The Transcendental Meditation technique and the Relaxation Response

 The so-called "relaxation response" was once commonly believed to be a restful mind-body state induced by various meditation practices, including the Transcendental Meditation technique. Research on meditation practices soon disproved the theory, as studies verified that all meditation practices do not have the same effects on mind and body. The mind-body state gained during TM practice was found to be distinct in may ways from other forms meditation, including the Relaxation Response technique. Studies showed that the TM technique produces a deeper state of rest and a distinct state of balance in the physiology, along with brain patterns indicating increased inner wakefulness.

What is the "relaxation response?"
The idea of a relaxation response emerged in the early 1970s, soon after the first scientific studies on the physiological effects of the Transcendental Meditation technique were published in Scientific American, The American Journal of Physiology and the journal Science. In those pioneering studies, conducted at Harvard and UCLA, researchers found evidence that the TM technique produces a distinct physiological state. 

It was hypothesized by some that other techniques of meditation and relaxation would produce the same “low-stress” state and yield the same benefits as the TM technique. This hypothetical physiological response was named the "relaxation response”—said to be characterized by decreases in heart rate, breath rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, which are a few of the bodily changes associated with TM practice. 

Although the relaxation response theory enjoyed widespread acceptance and popularity for decades (and was even taught in medical schools), comparative data on different practices never confirmed the hypothesis, and it has now been invalidated by randomized controlled studies and meta-analyses showing that different relaxation and meditation techniques have different effects.

The “Relaxation Response" meditation technique is primarily a controlled focus technique. It was developed as a practice intended to induce the same meditative state gained during the TM technique. But physiological research and EEG studies on this method indicate a mind-body response very different from TM practice, with a different range of effects.

The TM technique: deep, coherent rest with inner wakefulness
Research studies show that the physiological state commonly gained during the Transcendental Meditation technique differs markedly from the proposed physiology of the relaxation response, with TM practice producing significantly greater decreases in oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, heart rate, muscle tension and blood pressure, and a greater increase in skin resistance (all showing a more restful state).  It was also discovered that many physiological changes occur during TM practice that are not present during the relaxation response technique—and some are in the opposite direction, such as increased cardiac output (despite decreased heart rate), increased blood flow to the brain and widespread alpha coherence.*

The TM technique consistently provides the experience of a state of physiological functioning different from ordinary waking, dreaming and sleep—a proposed fourth state of consciousness different from ordinary relaxation and other mind-body practices.** 

TM: More than relaxation
While it’s true that the Transcendental Meditation technique is deeply relaxing, hundreds of research studies and the experiences of millions of people who have learned the TM technique verify that the practice provides more than a mere relaxation response.

The TM technique allows awareness to transcend thinking and settle deeply inward, to the state of pure consciousness, described as the most creative, blissful, and peaceful level of the mind. This experience of transcending mental activity is a much different process from the relaxation response technique, which tends to keep the mind active on a “mantra” and attentive to breathing.

Hundreds of independent scientific research studies support the principle that it is the transcending process during TM practice, and not mere relaxation, that is responsible for the technique’s wide range of benefits for mind, body and behavior—accumulative effects not found to result from the relaxation response or ordinary eyes-closed rest.

Transcending is not only a physiological state very different from the relaxation response, but is also a different meditative experience. Many scholars have noted that experiences of transcendental consciousness are universal, found in all cultures, in both religious and secular settings, although their interpretation varies according to the cultural context. The experience of transcendental consciousness is commonly reported in the scientific and scholarly literature on the Transcendental Meditation technique, but no reports of this state are found in the literature on the relaxation response. This transcendental field is described by many of the world’s traditions as the source of energy, order and intelligence deep within the mind. The limited theoretical framework of the relaxation response does not allow for this deeper understanding of human consciousness.


* For an overview of scientific findings, please see: "The Myth of the Relaxation Response" by meditation researcher David Orme-Johnson, PhD

** "All approaches to preventing and reversing the effects of stress are not the same," Orme-Johnson, D. W., & Walton, K. G. (1998). American Journal of Health Promotion, 12, 297-299. Download PDF

How the TM technique differs from:
Common “mantra” meditation 
• Zen and concentration practices 
Guided meditation 
Contemplation/contemplative practices 
Holosync or binaural beat CDs 
Lower-cost "alternatives"

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