Katie Karlson wanted to start a meditation practice, but couldn’t find the right fit. Mindfulness meditation didn’t work for her. Neither did focusing on her breath, which just made her anxiety worse. Guided meditations helped, but Karlson wanted something she could do on her own without relying on a tool or app.
So when her boss, who happens to be spiritual guru Gabrielle Bernstein, wrote about her experience learning transcendental meditation (aka TM), the 34-year old from Ann Arbor, MI was sold.
While Karlson didn’t expect TM to be a cure-all, she says it’s taught her to quiet the physical symptoms of her anxiety and to find a calmer state of mind in her daily life. Plus, now she can literally breathe. “Since I’ve practiced TM, I noticed pretty quickly that I could take a full breath in a situation where my anxiety was spiked or heightened. That’s not something I could do before,” she says. “It’s a beautiful ritual to start the day. It’s energizing and I feel more awake.”
Karlson isn’t the only one to swear by the profound effects of transcendental meditation. Devotees include celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jerry Seinfeld, Cameron Diaz and Oprah, titans of Wall Street, the Beatles and the wellness-obsessed.
But TM is cloaked in a bit of mystery. What exactly is transcendental meditation and how does it differ from other forms of meditation? Here’s what you need to know.
Desperately Seeking Transcendence
As you may have noticed, meditation is everywhere. With the constant binging, beeping and noise in our everyday lives, who wouldn’t want a super-easy way to find quiet and peace?
That’s the promise of TM. Twice a day, you close your eyes, sit comfortably for 20 minutes and silently repeat a mantra or meaningless word in your head. The mantra is specially chosen for you by your TM teacher to access an internal state of calm.
Bob Roth, Executive Director of the David Lynch Foundation — an organization that promotes the practice of TM — describes it as a way to tap into the deep levels of the mind. He likens it to diving into the depths of the ocean where it is still and quiet, far below the breaking waves and turbulent surface of the water. That’s where TM takes you.
But the practice isn’t tied to a specific religion or philosophy, and you don’t have to change your diet or lifestyle. In fact, you don’t need to believe in the practice in order for it to work, says Roth.
“I found more peace, clarity of mind and energy. Stress affected me much less.”
John Allon was skeptical when he first learned about transcendental meditation during his senior year of college. He visited his younger brother who has recently learned the practice and noticed his subtle transformation. “I didn’t know meditation from a hole in the ground but whatever he had, I wanted a taste of it,” he says. After a weekend on a TM retreat, he came back to school and smiled the entire week. “I was in such a state of euphoria the likes of which I had never experienced before,” Allon says, who now lives in Fairfield, Iowa and has been teaching TM for 46 years. “I found more peace, clarity of mind and energy. Stress affected me much less.”
Transcendental Meditation: The Power of Positive Mantras
But doesn’t that sound like the promise of every other type of meditation? Yes and no. Roth says that there are three unique types of meditation, each with its specific purpose.
With focused attention meditation, like zen meditation, you concentrate on one specific thing — a sound, a body part, a picture — in order to train and clear your mind. With open-monitoring techniques like mindfulness meditation, you teach your mind to dispassionately observe your thoughts or body sensations and stay in the present moment. This can also be a helpful coping mechanism. Both of these meditation practices require controlling the mind to a certain extent.
In contrast, self-transcending practices, like TM, don’t involve concentrating or training of your mind. It’s effortless, says Roth. “The repetition of the mantra isn’t to focus your attention or blot out other thoughts. It’s a subtle mechanism to turn your attention within,” he says. That inward focus allows you to settle into a natural state of calm alertness. In other words, you have a transcendent experience.
“When you access that level during TM, you experience a profound rest that eliminates the build up of deeply rooted stress and tension, improves health and wakes up and improves the cognitive function of the brain.” Research has found that TM reduced blood pressure, cortisol levels and even stress and trauma in populations like male inmates.
The other difference? You learn the practice in-person with a certified TM teacher. No YouTube video, online course, book or app necessary. To get started, you attend an introductory workshop, meet privately with an instructor (who gives you your mantra and teaches you to use it properly) and take a four-day course — all for close to $1,000.
Some scoff at the high price tag as a money-making scheme. However, the Maharishi Foundation USA, a nonprofit organization that teaches TM, claims that proceeds go to support initiatives to teach TM to under-served populations. (Think: at-risk youth, veterans and those involved in the criminal justice system.)
Is Transcendental Meditation Right for You?
Whether you practice TM, mindfulness-based meditation or focused attention, there’s no denying that meditation is a good thing with benefits for your physical and mental health. If you’re curious about transcendental meditation and have the resources to invest, you could try it for yourself.
Just remember, finding the right meditation practice for you can be like finding the glass slipper. You may have to try a few different methods before you find the best fit.