Five adults gathered in a northeast Miami library one recent evening to learn a meditation technique that spans centuries and continents, from India to Aventura, from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to the Beatles.
Carlos and Sylvia Ranalli weren’t there for spiritual reasons. They were hoping transcendental meditation, or TM, could help them calm, focus and relieve stress.
They’re indicative of a nationwide trend, as meditation is now taught in health clubs, schools, offices, even prisons. The technique was featured in a recent Time magazine, which reported that 10 million Americans practice some form of meditation. In South Florida, professors are investigating the relationship between meditation and the ability to negotiate.
In contrast to its religious roots, today’s meditation is buoyed less by spiritual figures than by scientific studies documenting health benefits.
”If you go back 30 years, what was meditation? Meditation was a thing a bunch of hippies did,” said Doug Kruger, regional representative for the Science of Spirituality.
”Now, it’s not uncommon to walk into large corporations and see meditation classes,” he continued. “It’s become much more popular in the West, but it has lost its spiritual side.”
At the recent TM lecture, instructor Mike Scozzari, a graying man in a pressed shirt, handed out packets of photocopied medical studies and newspaper articles on meditation.
Trained in Spain and Switzerland with TM founder Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Scozzari said he has been teaching meditation since 1972.
TM is one of dozens of meditation techniques — some concentrate on breathing, others call for focusing on a specific place or a third eye, while some try to solve an impossible riddle (for instance, what is the sound of one hand clapping?). But TM is the most widely researched form, and also one of the most popular, practiced by 1.5 million Americans.
Maharishi, who taught TM to the Beatles, received a degree in physics before he started teaching meditation in 1955. Two years later, he founded the TM movement, which comes from ancient Hindu traditions, in Madras, India.
With a background bridging science and spirituality, Maharishi urged researchers to probe meditation. And he emphasized that TM must be standardized — each instructor teaches the same set of skills.
Maharishi’s appeal to science is evident in the way Scozzari opened his talk, by calling TM a ”mechanical technique,” not a religion.
Often, Scozzari said, this is a concern. He remembered one woman who signed up for lessons, then canceled after her pastor told her not to go.
Despite the real link between meditation and some religions, Scozzari compares meditation to math.
TM is a mantra-based meditation technique, which means that one meditates by repeating a meaningless sound assigned by the instructor. Repeating the mantra allows the mind to stop working and settle naturally into a rhythm.
”You lose awareness of your surroundings, who’s at the door and who’s on the phone,” he said.
You can do it anywhere, eyes closed, in any comfortable position. In contrast to other types of meditation, TM doesn’t involve concentration. If you work hard, you’re doing something wrong, Scozzari is fond of telling students. “In this method, you change what you think with, you don’t change what you think about.”
It worked for Alexandra Peters of Sunny Isles. She was stressed and struggling after moving from New York to Miami with her baby daughter over a year ago, and meditation helped her return to her ”intuitive” self, she said.
When Susi Deneroff comes home from work ”frazzled to death,” she meditates for 20 minutes by repeating a mantra, and then feels reinvigorated.
”Meditation saved my life,” said Deneroff, who has a family history of heart disease, but is 60 and healthy.
Adeyela Albury, who investigates sexual harassment claims for Miami-Dade Public Schools, started taking a meditation class with her daughter when the 12-year-old started having panic attacks. Since then, the daughter’s grades have improved, and Albury’s high blood pressure has decreased.
”It allows me to be loving but detached,” she said. “Once you learn the technique, you literally can lock in within a second to center your mind and body.”
Science has tried to put a finer point on it, with rigorous studies — hundreds on transcendental meditation — beginning in the 1970s.
A 1972 paper by Harvard Medical School researchers, part of the packet Scozzari hands out, reported that metabolism and the need for oxygen drop during meditation. These findings, along with monitoring electrical activity of meditators’ brains, show meditation is a distinctly different state from sleep.
It also seems to have long-term benefit. Studies measuring the biological markers of aging — blood pressure, vision and hearing — found that meditators were younger than their chronological age.
Earlier this month at a cardiology conference in Orlando, researchers presented studies on the effect of TM on blood pressure. Among 150 black men and women divided into groups taught health education, TM or muscle relaxation, blood pressure dropped the most in the group that meditated. One suggested theory: meditation reduces stress-related hormones believed to contribute to high blood pressure.
”If the mind can contribute to heart disease, then the mind can contribute to healing heart disease,” said Dr. Robert Sneider, the study’s principal investigator.
It’s meditation’s effect on mental health that interests Clark Freshman, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, who meditates regularly. Freshman is investigating how meditation affects the ability to negotiate successfully. The link, he said, is that people who report being in a ”positive mood” are more successful negotiators, and people are often in a ”slightly better mood” after meditating.
”It’s not quite a high, it’s just a sense of complete ease,” Freshman said. “It’s a calmness and pleasantness, unlike anything I’d ever felt before.”
The meditators meeting at the Aventura library used similar terms. One suggested ”restful, blissful.” One said he no longer feels the desire for cigarettes or alcohol. Another described it as ”orgasmic.” They all agreed.