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May 11, 2021
6 min read

Transcendental meditation: what research says about it

Transcendental meditation is one of several popular types of meditation techniques. It involves repeating a mantra to focus the attention and enter a meditative state. Practitioners have reported a number of physical and emotional benefits. Some health benefits have been shown in scientific studies, but overall, more research is needed. No evidence of any negative effects from transcendental meditation have been found.

steve silvestro

Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Ellyn Vohnoutka, BSN, RN

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Various kinds of meditation, including some similar to transcendental meditation, have been practiced for thousands of years across multiple cultures. 

Those who practice meditation regularly have long proclaimed its positive effects on stress and anxiety. More recently, it has been suggested that meditation practice can improve physical health as well. 

Proponents of meditation have included celebrities such as The Beatles, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ellen Degeneres. Even the American Heart Association has said that transcendental meditation is potentially beneficial (Bai, 2015).

But is there any scientific research to support the claims that transcendental meditation can improve your physical and mental health?

What is transcendental meditation?

Meditation refers to a range of practices and techniques designed to induce relaxation and calm. Other types of meditation include mindfulness meditation, focused attention, loving-kindness meditation, and more. Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong also include aspects of meditation (Ospina, 2007).

Transcendental meditation (TM) is a form of mantra meditation. With this type of meditation, you repeat a word or phrase to focus the attention. Common mantras are the words “om” and “mu,” although almost any word or sound can be used if you find it effective (Ospina, 2007). 

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi derived the transcendental meditation technique from the Vedic tradition in India (an early religious tradition that helped shape Hinduism). It was designed to help participants achieve “transcendence,” a meditative state where the mind goes beyond ordinary thinking processes (Ospina, 2007). 

When this occurs, you’re no longer consciously thinking about the mantra; instead, the mind is freed from active thoughts. This induces a state of “restful alertness,” where the meditator is said to experience stillness, stability, inner peace, and the absence of mental boundaries (Ospina, 2007).

How is TM different from other forms of meditation?

There are many different varieties of meditation. Some are stand-alone techniques while others incorporate additional practices such as diet (Ayurveda) or movement (yoga) (Goyal, 2014a).

Other ways that meditation training programs can differ include (Goyal, 2014a):

  • Whether there is a religious/spiritual component or not
  • The type of mental activity promoted
  • Whether an instructor is recommended
  • How an instructor is qualified
  • The type and amount of training needed

In transcendental meditation technique, a certified TM teacher gives participants a mantra to help achieve a state without any focused attention. Another popular technique called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) trains participants in focusing their awareness on the present moment (Goyal, 2014a).

We don’t really know how much these differences in techniques affect the physical and psychological effects of meditation (Goyal, 2014a).

What health benefits does transcendental meditation offer?

Transcendental meditation has been proposed to help treat a wide variety of conditions including:

  • ADHD
  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension
  • Traumatic stress
  • Pain
  • Anxiety and depression

While scientific studies on transcendental meditation have shown some benefits to emotional and physical wellness, many of them were uncontrolled. It’s unclear how much the placebo effect plays a factor in the perceived benefits of TM. Many programs that were studied involve lengthy TM training. It is possible that benefits are seen simply from the added attention of a TM teacher, group support, and the suggestion that meditation will improve participants’ symptoms (Goyal, 2014a).

Some of the research into the conditions that transcendental meditation may help are summarized below.

Stress reduction 

A review of 47 trials on meditation found that TM courses can result in small to moderate decreases in the reported symptoms of psychological stress. This could lead to increased quality of life for participants. However, there was no evidence that meditation was more effective than standard psychiatric treatment (Goyal, 2014b).

High blood pressure 

Another review of 12 research studies with nearly 1000 participants found that TM was associated with significant decreases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressures versus control groups. The greatest effects were seen in participants over 65, those with initial systolic blood pressure over 140 mm Hg, and women (Bai, 2015).

High cholesterol

Several studies found a decline in total cholesterol levels for participants in a TM program. In the one study that didn’t find a greater decrease in mediators versus a control group, it was noted that the control group was given dietary education that may have affected the results. It is possible that people who are drawn to TM may also be more inclined to eat healthy foods, so it’s unclear that the meditation practice is what led to any decrease in cholesterol (Walton, 2002).

Headaches

Researchers studied a group of children who were suffering from headaches at least two times per month. The children received instruction in either transcendental meditation or hypnotherapy and were compared to an active control group that was taught progressive muscle relaxation exercises. Headache frequency was significantly reduced in all three groups. Reduced pain medication usage was also reported. The researchers concluded that all three techniques were effective and there were no large differences between them (Jong, 2019).

Substance use

A randomized control trial of 295 university students looked at the effects of the TM technique on smoking, alcohol use, and illicit drug use. Overall, there was no significant effect on the amount participants who reported smoking (although the sample size was very small to start with). There were no major differences in illicit drug use (Haaga, 2011).

A finding that surprised researchers was that transcendental meditation lowered alcohol use among male participants, but not female participants. They found the results encouraging, but because the study was small and there were other factors that may have influenced the results, the researchers felt more research was needed (Haaga, 2011).

PTSD

One researcher looked at transcendental meditation as a form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) to use for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He discussed several small, but promising studies that showed improvements in PTSD symptoms among veterans (Hankey, 2007).

Is transcendental meditation religious?

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s writings on the nature of transcendental consciousness and the theoretical principles that underlie transcendental meditation do include an element of spirituality. However, this spiritual component isn’t always part of the current teachings and practices of TM, depending on the instructor (Ospina, 2007). 

Practitioners of TM have stated that “the practice of the technique requires no changes in beliefs, philosophy, religion, or lifestyle.” This suggests that transcendental meditation can be learned and practiced without a spiritual or religious component (Ospina, 2007).

Are there any side effects to TM practice?

Very few clinical trials have reported on the potential negative side effects of meditation. Of those that did, none reported that participants experienced any harm from a meditation program (Goyal, 2014a). 

There has only been one trial that specifically looked for abnormalities in participants’ blood, kidney, and liver markers. Researchers found no evidence of toxicities or negative changes. Other trials did not specify what type of side effects they were looking for, only that there were no adverse events (Goyal, 2014a).

Transcendental meditation appears to be a safe tool you can use to help improve your focus, and it may even have positive health effects. To learn more about other types of meditation and how they might impact your health, click here. 

References

  1. Bai, Z., Chang, J., Chen, C. et al. (2015) Investigating the effect of transcendental meditation on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Human Hypertension 29, 653–662. doi: 10.1038/jhh.2015.6. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/jhh20156 x
  2. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, et al. (2014-a). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 124. (Prepared by Johns Hopkins University Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2007-10061–I.) AHRQ Publication No. 13(14)-EHC116-EF. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; Retrieved from http://www.effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/reports/final.cfm
  3. Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., et al. (2014-b). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine, 174(3), 357–368. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4142584/
  4. Haaga, D. A., Grosswald, S., Gaylord-King, C., Rainforth, M., Tanner, M., Travis, F., et al. (2011). Effects of the transcendental meditation program on substance use among university students. Cardiology research and practice, 2011, 537101. doi: 10.4061/2011/537101. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3087968/
  5. Hankey A. (2007). CAM and post-traumatic stress disorder. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 4(1), 131–132. doi: 10.1093/ecam/nel041. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1810367/
  6. Jong, M. C., Boers, I., van Wietmarschen, H. A., Tromp, E., Busari, J. O., Wennekes, R., et al. (2019). Hypnotherapy or transcendental meditation versus progressive muscle relaxation exercises in the treatment of children with primary headaches: a multi-centre, pragmatic, randomised clinical study. European journal of pediatrics, 178(2), 147–154. Doi: 10.1007/s00431-018-3270-3. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30357468/
  7. Ospina MB, Bond K, Karkhaneh M, et al. (2007). Meditation practices for health: state of the research. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US). (Evidence Reports/Technology Assessments, No. 155.) 3, Results. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK38353/
  8. Walton, K. G., Schneider, R. H., Nidich, S. I., Salerno, J. W., Nordstrom, C. K., & Bairey Merz, C. N. (2002). Psychosocial stress and cardiovascular disease Part 2: effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program in treatment and prevention. Behavioral medicine (Washington, D.C.), 28(3), 106–123. doi: 10.1080/08964280209596049. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2789000/