Introduction to Ayurveda: Ayurvedic Medicine, the Science of Life

The Internet is an expanding universe of health and fitness ‘how to’ guidelines. Recommendations range from simple, practical tips, like “eat only until you feel full” and “start your day with some exercise”, to bizarre practices like eating cotton balls to curb the appetite while avoiding calories…really?

Google “The Cotton Ball Diet” and The Karaoke Workout (think treadmill + karaoke).

 

Here, at the height of human medical and scientific knowledge, we’re now confronted with an almost overwhelming number of health and fitness ‘experts’. Gurus are everywhere! Separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, can be challenging.

 

The quest for the ultimate health plan, that perfect fitness, diet, and lifestyle routine to solve our problems and launch us into health and wellbeing, is nothing new. As long as societies have existed, humankind has sought to understand the human body and being, and to unlock its ultimate potential. Ancient India, for one, was a culture far advanced at the time in its understanding of the principles of health, healing, and longevity. Traditional concepts and practices form the ancient universal health system known as Ayurveda, India’s wholistic approach to health that is as valid and practical today as it was centuries ago.

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is a sister science of yoga. While yoga at its core is the ancient Indian discipline that strives for spiritual evolution, it is the traditional Indian medical science that deals with the physical body, its health, and the prevention and cure of disease. The origin of Ayurveda in ancient India, however, doesn’t mean it is unattainable in modern times or different parts of the world. So, what is Ayurveda through a contemporary Western perspective?

For a simple Ayurveda definition, we can look to its literal translation, ‘the science of life’. Like yoga, it is more than just a group of practices and techniques, it’s a way of life, of co-operating with nature and living in harmony with it.

Ayurveda includes herbal medicine, diet, bodywork, surgery, psychology, and spirituality. You probably know yoga involves these components too, so what is Ayurveda exactly and how does it differ from yoga? Ultimately, yoga is the path to freedom from dependence upon this world (think transcendence and enlightenment), while Ayurveda promotes the most beneficial and healthy enjoyment of our time here on earth. The two do not, however, operate independently of each other. While Ayurveda and yoga may differ in their precise applications, they are intimately connected together, to work to facilitate the health and perfection of our overall being: Body, Mind, and Soul. For those who embark on a genuine yogic path and strive for profound personal transformation through deep meditation, Ayurvedic purification and maintenance of the physical being are also essential.

Let’s face it though, we’re not all cut out for the acetic life, and pondering the profound existential mysteries of the universe is probably not on the top of your day’s to-do list.

So, what is Ayurveda in a general sense?

This guide will give you a simple, yet comprehensive view of Ayurvedic philosophy and practices you can incorporate into your daily routine. If you just want to live a cleaner, healthier, more vibrant life, Ayurveda can help you achieve that.

Harmony Is the Key to Health

Notable author and Ayurvedic physician Dr. Robert Svoboda says, “Your physical body must be in balance with nature, your mind must be in harmony with the group-mind of the society that you live in, and your soul must be in a satisfying relationship with the Universal Soul if you are to be truly healthy.”

He also points out, “the physician must treat a patient at the level of consciousness on which they can (best) respond.” Most of us are so thoroughly engrossed in the tangible world, submerged in a more physical consciousness than a spiritual one, that corporeal treatments through exercise, diet, and medicine are the best places to start to achieve harmony.

An Ayurvedic definition of health doesn’t solely include pills, supplements, herbals, bodywork, or mechanical therapy of any kind, but it doesn’t exclude them either.

So, what is Ayurveda in a practical sense? Physical Ayurvedic medicine involves a spectrum of practices for physical health including bodily cleansing techniques, asana (yoga poses), pranayama (breathing exercises), kriyas (internal cleansing), as well as proper living and diet, and sufficient relaxation. In Ayurveda, a healthy body makes for a healthy mind, and vice versa. Such a simple definition must involve straightforward solutions to improving your health, right? Yes and no. Ayurveda is a complex science that includes a variety of interdependent elements and a particular way of thinking about health and wellness.

After all, it is an ancient knowledge.

Ayurvedic Science

In Ayurveda, the science of the Five Great Elements is based on the understanding that five very distinct forms of energy, each with their own particular attributes and actions, comprise everything in the universe. This belief is common among Eastern philosophies. Everything in nature is built from and contains each of the five elements in different proportions. Our physical reality then is built through an innumerable combination of all the elements.

These Elements are:

  1. Akash (ether)
  2. Vayu (air)
  3. Tejas (fire)
  4. Apas (water)
  5. Pritvi (earth)

The Five Elements (Pancha Maha Bhutas)

This tri-doshic remedy for digestive issues has potent detoxification benefits. By way of maintaining a healthy colon, triphala benefits and supports the body’s ability to eliminate toxins. It can help prevent the buildup of ama when taken regularly in specific doses, as recommended by an Ayurvedic practitioner.

Triphala benefits skin tissues and joints and its anti-inflammatory properties may help prevent illness. As part of an Ayurvedic formula, it can assist the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis. It also contains antioxidants, which protect the body from free radical damage and stimulate cell regeneration. In special preparations, it acts as a powerful detoxifier that enhances hair, skin, and nail health, and promotes a healthy functioning liver.

The 10 Attributes

When it comes to Ayurveda, there are also 10 primary attributes, which are the specific energetic qualities of objects made known to us through our senses. These 10 attributes are also the characteristics of the elements themselves. Thus, the elemental make-up of anything in nature will also reveal its attributes.

The 10 main attribute pairs are:

  1. Hot/Cold
  2. Heavy/Light
  3. Liquid/Solid
  4. Dull (slow)/Sharp (penetrating)
  5. Smooth/Rough
  6. Wet/Dry
  7. Gross/Subtle
  8. Static/Mobile (slow/fast)
  9. Soft/Hard
  10. Cloudy (Sticky)/Clear (non-sticky)
Earth Water Fire Air Ether
Cold Cold Hot Cold Cold
Dry Wet Dry Dry Dry
Heavy Heavy Light Light Light
Gross Gross Subtle Subtle Subtle
Solid Liquid Mobile Mobile Liquid
Static Static Sharp Sharp Mobile
Dull Dull Rough Rough Sharp
Hard Soft Hard Hard Soft
Rough Smooth Smooth
Cloudy Cloudy Clear Clear Clear
These attributes help us determine the nature of the effects of the physical world, according to the principle of ‘like increases like.’ For example, someone who feels easily overheated, living in a hot climate, working in a stressful environment, is likely to experience an aggravation of the hot quality. Cooling actions counter this natural hot tendency. For example, indulging in cold drinks and eating refreshing and hydrating fruits, taking brisk showers, wearing clothes made of light fabrics, and taking shelter from the hot midday sun in cool environments. It seems simple enough on a superficial level, but it makes sense.

The Gunas

Ayurveda has many attributes beyond the 10 previously mentioned. Above all are the gunas, the Three Primary Attributes: Sattva, Raja, and Tamas. The importance of the gunas stems from their dominant effect upon our mental nature (mental state).

You may have heard of this trio before and you’ve definitely experienced each one at some point. But exactly what is rajas, for example, or tamas and sattva in Ayurveda? These are the mental traits respectively of ‘clarity,’ ‘distraction,’ and ‘dullness.’ The mind, depending on many factors, may be in any one of these states at any given time.

These three ‘Prime Attributes’ supersede all other attributes in importance. When we refer to the ‘guna nature’ of a something, whether it is sattvic, rajasic or tamasic, we are essentially referring to that thing’s effect upon the mind, its propensity to put the mind into either of the states of ‘clarity,’ ‘distraction’ or ‘dullness’ (or in other words, to uplift, distract or depress the mind). For instance, what we eat can have an effect on our mental state. So can any given social situation.

Even the weather too.

The Three Doshas (Humors)

According to yoga and ayurveda, each person has their own ‘fundamental make-up’ – a unique combination of the Elements (pancha maha bhutas) and their Attributes. This unique elemental combination is known as one’s ‘Constitution.’ One of the keys to applying ayurvedic principles in our lives lies in learning to understand and recognize the Attributes of the Elements within us (i.e., our Constitution)
The Doshas (also referred to as Humors) are three very distinct ‘forces’, known in Sanskrit as Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These three forces, according to the ayurvedic view, are the creative, energetic and biological forces that govern the entire process of creation and the maintenance of the physical body.

All three doshas are present in everyone, but the ratio between them varies from one person to the next. It is the unique combination of these forces that comprise your body that defines (or affect to some degree) every aspect of you. It is in the proper balance of these forces where health lies, and their imbalance where disease arises.

pitta icon
vata icon
kapha icon

VATA

This is the biological Air (wind) Humor. Vata means “that which moves things.” It is the energy of consciousness and creativity. Vata dosha affects our muscle movement and nerve impulses, and governs our sensory perception and mental balance.

When aggravated, vata causes excess dryness, feelings of fear and anxiety, tremors, distension and constipation, insomnia, sensory disorientation, incoherent speech, dizziness, confusion and depression, and a desire for warmth.

Learn More About VATA Here

PITTA

Pitta is the biological Fire (bile) Humor. It can be thought of as “that which digests things” (physically and mentally). Therefore it is responsible for all the chemical and metabolic transformations in the body, such as appetite and digestion, as well as governing our intelligence and our capacity to perceive and understand.

In excess, pitta can cause loose stools, yellowing of urine, eyes and skin, hunger, heartburn and difficulty sleeping. High pitta results in the accumulation of internal heat or fever, leading to inflammation and infection. Jealousy, anger and uncontrolled emotions are also the result of too much pitta.

Learn More About PITTA Here

KAPHA

Kapha is the biological water (phlegm) Humor. It means “that which holds things together.” Kapha provides substance and gives support, making up the bulk of our body tissues. It also provides our emotional support in life, providing stability and grounding, and also governing traits such as love, compassion, patience and forgiveness.

Excess kapha causes sluggish digestion and metabolism, nausea, heaviness, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, excessive sleeping, excessive weight gain and heaviness in the body. Emotionally, too much kapha can lead to greed, attachment, mental dullness and lack of motivation.

Learn More About KAPHA Here

Cultivating Balance For Better Health

According to ayurvedic wisdom, it is the doshas that most strongly affected our physical and mental makeup, as well as our health. For example, if there is a significant amount of fire in your being, the shape of your chin will reflect this, as will your digestion, elimination, temperament, hair, teeth, etc. Our health depends on a delicate balance of all three of these forces. When out of balance, the doshas lead to disharmony and disease.

The doshas are not the elements themselves (i.e. Fire or Air or Water). Rather, they are the specific ‘forces’ which cause these elements to manifest. So when a particular dosha becomes overactive (out of balance) then the elements under their influence will become over-apparent within the being, and the negative effects of their attributes will cause disease and disharmony in the being.

 

EXAMPLE:
Excess Vata >>> Aggravates (increases) Vayu (air element) >>> Manifests as dry skin and mouth, and brittle hair and nails

Your Constitution: Vata? Pitta? Kapha?

All these new concepts of Elements, Attributes, Gunas and Doshas might seem a bit too theoretical, especially for those of us from Western cultures where ideas like these do not enter into the ‘scientific, evidence-based view’ of the body and health. But Ayurveda is a very logical and practical science too. Once we tune into these comparatively profound ideas, we can start to perceive exactly how we are being affected by our lifestyle and habits, our diet, and the world around us; physically, emotionally and mentally. This ‘enhanced understanding’ begins by first knowing our Constitution.

Our Constitution is the energetic makeup of our body, according to the proportion of the combinations of the Elements (and their Attributes) that form it. Remember, the Five Elements are influenced by the three ‘forces’ (doshas — vata, pitta, kapha), so discovering how strongly we are influenced by each of them gives us a clear direction towards improving our health and wellbeing.

Each of us is born with one (or more) of these three doshas in predominance. Our current influence by these forces will vary due to environmental and other factors throughout the course of life, but for the most part, an inherent predominance remains — that with which we were born.

The Unique YOU

The modern approach to health and fitness is a continuous quest to separate the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ – to identify which foods are good for us and which are bad; which exercises we should do and what activities we should avoid. While this has merit on a ‘gross’ level, it neglects one fundamentally vital point that lies at the heart of ayurvedic philosophy – that we, each and every one of us, though similar in many way, are also different.

As a result, what’s good for one person is not necessarily ‘as good’ for another. According to the modern nutritional viewpoint, for instance, it could be said tat we should all eat more broccoli, because broccoli is good for you. From the ayurvedic perspective, however, there might be better food choices for some people, according to who they are energetically, and what their current state of health might be.

We can begin to understand what ‘choices’ are best for us by first determining our own, personal energetic influences (or Constitution). The energetic makeup of some of us might be influenced mainly by one of the three doshas (i.e. Vata, Pitta or Kapha constitution). Quite often, however, there are two ‘forces’ present in significant enough proportion to exert a strong influence. This is known as a ‘dual-dosha constitution’ (vata-pitta, vata-kapha, or pitta-kapha). Some might even demonstrate a Tri-dosha constitutional makeup, or vata-pitta-kapha (VPK). Thus, there are seven basic types (or 7 basic Constitutions), one of which, each of us can be identified as. They are:

 

V, P, K, VP, VK, PK, VPK.

Find Out Your Ayurvedic Constitution Here

The Ayurvedic Diet – Food for Health

At this point, you might be anxious for something tangible, practical – something that you can actually DO with all this new information. Food is a great place to dive right in and start experiencing Ayurveda first hand.

One of the easiest, or most immediate ways to manipulate our current Doshic state (or our mental and physical wellbeing) is through our diet. According to Ayruveda, every food, plant or substance has inherent qualities, which in turn influence each dosha (by either aggravating or satiating them). It makes good sense then, that we can easily calm an excessive Vata state, or decrease overactive Pitta by eating the right foods. It often is

THAT SIMPLE.

Learn which foods you should be eating in your Ayurvedic Diet, according to your constitution.

What is Ayurvedic Medicine?

Healing in ayurveda can take place on two levels: One that can be engaged in by each of us, with a little education, for self-care and improved health and well-being. At a higher level, an ayurvedic doctor can help to facilitate greater health and healing.

In contrast to Western allopathic medicine, the traditional Indian medicine approach is decidedly wholistic. When determining the cause and cure of symptoms, an ayurvedic doctor considers several factors, including diet, lifestyle, mental and emotional influences and perhaps above all, how ‘in’ or ‘out’ of harmony we are with nature and our current environment. Health in ayurveda means ‘harmony.’ It emphasizes prevention over cure, and identifies when treatments are needed and how best to apply them.

“A true physician is a teacher who helps his or her patients work through their problems at all levels.”
~ Doctor Robert Svoboda, Prakruti

Ayurvedic medicine attempts to balance, rejuvenate and reduce susceptibility to disease. The approach is two-fold:

  1. As a ‘lifestyle treatment,’ a general outline for approaching life in a healthy, harmonious way, a way which yields better health and helps to prevent disease.
  2. As a remedy or treatment for different diseases. Most ayurvedic treatments can be done by one’s self as a few simple therapies integrated into part of the daily routine – things such as changes to the daily routine, dietary adjustments herbal supplements, minerals and/or other ayurvedic remedies, bodywork, yoga and other physical therapies.

Find an Ayurvedic Doctor Near You

Ayurveda Cleansing and Detox

There are various levels of detoxification and cleansing in Ayurveda, from simple ayurvedic morning routines to maintain a healthy state, such as jala neti and tongue scraping, to more hardcore therapeutic purification practices like the pancha karma (five cleanses).

Daily Cleanse

Ayurveda and yoga both promote a group of practices that work on the primary, superficial level of physical and mental cleansing, known as the shat karma, or ‘six cleansing actions’ (‘shat’ means ‘6’ and ‘karma’ means ‘cleanse’). The shat karmas are:

  1. Neti — This is the process of cleansing and purifying the nasal passages. There are two types are jala neti (water) and sutra neti (thread), with jala neti being the most popular and easier of the two to perform.
  2. Dhauti — Dauti is a series of cleansing techniques that are divided into three main groups: antar dhauti (internal cleansing), sirsha dhauti (head cleansing), and hrid dhauti (thoracic cleansing). The internal cleansing techniques, which clean the entire alimentary canal from the mouth to the anus, are further divided into four main practices: shankhaprakshalana, which cleanses the intestines with salt water; vahnisara dhauti (aka agnisar kriya), which activates the digestive fire; vamana dhauti (aka kunjal kriya), which cleanses the stomach with water; and vatsara dhauti, which cleanses the intestines with air.
  3. Nauli — Nauli Kriya is a method of massaging and strengthening the abdominal organs.
  4. Basti — The same as an enema in Western cleansing, this is a method for washing and toning the lower colon.
  5. Kapalabhati — This yogic breathing technique purifies the frontal region of the brain.
  6. Trataka — This yogic practice involves intense gazing at one point, which cleanses the eyes and helps to develop the power of concentration.

In general, the shat karma are considered to be basic cleansing practices that, once one has been taught to properly perform, can be done on a regular (daily) basis for the ridding of toxins and maintenance of good health. In addition, the following simple practices can also be performed immediately upon waking in the morning:

Tongue scraping, which involves a light ‘scraping’ of the tongue’s surface with a specially designed tool immediately upon rising in the morning, to rid the tongue of toxic buildup.

Oil pulling, a practice that is now becoming more popular, involves swishing about 1 tablespoon of oil (typically coconut, sesame, or sunflower oil) in your mouth for several minutes (up to 20 minutes) and then spitting it out. This helps combat gingivitis and plaque, and eliminate microorganisms that cause bad breath.

Natural teeth cleansing, a practice also known as ‘dantamula dhauti’ in Sanskrit, involves placing sea salt on the end of your finger and rubbing strongly, thoroughly massaging your gums and all the mucous membranes of your mouth, as well as your teeth.

Eye washing is a simple practice that involves filling your cupped hands with cool, fresh-running water, and gently splashing/bathing both eyes. This morning ritual helps to flush the eye sockets and surface of the eyes clear of dust, dirt and mucous build-up.

The Ayurvedic Detox Regimen

Before starting any specific ayurvedic therapies, the body is purified through a series of five specific practices known as the Panchakarma (five cleansing actions). These practices can elicit strong ‘detoxification reactions’ and should only be performed under the guidance of an experienced ayurvedic medical practitioner.

The process of Panchakarma typically begins with two additional therapies: Oleation and Fomentation.
Oleation involves application of various herbal and mineral oil preparations to the surface of the body, The oil is absorbed through the skin and acts as an effective medium to carry the medicinal ingredients deeper into the tissues of the body and help to release toxins within the cells.

Some oleation practices are:

Abhyanga – This is a type of body massage done with herbal or medicated oil. Its main purpose is to lubricate the body parts and pacify vata dosha. Abhyanga can be done for the entire body or a specific part and is performed by applying copious amounts of oil with long, broad strokes.

Shirodhara – Shirodhara is a therapy whereby a stream of warm oil is poured over the centre of the forehead through a copper vessel at a slow, steady speed, for a duration of 30 to 60 minutes. Aside from the intended therapeutic benefits aimed at relieving ailments related to the head region, this practice is tremendously soothing, inducing a deep state of relaxation, which explains why shirodhara has also become a very popular spa treatment around the world in recent years.

Pizhichil – In this treatment, the whole body is subjected to streams of lukewarm medicated oil with simultaneous soft, rhythmic massage, usually performed by two practitioners at the same time. Deep tissue cleansing is achieved (benefits of both abhyanga (oleation) and fomentation) in this practice, while also helping to relieve pain, nourish the nerves and muscles, reduce stress, and induce peace of mind and relaxation.

Fomentation follows oleation in the preparation for panchakarma. Fomentation involves specific sweat-inducing therapies. During this process, toxins are released from the tissues in order to be flushed out through the various panchakarma practices.

A principle fomentation practice, known as Swedana, involves a herbal steam bath, during which the head and the heart are kept cool while the body is heated through steam, removing toxins lodged deeply within the body tissues.

The Five Cleansing Practices (Pancha Karmas)

The panchakarma treatment protocol is designed to remove deeply rooted toxins, to facilitate healing of disease and general overall improvement of health. During this regimen, toxins are released from the body tissues back into the blood stream and flow to the GI tract for removal. Again, these practices can cause extreme physical distress if not performed properly, and should only be engaged through the close guidance of a qualified ayurvedic medical practitioner.

The Five Cleansing Therapies Are:

Virechana – purgation (evacuation of the bowels) to eliminate excess pitta.

Basti – medicated enema to eliminate excess vata.

Nasya – elimination of toxins through the nose to eliminate excess kapha.

Vamana – therapeutic vomiting to eliminate excess kapha.

Rakta Moksha – (therapeutic bloodletting) to detoxify the blood, eliminating excess pitta.

Benefits of Panchakarma

Panchakarma can be used under the close guidance of an ayurvedic doctor, to assistant in treatment and cure of some diseases. On a more therapeutic level, this protocol can also yield numerous benefits to the individual, such as:

– Overall body cleansing and rejuvenation
– Ridding the body of toxins
– Opening up of blocked energy channels (nadis)
– Improving digestion and metabolism
– Boosting immunity
– Reducing weight
– Relaxing the mind and relieving stress

Ayurvedic Remedies

Along with all these physical therapies and cleansing practices, Ayurved medicine also prescribes various herbal supplements and formulas for both the long-term maintenance of health as well as treatment of disease. Some of the more widely known herbs used in Ayurvedic supplements are:

Ashwaghanda – helpful for anxiety, stress, and adrenal dysfunction
Turmeric (curcumin) – powerful natural remedy for chronic inflammation, arthritis and pain.
Triphala – combination of three Indian herbs (haritaki, bibhitaki, and amalaka). Enhances digestion and promotes good gut bacteria.
Brahmi – promotes the intellect, enhances mental performance and supports the nervous system
Shatavari – balances hormones and strengthen the female reproductive system
Amla – for rejuvenation and immune system support
Boswellia – an anti-inflammatory used to relieve pain and arthritis, as well as for asthma, hay fever, sore throat, menstrual cramps and stomach pain
Guggul – aids in weight management, boosts energy levels and liver function
Neem – a remedy for fungal, bacterial, and viral infections – preventing and treating shingles and the associated nerve pain, as well as ringworm
Arjuna – strengthens blood vessels, supports vascular function and treats heart disease.
Shaligit – cleanses the urinary tract and lungs, purifies the blood, strength and supporting the immune system.
Gotu Kola – Boosts memory, improving wound healing, improves mood and eases anxiety
Aloe Vera – remedy for skin conditions (burns, sunburn, frostbite, psoriasis, cold sores), treats osteoarthritis, bowel diseases, fever, itching and inflammation.
Holy Basil – (as a tea) a traditional Indian remedy for colds and flu, and also to relieve other respiratory infections, asthma, and seasonal allergies
Trikatu – combination of three herbs (pippali, ginger, and black pepper), supports healthy metabolism , kindles the digestive fire, aids in fat burning (weight loss) and natural detoxification
Tulsi – decongests the lungs and upper respiratory tract and promotes healthy circulation

Visit our ayurvedic supplements to see what’s currently available from Jiva Botanicals

So What Do You Do Now With All of This Ayurvedic Knowledge?

Knowing your Constitution (your inherent tendencies) is essential for creating and maintaining health through Ayurveda. But that’s only the starting point. Though we have predominate tendencies (i.e. Vata, Pitta, or Kapha), these forces within us can be either balanced or out of balance at any given time. Being able to identify the ‘current state’ of our doshas gives us the necessary information to take action (through dietary or lifestyle adjustments, or specific therapies and supplements, for example), and develop the most effective treatment strategy to restore balanced health and wellbeing.

We’ve developed a tool to help you determine your aryuvedic constitution and assess your current ‘energetic state’. Our simple questionnaire takes only a few minutes to complete and will provide you with a personalized set of recommendations so you can take immediate, practical steps to address your specific needs.

Click here to take the ayurvedic Dosha Quiz.

Get to Know the Real You

Unlock your full potential by creating your Ayurvedic profile in our 3 minute Dosha Quiz

Ayurveda is the science that indicates the appropriate and inappropriate, happy or sorrowful conditions of living, what is auspicious or inauspicious for longevity, as well as the measure of life itself.

– from the Charaka Samhita I. 41

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Ayurveda is a profound science of health and healing. Many of it's principals and practices are quite simple and can be easily integrated into everyone's daily lives. 8 Days To Ayurvedic Health is a basic introduction to some of the fundamental principles of Ayurveda, led by Jiva Botanicals.

Ayurveda is a profound science of health and healing. Many of it's principals and practices are quite simple and can be easily integrated into everyone's daily lives. 8 Days To Ayurvedic Health is a basic introduction to some of the fundamental principles of Ayurveda, led by Jiva Botanicals.

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