I attended my first introductory lecture on the Transcendental Meditation (TM) technique in the 1970s.
During that talk, the teacher proudly showed the class a fresh reprint from a Scientific American article. I remember him waving it in the air and saying, “There’s now scientific evidence that this practice produces a state of restful alertness, a fourth state of consciousness unlike waking, dreaming or sleep.”
The article introduced the only scientific study on meditation ever published in a peer-reviewed research journal.
Now, decades later, meditation research has come a long way. There are well over a thousand scientific research studies on different kinds of meditation practices, with over 600 published studies on the TM technique alone. It’s becoming commonplace for universities, medical schools and hospitals to offer classes in mind-body medicine and provide training in meditation.
Nevertheless, recent reports about a scientific review2 published in JAMA Internal Medicine (January 2014) raised questions about the extent of health benefits that can be claimed for meditation. While the review has been criticized as too narrowly focused to represent the current state of meditation research (it excluded many major studies and large randomized clinical trials), there is an upside to the JAMA review:
Health professionals may now be prompted to look closer at meditation and discover how far the research has actually come at verifying health benefits and distinguishing the specific effects of different practices.
Clearing Up The Confusion
One meditation researcher, the physician and author Robert Schneider, M.D., FACC, is currently touring universities and medical schools across the U.S.—speaking to doctors, medical scientists and students, and conducting media interviews—spearheading an initiative to update fellow physicians and health professionals about the latest research on meditation related to cardiovascular disease, and about the role of meditation in stress reduction, prevention and treatment.
“Many doctors and scientists are recognizing that mind-body-heart research has crossed a threshold,” says Dr. Schneider. “With the recent publication of the American Heart Association’s scientific statement on alternative methods for lowering blood pressure, and the AHA’s publication of a long-term clinical trial3 showing that the Transcendental Meditation technique reduces rates of death, heart attack and stroke by 48 percent—and with hundreds of other peer-reviewed studies on TM, mindfulness and other meditation practices—there is now strong scientific evidence that meditation, when properly practiced, may significantly contribute to preventing cardiovascular disease and promoting well-being.
The data indicates that managing stress is at least as important as a balanced diet and exercise.
The most recent medical schools and hospitals to host Dr. Schneider include University of Michigan, University of Iowa and Des Moines University. Grand rounds presentations are scheduled for Cleveland Clinic, Yale University, University of Chicago, University of Arizona and University of Maryland.
High-profile doctors Mehmet Oz, the Discovery Channel’s Dr. Pamela Peeke, and many other physicians are also speaking out these days about the scientifically verified health benefits of meditation and its power as a stress-buster.
Psychiatrist and bestselling author Norman Rosenthal, formerly a 20-year senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health, has famously stated, “If TM were a new drug, conferring this many benefits, it would be the biggest-selling, multibillion-dollar drug on the market.”
The New Paradigm: Different Mind-Body Practices Produce Different Effects
One of Dr. Schneider’s aims in meeting with doctors and health researchers across the country is to discuss the latest research showing that different mind-body practices produce different results.
To measure the differences between the various types of meditation, scientists are now using many of the same research methods used to compare effects of drugs and other medical therapies.
Dr. David Orme-Johnson, who has participated in more than 50 published studies and served as peer-reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, speaks of a new scientific paradigm in the field of meditation research. “We now know from hundreds of studies, including randomized clinical trials, that different meditation practices produce different effects on anxiety, addiction, depression, and mental and physical health,” says Orme-Johnson.
Brain researchers have compared brain wave patterns of mindfulness meditation, the TM technique and other practices. “Meditations do differ in procedure, in patterns of brain blood flow, brain metabolic rate, and EEG signatures,” says Dr. Fred Travis, lead author of several related studies. Dr. Travis and other researchers have identified three major categories of meditation practices, each with its own neural or brain wave pattern: Focused attention (gamma waves), open monitoring or mindfulness (theta waves), and automatic self-transcending, which includes the TM technique (alpha waves and EEG coherence).
As a 30-year teacher of meditation, I’m now seeing more people being drawn to meditation than at any time in my career—especially physicians and health professionals, who are also prescribing it to patients.
When something works, people tend to use it and to spread the word. Much of this surging interest is due to the scientific research.
Dr. Schneider’s outreach to medical schools is crucial.
The kind of knowledge that medical students undergo today will set the tone of our health care system for decades to come.
Robert Schneider, MD, FACC, is Director of the NIH-funded Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at Maharishi University of Management, in Fairfield, Iowa.
Dr. Robert Schneider on Meditation and Heart Health
1. Wallace, K., Physiological Effects of Transcendental Meditation, Science. 27, 1970167 (3926): 1751-1754
2. Goyal, M., et al, JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368
3. Schneider, R., et al, Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks, Circulation. 2014;129:e28-e292
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