- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 7, 2000

Charles Polk of Winter Haven, Fla., speaks quietly but with ease about his health problems, which started about four years ago and almost drove him crazy literally.

A small stroke brought on big problems, and Mr. Polk endured what he calls "mental sluggishness" headaches, anxiety, hearing problems and even difficulty walking.

A manager for the Postal Service's L'Enfant Plaza headquarters, he became terrified of Metro escalators, and he couldn't drive. "Even though I could do it," he says, "I would have to drive at much slower speeds than I normally would have."

Out of curiosity and in need of relief, Mr. Polk turned to Dr. Nancy Lansdorf at the Maharishi Vedic Medical Center.

He was willing to try "anything" that would help him improve "after four years of daily not occasional experiences of mental sluggishness," Mr. Polk says. "For me, it was a no-lose situation."

Dr. Lonsdorf prescribed transcendental meditation (TM). By the end of the week that he began meditating, Mr. Polk was driving on the Beltway and bounding up the Rosslyn Metro escalator.

The Maharishi Vedic Medical Center, located near White Flint Mall in North Bethesda, recently was granted $8 million by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The Vedic center, one of five institutions sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will use the money to study the effect of TM on cardiovascular disease in those over 55.

• • •

The Bethesda, Md., center is a boxy-looking white building with three golden crowns on top. The alternative-medicine facility located there contains an exam room, clinic area, day spa and massage table. Another room contains a Shirodara table, which looks like a massage table, but it's in here that a bowl of herbalized oil is suspended over a patient and poured slowly over the person's forehead to calm the mind.

The center has a Web site (www.tm.org.) and also a lecture hall, meditation rooms and an herb room with digestive aids, liver care and beauty products.

The core for the center, however, is TM the same practice advocated by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose friendship with the Beatles in the 1960s made him an international celebrity. Meditators sit, eyes closed, relaxing their minds for 20 minutes twice a day, slowly breathing in and out and at the same time repeating a mantra word that has been assigned by an instructor.

It's "not contemplation nor concentration," a phrase used by nearly every TM practitioner when comparing it to other forms of meditation.

"When you have effort or concentration or contemplation, it increases activity of the mind," says Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Center of Natural Medicine and Prevention at the College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa. "TM decreases activity."

The TM program at the Vedic center costs $1,200. That covers the initial five-day program of instruction, the first year of monthly refreshers with an instructor and unlimited use of meditation rooms.

"There would be a rush on TM if it could be claimed on insurance," says Laura Courtney, executive director of the Bethesda center. "Generally, the price really isn't an issue for people these days, compared to what people pay for a new stereo."

Ms. Courtney is buoyed by a March report in the American Heart Association journal Stroke. It gives the results of a study that used ultrasound to measure the thickening of the arteries of blacks who were prone to heart disease. Two groups were studied: one following conventional advice from doctors about diet and exercise, the other group practicing TM.

"The TM group showed a regression of their disease," says Dr. Schneider, who co-authored the Stroke study. "The magnitude of the effect was similar to other studies of cholesterol-lowering drugs and also similar to other studies where there were intensive changes in diet. It was the first time that a mind-body approach or meditation approach could [be shown to] reverse atherosclerosis with this objective marker.

"The TM technique is a way to allow mind and body to experience states of lesser excitation. It's a unique … state which allows the body's own self-repair mechanisms to become active and enlivened."

More than 600 peer-reviewed scientific studies at more than 200 universities and research institutions in 30 countries have supported TM, and articles have appeared in more than 100 scientific journals.

"Certainly it establishes our position in the medical profession," says Ms. Courtney, who adds that promotion via TV and other media has been most helpful. "We live in a world where people want that validation of results.

"If nothing was really happening during transcendental meditation, you wouldn't see the sorts of results they've compiled over 40 years," Ms. Courtney says.

• • •

The TM program has claimed a reversal of chronic disorders and improvement in mental coherence, particularly with a dramatic reduction of stress response.

However, critics charge that most of the studies were conducted by biased scientists affiliated with transcendental meditation. A Web site (trancenet.org.) quotes independent studies that say TM actually is harmful.

"We believe that the majority of people who practice TM will find they enjoy it," writes editor John Knapp. "We believe it is as good as similar techniques taught by Hindus, Christians, Muslims, hypnotherapists and others.

"We do, however, think there is evidence that it is either not effective, not enjoyable or downright dangerous for a certain percentage of the population" because for some people it can cause depression, anxiety and other side effects.

Maharishi Vedic Center spokeswoman Kathleen Skevington describes such critics as "a small number of disgruntled people compared to the overwhelming number of people who have gained such benefits in their lives."

Because of its Eastern origins, people think TM is mystic, says Dr. Kumuda Reddy, laughing. Currently in private practice in Schenectady, N.Y., Dr. Reddy, a native of India, will take over as medical director of the Bethesda center next year.

"It's very simple," she says. "Once people understand the depths and true knowledge of this, it's like going back home."

Dr. Reddy's job will include prescribing preventive measures, such as diet, exercise, meditation and a formulation from among thousands of herbs. She admits that alternative therapies such as this ayurvedic, or traditional Hindu, system of medicine is not universally accepted.

"Here in this country, people are so tuned into chemicals," Dr. Reddy says. "From morning until night, all they think of is a chemical. They think something natural is like dirt.

"The body is a natural element, and actually what is foreign to us are chemicals."

• For more information on TM, call the Bethesda center at 301/770-5690.

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