If you're interested in keeping your anxiety and blood pressure this holiday season, look to your favorite Beatles album for inspiration. Transcendental meditation, the practice that drove George Harrison and co. to India in the late 1960s, was found in a first-of-its-kind study to substantially lower anxiety, depression, and anger among college students. The study, published in 2009 in the American Journal of Hypertension, is the first to link the 1,000-year-old practice both to lowering blood pressure naturally and to improving psychological conditions.
Descriptions of transcendental meditation are fairly vague, and most practitioners describe it as an effortless technique that allows the mind and body to settle down and experience deeper levels of restfulness while the mind remains fully alert. "The premise is that our experience of ourselves and the world is a product of our thinking, the filter through which we perceive and interpret everything we experience," says Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. "Through the practice of TM, you can learn to 'transcend' your normal mode of thinking, and thereby develop a more expansive, enlightened way of experiencing yourself and your life." The difference between it and other forms of meditation is that in transcendental meditation, you attempt to achieve that state of transcendence by repeating a mantra over and over again without focusing on any one particular thing, letting your mind go free, says the study's lead author Sanford Nidich, EdD, professor of physiology at the Maharishi University of Management. "It doesn't involve any kind of contemplation or concentration, while most other types of meditation and relaxation training modalities would generally involve some kind of focused attention." Rossman adds that in mindfulness meditation, for instance, you focus on your breath, which keeps your attention rooted in your body and in the here and now.
The study authors recruited 457 students from American University in Washington DC; 159 of the students had risk factors for hypertension, whether a history of hypertension, a family history of the condition, or obesity. All the students were given tests to measure coping abilities as well as levels of psychological distress, which includes depression, anger, and anxiety—all conditions that have been linked to blood pressure.
The students were taught transcendental meditation by certified instructors following a seven-step program, then attended individual training sessions weekly and then monthly, which were used to ensure they continued meditating properly. Individuals were supposed to meditate on their own every day for 20 minutes.
The not-at-risk students saw an average two-point drop in their systolic blood pressure (the top number) and an average one-point drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number), and their scores measuring anxiety, depression, and anger were reduced significantly. The at-risk group saw the same improvements in psychological distress, and an even greater reduction in blood pressure scores: 6.3 points for systolic and four points for diastolic, respectively.
Science has demonstrated for the past 35 years that transcendental meditation was a good way to lower blood pressure naturally, but this study is the first to associate transcendental meditation to both lower blood pressure and lower psychological distress, particularly in a younger population. "Research has shown that high blood pressure and hypertension are increasingly being seen at lower and lower ages, so it's a major problem on college campuses," says Nidich. "We know from recent surveys that colleges are reporting a substantial rise in the number of students who have depression, and in students seeking out counseling services."
The benefit of transcendental meditation, he notes, is that it prevents overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers that "fight-or-flight" response when we become stressed, and prevents blood pressure from spiking. Plus, the fact that it's a standardized technique, taught by certified professionals, means that it can yield consistent results across the entire population, Nidich says, unlike other forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, that are practiced differently from individual to individual.
Interested in seeing what George Harrison was so enamored with? Here are a few points to remember.
• You can't learn it from a book. Transcendental meditation practitioners say it can only be taught by certified instructors. The program, which includes the same seven-step course as the college students went through, as well as a lifetime of follow-up training sessions, costs $1,500 for adults. Nidich says that he's aware of a few instances in which an insurance company reimbursed an individual for the fee, and a representative from the Transcendental Meditation Program says that the Veterans Administration has been known to pay for training for Iraq war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, as of yet, it's not widely covered by insurance. You can find a course online at www.tm.org or by calling 888-LEARN-TM.
• You can still meditate cost-effectively. "From our research, which has been going on for over 35 years now, clearly [transcendental meditation] is the best way," says Nidich. However, "I don't doubt that transcendental meditation produces some physiological and psychological results that are different from other methods, but there is also a good deal of overlap in the results obtained by different meditation practices," says Rossman. He suggests that you could find a local yoga teacher or psychotherapist that teaches other forms of meditation for less cost, and while you may not reap the dramatic results seen by transcendental meditation practitioners, you will experience some of the same benefits.