FAIRFIELD — The followers of a meditation practice that has roots in ancient India say it’s simple: Close your eyes, silently repeat a mantra and relax. But a dispute among rivals for control over its teaching is anything but peaceful, featuring personal attacks, aggressive lawyering and accusations of improper business practices.
The feud pits the Iowa nonprofit that has taught transcendental meditation for decades against Thom Knoles, a former associate who left and built his own group of followers. The outcome could decide whether the Fairfield, Iowa-based Maharishi Foundation will continue to control the teaching of U.S. transcendental meditation — or whether rivals can market similar services and its benefits without obtaining a license from the group.
The sides are fighting for customers and to protect their reputations in a federal-court case over whether the foundation can enforce its trademark rights and claims of false advertising against Mr. Knoles and other teachers of his rival Vedic Meditation.
To the foundation, Mr. Knoles and his followers are using the credibility and positive image associated with its technique to promote themselves and mislead customers. To Mr. Knoles‘ backers, the foundation is unfairly seeking a monopoly on a technique that’s existed thousands of years.
Supporters of transcendental meditation are being warned to choose sides carefully.
“Once you’ve formally burned your bridges, however, I’m afraid there’ll be nothing more I or anyone can do to help you,” a foundation supporter wrote in 2011, advising a businessman to reconsider his commitment to Mr. Knoles, in an email included in court records.
Supporters say the technique originated with the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts. Its modern incarnation was developed in India in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who later spread the technique worldwide and became spiritual guru to celebrities such as the Beatles.
Maharishi founded a university that settled in Fairfield in the 1970s. His backers manage the foundation, which teaches classes to thousands of students annually and owns trademarks for Transcendental Meditation and its TM nickname.
Mr. Knoles, an Australia native, was a teacher in the movement. In court documents, he claims he was personally trained by the Maharishi, who died in 2008, and taught with the support of his groups. He cut ties in 1997 and has taught independently since.
The foundation argues that disclaimer isn’t enough. Its attorneys have claimed that Mr. Knoles and his backers mislead customers by implying that scientific studies have found a range of health benefits for Vedic Meditation.