What's the Deal with Transcendental Meditation?
What is it, how much does it cost, and how is it different from regular ol' meditation? Here, the deets.
CEOs and Wall Street execs swear by it. Celebrities like Oprah, Hugh Jackman, Jerry Seinfeld, Cameron Diaz, Aziz Ansari, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, and Gwyneth Paltrow practice it. It started in the 1950s, but rose to popularity alongside the Beatles and all things psychedelic in the '60s, and is making a comeback now.
Have you guessed it yet? If you said, "What is Transcendental Meditation?" then give yourself a mindful pat on the back (and maybe sign up for a spot on Jeopardy).
This isn't just any "sit and breathe" meditation, though; Transcendental Meditation (or TM, for short) has an interesting history and organizational affiliation that feels more like a religious practice than a solo mindfulness experience. Here's what you need to know:
What Is Transcendental Meditation?
Simply put, Transcendental Meditation is a meditation style. It involves a silent (mental) repetition of a mantra, and the emphasis is on effortless relaxation versus concentrated mind-clearing. The technique was created by an Indian guru named Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who derived it from an ancient Vedic practice in India.
In addition to being a healing meditation and mindfulness technique, TM (or "the TM technique") is also a trademarked global organization, estimated to be a multi-billion dollar company. The organization itself is a product of the Maharishi's business endeavors to spread TM. He founded and oversaw the growth of the organization for 50 years before he passed away in 2008. In his time running TM, Maharishi reportedly started "opening schools and universities, offering expensive 'advanced' courses (including one [that cost a million dollars]), printing his own currency, launching a line of health supplements and his own TV station," and tried to open a meditation theme park, according to The Cut.
Now, the nonprofit David Lynch Foundation is doing a lot of the work in bringing transcendental meditation to the masses, particularly in schools, and has funded a lot of the research on transcendental meditation.
"Today more than 10 million people of all ages, religions, and nationalities practice the technique," says Bob Roth, CEO of the David Lynch Foundation and who Ellen DeGeneres has called "THE guy" of Transcendental Meditation. He learned from Maharishi and has been teaching TM for nearly 50 years. Note: This foundation hasn't replaced TM, but rather "the TM organization is a separate, nonprofit organization that 'owns' [the practice of] Transcendental Meditation; the David Lynch Foundation contracts with the TM organization to teach [the practice]," says Roth.
How Does Transcendental Meditation Work?
There are a few hallmarks of the Transcendental Meditation practice:
- Length and frequency: Twice daily 20-minute sessions.
- Position: Sitting comfortably with your eyes closed.
- Method: Use of a repeated mantra —"a specific word or sound that has no meaning," according to Roth. This is perhaps the most identifiable part of the practice: a repeated mantra.
Transcendental Meditation is supposed to be completely effortless. "You feel profoundly relaxed, almost right from the start," says Roth. "Tension eases out of your body, muscles relax, a gentle wave of ease washes over you, and yet inside you feel deeply settled but wide awake, alert."
This is why they call it "transcendental," explains Roth. "It is a truly transcendent experience—akin to, but actually much more than, what top athletes describe as being in the 'zone'."
Roth describes the TM effect with an ocean analogy—wavy surface, calm depths. "You're on a little boat in the middle of the ocean, and all of a sudden the ocean rises up in 30-foot, 40-foot, waves and you could think the whole ocean is in upheaval," he explains. "But in reality, the ocean is more than a mile deep. And while the ocean may be turbulent on the surface, it is also pretty darn quiet at its depth. The mind is the same."
"I like to call [the active surface] the 'gotta, gotta, gotta' mind," he says. "It never stops. Relentless. Agitating."
As such, "it's a natural desire of every human being to want some inner calm, inner equanimity, inner peace, inner ease. This is where people turn to meditation," he says. And as an obvious proponent of Transcendental above other styles of meditation, he reiterates that not all meditations are the same.
"Mindfulness and the trend of meditation-style apps try to bring calm to the mind by dispassionately observing thoughts or visualizing peaceful images," he says. "Those are surface approaches, like trying to stop waves on the surface of the ocean. But like the ocean, the mind has a vertical dimension, that deep within every human being there is a level where the mind is already perfectly calm, peaceful, creative, and alert. Transcendental Meditation gives effortless access to that field, which, in turn, transforms health, transforms life."
According to TM, the other styles of meditation use practices or techniques that create activity in the brain. Whether it's concentration or training the mind; getting transcendental is an "automated" practice.
Transcendental Meditation Mantras
As noted above, you'll repeat a mantra—but not the mantra you're probably thinking. You don't say "I love myself," or "I accept the world around me," or "I am enough," or anything remotely meaningful; you're supposed to repeat a "vibration word" with no meaning, no particular rhythm, without thinking about your breathing (GASP!), for 20 minutes. It seems that the mantras and vibration words used in Transcendental Meditation are kept totally under wraps.
Apparently, each individual gets their own personal—top secret—mantra (you get one per person) during training.
"When learning TM, you're asked to not share your mantra, as this is your own," says San Francisco-based trainer Nicolette Amarillas, who has been practicing Transcendental Meditation for two years. "I only know mine; I don't know, for example, my boyfriend's or my dad's. I can say that it feels more like a sound rather than a word or phrase. The mantra on its own or out of context holds no meaning to me. I love this because, again, I have no memories, attachments, or expectations of this mantra. It feels like my own, it feels special to me."
Kimberly Dunn, a meditation instructor at Chill in Chicago said you can try these mantras at home. "While TM offers the practitioner a unique, individualized mantra, [the use of a] mantra has been used for more than 3,000 years and comes in many forms," she said. "Silently repeating 'So Hum,' which translates as 'I am that,' is an example of a Sanskrit mantra meditation," she says. There are also some resources online, like this YouTube video that repeats the sound "rom" for thirty minutes, though it's not officially from the Transcendental Meditation organization.
These vibration words may relate to the Sanskrit language, according to Dunn.
"Sanskrit is an ancient language that is said to be a language of vibration," she explains. "We are all made up of atoms and molecules and just like us, the sounds from Sanskrit are vibrating. Chanting Sanskrit mantras is a way to feel their powerful vibrational field of sound."
"The sound of Om is the most common and often used in yoga classes," says Dunn. "Chant Om three times and then be silent and still to feel its vibration within. This is a subtle practice that can take time to experience. Have you ever been to a loud rock concert and feel the vibration of the music even after the concert has ended? Or been to a church or temple service and felt goosebumps just from singing? This is similar to feeling the vibration of mantras."
Some examples of vibrational words may be the sounds associated with chakras. "Chakras are energy centers within our bodies and each correlates to a specific sound," said Dunn. "Chanting the sounds of the chakras can help balance our own energy. These sounds in order (from root to crown) are Lam, Vam, Ram, Yum, Hum, Sham, and Om." (See: The Beginner's Guide to Your Chakras)
That said, "to receive your particular mantra, you would have to pay the fee," she said. "TM requires the practitioner to receive their personal and secretive mantra from a trained teacher." Yep, transcendental meditation isn't free—more on that next.
How Do You Get Started with Transcendental Meditation?
One of the key differences between Transcendental Meditation and other meditation practices is that you initially learn the technique during a one-on-one in-person session that's a sort of intensive meditation training boot camp—minus the aggressive parts of a boot camp. (So, no, you can't just turn on an app and start transcendentally meditating.)
"TM is taught one-to-one by a certified TM teacher over four consecutive days, for about 75 minutes each day," said Roth. To start, you'll have to find a center near you that can set up your training.
But that's it—it's just four days. "Within these first four days you learn how to practice Transcendental Meditation and are seeing benefits right from the start," said Roth. "This isn't a process that takes months of arduous practice to master. We're all hardwired with the ability to transcend. It just takes a qualified teacher to point you in the right direction."
There is a cost, however, which has been a hotly contested topic for some time.
Transcendental Meditation is not free. Just as you'd pay a yoga teacher or Pilates instructor (or a premium subscription for a meditation app like Calm or Headspace), you pay for your four days of education. It's charged on a sliding scale (which you might recognize from your therapist's office), a type of fee structure sometimes used to give people with fewer resources (aka cash) a lower fee than those who can more easily pay. In the case of TM, the most you'd pay is $960, and that's if you make $200K+ per year; the least you'd be paying is $380 (spread over four payments) if you're a full-time student. "The course fees are on a sliding scale based on a person's ability to pay," says Roth. "The TM organization does everything it can to make sure that anyone who wants to learn can do so."
Once you've paid for your initial course, you're good to go. "The TM course fee includes the four days of instruction (about one hour each day) and a lifetime of follow up whenever the student desires," says Roth. "There are no additional costs or membership fees for the follow-up."
"There are private follow-up sessions after the multiple training days, and free weekly classes nearby to attend to do group meditations whenever I choose to join," says Amarillas. "These resources were especially helpful when I was first doing it on my own. My teachers were always helpful and open to assisting with any of my troubles or questions."
Once you've learned the method, you practice on your own, by yourself.
"The technique is practiced alone, and can be done pretty much anywhere," says Roth. "In the quiet comfort of your home, on an airplane, train, or in the car (if someone else is driving), etc. It can be practiced in a group, but that's totally not necessary." (See: How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation Anywhere)
There's no option for this to be guided because, as Roth puts it, "that would be too distracting." The idea is to get into a silent state by using one simple mantra. "The technique allows you to access a field of silence that lies deep within the mind; speech, music, etc. is too superficial," he says.
In theory, you could learn transcendental meditation on your own.
Any number of Reddit rabbit holes will lead you to numerous online sources outlining a simple, step-by-step guide (get comfortable, close your eyes, repeat a mantra for 20 minutes, open your eyes). TM practitioners will tell you this is the "Cliffs Notes" version of Transcendental Meditation. It appears as though the organization may police people who try to teach the practice for free. You may be able to find literary resources and books as well.
"Similar techniques [to TM] would be staring at a candle flame to focus the mind, using a rosary [as is practiced within Catholicism], listening to a gong or sound bath, or any other Sanskrit mantra meditation," said Dunn. (For example, you can use mala beads for mantra-based meditation practice.)
What Are the Benefits of Transcendental Meditation?
Transcendental meditation is particularly beginner-friendly. "In my experience, after guided meditation, TM or any mantra-based meditation is the most accessible style for beginners to learn," says Catherine Tingey, Los Angeles yoga and meditation coach. "And because it's so easy to learn, students tend to keep up with their practice. I tell my clients, the only way to do meditation 'wrong' is to not do it."
Roth seconded this notion, saying "transcendental Meditation is fundamentally different from other forms of meditation because it is easy and accessible to learn and requires no concentration or control of the mind to practice," he said. In terms of accessibility, he's referring to the practice itself being easy to learn—of course, it still requires a four-day training session from a registered organization and a decent financial investment.
You get a lifelong support network.
"What Transcendental Meditation offers over other styles is the lifelong follow up with teachers," says Tingey. "That resource is built into the cost, and can be helpful for those who need extra guidance." You can go back in for follow up sessions and fine-tuning with your TM teacher or other teachers for free.
It's shown to improve mental health.
"Transcendental Meditation provides access to a unique state of profound inner silence and equanimity, while the body gains a state of rest and relaxation deeper than the deepest part of deep sleep," says Roth.
"According to hundreds of published research studies, this experience of 'restful alertness' reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia while simultaneously improving mental and physical health and increasing creativity, energy, focus, and intelligence," he says.
It's also been shown to reduce PTSD.
Roth also cited research (funded by a $2.4 million grant from the US Department of Defense) that "found TM to be more effective for reducing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans compared to the gold standard treatment called Prolonged Exposure", a cognitive behavioral therapy technique that teaches you to gradually approach trauma-related memories, feelings, and situations.
It improves heart health.
Transcendental Meditation has been linked to "reductions in blood pressure, carotid artery intima-media thickness, myocardial ischemia, left ventricular hypertrophy, mortality, and other relevant outcomes," according to a study published in the journal Behavioral Medicine. Read: It improved cardiovascular health in a number of important ways. A 1999 study also corroborated the finding on lowering blood pressure.
"The National Institutes of Health provided $26 million in grants to study the benefits of Transcendental Meditation on high blood pressure, which is the number one killer in the US," says Roth. "Research found TM to be as effective for reducing high blood pressure as antihypertensive medications, but without any of the negative side effects. In fact, in 2013, the American Heart Association said that Transcendental Meditation was the only meditation technique to reliably reduce high blood pressure."
Is Transcendental Meditation Better Than Other Forms of Meditation?
Naturally, the answer varies, depending on who you ask. It's sort of like asking, "Is one sport better than another?" according to Dunn.
Roth says that, yes, TM takes you to a new, deeper level of rejuvenation. "Other approaches, including mindfulness, Calm, and Headspace, do have an overall soothing effect on mind and body," says Roth. "But they don't produce the same depths of physiological rest, nor the same overall positive influence on mind and body."
The co-founder of Headspace tends to disagree with that claim. "Thanks to our science team and their many clinical trial partners around the world, we've been able to show how Headspace can reduce stress, improve focus, decrease aggression, and improve compassion, to name but a few of the outcomes," says Andy Puddicombe, Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk (you are definitely familiar with Andy's voice if you've ever used the app).
Puddicombe actually started practicing Transcendental Meditation himself at age 10. After spending many years with Transcendental Meditation, he found the Buddhist philosophy and methodology, which led him to become a monk in the mid-1990s. His experience with mindfulness led him to create Headspace (which uses "eight different techniques in total")—a platform he said is scientifically shown to help improve health as well. "Rigorous science has been at the heart of Headspace since day one," he says.
It's true that other forms of meditation have been proven to be effective, too. One is MBSR: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a program that's been used in hospitals since 1979, says Dunn.
"The practice of mindfulness meditation, as well as other forms of meditation, has been proven effective in reducing anxiety, managing stress, and improving health conditions such as pain, hypertension, and depression," she says. "The field beneath thought ('beneath the surface of the ocean') is accessible through all forms of meditation."
"Scientists now have the capability to measure brain waves of meditators," said Dunn. "These findings have shown that a mediatorʼs brain moves from beta brainwaves (active thinking) to theta brain waves (more relaxed and the place where we receive intuitive responses). Meditating Tibetan monks have even shown their brainwaves reaching the delta state, which is normally a deep, dreamless sleep, while still alert."
Amarillas, who has tried many forms of meditation, has found that Transcendental Meditation does indeed help her get into a deeper state of relaxation compared to other practices. "The practice [of TM] allows me to dive deeper because of the way I use the mantra," she says. "The mantra provides for my mind to go to, to concentrate on. On some days my meditation is so deep that my body becomes very light, weightless—a feeling I've never experienced with other forms of meditation."
She believes her mantra is the key difference. "My mantra makes the meditation feel like my own and this feels special; It makes it so much easier and less daunting when you have the ability to 'guide' yourself through meditation."
Puddicombe's opinion, though, is probably the best takeaway: As long as you're working on improving your health, you're doing the right thing—no matter what approach you choose to adopt.