A Place To Be Reborn

Atlanta has one of the best cancer wellness centers in the country. As a survivor, I have attended their classes and been blown away by the patients’ creativity and aliveness.

I found out about the Piedmont Cancer Wellness Center in Atlanta, this past autumn, while I was looking to teach yoga therapy to cancer patients. With that goal in mind, I met the manager, Carolyn Helmer. She suggested that I, as a survivor myself, start by attending classes and workshops to get a vibe of the place, the people who look to the center for support, as well as the healers and the teachers in the support team.

I was a little annoyed by the idea. I was passionate about teaching yoga therapy to anyone affected by cancer. Nevertheless, I wanted nothing else to do with people looking like zombies.

I met people who were dealing or had dealt with breast cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, pancreatic cancer. You name it.

I also came across something I didn’t expect—aliveness.

I attended soul collage sessions, yoga classes and personal development workshops. We all shared a common experience–The experience of facing or of having faced, at some point in our lives, the effects of a life-threatening disease.

During a lunch break, I talked with Cookie, a woman who had had pancreatic cancer seven years before, now in full remission. I had noticed her witty look and remarks during the class. “If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t be alive today,” she told me.

During a workshop on how to cultivate self-care, the counselor asked us to come together in groups of three and brainstorm to write our own quote on self-care. Adele, Elizabeth and I were ecstatic with our quote: “Drop the mask of perfection and replace it with authenticity. Allow the development of creativity and reach for the unknown”.

After the workshop, I left the center and took the elevator to the building’s lobby. Suddenly, I stopped walking. I became aware that people I came across—employees, visitors, etc.–looked dull and drained. A thought came to my mind. I had just spent three hours with a bunch of cancer people who looked more alive than the “healthy” people. I smiled while realizing that, after all, I liked the zombies.


The visual at the top of the page is a card I created during a soul collage session at the center on Jan. 5, 2019. The card is titled “I See You”.

I Am Good Enough

Feeling “good enough” is vital. At least for me. Why? Because over doing or always putting the needs of others before my own has come with a high price.

Piedmont Hospital’s Chapman Cancer Wellness Center provides free wellness and personal development programs for cancer patients and survivors. Last week, the center offered a workshop that spoke to me, “Good Enough: Letting Go of Perfectionism and People-Pleasing”, so I went. It made me reflect on my own—sometimes painful—journey towards feeling “good enough”.

Twelve years ago, I moved from Paris to Atlanta. I was coming out of breast cancer, and I believed that my (new) marriage and a complete change of scenery would make me happier and prevent me from getting sick again.

I was wrong.

In 2014, I got sick with a second bout of cancer.

The ordeal forced me to face something that became clear—I had spent most of my life pleasing others and helping them fulfill their dreams. I was convinced I had to do a lot to be loved, and I was constantly looking for the love and approval of others.

It was time to change, and to start seeing and acknowledging who I was.

Two years later, I did a big step towards feeling “good enough”. I let go of a 25+ year corporate career that was draining me, and I allowed myself to do something I loved—teach yoga therapy.

The workshop at the cancer wellness center, last week, was a new opportunity to check in with myself. What are the areas in my life where I may not feel good enough? How come this is happening? Feeling good enough is my life’s project.

What about you? Do you tend to overdo yourself and please others? If yes, what has motivated you to do that in your life? And what is the cost you are paying to overdo and please others? These are important questions as they may lead you to better physical and emotional well being.

Pinktober–Intuition Saved My Breast

Intuition is a powerful tool, especially when recovering. Listening to my intuition helped me conserve my breast and, ultimately, overcome cancer.

Intuition came into my life when I was diagnosed with my first breast cancer and started practicing yoga therapy, all at the same time, 14 years ago.

That first time I was diagnosed with cancer, my surgeon carried out a breast-conserving surgery. That means he removed part of the breast tissue as opposed to all of the breast (mastectomy).

Yoga therapy helped me navigate the medical treatment and become more in touch with my intuition. It brought down the level of chronic stress, and allowed me to move into more physical and emotional peace, giving me access to clarity about how to move forward in situations of daily life.

Fast forward ten years. I was confronted with a second bout of cancer in the same breast. Here I was in my new surgeon’s office. Without hesitation, he said he could perform a breast-conserving surgery, just like my first surgeon had done a decade earlier. I breathed a sigh of relief. For years, I had struggled with insecurity and not feeling feminine enough and had embarked on an emotional healing journey. So, conserving my breast, no matter how messed up it would look, meant the world to me.

I had a few weeks to get prepared for the procedure.

Two days before going to the hospital, my surgeon called me, trembling, “I forgot about the committee… I had to submit your case to a committee, and they just let me know their decision. They want a mastectomy”.

I froze.

I found out that French healthcare had recently introduced “cancer committees”. Any doctor who diagnosed a patient with cancer had to submit their patient’s case to a committee. There were–and still are–hundreds of committees all over France. Each committe is made up of a dozen experts, including an oncologist, an MD, a social worker, a radiologist and more. Its mission is to bring experts together to to determine the patient’s needs—most of the time without meeting the person. The idea is to avoid a single doctor to misdiagnose, and, ultimately, to save lives.

In almost all cases, patients go with the committee’s decision.

My surgeon believed the breast-conserving surgery was enough, and that the mastectomy was not a must. He left the decision up to me, “I will support whatever decision you make.”

I was shaking. “I need to feel this out. I’ll give you an answer by tomorrow”.

The next 24 hours were among the most intense of my life. Every cell of my body was telling me to conserve my breast.

The next day, I called my surgeon. “Let’s stick with our first decision. I want you to take out the tumor and leave the healthy tissue alone”.

Two months after my surgery I had my first appointment with the oncologist who was going to walk me through chemo. It was the first time I ever met him. I knew only one thing about him—he was the one who headed “the committee”. When I stepped into his office, he said, “so, it’s YOU”!

When I told him I was a yoga therapist, a strange smile came onto his face. We saw each other every three weeks for eight months. Not only did he know my medical situation, he also knew I was divorcing and losing my father of lung cancer, all at the same time.

Ultimately, I recovered. And here I am four years later—healthy.

I remember what he told me right at the end of my treatment, “Keep doing what you’re doing”. And that’s what I do—I practice and teach yoga therapy, and listen to my intuition.

How Raina, Five Months, Reminded Me Of The Power Of The Mind Body Connection

While a client went through her pregnancy with emotional turmoil, her unborn baby showed physical symptoms. My client worked through her emotions to find peace, and her baby found the way back to health.

This time last year, I starting seeing Ronika, a client, during yoga therapy private sessions to support her during her pregnancy that was emotionally challenging.

Childhood trauma came up to the surface. Ronika was also facing a feeling of abandonment in her couple. She was overwhelmed with anger, fear and sadness.

Four months into the pregnancy, doctors told my client that her baby had five or six cysts on her kidneys.

From that point on, Ronika was considered “at risk”, and went to visit her doctor every week. There was nothing else the doctor could do except wait until Ronika’s baby was at least three months old. The doctor would then check the baby’s kidneys.

When I first heard about the unborn baby’s cysts, I connected the dots between Ronika’s emotional turmoil and her unborn child’s physical symptoms.

I called a mentor in Paris to have his point of view. “Kidneys are connected to fear. If your client finds peace and is able to welcome her baby with love and serenity at birth, then everything will come back to normal,” he said.

During her private yoga therapy sessions, Ronika became in touch with suppressed emotions and released them. Her relationship with her partner became stronger. All this helped my client be emotionally and physically prepared to welcome and nurture Raina after she was born.

Five months later, doctors were finally able to check Raina’s kidneys with ultra-sound for the first time. “Raina has one only one kidney. The good news is that there is no cyst on her kidney.”

I am convinced Raina absorbed her mom’s emotions before she was born, and that these emotions had an effect on Raina’s body–they dissolved one of her kidneys. I am also convinced that Raina felt her mom’s renewed peace and serenity and that those feelings dissolved the cysts.

Today, Raina is two. The youngest of three girls, she is a powerhouse of health and vibrancy!

I Always Listen To The Signs


Signs and synchronicities are always around me—they’re an ever-present part of life—if I choose to tune in. The birth of my client’s baby is an example of how I let these signs guide me.

On March 28, 2018, something extraordinary happens. Ronika, my yoga therapy client, gives birth to her baby girl, Raina Ali Ruff. This day also happens to be my birthday.

Since almost the beginning of her pregnancy, I meet with Ronika every week for a private session of yoga therapy. The purpose of this work is to give Ronika emotional support.

Each of the private sessions with Ronika is powerful. Each help my client pick up a piece of herself she has left behind, and eventually helps her to be emotionally and physically prepared for the arrival of her third daughter.

During our last session before the upcoming birth, Ronika feels distressed. She is in the middle of a dilemma—she’s unsure how she feels about the thought of her partner/baby’s father’s presence in the labor room.

To help her connect with her deep feelings, I tell her the circumstances of my own birth. Something I rarely share–with anyone. That day, my mother is alone with the medical staff in the labor room of a Paris hospital. That day, my father chooses to stay in the province where he finishes building a school for another two days to get his much-needed pay check. It takes me five decades of feeling that “I am not worthy enough for my father to be here for my arrival”, to finally realize that his choice is driven by love—by the love he has for me—for his family.

Raina Ali Ruff

Speechless

Ronika is speechless. My story resonates with her. Deeply.

A week later, Raina’s father is in the labor room and welcomes his baby girl when she takes her first breath. His presence positively affects Ronika and the birth story that Raina will carry with her for her entire life.

I see Raina Ali’s birth date as a sign, a synchronicity that lets me know I am on the right path, teaching yoga therapy the way I teach it. It also validates the way I feel about the circumstances of my own arrival on Earth. Raina Ali’s birth is the best birthday present I have ever received.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung created the word “synchronicity”. He defined it as “A meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved.”

Today, Raina is four months old. Both of her parents, along with her teachers at daycare, all say how calm she is, in all circumstances.

There’s a thing that helps me receive the signs–listening. The ability to listen to what life brings my way. I nurture that ability when I practice the yoga I’ve learned for 14 years from my French yoga teacher, Aline Frati, until she passed away.

Practice something that helps you listen. And listen. Pay attention to the signs life sends your way. Consider them as information the universe sends you. And take them into consideration before your next step forward. Do that now.

My father and I in Spain.

Yoga Therapy Prescription—Learn What Brings You Joy and Do Lots of It!

If you want to live a long, healthy life, consider doing things that bring you joy. They are the same things that bring you closer to your true self. And what brings you to your true self is the path to your well being and health.

I spent this Memorial Day weekend doing something I love–contra dance! As a French native, I have a hard time explaining what contradance is. I had never experienced anything like contra before my friend Stephanie introduced me to it last autumn at LEAF Festival’s “contradance hall” in Asheville, NC. Mind you, many of my American friends didn’t know what contra was either. I’m told it’s a subculture.

Contra is an old style of American dance where you dance with a partner in two lines—partners face each other on each side—while a caller leads everybody in a series of moves. And then, there’s the music. Contra is danced to Celtic, Southern Appalachian, jazz and blues played by live bands. Thanks to the slaves who brought rhythm from Africa, contra is full of it. During the dancing the lines of people morph into patterns–from the sky, a contra dance looks like a kaleidoscope of humans.

In contradance, I swirl, swing, circle, trade places, make eye contact, and even flip sometimes. I’m in love with it. The other day, I was told that contra is powerful, that it’s love. That speaks to me. What I also know is that contra has made me re-connect with a passion of mine—dancing—that I had given up since I was a teenager. I would never have thought that dance would come back in my life, years later, especially not in this shape and form. Life always finds new ways to surprise me.

Giving the right food to my soul

What’s contra got to do with yoga therapy? Well, everything. You see, contra brings me joy. And when I feel joy, I know I’m giving the right food to my soul. And when I nourish my soul, I’m doing one of the most powerful things I can do to heal—on whatever level I need to heal.

Whether you’re on a healing journey or just in need of more aliveness, I recommend you look closely into what brings you long, lasting joy–into what feeds your soul. Nourishing your soul brings you closer to who you are deeply. The 17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, who was the champion of joy and gave the emotion the most thought, came to the conclusion that each time you grow in the direction of your true self is when you experience joy.

Letting go of old beliefs

This movement towards your true self, towards joy, may mean letting go of old beliefs. That’s what it’s meant for me. I was brought up in a family where the value of “hard work” was first and foremost with little room left for playing and enjoying life. I’ve re-evaluated the place I’ve given to “hard work,” and re-orchestrated my life so that joy has gradually become the center. You gotta do what you gotta do.

I’ll also always remember a doctor and nutritionist I met in 2004 in Paris. I had just been diagnosed with my first breast cancer. He gave me tips on how to feed my body with healthy nutrition which I still use to this day. He also mentioned this guy who had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer and who had decided to go ahead and live his dream—spend the rest of his life on a sail boat, traveling around the world. The guy ended up being cured and living many more moons. My doctor finished our conversation saying, “if there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, do it. It can make a huge difference.”

I couldn’t help spending most of Leaf Festival, close to Asheville, NC, mid-May, in their contra dance hall. On the evening of Sat. May 12, we were up to 250 dancers to move non stop for hours. Photo: Patrick Olin.

Natural Born Healer

My first memories are images of comforting my mom and others. It’s kind of my destiny. No wonder I have come up with my own healing method, Yoga for Renewal.

I’m three, maybe four years old. I’m in our 400-square foot apartment, which is on the fourth floor of our building with no elevator, in the blue-collar neighborhood of Belleville, Paris. It’s the middle of the night. My dad is out of town, in another province, building a school or a hospital. Money is scarce so, at night, he sleeps in a sleeping bag on the working site. I’m standing in the middle of the flat. In front of me, I see my mom. She’s in the bathroom, standing, her head bent over the sink. The light is dim. My mom’s nose is bleeding. I see the blood dropping in the white sink, for hours. I’m scared. That red on the white sink… I don’t like it. I wait and look out for my mom, refusing to go to bed until I know she’s ok. Years later, she confirmed to me that the nosebleeds—which happened regularly, always at night and when my dad was away—did last for hours.

Panic mode

Another night. I’m around the same age, maybe younger. My dad’s away building another school in another province. I’m wrapped up in a blanket in my mom’s arms, while she, in panic mode, runs down the staircase of our apartment building. We end up in a taxi. The driver’s voice is soothing. He’s probably concerned. What are this young woman and her child doing outside, at this hour? Years later, my mom revealed to me that she had suicide impulses. She was attracted by the apartment’s windows and the height. To run away from these impulses, she grabbed me and ran down the stairs as fast as she could until the impulses and the panic faded away.

Years ago, my mom and I walked through Montmartre (Paris) where an artist created our faces' silhouette drawing.

I’m eight or nine. It’s the summer and we’re on vacation in Spain. Spain is such a joy, and my dad is with us! Nevertheless, my mom is starting to break down. She’s unable to stay standing for more than five minutes. Then she faints. No one knows why, including the Spanish doctor my parents go to consult out of despair. I walk holding my dad’s hand on the village’s port. I’m wondering what I could do to make him feel better.

Tell your story, breathe and feel your body--Deeply

For as long as I can remember, I helped heal. It’s my purpose—along with dancing. It took me a while to come to terms with it. First, my mom started her own healing path—a couple of years after the Spanish vacation. Then, she took my hand when I was a young adult, and showed me the way to heal myself from the pain and trauma that circulated from her blood to mine. I also had to set myself free from what I thought my dad wanted me to be—a “success” in the corporate world. Life has its way of pushing you onto the right path. Have you noticed that? In my case, the universe threw two cancers my way, ten years apart. They helped me find my purpose for sure.

I received the message so deeply that I’ve come up with my own healing modality--Yoga for Renewal. If you’re ready for something new on your healing journey, you can take my hand too, and join me in one of my small group classes or a private session. There’s space to tell your story, and there’s space to breathe and feel your body--deeply. “That’s exactly what you need to heal,” my mom says. She knows. She’s done the hard and brave work to heal her wounds and tame her demons. She’s my hero.

Are You Shedding The Skin Of Your Past? Yoga Therapy Can Help

Barcelone-1992

Talking about a previous skin... Summer 1992. In Barcelona during a "Thelma and Louise" road trip with my friend Emilia. We drove from Paris to Barcelona and then across to Nazaré, Portugal. It was a "free spirit" break in the middle of my (short) career at Disneyland Paris.

Every time we experience a big life change, we shed an emotional skin. Here's how yoga therapy can help in this challenging growth process.

Have you ever had the feeling of shedding your emotional skin?

Shedding skin is not a bad thing. It’s part of life. Expecting a baby, moving from one country to another, living after the loss of a spouse, recovering from a surgery--I see lots of skin shedding happening all around me.

I’m going through this growth process again myself, right now. Several events have caused my “old” skin to shed: the recent loss of my yoga teacher, Aline Frati; building the foundations of my own style of yoga therapy, Yoga for Renewal; a personal relationship that pushed me to establish clearer boundaries; and the awareness, finally, that I made the right life decisions in the past three years, despite being judged as “wrong” by significant people in my life.

Even though my “new skin” is not fully in place yet, I can feel that it’s getting closer. Several things are helping me in this growth process. Checking in with people in my life who have the ability to listen deeply is one of them. Sharing who I am and what I am experiencing with someone who listens from their heart is one of the most healing exercises I have ever encountered.

My yoga practice is a great friend too. These days, early every morning, I set aside time that I spend on my yoga mat in my home studio in Atlanta. The combination of the yogic breathing with simple movements does magic. It helps me go inwards and check in with myself. How do I feel in my skin? Am I feeling congruent right down to my cells? Am I true to myself? Am I at peace with myself? How can I breathe into that pain in my lower back? What is that pain saying that can serve me?

If you are shedding an older skin, as I am, I invite you to, first, recognize the process you are experiencing and to honor it. Shedding skin is a big deal.

Once you have actually acknowledged that you are shedding skin, you may want to go through the process on your own or you may choose to seek a little assistance. If assistance feels right for you, I invite you to consider joining me in the upcoming Yoga Therapy 6-Class Series I am about to teach. We’ll be meeting in Terminus Chiropractic in the heart of Cabbage town in Atlanta, every Tuesday evening from February 20 to March 27.

I have designed this Yoga Therapy 6-class series in a way that offers you the healing tools that have helped me the most and continue to do so. I start every class, which is 1hr 45mins long, by bringing the students into a circle and asking them a simple self-reflective question, for example, “What was the most challenging thing that has happened this week?”  Once everyone feels complete with the way they’ve answered—or not answered, I lead students in a deep, gentle yoga practice that will help you listen to your body, relax deeply, and “dissolve the patterns of fear and anxiety that get fixed in the body in the form of tension and pain,” as Aline Frati used to say.

I hope you will join me. I would be honored to accompany you in your next new skin.

A Last Au Revoir To My Yoga Teacher

Portrait-Aline

Once, I asked Aline Frati, my yoga teacher, "Do you consider you teach therapeutic yoga?" She answered, "No, I teach a yoga approach for everybody. I teach the yoga of non-duality in which we search for our true nature, beyond all conditionings."

Every breath and every pose I lead my yoga students into are inspired by my yoga teacher, Aline Frati. Aline left us on Jan. 2. Tribute.


My yoga teacher, Aline Frati, left us on January 2, in Paris where she lived.

I happened to be in Paris when Aline made her transition. I was going to fly back to Atlanta the day of her religious ceremony, when Delta unexpectedly cancelled my flight early that morning, allowing me to attend the ceremony, which was held at the Père Lachaise, the most visited cemetery in the world.

After the funeral, Barbara, another of Aline’s students, and I decided to walk through the cemetery to catch the train at the Père Lachaise metro station. On our way, we met a man--one of those “real”, direct-to-the-point, cheeky Parisians--who knew the place like the back of his hand. He guided us to see tombs of many famous people, including Jim Morrison, before disappearing like smoke. I don’t know about you but I believe in signs.

I wrote a few lines about Aline that I read to Aline’s family and friends. I know that Aline would have loved for me to share them with you on my blog, so I’ve included them, below. Namaste.

Discovering yoga with Aline deeply shook my life. She supported me all along my journey.

Aline taught the most therapeutic form of yoga I have ever come across--far from the “yoga-robics” that is often taught in France and the States, where I live.

Above everything, Aline wanted to help us develop our capacity to listen to our body--without judgment. About her yoga approach, she also said, “the purpose of this yoga is to dissolve the repetitive patterns of fear and anxiety which we experience, since childhood, that get fixed in the body in the form of tension and pain.”

Aline fully expressed her art during the yoga retreats she taught at the Abbey of Saint Antoine, a 11th century abbey in one of France’s most beautiful villages, niched in the pre-Alps. “It is the teacher’s quality of presence that helps a person harmonize, not the yoga technique,” she told me during one of those retreats.

Thank you, Aline, for what you have passed down to me. Thank you for being a precious friend, a guide, a light that led me to my deepest self. Just like I asked for your guidance when you were here with us, I will continue to ask you to guide me in yoga therapy and in building on the foundation of what you have taught me.

Your friend, Always,
Elisabeth

Every summer from 2005 to 2016, Aline taught a week yoga retreat at the 11th century Saint Antoine abbey in a village in the pre-Alps. Aline's teaching combined with the spirit of the ex-abbey run by a Christian community that hosts personal development workshops, revived my soul and deepened my understanding of this yoga practice every time I attended Aline's retreat.

Aline (center, sitting down) with us, her students, at the abbey during the 2008 summer yoga retreat.

 

Wrap up 2017 with my annual Year in Review

Laying down the foundations of a new alternative healing approach, that's what 2017 is about. What is yoga therapy? What does the ideal and most healing yoga therapy class looks like for me? Experimenting Yoga for Renewal. Transforming it. Testing it again. Re-changing it. 2017 has been an altogether exciting and grueling year full of questions--and sometimes answers. Here's 2017 in seven photos.

 

1-Jan-Feb

January-February

I lock myself in my home office, and collect yoga training and gestalt training material as well as my experience as being my own yoga therapy patient to design a 3-day workshop, "Thriving After Illness", the cornerstone of Yoga for Renewal's alternative healing approach. Its purpose is to help people find their inner fire after illness. In the middle of this, I take a break to participate to Atlanta's version of the Women's March on January 21, the day after Trump takes office.

079

March-April

After a unsettling month of March during which I am naturalized as an American citizen, I teach "Thriving After Illness 3-day Workshop" for the first time ever at Vista Yoga, Atlanta, in April. While teaching the program, I have the confirmation it works. I feel relieved and more grounded.

3-May

May

I feed my blog with blog posts, teach individual sessions of yoga therapy, and realize that "Thriving After Illness 3-Day Workshop" can help everyone, not only people who are recovering from illness.
I bring the best French tradition ever, the "apero"--drinks and finger food before the real dinner--to friends in my all-in-one home/office/yoga studio duplex, in SW Atlanta. More grounding comes along.

4-June-July

June-July

It's time to say bye bye to the beautiful loft, in downtown Atlanta, where I've taught Yoga for Renewal's weekly class for the past months. I modify "Thriving After Illness 3-Day Workshop" so that it's adapted for anyone who needs a "decompression week-end", not just people who are recovering from illness. "Thriving After Illness 3-Day Workshop" becomes "Yoga for Renewal 3-Day Workshop".

5-August-Sept

August-September

Again, Vista Yoga hosts a Yoga for Renewal premiere. There, I teach a 4-class series over four weeks, a "sampler" of YFR 3-Day Workshop, in August for the first time ever. Ten students--the series is at full capacity--help me grow as much as I help them.
A new community. A family. That's what I (finally) find in the Deep South after ten years living in the States. It all starts with my friend Stacie inviting me to her wedding on August 21, the day of the total solar eclipse, in South Carolina, on the path of totality. Shifting experience.

6-Oct-Nov

October-November

I participate in a two-day training on healing circles in the tradition of Native Americans. We're a dozen of volunteers who have committed to be part of a Trauma Response Group in SW Atlanta. That style of healing circle is used in some of Texas' prisons to ease up conflicts. I realize how opening up can be challenging in the American culture--maybe more so that in the French culture. In November, I teach my 4-class series over fours weeks for the second time, at Candler Park Yoga, Atlanta.

7-Nov-Dec

December

Back to the roots. In France with my mom (center) and our cousins, Giovanni (left) and Rosine (right). All three of them emigrated from Italy to France between 1949 and 1964. Out of five surviving siblings, my maternal grandmother (Carmela Picano) and three of her siblings (Concetta, Crescenzo and Antonio Picano) left Italy.  Carmela, Crescenzo and Antonio emigrated in France while Concetta left for the U.S. My paternal great grandfather, Geraldo Tartaglia, was one of the first Italians to commercialize Italian fine foods to the French. He had a foot in both countries.