Can Meditation Help At-Risk Kids?

It might have been the teenager stumbling into the school hallway bloodied by six gunshot wounds. Maybe it was the funerals of more than a dozen of his students or the drug dealers competing for "his kids." In the mid-'90s, George Rutherford, a devout Baptist who spent 20 years as principal of one of the toughest middle schools in Washington, D.C., Fletcher Johnson, knew he and his 1,500 students had reached a breaking point.

"That's when I stumbled onto Transcendental Meditation," says Rutherford. "I feel it is the greatest savior other than Jesus Christ that I know." Rutherford, his teachers and his students began meditating in the classroom twice a day for 20 minutes. "Fights stopped breaking out on the third floor, test scores went up," he recalls. Now, as principal of a small charter school in the nation's capital, he makes sure his students, like 11-year Markell Talford, keep up the practice.

"Now when people mess with me I don't hit them," explains Talford. "I sit down and try to meditate."

That kind of response is fueling a small but growing movement to bring Transcendental Meditation (TM), a practice inherited from India and made hip by high-profile devotees like the Beatles in the 1960s, into more U.S. schools as a stress-buster for America's overwhelmed kids. TM is the trademarked name of a meditation technique created by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1958. In the past decade or so, alternative and Eastern forms of health have been gaining traction in the mainstream, including for kids. Some schools include yoga in their physical-education classes, private kiddie yoga classes abound and top universities regularly publish research on the benefits of meditation and prayer. TM itself, which is promoted as a 20-minute physiological technique that calms the mind and nervous system, is also showing profound results where practiced, according to proponents: better grades and SAT scores, less bullying, longer attention spans and happier kids. They point to a slew of recent medical studies to back up their claims.

TM doesn't have a calming influence on everyone. Critics believe that TM is a repackaged Eastern religious philosophy that should not be infiltrating public schools. They argue that TM invokes Hindu deities and in some cases is step one toward joining a cult. TM's private "Puja" initiation ritual in Sanskrit, involving incense and a candle and the bestowing of mantras, is a focus of the concern. "TM has always been rooted in the religion of Hinduism," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which keeps a close legal eye on the TM movement. "There are no imminent cases right now, but people, including conservative Christian parents will say if Christianity can't be taught in the public schools then Hinduism can't be either."

Advocates of TM, however, say that TM practiced by itself is purely a mechanical, physiological process, that the initiation is a two-minute ceremony of appreciation for the teacher with no deities invoked, that mantras are simple sounds without meaning and that the practice pre-dates Hinduism by 5,000 years. "Things have changed over the past 25 years. If you take out the trivial, ceremonial part of this—and I've seen tapes of the Puja (initiation) ceremony, it's not religious—you'll see this is not being promoted as a religion but as a way to physically and emotionally relax," says Carter Phillips, a lawyer who represents the TM movement. "This 1-2 minute ceremony of gratitude in India is traditionally done in appreciation for one's teacher," says Robert Roth, vice president of the David Lynch Foundation. "Bottom line: One should not confuse something that is cultural with something religious."

Much of the debate stems from the growing success of the David Lynch Foundation, which funds TM training in private and public schools, especially charter schools, with a focus on inner-city youth. Since 2005, a foundation begun by Hollywood filmmaker and long-time meditator David Lynch has provided some $5 million for TM research and voluntary in-school programs for more than 2,000 students, teachers and parents at 21 U.S. schools and universities, with substantially wider reach overseas. "It's like going from zero to 60 in terms of pulling yourself away from stress. Intelligence goes up, creativity flowers and energy zooms forward," says Lynch, who says "receptivity" to the idea is growing. (Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons appears on the foundation's introductory video as part of its outreach to inner-city schools). Lynch's foundation says it now has more than 4,000 students and dozens of U.S. schools, mostly charter and public, on its waitlist for grants of $625 per student, parent or teacher.

Back in 1979, a federal appeals court ruled that a course called the Science of Creative Intelligence Transcendental Meditation could not be taught in public schools in New Jersey because it "had a primary effect of advancing religion and religious concepts" and violated the First Amendment. "If they want TM in private universities or schools, no problem," says Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "But when they move into public schools they are crossing that same constitutional line that was crossed in 1979." Francisco Negrón, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, says that while relaxation techniques around test taking might be OK and that a nonsectarian approach to meditation is plausible, "the devil is in the details. The concern would be that here is a religious angle to it that amounts to indoctrination or proselytizing."

In 2006, on learning the Lynch Foundation was offering a $175,000 grant for the Terra Linda High School in San Rafael, Calif., half a dozen parents protested vehemently, some arguing it was a cult—and the funding was withdrawn. The parents argued it could lead to lifelong personal and financial servitude to a corporation run by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the recently deceased founder of the TM movement. "TM is not really Hinduism. It's an amalgam of beliefs that puts Maharishi—or whoever his successor will be—as the ultimate arbiter of all things spiritual," says Ford Greene, a lawyer who represented parents at the raucous meeting.

Brad Dacus of the Pacific Justice Institute, which threatened to sue the Lynch Foundation over Terra Linda, says doing TM during a school's "quiet time"—a short period many schools adopt for children to use as they wish for prayer or relaxation—is constitutional. "But it's like a literature class that teaches the Bible. That's not unconstitutional, but the school district has to be careful the class doesn't become evangelical." When a school is approved for a David Lynch Scholarship, say foundation representatives, teachers and parents are trained first and the program is voluntary, most often practiced by students during a pre-existing quiet time period. "Childhood is a time of incredible growth of the nervous system and physiology," says Gary Kaplan, an associate professor of neurology at New York University's School of Medicine and chairman of the New York chapter of the Committee for Stress Free Schools, created in 2004. "I prescribe plenty of medications, but if there is a way to unleash the full potential of a child's mind without medication or side effects, then why not do it?"

Despite the criticism, many parents say they've seen profound results from meditation and that that they hardly view TM as exclusively, or even overtly, religious. Lynch himself is a Presbyterian. "When I started doing transcendental meditation, I found that my relationship with God deepened," says Dick DeAngeles, a meditator who has had five of his children—all devout Roman Catholics who regularly attend Sunday school—learn TM at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.

Other parents are open to anything that might scientifically be proven to reduce stress. The National Institutes of Health has awarded some $20 million to study TM. A 2004 Medical College of Georgia study of 156 inner-city African-American teens found that TM helped lower blood pressure, while a 2003 University of Michigan study found that African-American sixth-graders who practiced TM daily had better self-esteem and handled stress better than other area students. The largest study on TM and young people is currently being undertaken by researchers from American University in Washington, D.C., and Maharishi University in Iowa. They have been monitoring 250 college students from American, Georgetown, Howard and other D.C.-area universities who practiced meditation for nine months. Early results appear to show greater brain functioning and less irritability and sleepiness.

"There are serious problems in our schools and a small number of voices trying to Swift Boat TM should not discourage people from looking at the medical benefits of this technique," says the Lynch Foundation's Roth. "TM training is offered to schools that already set aside part of the day for 'quiet time.' A kid can do TM, or take a nap, pray or do Zen meditation, it's up to them."

At the Kingsbury School in D.C., a private K-12 for students with learning disorders like attention deficiency and dyslexia, children have been practicing in-school voluntary meditation since 2005. One student interviewed by NEWSWEEK this past winter, 14-year-old Scott Bertaut, who has Asperger syndrome, says that TM helps him control his sometimes violent temper. "When I stopped doing TM during summer break [my temper] got bad again." Only about 10 percent of parents, teachers and students have opted out of the program, says school director Jessica Lux. Some want the kids to focus on academics, "some for religious reasons or because they find it cultish," she says. "I think it's fear of the unknown."