Brace Faculty Fellow Lilia Cai-Hurteau Speaks Up for Asian Women in the Modern Mindfulness Movement

As the mindfulness revolution sweeps across the country, yoga and meditation have become synonymous with whiteness, according to Lilia Cai-Hurteau, Instructor and Chair in Chinese and Japanese.

As a Brace Faculty Fellow, Cai-Hurteau renounced this stereotype during a presentation entitled “Meditate and Destroy: Reclaiming the Voices of Asian Women in a Systemically White Mindfulness Movement.”

Cai-Hurteau, who dedicated her presentation to Asian-American girls and girls of color, claimed that mainstream society downplayed Buddhist qualities of mindfulness to make it more accessible to the white majority.

Cai-Hurteau said in an interview with The Phillipian, “In [traditional] mindfulness practices, we are practicing letting go and practicing detachment. Whereas in the West, it is often advertised as a result-driven process so that people want to have these results like being more relaxed, better grades, sleeping better, which creates a buy-in for people to practice. Which actually is the opposite of how mindfulness practices should be done.”

Attendee Hazel Koh ’21 said, “I think [Andover] students should be more aware of everything Ms. [Cai-Hurteau] said and the history and the culture behind mindfulness. It’s not just taking deep breaths and inhaling and exhaling. It’s a lot more than that.”

According to Cai-Hurteau, 77 percent of certified yoga instructors are white females, yoga magazine covers feature primarily white men and women, and there is even a white yoga Barbie Doll. These statistics and examples led her to realize that modern mindfulness practices have been stripped of their ethical and philosophical roots in Asian culture.

Cai-Hurteau said, “I grew up with Chinese Buddhism in China, and I’ve done two rounds of 200-hour yoga teacher training, and it’s during those trainings that I’ve realized how it’s been taught is at odds with how I understood it growing up, in terms of Asian religion, cultures, and philosophies. I’ve also seen how the mindfulness movement in independent schools have been predominantly led by white people, so I feel like it is often taught in a way that’s not in line with how I understood it growing up.”

Attendee Jen Quijas, Fellow in English, said, “Something I found really fascinating about the presentation was the fact that it was reframing mindfulness as a community endeavour that’s not only focused on the individual. You are working together for your community and, really, it’s social activism. Mindfulness here is more so thought of as taking a break from academics and getting in touch with yourself and sort of related to self-care, which I think is useful, but it’s just a different way of thinking about it.”

According to Cai-Hurteau, unlike the Western form of meditation concerned with tangible achievements, mindfulness in its original capacity represents something larger: a process and a goal that strives to examine the human condition. People only need to be equipped with the strength of their minds and the power of discipline to reach the goal of meditation — to work as hard as possible, and then be able to let go of the results. It is meant to be a collective, shared experience, resulting in the union of body and mind which serves as a vehicle for the expression of Buddhist beliefs, according to Cai-Hurteau.

Victoria Zhang ’20 said, “I would say that [Andover students] show interest in [mindfulness]. I know a lot of the student leaders on campus have had leadership trainings devoted to mindfulness, and while I don’t think everyone on campus is engaged in meditation, I think we all recognize the importance of mental health and that mindfulness is very important.”

According to Cai-Hurteau, Andover can help re-imagine the mindfulness movement by empowering and providing agency to the voices of people of color. For school-based mindfulness education, she suggested that people of color lead affinity-based classes for yoga, meditation, and Buddhist practices.

Cai-Hurteau said, “I hope to see more affinity-based mindfulness practices lead by people of color teaching students of color in the way that is oppression-sensitive, which means that we are in the practice that is with awareness of power dynamics in society and on this school campus.”