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These Are The Best Yoga Poses For Neck & Upper Back Relief, According To Yoga Instructors

Laura Finch on June 26, 2020
Laura is a yoga teacher who completed 200 hours of training.

If you're like most people, you've got a desktop, a smartphone, and a slumping posture.

Slumping posture

Looks familiar?

And things would be totally fine if we could get up from our chairs and lead normal pain-free lives. The reality shows it's not the case.

The so-called "tech neck" and upper back tension caused by us either sitting all day or constantly looking at our phones is not just annoying. For many of us, it leads to headaches, shooting pain, and overall distress.

So what a man gotta do?

Well, in a perfect world, quitting our desk jobs and stop using mobile phones would probably fix the problem for many.

But since the world is not perfect, we've got to look for other solutions.

I've reached out to five yoga instructors and fitness experts to find out what yoga poses and stretches they do to combat stiff and achy upper body and combined their wisdom with my top exercises to bring you the ultimate guide to using yoga for relieving neck and upper back tension.

Hunchback no more - animation

Read on to find out:

  • why stretching solely isn't enough to relieve muscle tension or how to use yoga effectively to feel better in the long term;
  • the 15 best yoga poses for neck and upper back relief according to yoga teachers;
  • what yoga teachers do to prevent slouching throughout the day (and minimize neck and upper back discomfort).

Please remember that the information below is not a substitute for medical advice from a trained professional, especially if you're dealing with long-lasting or chronic pain.

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How To Effectively Use Yoga To Relieve Neck & Upper Back Tension

What comes to your mind when you think of yoga poses for upper back and neck tension?

Let me guess.

Probably it's a variety of static head tilts, chin turns and clasped hands openers.

Common stretches for stiff neck

And there's nothing wrong with these stretches.

In fact, they're better than doing nothing and enduring the discomfort. Plus, you'll likely feel better (at least for some time) if you decide to take a break for stretching instead of ignoring the pain and keeping on hunching over your computer or phone.

But if you're looking for long-term relief from neck and upper back discomfort, you have to get more creative and complex with your yoga stretches.

To clear things out: By complex, I don't mean advanced or complicated. In fact, all of the yoga postures below are ridiculously simple (yet, highly effective). By complex, I mean compound yoga poses that don't just isolate one specific muscle group but integrate different parts of the body at the same time.

Let me explain. Rather than simply tilting your neck laterally, add a side bend with raised arm, and make it more dynamic with gentle neck rotations. Trust me, you'll feel a world of difference in your upper body and neck.

On top of that, let's not forget that stretching is important. But so is strengthening.

Stretch + strength = happy muscles

Here's why…

Tension is often a result of muscle weakness. (Note that I'm not saying always as each case is different, and what I'm saying here may not apply to your case specifically.) When muscles are tense, they lose their normal relaxed length and become "jammed" while either being too short or too long, causing you pain and discomfort.

There's one great thing to do to help the muscle return to its natural length – strengthening. Contracting the tense muscles increases blood flow, nourishes and tones them, and eventually allows them to return to normal length and relieve the tightness.

The exercises for upper back and neck relief below include both gentle yoga stretches and strength-building postures. Mix and match those every day, and your body will feel the difference in no time.

15 Best Yoga Poses For Stiff Neck & Upper Back (According To Experts)

MEET THE EXPERTS

  • Travis Eliot, E-RYT-500 and meditation teacher, co-founder of Inner Dimension TV.
  • Caroline Baumgartner, Chicago-based RYT-200.
  • Melodie Johnson, RYT-200 and a Founder of Doga Yoga.
  • Caren Baginski, Colorado-based yoga teacher and yoga therapist in training; the author of Restorative Yoga: Relax. Restore. Re-energize.
  • Di Hickman, E-RYT-500 and a NASM personal trainer with over 20 years of experience in the health and wellness industry.

Cat-Cow Stretch/ Marjaryasana-Bitilasana

Cat-Cow Stretch

A staple of every yoga practice, Cat-Cow yoga sequence is often used as a warm-up to prepare the body and spine for further activity as well as connect breath to movement.

It's also one of the favorite poses of Travis Eliot: "These two movements are great because you feel the effects instantly. It feels like your getting a massage by working the kinks out the upper back and neck - commonly known as storage depots of stress. After completing the poses, the body feels light and spacious, and the mind feels serene and calm. It's like you've hit the magical reset button!"

How-To:

  • Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees. Align your shoulders over the wrists, and knees under the hips. Keep your spine and neck neutral. Gaze on the floor in front of you.
  • Inhale, drop the belly, and lift your chest and tailbone, creating a U-shape in your spine. Gently gaze up without cranking your neck (Cow Pose).
  • On an exhale, round your spine and gently tuck your chin to the chest, reversing the curve of the spine (Cat Pose).
    Repeat for 5 cycles of breaths.

Tips:

  • Fold a yoga mat or place a yoga blanket to pad your knee caps.
  • In case of wrist pain, do the pose on your forearms. Place a small bolster or a folded blanket under the forearms to get your body higher.
  • Keep your neck in line with the spine at all times if you have a neck injury. Be mindful and avoid straining the neck even if it's healthy.

 

Tabletop With A Side Bend

Tabletop With A Side Bend

Make simple neck rotations more effective (and the results more long-lasting) by combining them with a gentle lateral flexion of the thoracic spine. Simply speaking – rotate your head while doing a side bend.

How-To:

  • Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees. Align your shoulders over the wrists, and knees under the hips. Keep your spine and neck neutral. Gaze on the floor in front of you.
  • Walk your hands to the right, creating a banana shape with your spine.
  • Gaze behind your right shoulder. You should feel a slight stretch in your left side. Hold for about 5 breaths.
  • Repeat on the other side.

 

Thread The Needle/Parsva Balasana

Thread The Needle/Parsva Balasana

"When we're sitting or slouching at a desk all day without perfect alignment, we'll naturally place extra pressure on joints and muscles to hold ourselves upright," shares Melodie Johnson.

"This extra pressure/tension, plus not moving for hours, often leads to joints and the muscles around the spine (especially common in the Thoracic Spine) to seize. I can personally attest to this from working 16-hour days at a software firm!"

Melodie recommends Thread the Needle as her top yoga pose for stiff neck and upper back tension.

"All yoga poses that get us to place our head on the floor and be still offer time for natural grounding and introspection. Expect to feel more open, more relaxed in the shoulders and whole upper back, and more centered and calmer," says Melodie.

How-To:

  • Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees. Align your shoulders over the wrists, and knees under the hips. Keep your spine and neck neutral. Gaze on the floor in front of you.
  • Imagine you're holding the needle in your right arm.
  • Inhale as you lift your right arm, fingertips pointing up to the sky. Rotate your upper body up and gaze towards your right fingers.
  • Exhale and thread the top right arm under the left arm with your palm facing up. Rest your right shoulder and ear on the mat. You can gently press into your left palm for a more intense stretch in the shoulder or extend the left arm forward.
  • Hold for about 5 breaths. Switch sides.

Tips:

  • Keep the chest open by broadening through the collarbones.
  • Release the tension in your neck and jaw.
  • If you have sensitive knees, fold your mat or use a yoga blanket for extra cushion.
  • In case of wrist pain or injury, begin in a tabletop position on your forearms. Use a yoga bolster or a yoga block and stack your forearm on it for extra height.
  • Make the pose dynamic by reaching to the sky on an inhale and threading your top arm on an exhale.

 

Child Pose/Balasana – Kneeling Mountain – Open Arm Twist Flow

Child Pose/Balasana – Kneeling Mountain – Open Arm Twist Flow

Rather than isolating your neck muscles with the usual flexion, extension, and rotation (in simple terms: stretching your neck by looking up, down and to the side), try this dynamic flow that combines a soothing Child’s Pose, a grounding Mountain, and a gentle spinal twist.

Not only is it a gentle way to warm up your neck, arms, and the upper back muscles, but it can also be an all-sufficient quick yoga flow for neck and shoulder relief on days you’re pressed for time.

How-To:

  • Start in the tabletop pose.
  • Draw your big toes together and widen your knees and thighs to the outer edges of your mat.
  • On an exhale, send your buttocks back to your heels. Lay your torso between the thighs until your forehead touches the ground.
  • Place the tops of your palms on the lower back. This is Child’s Pose.
  • Inhale as you lift onto your knees and sweep the arms out to the sides and overhead, gently gaze at your fingertips. This is Kneeling Mountain.
  • Exhale and twist to the right as you reach your right arm back and left arm forward. Gaze towards the back of your mat.
  • Inhale and twist to your left, sending your left arm back and right arm forward.
  • Inhale and return to Kneeling Mountain.
  • Exhale, and return to Child’s Pose with hands on your lower back.
  • Repeat for about 5 full rounds.

Tips:

  • Fold a yoga mat or place a yoga blanket to pad your knee caps.
  • If you have a hard time sitting on your heels, place a thin bolster or a rolled yoga blanket between the calves and the back of the thighs.
  • If your forehead doesn’t touch the floor, place a bolster or a yoga block under your forehead for support.

 

Easy “Arms Out” Stretch

Easy “Arms Out” Stretch

This simple movement for releasing shoulder and upper back tension is my personal favorite. Once you try it, you'll quickly see why.

It's not exactly a yoga pose in a traditional sense, but this stretch can be easily incorporated in a variety of seated and standing postures. Plus, the "arms out" movement is perfect for a quick yoga break – even if you're sitting in front of the computer.

How-To:

  • Seat in a comfortable position with a neutral spine.
  • Stretch your arms out to the sides so that fingertips point up to the sky.
  • Imagine your palms are touching the walls. Breathe in and try to pull these walls apart, lengthening through your arms and spine. Draw your shoulder blades down. You should already feel a great deal of a stretch all along your arms and the pectoral muscles.
  • Exhale and scrunch the shoulders up to your ears as if the walls are squeezing in on you.
  • Breathe in, extend your arms and lengthen.
  • Repeat for 5 cycles of breaths.

Tips:

  • Keep your palms and fingers active and pointing up at all times.
  • Try to keep your arms straight, but you're welcome to keep a slight bend at the elbows if the stretch is too intense.

 

Seated Cat-Cow With Butterfly Hands

Seated Cat-Cow With Butterfly Hands

This spin on a traditional Cat-Cow stretch is perfect if you're dealing with wrist or knee discomfort. Or if you're late in your pregnancy and Cat-Cow just doesn't feel right anymore.

Though simple and easy to do, this yoga move targets neck and arms, and most importantly, the rhomboids – the muscles in the upper back that help you stay upright.

How-To:

  • Start in a comfortable position with a neutral spine.
  • Interlace your fingers and bring the palms to the back of your head, creating a butterfly shape. Stretch the elbows out to the sides.
  • Inhale and puff up through the chest. Open your elbows as much as possible and look up.
  • Exhale. Bring your elbows forward, tuck your chin and curl your spine forward.
  • Repeat for 5 full breaths.

Tips:

  • On an inhale, squeeze your shoulder blades together as if you're trying to hold a pencil between them.
  • As you curl forward, you can gently press your hands against the back of your head.

 

Cactus Arms

Cactus Arms

Cactus Arms (also sometimes called as Goalpost) is a perfect anti-hunch quickie.

This yoga pose opens the chest muscles (that tense up during prolonged slouching) while strengthening the rhomboids – the muscles between the shoulder blades.

Do it while seated, do it while standing, do it in your Lunges and Warriors – not only will you bring more versatility to the same old yoga poses but will get off your mat feeling less tense.

How-To:

  • Start in a neutral seated position.
  • Inhale as you reach your arms up. Keeps the shoulders relaxed.
  • Exhale, draw your shoulder blades down the spine. Bent your elbows and lower them until they are leveled with your shoulders.
  • Press your elbows away from you and squeeze your shoulder blades together, opening through your chest.
  • Inhale and lift your arms overhead.
  • Repeat for about 5 times.

Tips:

  • Don't let the lower ribs protrude. To prevent that, stay engaged through your abdominal muscles.

 

Eagle Arms Flow With Tick-Tock

Eagle Arms Flow With Tick-Tock

This short and sweet yoga flow for the shoulders and neck was recommended by Caren Baginski: "Some of my students say this helps stave off migraines and persistent neck pain, both of which can be exacerbated by forward-hunching posture."

This flow builds upon traditional Eagle Arms pose but adds dynamic movement and a gentle lateral neck flexion that will leave you feeling as if you got brand-new neck and shoulders (really).

"It stretches the muscles of the upper back and neck while increasing range of motion and mobility in the shoulders, thoracic, and cervical spine," says Caren. "When practiced while breathing deeply, students report that they feel warm, fuzzy and more free in their ribcage."

How-To:

  • Begin in a comfortable seated position.
  • Extend your arms forward. Take your left elbow underneath your right, wrapping your arms into Eagle.
  • Press firmly into your palms and lift your forearms so that the fingertips are pointing up to the sky.
  • Breathe in and raise your elbows as far as you can get them. Gaze up.
  • Breathe out, lower your elbows and tuck your chin, slightly curling forward with your upper back.
  • Return to the center.
  • Breathe out and drop your hands to the right. Your left shoulder will naturally want to hike up. Bring your left ear to meet the shoulder.
  • Inhale and return to the center. Switch sides.
  • Repeat for 5 cycles of breaths.
  • Unwrap the arms and repeat on the other side.

Tips:

  • Keep your forearms away from the forehead.
  • If you can't wrap your wrists, simply bring your hands across and place them on your shoulders. Try to keep your elbows away from your body at about shoulder height. Repeat the same Tik-Tok movements with the hands holding onto opposite shoulders.

 

Forearm Plank

Forearm Plank

Our body is an intricate system of interconnected units. A weakness in one part of the body can cause tension in another. That's exactly why you can often hear that weak core can cause shoulder and neck tension and lead to a slumped posture.

Forearm Plank is a great core-strengthener. Plus, it works the stabilizing muscles in the upper back, neck, and spine.

How-To:

  • Start in a kneeling position.
  • Plant forearms onto your mat so that elbows are right under your shoulders.
  • Broaden in the upper body, draw your navel in, and lift your knees off the mat, making a straight line with your body.
  • Tuck your tailbone to protect the lower back and keep your glutes engaged.
  • Hold for about 30 seconds – 1 minute.

Tips:

  • Look between your forearms or slightly forward to keep your neck in line with your spine.
  • Lower your knees to the mat to make the pose easier. Alternatively, lift one foot off the mat for an added challenge.

 

Dolphin/Ardha Pincha Mayurasana

Dolphin/Ardha Pincha Mayurasana

When it comes to strengthening the shoulder girdle and opening the chest to release muscle tension, you can't do better than Dolphin pose. What's more, Dolphin is a great core strengthener. Since core plays a significant role in keeping us upright, this yoga pose kills two birds with one stone.

How-To:

  • Start in a tabletop position on your hands and knees. Align your shoulders over the wrists, and knees under the hips. Keep your spine and neck neutral.
  • Draw your navel up. Gaze on the floor in front of you.
  • Drop your elbows onto the mat right under your shoulders. Keep your forearms parallel and no more than a shoulder-distance apart. Root your fingers into the mat.
  • Curl your toes under. Exhale and lift your knees off the mat, sending your buttocks up and back.
  • Keep your knees bent if your hamstrings/calves are tight and focus on lengthening your spine and staying open through your collarbone.
  • If comfortable, walk your feet forward, creating an A-shape with your body.
  • Relax your neck, but keep it in line with the spine.
  • Hold for about 5 breaths.
  • To release, lower your knees to the ground.

Tips:

  • Stay active through your core, and don’t let your ribs sink towards the floor. This usually happens if you’re very flexible in the spine.

 

RagDoll/Uttanasana Variation

RagDoll/Uttanasana Variation

Ragdoll is one of the most favorite poses of Caroline Baumgartner: "This pose helps to take the tension out of the upper back and neck. It's great after a long day of sitting at a desk, standing all day or first thing when you wake up."

How-To:

  • Take your feet shoulder-width or as wide as your mat.
  • Hinge forward from your hips and bend forward.
  • Take a healthy bend into your knees until you can get your abdomen closer to the tops of your thighs.
  • Grab onto an opposite elbow and let your head hang heavy between the frame of your arms.
  • Bring the weight of your body into the balls of your feet (maybe your heels even lift up).
  • Focus on lengthening your spine and release any lingering tension in your shoulders.
  • Hang heavy or sway gently side to side.

Tips:

  • Keep a micro-bend in your knees even if your hamstrings and lower back are very flexible.
  • Keep your neck relaxed.

 

Standing Side Bend With Neck Rotation

Standing Side Bend With Neck Rotation

This simple standing side bend is my morning staple these days. I'm currently in my 2nd trimester, and those ladies who were pregnant will understand the increasing discomfort in the side body as the belly grows.

Plus, the gentle neck rotations feel great and invite space and movement into the neck after a long night of sleep.

The best thing? You don't even need a yoga mat to do this yoga pose.

How-To:

  • Start in a standing position with your feet about hip-distance apart.
  • Keep your spine neutral, chest open and shoulder blades drawing down the spine. Stay slightly engaged through your core, drawing your navel in.
  • On an exhale, side bend to your right, raising your left arm up and over.
  • Inhale and gaze at the ceiling.
  • Exhale and lower your top left arm to the left hip as you rotate your head back down.
  • Repeat for 5 cycles of breath.
  • Return to the center and switch sides.

Tips:

  • Stabilize your hips. They shouldn't move forward or back as you move your arm.
  • Do not let your front ribs protruding forward in the side bend. To prevent this, remember to stay active through your abdominals.
  • If you have problems with the balance, widen your stance, or use a chair by your side for support.

 

Half Lord Of The Fishes/Ardha Matsyendrasana

Half Lord Of The Fishes/Ardha Matsyendrasana

Seated twists are a great way to build mobility in the shoulders, ribcage, and spine since the pelvis is stable, and you can use arm leverage to control how deep you twist.

Practicing Half Lord Of The Fishes pose helps maintain a healthy range of motion in the spine as well as correct body imbalances caused by routine daily activities. Think sitting, slouching, and even carrying a heavy bag from the supermarket.

How-To:

  • Starting position: Staff pose. Take a seat, spine tall, and legs extended in front of you. Keep your feet flexed toward your body.
  • Bend your right leg and bring the foot close to you. Lift the right foot and cross it over to the outside of your left hip. Your right knee should point up to the ceiling.
  • Place the right hand behind you to help you keep the spine upright.
  • Inhale as you raise your left arm to the sky.
  • Exhale, hug the right knee with your left hand and twist your torso to the right.
  • Look to the right over your right shoulder. Stay here for a breath.
  • On the next exhale, slowly rotate your head to the left, but stay in a twisted position with your spine.
  • Hold for about 4 breaths.
  • To come out of the pose, shift your gaze to the front, and slowly release the twist.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Tips:

  • Start twisting from your core, then turn with the upper back and the neck. To come out of the twist, lead with the neck, then upper body, and core.
  • Press your buttocks into the mat. Both of your sit bones should stay on the floor while twisting.
  • Don't collapse on your back hand. Instead, press into the palm to create a lift in your spine.
  • Keep your shoulders drawing back and down your spine.
  • If your spine keeps rounding, sit on the edge of a yoga block.

 

Side-Lying T-Stretch

Side-Lying T-Stretch

This easy yoga movement does two great things. First, it mobilizes the upper part of the spine (aka thoracic spine). Secondly, it opens the chest where muscles tend to tense up as a result of constant slouching.

Plus, it's also a great mobility exercise to do after an arm and shoulder strengthening.

How-To:

  • Lie on your side with knees slightly bent. Knees should stay stacked and stable during the entire movement.
  • Extend the arms in front of you and stack the shoulders.
  • Inhale as you reach with your upper arm up and over until the shoulder sinks to the ground. Let your gaze follow the movement of your top arm.
  • Inhale and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat the movement for about 5 times and switch sides.

Tips:

  • Don't let your bottom shoulder lift off the ground when you move your upper arm. If it does, decrease the range of motion.
  • Place a pillow, a yoga bolster, or a rolled yoga blanket between your knees.
  • Move your top arm slowly and consciously, taking 1 cycle of breath to open up and 1 cycle to return to a starting position. Alternatively, hold an open arm for a few extra breaths if it feels good and return to a starting position.

 

Tennis Ball Neck Relief

Want to bring versatility into your usual yoga routine and get instant relief from neck and upper back tension? Di Hickman shares his favorite 5-minute routine with a tennis ball to relieve neck and upper back tension.

"I love somatic exercises to relieve neck and upper back tension. This movement works majority in the top 2 cervical vertebrae, and releases tension in the ligament running along the back of the neck," says Di.

How-To:

  • Lie on your back with knees bent feet on the floor.
  • Place the tennis ball between the back of your head and the floor.
  • Make a SMALL nod "yes", maximum of 2" movement. Do this for about 1 minute. Pause.
  • Next, make a SMALL shake of the head "no", again moving around 1-2" maximum. Repeat for 1 minute.
  • Pausing again, begin to take the head around in a small circle, again for approximately 1 minute.
  • Pause and switch directions. Remove the ball and settle into the space.

Tips:

  • Before you do the exercise, spend 30 seconds rolling the head from right to left, noticing the range of movement. Perform the routine, then repeat the roll of the head right to the left and see if the neck has any increased range of motion.
  • If you don't have a tennis ball, use a sturdy round object instead. A medium-sized orange worked great for me 🙂

How To Prevent Slouching (And Minimize Neck & Upper Back Pain): Advice From Yogis

There's no magic pill when it comes to maintaining an upright posture and keeping neck and upper back pain at bay.

(Or, I'd rather say there is – but it's not what most of us are expecting to hear.)

The magic pill is regular exercise and active movement throughout the day. What's more, when researchers compared exercise with ergonomic modification in the workplace to find which one is more effective for reducing pain, exercise one won hands down (check out the study here).

As the old saying goes, "Motion is lotion"

Yoga and fitness experts agree. Here are the tips they shared with me when I asked how to maintain a healthy posture.

Di Hickman's advice is simple - get up and move: "If you're sitting at a desk all day, set a timer on your phone for 55 minutes. Then spend 5 minutes doing your exercise routine or just moving away from your screen and allowing your posture to reset."

Melodie Johnson suggests moving even more frequently if you have the chance. "I recommend the Pomodoro method - doing 25 minutes of work and then 5 minutes to do what you like. Ideally, get out of the chair and do some stretches to counteract your seated position."

Set up a timer to remind yourself to get up and move.

Besides practicing the above yoga poses in your daily life, there are a few other simple moves that you can do even when you're extra-busy. They take a few seconds of your time but offer instant tension relief and serve as a good reminder to keep your spine straight.

Caren Baginski, for example, likes to practice Mountain Pose against a wall. "Have your heels, glutes and shoulders touching the wall (the head does not have to touch.) The feedback from the wall helps remind your body of where to hold itself in space, and what a tall spine and posture feels like. Then, alternate between squeezing your shoulder blades together and relaxing them for 15 rounds. This awakens and strengthens the muscles between the shoulder blades, which is essential for long-term relief from text neck, sitting, and slouching."

Travis Eliot offers another simple tip: "After every half hour of sitting, bring your hands behind the back, close your hands into a fist, place the knuckles of both hands together to touch, and then gently lean back. Draw the shoulder blades towards each other and expand across the chest."

Drink lots of water and use those bathroom breaks to stretch out.

There's also all sorts of other advice to prevent yourself from slouching:

  • Cultivate self-awareness;
  • Set up reminders on your phone and computer;
  • Invest in laptop holders to keep the screen at eye level;
  • Use a meditation cushion or any pillow to prop up your hips and keep them higher than knee level;
  • Drink lots of water to get more bathroom breaks (and move);

Most importantly, experiment and find what works for you.

I haven't yet found a secret to keeping a straight spine either. My go-to routine to maintaining my posture is to keep my yoga mat close and water bottles closer. Every time my upper back and neck starts to ache, I grab one bottle in each hand and do a few shoulder presses and a few lateral raises followed by a yoga stretch for neck and shoulders (such as Eagle Arms). Works like a charm 😉

What do you do to maintain posture throughout the day? Let me know in the comments below.

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2 comments on “These Are The Best Yoga Poses For Neck & Upper Back Relief, According To Yoga Instructors”

  1. In short, I don't maintain my posture and always had issues with the hunchback. Just writing to let you know that I love your pose suggestions. I've put a cheat sheet on my desk and now doing a few movements every 2 hours or so. And you know what? I do feel the difference. Thanksa lot! 🙂

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