With Transcendental Meditation followers trying to bring their program to New York City public schools, writer Joy Victory investigates the evidence behind their claims.
Reprint. Originally appeared in The Journal News/May 18, 2004
It seems harmless enough: With eyes closed, you sit upright in a quiet room and mentally repeat a word for 10 to 20 minutes – a technique known as Transcendental Meditation. When young children practice it twice a day, according to research provided by the national Committee for Stress-Free Schools, it decreases their blood pressure, improves their grades and lowers their stress levels.
Transcendental Meditation, or TM, is just one of many forms of meditation, a process in which a person narrowly focuses his attention to clear the mind. But some worry that the committee’s claims about TM’s benefits are overblown. Most of the research on TM is skewed toward positive results, critics say, and the TM movement has religious overtones.
Still, at least four schools in the United States have implemented TM into their curriculum, and the committee has been aggressively promoting its program in major cities, including New York City.
In March, the committee held a conference on TM for New York-area school administrators. School-age children demonstrated the technique and researchers shared study results. So far, only private or charter schools are using TM, according to Joseph Boxerman, a TM teacher and media liaison for the committee.
“We will go where we’re welcome,” says Boxerman, who says the school program would be offered free of charge. “It’s a new, emerging trend that’s still below the radar.”
However, outspoken ex-members of the TM movement and other critics would like it to stay that way. They say the mantra, the word that is repeated silently, is a Hindu-based word, and therefore a possible violation of the separation of church and state if used in a school setting. TM critics also are skeptical of the committee’s research about the benefits of TM, which they say is rarely conducted by independent researchers.
“To hear them speak about this, you would think this is the greatest thing since ice cream,” says Barry Markovsky, a researcher of social networks and sociology department head at the University of South Carolina. “It’s a way to hoist an actual religion onto unknowing people and a way to turn a profit.”
The committee is an offshoot of the Maharishi Vedic Education Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of TM for all ages. There are dozens of similar groups around the world, funded by followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (also known as “His Holiness”), an Indian mystic who became famous in the 1960s after teaching The Beatles to meditate.
This celebrity connection popularized Mahesh and TM, and by the early 1970s, TM centers had sprung up across the world. Over the years, hundreds of groups influenced by Mahesh’s teachings have taught the same technique, under names like the Spiritual Regeneration Movement and later as the more academic-sounding Science of Creative Intelligence.
Now Mahesh and his supporters have a virtual empire of nonprofit TM teaching centers, real-estate ventures and even accredited universities, such as the Maharishi University of Management in Maharishi Vedic City, Iowa (residents of the city recently approved the name through a vote). There are an estimated 5 million people worldwide who have learned TM, says Bob Roth, a spokesman for the movement.
TM does not come cheap: It costs $2,500 to learn the technique from a qualified teacher, Roth says. That money does not go to Mahesh, however, because he is a monk and lives in poverty, Roth says. Instead, the earnings help create nonprofit centers owned by his supporters.
The inner workings of the various organizations and centers aren’t readily disclosed, and what a person learns during TM training is kept private, Boxerman says.
“The teaching process is a one-to-one experience; that’s the reason we don’t discuss it or publish it in book form,” Boxerman says. “If people try it themselves, they don’t have the experience to know what to do under different circumstances.”
Boxerman defines TM as “a simple, natural and effortless technique that allows the attention to automatically settle to more subtle levels of the thinking process.”
The movement’s main Web site, http://www.tm.org, describes it as “the single most effective meditation technique available for gaining deep relaxation, eliminating stress, promoting health, increasing creativity and intelligence, and attaining inner happiness and fulfillment.”
Scientifically, the many forms of meditation, including TM, are thought to elicit a physical sense of relaxation brought about by a calm state of mind, also known as the body’s “relaxation response,” a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School and author of the bestselling book “The Relaxation Response.”
By slowly repeating a word or activity for 10 to 20 minutes, soothing hormones and other chemicals are released by the body, making a person feel rested, according to research by Benson.
While Benson’s method for learning the relaxation response is free to anyone with Web access (www.mbmi.org), followers of Transcendental Meditation must pay for training from a TM teacher or center. (Benson declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Of TM’s many benefits, the Committee for Stress-Free Schools says that stress relief would be the most useful for students, thereby potentially curbing “poor academic achievement, substance abuse, apathy, depression, school violence and teacher burnout,” according to materials provided by the committee.
In a school setting, TM is taught individually, although students do meditate together in large groups. The committee plans to use donated money to teach TM at no cost to taxpayers, but already the National Institutes of Health has given them close to $20 million to study TM in mostly minority communities.
The group also has received more than $100,000 from DaimlerChrysler for the Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse, a Detroit charter school that has used Transcendental Meditation since 1997. Besides Talibah, the other schools using TM are in Silver Spring, Md., and Washington, D.C., and at an elementary school on the campus of the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.
The Talibah school’s TM program was studied by University of Michigan psychologist Rita Benn, who researches alternative medical therapies. She compared the Talibah students, who meditate twice a day, to a group of similarly-aged students who didn’t meditate. From that, she concluded that TM helped the Talibah students with self-esteem, stress management, depression and anxiety.
However, Benn began her research after the students were already practicing TM, so it’s only possible to conclude that the children were in better mental health than the other group, and not necessarily because of TM.
“Our study is just one small study. We need more studies with larger numbers that show its value before widespread implementation should occur,” Benn said. “Again, that being said, most programs are implemented in schools without solid research behind them.”
The committee, however, feels Benn’s study and other TM research on TM proves its value in schools. The committee’s literature states there are more than 500 studies on TM by “200 independent research institutions worldwide.”
But a large-scale literature review published in 2003 in The Middle European Journal of Medicine found that of 700 studies on TM spanning 40 years, only 10 were conducted in the clinical tradition of using strict control groups, randomization and placebos. Of those 10, four of the studies recruited subjects who had already shown an interest in TM.
“My review concludes it seems that there is a strong placebo effect going on which probably works through the expectations being set up,” responded Peter Canter via e-mail. He is a researcher from the Peninsula Medical School of the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the United Kingdom.
The review also stated that many of the authors of the TM studies were connected to one of Mahesh’s universities.
“In effect, they gatekeep who can and who cannot do research on TM,” Canter says.
For sure, some of Mahesh’s own strange claims have hurt his agenda. In the ’70s, he said meditators could become enlightened enough to float off the ground, in a trance. He dubbed this “yogic flying” and released photos showing meditators aloft. It was soon exposed that the meditators were hopping, not flying.
He also says that if enough meditators meditate or “fly” together, it can affect world events. In 1988, the group issued a press release saying that meditators in Texas were able to affect the path of Hurricane Gilbert, a powerful storm predicted to cause major damage that ended up hitting rural areas of the Gulf Coast.
Followers of TM have dubbed this the “Maharishi Effect,” in which minds meditating together can have an effect on “global consciousness.” The group has built “peace palaces” around the world where they can meditate collectively.
Dr. Gary Kaplan, a transcendental meditator and director of clinical neurophysiology at North Shore University Hospital on Long Island, says research has proven the Maharishi Effect to be possible.
“It’s difficult for the public in general and the scientific community to grasp these concepts because they are not common in the rest of scientific literature,” Kaplan says. “This whole idea of group and environmental effect, it’s been repeated a number of times (in studies.)”
That claim irks skeptics like Markovsky, the sociology researcher at University of South Carolina, who spoke out publicly against the group when he was a professor at the University of Iowa.
“These are obviously cases of selective evidence,” he says, explaining that the group typically takes credit for something when the result is positive. “What bothers me more than anything is the way they use their research as a way to get funding to train new members who become part of the movement.”
It’s the simple stress-reducing effects that the New York committee is primarily interested in, says Sally Rosenfeld, chairwoman of Stress-Free Schools in Westchester and a TM teacher.
She says it is a mental technique, and nothing more.
“What happens when you meditate is the mind quiets or settles down … when the mind settles, the body settles. We call that rest; it’s a very, very deep rest,” Rosenfeld says. “Once that stress is gone, of course what happens is one’s own potential blossoms forth.”
“As life gets more and more stressful, with kids, it’s very hard for them,” Rosenfeld says. “There’s a lot of fear everywhere & in the schools, in the cities. It has gotten completely out of hand. And so many of these young students are on heavy medication (such as antidepressants or Ritalin) and really suffering. … So I think we all decided we would try to get together to get some attention on this subject.”
The power of TM is evident in the Detroit students, she says, which inspired the committee to spread their effort to New York.
About 70 people attended the March educators’ conference on TM in Manhattan, says Janet Hoffman, who heads the New York Committee for Stress-Free Schools. She wouldn’t disclose any names of school administrators in this area that indicated an interest in the TM program.
Hoffman, a TM teacher, says she watched a video of the Detroit students meditating and was amazed.
“When you have 160 kids in a gym, it’s a recipe for disaster,” she says. “But they go in, take their seats, and there’s silence. It’s tangible. It’s palpable.”
Croton-Harmon schools Superintendent Marjorie Castro doubts the program will garner much interest. The district briefly offered yoga as a course, but it was pulled after parents raised concerns that exercises like the “prayer pose” had religious overtones.
“Children in public schools come from so many backgrounds, and that’s a wonderful thing. But you have to be very careful,” she says.
Rosenfeld points out that many activities are potentially religious, such as bowing before a karate teacher. It’s all a matter of perspective, she says, and she rarely hears complaints.
“We have had all sorts of people from different religions,” she says.
Cult expert Rick Ross, however, says parents should be extremely wary of the TM movement. The TM movement is cult-like, if not indeed a cult, especially in the way members tend to revere Mahesh, he says.
“The personality-driven nature of TM is what leads people to see it (as a cult),” says Ross, who runs the Rick Ross Institute, a Jersey City, N.J.-based nonprofit organization that studies cults and controversial groups. “People involved with the Maharishi have been so deeply devoted to him.”
While devotion is not inherently dangerous, Ross says, he points out that TM followers have donated millions of dollars to the movement.
“So many people felt that once The Beatles dismissed him (Mahesh), that he wandered off into obscurity,” Ross says. “That is anything but the truth. … He’s always coming up with something – peace bonds, peace palaces. He’s an entrepreneur.”
Ex-TM teacher Don Krieger left the group after his wife was concerned that it was interfering with their Jewish faith. He estimates he spent tens of thousands of dollars as a member attending TM sessions, retreats and teacher training.
He says the mantra is actually a Hindu word, usually the name of a god. (Boxerman refutes this and says it’s a meaningless word, although he couldn’t provide an example, since the mantra is always kept secret by teachers and practitioners.)
More disturbing, Krieger says, is the religious tone of the “induction ceremony” for new meditators.
“It’s a ceremony with incense, camphor and a candle. There’s offerings on a tray and a little altar with a picture of Mahesh’s master (Guru Dev),” says Krieger, who is a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Pittsburgh. “At the end, the teacher gets down on their knees and bows and invites the new meditators to get down on their knees. It’s an act of idolatry … For a religious person, that’s going to be upsetting.”
But many people don’t object, Krieger says. Of the 400 or so people he taught, only two refused to kneel and bow to the picture, he says.
“Only a small percentage will stick with it, but they’re really stuck,” he says. “When you hear the lectures, they give you a whole laundry list of what it does…. If you have any fears, they’re going to get evoked by that lecture. You think, ‘What a relief! My health will be perfect.’ ”
Bob Roth, a TM spokesman, denied that TM is in any way religious.
“I find people who don’t practice TM tell me that what I’m doing is religious,” Roth says. “They say it has roots in Hinduism. It predates that.”
Ex-member Joe Kellett, who related the same indoctrination process as Krieger, said leaders of the movement are able to recruit new members because the teachings and practice are essentially forms of hypnotism and self-hypnotism.
“Basically, the reason you become relaxed is because you were given a suggestion to be relaxed. You’re in a trance, and if you’re susceptible, you will carry out the suggestion,” says Kellett, a computer consultant in Castro Valley, Calif.
Kellett runs http://www.suggestibility.org, a Web site critical of TM, which he hopes will explain the unknown elements of the movement – like the side effects of TM – to people interested in learning the technique.
Kellett says some people are unable to fully come out of the trance after they meditate, leaving them groggy, tired and nauseous.
Krieger knows this firsthand. After meditating, he says he often struggled to stay awake, although he was getting enough sleep. (He was meditating throughout the day, rather than just twice a day.)
“They tell you it’s your fault, or that you’re ‘unstressing.’ They’re not described as negative side effects,” Krieger says.
Based on his experience, Krieger is completely against TM in schools.
“I certainly wouldn’t recommend TM to anybody, or expose their children to it,” he says. “I consider the organization to be a predatory cult … although it’s not the most malignant cult.”
Boxerman fully denies the allegations that TM is a cult, and is skeptical of Web sites that criticize TM.
“It’s not a cult,” he says. “It’s a scientifically verifiable technique where you do the practice and get the results. (The critics) are people who have crazy ideas, and that’s their responsibility. I don’t myself keep track of the Web sites that are critical of TM, but whatever their makeup is, they have misunderstood what is being represented. There’s no question it’s not a cult.”