Trimurti from the Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbour. The sculptures were created during the late Gupta Empire, probably completed by about 550 CE. The islands were named Elefante (which morphed to Elephanta) by the colonial Portuguese when they found elephant statues on it. They established a base on the island; soldiers damaged the sculpture and caves. Elephanta Island was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and is currently maintained by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI).

Asana & Dhyānam in U.S. Schools: Reflections on Research, Gatekeeping & Decoloniality

This reflection is the first in a series, exploring how U.S. K-12 schools and their surrounding institutions are complicit in the continued distortion, theft, erasure, and exploitation of Dharmic traditions and societies. By mapping out the mechanisms of this phenomena, I hope to illuminate some of the spaces and tangible possibilities for authentic Dharmic voices to begin reclaiming stewardship of our traditions.

We cannot afford to continue being complicit in measuring, validating, and conceptualizing indigenous practices using non-indigenous values, paradigms, and metrics.

We belong in the conversation. We have to change the conversation.

For several years, I was entrenched in the world of research on meditation and yoga in K-12 schools. I served as the Director of Research & Evaluation for a push-in school-based social emotional learning (SEL)+ yoga (asana, pranayama, and dhyanam) program. This was an authentic Indic program, emerging from and honoring a lineage-based tradition and led by teacher-practitioners who had been initiated by a Guru. The connections between yoga, self-awareness, and social responsibility came from ancient Indic knowledge, and not from Western psychology. (This is important.) This was in stark contrast to the flurry of “mindfulness and yoga” programs that had cropped up in the past decade or so. The bulk of those programs appeared to be animated by some whimsical mix of YouTube videos, 200-hour yoga teacher training graduates, “positive psychology”, and catchy branding. These programs flaunted “secular mindfulness”, casting aside any hint of “religious roots”; these were public schools, after all. In effect, they were casting aside any real recognition of or reverence for the Dharmic knowledge traditions from which these practices sprang. Instead, they simply skimmed some approximation off the practices off the top and placed them within a Western onto-epistemological paradigm, in the name of secularism, neutrality, and innovation.

A part of my role was working with researchers from multiple disciplines, including psychology, neuroscience, and education to study our program. These scholars were interested in understanding what was happening for the students, teachers, and schools that embraced these practices. This sat beside the other part of my role, which was to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in order to report back to school administrators and our funders. (Note the subtle but important difference between those two kinds of assessments.)

And, of course, because we were a nonprofit organization working in public schools, funding was a perpetual concern.

To get funding for yoga and meditation programs, public schools are obliged to use vendors that have state or federal government approval. In order to get that official vendor stamp, programs must be evidence-based; this is how the government determines the viability and reliability of an “intervention” to produce “outcomes”. (If you are familiar with yogic onto-epistemology, you can already see how this doesn’t make sense.) In order to be evidence-based, programs must meet four requirements, including generalizability and scalability. Scalability is uncomfortably close to proselytizing. It also means successfully “proving effectiveness” in a randomized control trial (RCT), or at least showing a high correlation in a quasi-experimental study. Evidence-based is the gold standard for the legitimacy of any kind of program in the West; the conceptualization and assumptions of this model emerge from pharmaceutical research. In the case of drugs and allopathic models of disease, randomized control trials make sense.

But yoga is not a pill.

It is nearly impossible to conduct a yoga-based RCT in a school. The most practical way to organize a study in a school is by using the classroom as a unit. The control group is inevitably affected by their peers’ regular practice, which shifts the energy in the entire space. Moreover, you can’t force kids to meditate if they don’t want to, they can’t make meditation “happen” even if they want it happen, and no ethical yoga teacher would feel comfortable telling interested (control-group) children not to practice! Every time I attended a conference, researchers were talking about these issues. (Of course, this isn’t really a problem in real life, it’s simply a researcher dilemma.)

What’s more, meditation practices confound common researcher methodologies like pre- and post-intervention self-report survey, because — even with the thinnest, least-grounded practices — the people taking the surveys change. Their self-awareness changes and their social awareness changes. For instance, they may be more aware of how angry they are, and report greater levels of anger after a meditation practice. The results on surveys were often contraindicative to what our teachers saw happening with their students. (This was another researcher dilemma that chronically come up at conferences.) Not to mention, self-report surveying is unreliable, especially when it comes to adolescents.

Neuroscientists and psychologists interested in studying the impact of meditation on stress often end up using cortisol tests as a way to address or circumvent this issue. (fMRIs — brain scans — are more accurate, but those are prohibitively expensive and logistically difficult to conduct at a large scale; as a result, they’re not particularly practical for studies). However, the reliability of these cortisol tests (typically a self-administered cheek swab or a hair sample) is not known well enough. More importantly, the very premise of seeking validation of the impact of one’s meditation practice within a month or two months or even one school year from initiation by a third party in a lab using a saliva sample is not particularly in alignment with an authentic meditation practice. Time doesn’t work that way when it comes to yoga.

As it was my responsibility to design evaluation tools, I attempted to disrupt the ways in which we conducted and considered our studies — not only because I am a qualitative educational researcher but because I was increasingly concerned with the implications and impact of constructing validity in these ways and how power dynamics would end up altering the conceptualization of yoga in schools. For instance, our program was taken up by a nearby specialized high school program where the students were in and out of juvie and their parents were largely absent if not imprisoned themselves; they were considered at-risk of dropping out of school. (I prefer to reverse the framing — the school was at-risk of failing these children. These young people had really, really tough lives and still found a way to come to school.) Our teachers were authentic yoga practitioners with a Guru and reverence for our lineage who sat with knowledge in satsang. They spent a few months in these classrooms, showing up every day to facilitate practices, or simply to hold space and connect with students and teachers.

Detentions and suspensions dropped by 90%. It is common to report this as a something along the lines of “meditation reduces maladaptive coping in disadvantaged teens”. This is a really troubling way in which these programs are studied. These problematic studies, and positive psychology in general, often suggest that “mindfulness programs” teach these (mostly black and brown) children grit and resilience, putting the onus of societal and institutional inequity on kids while ignoring the incredible grit and resilience they already demonstrate every single day.

Instead of following the usual quantitative template, I decided to spend time with the students and their teachers and asked them what had shifted for them. It eventually surfaced that their entire paradigm had shifted. When someone has a problem in their classroom — when someone was acting out — they held that space with love for them. They now saw themselves as a collective. When someone needed them, they didn’t kick them out, they helped them through it. These children’s entire presence had shifted, from headphones and hoodies on, no eye contact, to a kind of blossoming, a softening, at least in that space, which had completely shifted. I wrote a whole narrative report on it, which we shared with the school leaders and funders. (I wish I could share it here, but it is filled with too much identifying information). But, in order to get funding — which we needed to pay our teachers very basic salaries to put food on their tables and pay their rent — I also had to find ways to tell this story that met Evidence Based requirements. “Measurable outcomes”. Detentions cost schools money, so there is a financial incentive reducing them. Test scores and attendance records are measurable.

Wait, there’s more.

Like a lot of yoga and meditation programs, we were also an SEL program, and soon found ourselves having to engage with CASEL — the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. CASEL has ordained itself the de facto clearinghouse for SEL programs across the United States. Their power as a gatekeeper has become increasingly relevant (and problematic) (1) as more and more states’ departments of education have legislated that social emotional learning is either mandatory or recommended curriculum and (2) with the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Not only does this mean that schools are looking for evidence-based SEL curriculum, it also means that state and federal funding is now available towards these programs. There is a lot to say about CASEL and its bloated role as gatekeeper and authority on what constitutes social emotional learning and well-being. (This is an interesting summative article on the critiques of CASEL and SEL as a whole.) It’s interesting and significant to note that much of the critique sits at the node of secularism versus religion. After all, we are talking about concepts of values and morality.

This is where things in my story get even more interesting. One of our funders (who also supported other school-based mindfulness and transcendental meditation and yoga programs) organized a call between the directors of all those programs with CASEL’s research directors. The premise was that the CASEL directors would help us understand how we could meet their requirements so that they could add us to their approved, recommended list of programs. After listening to their presentation, I began hearing some tentative questions from program directors. Something didn’t feel right. And so I asked, “Why are we trying to retrofit practices that predate these standards by thousands of years, when we have our own frameworks for understanding the human condition, self-awareness, and society?” There was a pause, and the directors began agreeing, and we talked about setting up our own framework. I could also hear the CASEL directors scramble to respond to the power shift, offering to support us and be engaged in whatever we designed.

I wish there was a robust and successful follow up to this moment. I ended up leaving the program soon after, and I am not aware of any progress that was made towards these goals. CASEL continues to grow, with deeper connections across private and public institutions. The school-based “mindfulness and yoga” space is exponentially larger, continuously watered down and convoluted.

There is a longing for real yoga in schools. Despite all of the complex politics of power and epistemic bullying, I can’t simply say that we should never bring these programs into schools. Children are holding so much pain and anxiety, and they blossom with the guidance and love and presence of authentic practitioners. But schools are embedded in a neoliberal, Western science-is-best infrastructure. As SEL becomes mandatory curriculum, students will now be tested on performing certain markers of social emotional health. “Yoga and mindfulness” programs are a part of that landscape, whether or not the stewards of Dharmic traditions recognize the programs as authentic.

What make matters worse, from the perspective of the source traditions, is how these programs are being critiqued. The programs and their critics have cleaved the concept of acceptance from Eastern philosophy, twisting it away from its source meaning (i.e. not denying reality so that one may engage effectively in addressing adharma) into some kind of resignation (i.e. submissiveness). Concerned with the ways in which “mindfulness” is used to create “order” in classrooms, critics of these programs typically take issue with this contorted definition of “acceptance”, going so far as to attribute submissiveness to “Eastern culture”. This is exactly where a lot of critical discourse about “mindfulness” circulates. The West is indirectly (or directly) reinvigorating orientalist, colonizing tropes about Eastern societies with no regard for source tradition paradigms. Our traditions are stolen and distorted, packaged as trendy trinkets to advance Western psychology, and then we are accused of originating oppressive paradigms and techniques.

This is more than cultural appropriation. It’s more than being flummoxed with white girls doing yoga in exclusive studios. The scholarship, rhetoric, and canon that are becoming more deeply embedded in the popular psyche every day are already being used to justify and erase the contemporary persecution of Dharma practitioners around the world and the destruction of Hindu temples in India.

I’ll say it again.

We cannot afford to continue being complicit in measuring, validating, and conceptualizing indigenous practices using non-indigenous values, paradigms, and metrics.

We belong in the conversation. We have to change the conversation.

We need more educational scholars who are rooted in Dharmic knowledge to publish, present, dialogue, illuminate, articulate, teach. This is not a task for a few people. There is a lot of work to be done from the inside.

Some suggestions:

  • Establish that secularism is not a neutral or neutralizing episteme.
  • Mainstream awareness about how secularism is weaponized specifically to undermine and delegitimize Dharmic and other indigenous knowledge traditions by categorizing them as religions.
  • Problematize how the academy legitimizes colonizing, orientalist logic and narratives in critiquing the stolen versions of indigenous knowledge and how these versions are used in schools.
  • Problematize how the academy legitimizes neocolonial theft of indigenous practices in the name of innovation.
  • Establish reverence as a companion of innovation.
  • Re-establish Dharmic knowledge as entire onto-epistemological traditions in the public imagination.
  • Invoke and articulate authentic frameworks for understanding and “assessing” these practices in schools.

In Part Two of this series, I’ll explore and unpack some of the pushback I hear from within the Hindu community about these ideas.

Mother, scholar, educator, community member, friend, meditator, musician, and writer.

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