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What is Transcendental Meditation?

You may have heard about the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (aka TM or T.M. Meditation) and wondered what it was all about. It’s a type of mantra meditation practiced by 5 million people worldwide, including celebrities who frequently describe its benefits, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen Degeneres, David Lynch, and Howard Stern.

Meditation practice of any type can have numerous benefits for our mental and physical health. When it comes to meditation, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice. There are literally hundreds of meditation techniques encompassing practices from different traditions, cultures, spiritual disciplines, and religions. There’s not a universally accepted “best” or “most effective” type; rather, our own individual preference helps us choose the one that works best.

Note: The meditation techniques and exercises in the Headspace app are not Transcendental Meditation, nor do you need to know or understand the background of T.M. or any specific type of meditation in order to use the Headspace app to meditate. The guided meditations in Headspace put meditation practice into plain language that makes it easy to understand even if you are completely new to meditation.

How Transcendental Meditation is practiced

Transcendental Meditation is a type of silent mantra meditation. In T.M., an official instructor assigns participants a one- or two-syllable mantra (a sound without meaning that has a vibration similar to the primordial hum sound “Om”), during a one-on-one introductory session.

The first step to practicing Transcendental Meditation is finding a certified instructor. Authentic TM technique is only taught by official TM instructors from the Maharishi Foundation USA (a federally recognized non-profit 501(c)(3) educational organization named for Maharishi Mahesh Yogi). There are thousands of places to learn Transcendental Meditation and more than 40,000 teachers globally.

The practice involves sitting with one’s eyes closed in a chair for 20 minutes twice per day while silently repeating the mantra. Each day typically begins with a morning meditation, and the second session is in the mid-afternoon or early evening.

Study-based benefits of Transcendental Meditation

Much has been documented on the benefits of twice-daily 20-minute meditation as performed during TM. The Maharishi Foundation USA reports that more than 380 peer-reviewed research studies at medical schools worldwide (including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and UCLA), have appeared in more than 160 scientific journals.

As with other types of meditation (including use of the Headspace app), benefits of regular meditative practice include reduced anxiety and stress, reduced aggression, and increased compassion.

TM practitioners in a 5-year randomized controlled study published in 2012 on patients with established coronary heart disease were reportedly 48% less likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than subjects in the control group. And research suggests TM practice has “clinically meaningful” potential to reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Research has also uncovered potential real-world applications for TM with veterans, prisoners, and students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For example, studies link TM’s benefits to male and female prison populations (where it may also reduce recidivism among convicted felon parolees). A 2018 study published in Military Medicine showed that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found significant relief from their symptoms when they practiced Transcendental Meditation. Finally, an exploratory study of students aged 11-14 with pre-existing diagnoses of ADHD indicated that Transcendental Meditation has the potential to reduce stress, anxiety, and stress-related ADHD symptoms within three months.

The history of Transcendental Meditation

The Transcendental Meditation Movement started in India in 1955 when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (later known as simply the Maharishi) began publicly teaching a Vedic-based meditation technique he learned from his Hindu meditation master. The technique arose in northern India from the ancient Vedic civilization around 10,000 years ago. (In Vedic meditation, just like TM, you sit comfortably with your eyes closed and silently repeat your mantra to yourself over and over again. When you realize your mind has wandered, you gently bring it back to the mantra.)

By the 1960s celebrity interest played a significant part of the catalyst for Transcendental Meditation’s rise. The Maharishi (aka the Giggling Guru because of his high-pitched laugh) was a favorite on the talk show circuit (Merv Griffin and Clint Eastwood were among early practitioners). In 1967, the Maharishi invited The Beatles to attend a 10-day TM conference in Wales along with Mick Jagger.

The Beatles’ curiosity was sparked, and they embarked on a legendary 6-week retreat at the Maharishi’s residence in Rishikesh, India in 1968. This trip inspired songwriting in what would become the White Album, and it resulted in The Beatles’ famous falling out with the Maharishi. While in the ashram, The Beatles reportedly wrote more than a dozen songs, including “Dear Prudence” (a song to encourage Mia Farrow’s sister to stop meditating and come out of her room) and “Sexy Sadie” (a jab at the Maharishi, himself). By then it was clear, the world knew about TM, and TM became what most people in the world knew about meditation. In 1968, Life magazine declared it “The Year of the Guru,” in an article that largely focused on the Maharishi and Transcendental Meditation.

For their part, Beatles George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and Paul McCartney later reconciled their differences with the Maharishi, and in 2019 Starr and McCartney performed in TM benefit concerts for the David Lynch Foundation.

Director, musician, and fine artist David Lynch was inspired to create his foundation in 2005 to bring TM to underserved populations. Today the organization annually raises millions of dollars in donations, funding scholarships for TM training for at-risk youth, HIV/AIDS patients, veterans, prisoners, and female victims of violence with its mission to prevent and eradicate “trauma and toxic stress among at-risk populations.”

“I started Transcendental Meditation in 1973 and have not missed a single meditation ever since — twice a day, every day,” Lynch wrote in a letter published on the Foundation’s website. “It has given me effortless access to unlimited reserves of energy, creativity, and happiness deep within.”

It’s a sentiment with which both comedian Jerry Seinfeld and radio host Howard Stern, two TM devotees for over 40 years, can relate. “You know how your phone has a charger?” Seinfeld said in an appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, “TM is like having a charger for your mind and body.”

“It’s the easiest thing I ever did,” Stern said in a 2011 appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. “I have been doing it since I was 18. I love to do it after the show. I find it very relaxing.”

Get your own meditation practice started — and begin reaping benefits

Ultimately it doesn’t matter which meditation technique you choose. What does matter, however, is that you choose a style that allows you to integrate the qualities you experience during meditation practice — calm, empathy, mindfulness — into the rest of your day.

If you’re curious about trying meditation, you can try a session when you register for the Headspace app. You’ll see that the key to any meditation practice is repetition – just like any exercise. For example, 10 days of Headspace app use has been proven to reduce signs of stress and irritability, while improving focus, empathy, and life and job satisfaction. Whether you meditate for 5 minutes or 15 or 20 or, even for an entire hour is up to you; just do what feels right. And if one type of meditation just feels right to you; that’s what matters.

If you’re looking for an introduction to different types of meditation, check out the 10-day beginner’s course meditation essentials — available for free in the Headspace app. From there, once you gain more experience and confidence, you can explore the whole library of exercises, covering everything from sleep, compassion, and sports to anger, stress, focus, and more. Get started today! Sign up for Headspace for free, and start reaping the benefits of a meditation practice.

READ NEXT: How to start a morning meditation practice

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