Transcendental Meditation (TM) is one of the most widely studied meditation and relaxation programs worldwide. Many people who practice TM describe it as being the most important piece of their wellness regime.
The TM technique was formally founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi over 50 years ago and first gained notoriety in “the West” in the late 1960s when the Beatles travelled to India and spread the word about their transformative experience.
Over the past several decades TM has been the focus of countless research studies. Research has found that TM techniques can offer benefits including relieving stress and anxiety, boosting mental performance and brain function, lowering pain intensity, managing PTSD symptoms, supporting cardiovascular health and much more.
What Is Transcendental Meditation?
TM is defined as “A technique, based on ancient Hindu writings, by which one seeks to achieve a relaxed state through regular periods of meditation during which a mantra is repeated”.
The TM technique is touted as being able to allow your active mind to easily settle inward through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness. The idea is that all of us have a quiet, peaceful place in our minds that we can tap into by focusing inward. The goal and purpose of TM is to tap into this quiet place by focusing your mind and concentrating on a mantra that you silently repeat to yourself. While practicing TM you sit quietly with your eyes closed in a comfortable position, blocking out stimulation from the outside world as much as possible. The traditional way that TM is practiced is for 20 minutes, twice daily.
What is the difference between TM and other forms of meditation?
Whilst all forms of meditation share some similar philosophies, there are subtle differences between all practices. In comparison to TM, other forms of meditation require a far greater commitment and can be more difficult to adopt. They teach either extreme concentration (an intense focus on one particular thing, and only that thing) or contemplation (thinking as hard as you can about the present, which is often referred to as mindfulness). In contrast, you don’t have to do either of these things in TM so it is extremely user-friendly.
TM doesn’t require emptying the mind of thoughts, forceful concentrating or control of the mind that can feel very difficult. The TM technique is also totally secular, not a type of religion or philosophy that requires you to believe in any particular dogma or theory.
A mantra in TM is “a word or sound from the Vedic tradition that is used to focus your concentration”.
In TM, mantras serve the purpose of giving the mind something to focus on so that thoughts are not running rampant. TM mantras are described as being essentially meaningless because they are more like sound words than phrases or affirmations. Mantras for TM are most commonly no more than two words and are sounds that are not part of most languages.
In TM, only a certified teacher is supposed to assign you a personal mantra. It’s not recommended that you try to choose a mantra on your own because then it will have some meaning attached to it, which can be distracting. Remember that mantras are the focal point of mediation and used to quiet the mind, not to elicit memories or feelings, like affirmations do.
Whilst TM is touted to have many benefits, it has six standouts that have been the focus on many clinical trials.
- Reduced Stress Levels
A number of studies suggest that TM way can help in the management of chronic stress by reducing both psychological and physiologic responses to stress factors. Specifically, TM has been shown to decrease sympathetic nervous system activity and reduce stress hormone levels.
Given the alarmingly high prevalence of stress and stress-related disorders in society today, finding the most effective tools for mitigating the negative effects of stress is essential. Evidence has shown that practicing the TM technique can help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol more so than doing other types of relaxation techniques. TM has been found to be so effective that it is even capable of reducing mortality among people with stress-induced diseases, such as older adults with cardiovascular disease.
- Lowered Blood Pressure and Improved Cardiovascular Health
Increased stress is associated with increased blood pressure. It makes sense then that studies have shown that TM programs can decrease blood pressure in association with decreased psychological distress, and increased coping skills in individuals at risk for hypertension. Significant improvements were found in total psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping after three months of regular practice compared to baseline measures.
Also related to heart health, findings from further studies have shown that TM can be effective in improving the quality of life and functional capacity of adults with chronic heart failure, including by improving their physical capabilities and by decreasing their risk for future hospitalisations.
- Improved Sleep Quality and Reduced Fatigue
Various components of sleep generating mechanisms seem to be altered by TM. When performed over the long-term, TM has been shown to lead to a state of “restful alertness,” in which deep physiological rest is achieved that leads to increased energy.
TM can assist in fighting insomnia and initiating better sleep quality through various mechanisms including by increasing the relaxation response, promoting a parasympathetic state, and regulating blood flow to the executive regions of the brain during sleep.
- Reduced Symptoms of Depression and “Burnout”
Research suggests that TM can be an effective tool in reducing psychological distress and anxiety, including among busy executives and those who deal with ongoing stress related to work and family life. These findings suggest that a regular TM practice can have positive implications for not only job performance, but also relationships, life satisfaction and mental and physical health.
For example, studies have shown that TM programs can cause a significant reduction in measures of perceived stress, depression and overall workplace “burnout” amongst participants. Burnout is considered to be a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, negative attitudes toward others, and dissatisfaction with one’s job performance.
- Increased Focus and Learning Capability
TM is a form of meditation that allows you to experience quieter levels of thought. Among other purposes it aims to improve one’s ability to concentrate while cultivating a non-judgmental attitude toward thoughts that might arise. Many people find that TM helps them to think more clearly and improve concentration, problem solving, focus and judgement — considered “executive functions” that are partially controlled by the prefrontal cortex in the brain.
Studies on the effect of TM in children with ADHD have shown that TM techniques can lesson symptoms of ADHD by increasing the ability to suppress unrelated thoughts and distractions and by improving attention, leading to potential improvement in occupational and social function. It’s been suggested that the ability to focus on tasks and reduce hyperactivity can also lower the risk for problems like addiction, delinquent behaviour and other psychiatric disorders.
- Reduced Pain
Over the past several decades meditation has been adopted in western countries as a mind-body therapeutic intervention for individuals dealing with chronic pain — such as back or neck pain, migraines, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal conditions and muscular disorders. Various studies have found that TM increases pain tolerance and reduces pain intensity.
The mechanisms by which TM and other forms of meditation may help people’s ability to cope with pain include reducing anticipatory anxiety and depression, improving the ability to focus on the present moment, distracting attention away from pain, resolving underlying physiological conditions responsible for chronic pain and lowering general stress reactivity.
Some studies have also found that TM can reduce the motivational dimension of the brain’s response to pain and increase levels of ‘feel good’ endogenous endorphins.
How to Do TM
TM technique traditionally requires a course of instruction from a qualified teacher, which can take several days to complete (the reason why some people attend TM retreats). While it’s possible to start practicing TM on your own without guidance from a teacher, many will tell you that this is a mistake. The relationship between a TM student and teacher is seen as critical for getting the most benefits from the practice, therefore guidance from a teacher is highly recommended. Courses are now available both face to face and online so the options are endless.
Whilst it is recommended to attend a course prior to practicing TM, here’s a basic overview of how to do TM for beginners:
- TM is performed whilst sitting upright in a comfortable position. Most people find it best to perform the meditation with your back supported and your head free.
- Throughout the 20 minutes of practice, you will repeat your mantra over and over silently to yourself. This allows your mind to experience finer levels of thinking and to achieve a state of deep relaxation.
- Try to breathe normally and focus your attention on the mantra, bringing your attention back if it wanders. Keep your spine straight as you maintain good posture, but also try to relax your muscles.
- Bring your mantra to mind. You may find it useful to visualise the mantra.
- If you’re new to TM, and even if you’ve been practicing for years, you can expect distracting thoughts to keep popping up. Rather than becoming frustrated from your wandering mind, know that this is the part of the process and totally normal. Not every meditation will feel super productive or enjoyable, but with time and practice you should find meditating in the TM style to become easier and more rewarding.
With so many benefits and relatively easy principles to implement, TM is surely worth a go. Search out and find a face to face teacher or online course and once you’re ready to begin practicing, I have no doubt you will notice positive effects in all aspects of your health.