyrus of yoga …

  • Asananine

    Not claiming she is not self promoting. Self promotion takes many forms, whether it be on facebook, instagram. email contacts, blog posts or articles. This site makes money off of advertising or paid promotion. She is successful, so makes a better target for manufactured controversy.

  • John

    She’s interesting on all sorts of levels.

    Why do so many people who know nothing about her as a handstand instructor beyond the fact she has shared a number of photos of herself doing handstands with dodgy technique in a bikini rush to her handstand workshops? What is it they think they’re buying? She has provided no evidence she understands the physical movement she is going to teach or that people who learn it from her will gain something on the basic physical level (and the workshops are sold as physical movement instruction). It’s interesting to compare her marketing technique with the even more savvy people like Yuval.

    How does the fact she is profiting from her “suffering overcome” narrative affect its impact?

    Is she complicit in reinforcing the lie (common in yoga circles) that a financially relatively comfortable life in a stunning location funded by teaching yoga is a realistic possibility for any one provided they show sufficient dedication/release their ego/pick your yoga myth? (It isn’t, a huge amount of luck is involved in her success, appearance is a big part of it, and there’s only enough demand for a few people to do what she does)

    Personally I think she’s just another celebrity, some one who’s managed to sell a lifestyle fantasy to a public willing to pay to feel they’re somehow sharing in it. Good luck to her, and her customers, I’m choosing not to give her any of my money, and I find the whole thing curious, but each to their own.

  • inanna

    re:
    Is she complicit in reinforcing the lie (common in yoga circles) that a financially relatively comfortable life in a stunning location funded by teaching yoga is a realistic possibility for any one provided they show sufficient dedication/release their ego/pick your yoga myth? (It isn’t, a huge amount of luck is involved in her success, appearance is a big part of it, and there’s only enough demand for a few people to do what she does)

    i feel like we tend to have a hard time letting go of this one! as bloggers/teachers who have finely-tuned lenses other than just a yoga one ably show, and as you say, this is common and cherished myth. it reinforces, and maybe in part stems from, all kinds of subtle cultural undercurrents about personal agency vs the political/societal structure we’re all part of; the myth of free will vs neuroscience’s uncovering of neuroplasticity; biology = destiny; abundance will flow if we just find and follow our bliss… so yes, i suspect that interest in rachel includes all of this. and as such, rather than resorting to the usual “don’t be a hater”/”it’s all yoga” arguments that always appear 1/2-2/3 of the way through a comments page, deconstructing her as a signifier is an excellent opportunity to get clear on what this strange thing called yoga is at the moment – and how we all create that, and can move on from it if we choose.

    • Asananine

      If there is something legitimate then criticize all you want. I just don’t see it. What I have seen my entire yoga life is petty jealousies among yoga teachers trying to make a living. The more you are successful, generally the more you are on the receiving end. I see this as a prime example.

      This has devolved into a farcical tribunal. “Is she complicit in reinforcing the lie…”
      One lie she is not involved in perpetuating is cranking out yoga teachers in the first place. Leave that to the teacher trainings that prop up the whole yoga business like a pyramid scheme. I suppose she is “complicit” in encouraging people to sign up to become yoga teachers because she lives on a tropical island. Yes now I see the logic.

      • John

        As some one who got their relatively marketable teacher training out of the way before they started to cost silly money and then kept my day job, turning down enough work teaching yoga to make a comfortable living because I saw the glut coming, I can observe “petty jealousies” from smug security though mostly I see teachers offer each other incredible support.

        Successful people are understandably prone to credit their hard work and dedication for their success rather than admit how much is down to good luck and circumstances outside their control. In a world where very talented teachers struggle to make ends meet booking out a global teaching tour is success. Is she clear sighted, open, and honest, about how much of her success is down to appearance, good luck, and other factors totally outside her control or does she perpetuate the myth any one can achieve exactly the same if they follow whichever jackpot yoga philosophy she espouses?

        Why do people go to her workshops, paying her to teach a physical skill of which her photos and comments show neither mastery nor deep understanding? Why would people pay to train with an instructor who never shows pictures of their students and their progress? Is she selling a narrative as much as physical instruction and, if so, how honest is it?

        • Asananine

          I have no idea how much of her success is due to her appearance or good luck. Since these seem to be factors that you deem relevant, maybe teacher trainings should underscore the importance of these factors as the basis for a successful career in yoga. You make a case that it has little to do with talent, as there are very talented teacher who struggle. Why it is incumbent on her, I have no idea, as she is not doing teacher training. I do not agree that the fact of her success perpetuates a myth, but everyone can interpret it as they wish.

          People attend workshops all the time taught by teachers that may not demonstrate mastery or deep understanding. If they were to follow your advice there would be lots of empty workshops. Again, I have never taken a workshop with her, so I cannot comment on her technical skills as a teacher a priori. As for showing pictures of students and their progress, I have rarely seen such pictures outside of weight loss ads.

          I have no reason to doubt her honesty, as I have not had any interaction with her. I did however read the glowing reviews for her book on Amazon and they are extremely complementary. There was one review that mentioned attending a retreat with her and praised her. I have no reason to doubt their honesty either.

          • John

            Never seen pictures of students and their progress? Offering less information than weight loss ads in marketing material is not a good thing. People like Yuval and Ido – physical activity instructors the yoga world could learn a lot from in terms of doing social media marketing better – do. Why do they do it? They’re appealing to people smart enough to work out that being able to do something doesn’t equate to being able to teach it and they’re confident enough in their skill and ability to credit their students.

            Oh, well, if her book and even retreat gets good reviews on amazon it must be amazing. I’ve never seen any book espousing totally ridiculous ideas get good reviews on amazon and no one in the yoga world has ever attracted an enthusiastic following with poor quality instruction and facile pseudo philosophy.

            You’re right, there’s nothing remotely curious or interesting to examine here, and if there were attempting to examine it would be putting on trial some one so wonderful they get good amazon reviews – a crime in itself!

  • The beach, the youth, the blond hair, the flexible body… it looks like a dream, a pristine image of childhood memories, that sweet child o’mine we dream to find or become.
    She seems to be genuine and “solaria” (as the Italians would say), and I guess the main effect (didn’t say purpose, because only her knows that) of this Instagram account is to give a little moment of calm and relief to these people. A glimpse of a dream, her’s, and whithin which anyone can project their own.

  • Asananine

    Thanks for introducing me to Yuval and Ido. If not for you I would never have heard of them. The only thing curious here is the article itself and some of the comments. I rest my case.

  • Nicole

    John- I totally agree with your observations and questions!!! Thanks for adding to this conversation!

  • jo

    Interesting to note that although she tries to make her teen years sound so dreadful, like she headed towards a wasted terrible life…. addicted to cigarettes and booze, wow. Who didn’t smoke and drink in their youth. Hardly a troubled past. But, the thing that most don’t know is that she grew up in a very affluent suburb of Stockholm and her father was (and is) extremely wealthy. She has been traveling to far flung locales staying in 5 star luxury hotels her whole life. Hardly a troubled past.

  • Catalina

    Hi I just wanna say that I understand how you feel but also why it would be so important what other people do? And trying to make sense of it?
    I think the best thing we can learn from yoga and meditation is basically is to take care of our personal space .. And be in peace no matter what’s out there
    So why not to look inside and see what’s going on really … Is it so important what others do? And this goes for me too
    Thanks

  • Natalie

    I’m putting myself out there as a follower of Rachel….

    I picked up Rachel’s book in a bookstore on a lunch break from my dull job on a cold winters day. I bought it because to me it was a nice ‘sunny’ book during a grey time. Most importantly it led me to beginning a yoga practise of my own which is changing my life. I also signed up to her online classes which cost me £10 a month – it costs that for just 1 class in the UK and I can’t afford it. So for me Rachel has made yoga totally accessible (and has taken away the middle class element I feel it has in the UK). I find her style to be extremely nourishing and kind which I think a lot of us newbies need. I’ve obviously tried looking for online classes on YouTube but that is a minefield. For me, whatever the ‘backlash’ Rachel receives because she obviously will (to balance), I am grateful for her bringing yoga to my life. Over the years I have been to so many different yoga classes and it’s hers that I’ve finally connected with.

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