Transcending stress

A simple repetitive mantra can have complex benefits for those who set aside 20 minutes a day for peaceful contemplation. People who practice transcendental meditation tick off a litany of medical advantages attributed to its practice, but doctors generally agree that most kinds of meditation can boost the practitioner’s health.

Transcendental meditation involves sitting in a quiet place for 15 to 20 minutes and gently repeating a personalized mantra, typically a phrase from Hindu scriptures. The repetition allows the mind to take a break from the many stimuli around us at any given time.

The Beatles took up transcendental meditation during the band’s 1960s heyday, perhaps to keep centered in the eye of the Beatlemania storm. Today, the meditative technique is practiced by 1.5 million Americans, including the anything-but-docile radio star Howard Stern…

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Tomorrow, director David Lynch (“Blue Velvet,” “Twin Peaks”) will be in Bethesda to help raise funds for a $1 billion endowment for world peace at the Maharishi Peace Palace. The nonviolence measure is part of transcendental meditation founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s worldview.The Hindu monk created transcendental meditation in the 1950s and remains a key figure in its existence.

The practice is but one form of meditation practiced worldwide. Some meditation practices like TM focus on breathing rates, while others involve a fixed image or thought. Transcendental meditation proponents say their methods offer the best results both for the immediate benefits and for the practitioner’s overall physical health.

“Nothing really compares to transcendental meditation,” says Sally Jackson, a teacher with the Maharishi Vedic School in Falls Church.

Ms. Jackson describes the technique as turning a person’s attentions inward to transcend thought altogether.

“Throughout the ages, there have been poets who have described this state,” she says. “Transcendental meditation is … a simple, reliable method for achieving that state.”

The process sounds deceptively simple, but Ms. Jackson insists it takes a properly trained teacher to help the uninitiated learn the techniques.

The lessons aren’t cheap.

The first two and last of the seven necessary steps Ms. Jackson’s group teaches are free of charge. The remaining four steps, which include one-on-one consultations that take place over four consecutive days, cost $2,500, she says.

“It’s a significant investment for a lot of people,” she says. “That’s why we give all the information beforehand. … We show people all the research on transcendental meditation in the realms of health.”

Doctors generally agree that most meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rates and slow the body’s breathing.

Last month, a research study released during the American Heart Association’s Orlando, Fla., meeting, said a group of 150 black patients with high blood pressure experienced a more than five-point drop in their diastolic blood pressure after practicing transcendental meditation. Researchers from the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention in Fairfield, Iowa, credited meditation with reducing stress-related hormones in the patients.

Miriam Ratner, a clinical counselor for the Outpatient Oncology Program at the Washington Cancer Institute, says meditative techniques help many of her patients find a measure of peace.

“In my field, when they hear what they have, all sense of everything disappears,” says Ms. Ratner, whose group is part of the Washington Hospital Center.

“From experience with my patients, even in one session, one automatically gets positive results [from meditation],” she says, including feeling less afraid of their diagnosis.

Ms. Ratner leads her patients into a general meditative state by having them focus on one body part at a time. She asks them to focus on any sensations in that part of the body, be it pain, tightness or any other feeling.

After about 30 minutes of scanning the body in that way, “they become inner-focused, which is what you want,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a patient whose breathing isn’t deeper, who hasn’t said, ‘I feel peaceful,’” after a meditation session.

“It begins to give them a sense of mastery over how they feel,” she says.

Sterling, Va., resident Rose Rosetree taught transcendental meditation for 16 years before turning her attentions to aura readings. Meditation teachers must be instructed by someone associated with its founder’s group before they can claim to teach true transcendental meditation.

Ms. Rosetree says some meditation classes say they teach the Maharishi’s version of transcendental meditation but often practice a generic form of the discipline.

“Beware of people who claim to teach it to you ‘without the trappings,’” she says. “They don’t know what they’re talking about … you can’t learn it from a book.”

Some of the Maharishi’s proponents contend that gathering together people who practice transcendental meditation can create a peaceful ripple effect that can harmonize otherwise destructive behaviors in that region.

“The follow-up activities have a lot to do with the belief system of the founder,” says Ms. Rosetree, who eventually found some of the founder’s dictums to resemble activities that might be found in a cult.

Ms. Rosetree still meditates once or twice daily, though with a more flexible approach than that of transcendental meditation, but she doesn’t ignore its benefits or its impact.

“It has become part of the culture,” she says.

Another meditative form akin to the technique is awareness meditation.

Nancy Harazduk, director of the Mind Body Medicine Program at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine, teaches this form of meditation, also know as Vipassana meditation — meaning to see things as they really are.

“You focus on your breathing, and thoughts will come as they always do,” Ms. Harazduk says. “The idea is not to push them away. It’s to become mindful of them and let it go and come back to your breathing.”

Transcendental meditation, she says, tells its practitioners not to focus on any such thoughts.

Aur Gal, director of the Maharishi Peace Palace in Bethesda, says meditations generally fall into two categories. Concentration techniques focus the mind on a particular object or thought. Contemplative techniques take that perspective, but let practitioners ruminate on the object or thought in question.

“In both, the mind is kept on the surface thinking level of the mind,” Mr. Gal says. “That is why concentration is so difficult. The nature of the mind is to move.”

Transcendental meditation allows the mind to go where it naturally wants to go, he says, “to the more subtle levels of awareness.”

Marcia Corey, a naturopath with the Washington Institute of Natural Medicine, says every method of meditation has value and reaches the same goal.

“You’re focusing on clearing your mind so you can become more attentive and aware,” says Ms. Corey, who as a naturopath is trained in such noninvasive techniques as herbology, acupressure, muscle relaxation and exercise therapy. “It eventually gets you beyond yourself. It opens up your mind to taking control of your life, of understanding your life.”

Some people are able to do that by paying attention to their breathing, while others pay attention to a spot or a sight beyond themselves, she says.

Our increasingly complex world makes meditation a much-needed respite in our lives, Ms. Corey says.

“This is an ability to keep the mind calm. It helps to react in a calmer fashion to everyday situations,” she says.

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