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What Is Transcendental Meditation?

Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld, and many other high-profile stars, along with six million people worldwide, swear by this simple, yet profound practice. Here's why.

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With the big promise of transcendence spelled out right in its name, transcendental meditation, or TM for short, can seem like a tall order. Rumor has it, the elusive title for this particular technique came from the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who brought this ancient practice from India to the U.S. between the 1950’s and 1970’s. When asked why he chose to describe it as transcendental, Maharishi said something to the effect of, “Had I known that the word were so loaded, I would have called it anything. I would have called it ‘Ching Chong.’”

The technique, however, has in fact transcended, reaching more than six million people around the globe, making it one of the most widely practiced forms of meditation today.

Soon after TM’s arrival in Western culture, instructional courses emerged in schools, universities, corporations, and prison programs. The practice itself is easy: All you need to do is sit quietly anywhere with closed eyes and mentally repeat a mantra for 20 minutes twice a day (morning and evening). Despite its simplicity, a certified guide is necessary to show you the ropes much like an athletic coach or music teacher. The guide prescribes you a personalized mantra, like sohum. You are encouraged to keep the mantra private.

“Speaking it out or writing it down makes the mantra more concrete. We recommend people keep it to themselves just like one doesn’t keep digging up a seed to see if it’s working, if it’s growing, what it’s doing, etc., because that weakens the whole process,” explains Genevieve Kimberlin, program manager and TM teacher at David Lynch Foundation (DLF), a nonprofit founded in 2005 by the renowned film director to fund TM education.

The mantras, which stem from Vedic traditions of India, don’t mean anything. The one- or two-syllable sound functions as a vehicle to help settle the mind (watch Maharishi explain more about the mantra’s function in this clip). A secret mantra is chosen for you during your first of four back-to-back sessions (each ranging from 60 to 75 minutes) as part of an introductory course as structured by Maharishi. The course costs, on average, a one-time fee of $960 nationwide. Grants and scholarships are available if you can’t afford the instruction. About 500,000 full scholarships have been given out to at-risk youth, students, military veterans, homeless people, and others in need through partnerships, like DLF, which plans to bring TM to another 3 million kids and adults, including victims and perpetrators of abuse, over the next five years.

During this four-day introductory course (only the first session is one-on-one, the rest are group-oriented), a teacher provides a brief history of TM, an overview of its benefits, and instructions on how to practice. Once you’ve completed the course, you are welcome to return to any TM center (there are 170 across the U.S.) for the rest of your life (at no additional cost) to meet with a teacher for periodic “check-ins” or “tune-ups” on your practice. Since meeting in person is par for the training course, virtual centers are not currently available. Sticking to the 40-minute commitment daily is quite challenging for most, so a teacher can help keep you on track and stay dedicated to practice.

TM’s mass appeal is only partially due to the fact that Maharishi famously taught the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Mia Farrow. TM is also deeply rooted in science with more than 350 peer-reviewed studies, published in more than 160 scientific journals, touting the benefits of a strong practice. This is no coincidence. Maharishi was a trained physicist before moving to the Himalayas to study spiritual knowledge under Swami Brahmananda Saraswati. Given his scientific background, he knew the importance of validating this new technique with proven methods.

“For the last 40 years, scientists have documented the effects of TM on the mind, body, behaviors, health, and relationships. [Research shows that] TM gives the mind and body a profoundly transformative deep quality of rest. That rest allows the body to release stress,” says Kimberlin.

“Some of the immediate effects include better sleep, normalized blood pressure, and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol in the blood,” Kimberlin continues. “People almost immediately begin to experience improved mental clarity, memory, and IQ.” TM doesn’t just make you smarter, but also more pleasant. “My favorite study found there’s a greater appreciation of others,” she adds. “I think that’s what everyone wants—to be more present and authentic around the people they love.”

A common myth is that TM is a form of religion or philosophy. “TM does not require a belief system or change in your lifestyle,” Kimberlin assures. “It’s something that’s applicable to people of all walks of life, including different religious, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. We see the benefits and results with every group of people.”

For more information about TM, check out “Transcendental Meditation Technique – A Complete Introduction” from Bob Roth, a TM educator of 40+ years, who worked closely with Maharishi, and CEO of the David Lynch Foundation.

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