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Transcendental Meditation: A cure for the stresses of youth violence?

Youth violence is a big and complex problem, especially in Philadelphia. Can an initiative that encourages city school students to close their eyes and sit in stillness for 30 minutes a day help address its stress-related consequences?

By Jonathan Purtle

Youth violence is a big and complex problem, especially in Philadelphia. Could something as simple as having city school students close their eyes and sit in stillness for 30 minutes a day help address its stress-related consequences?

Filmmaker David Lynch, who credits his own experience living here 40 years ago— "The city was full of fear. …There was violence and hate and filth," he said in an interview — as an inspiration for his storytelling, seems to think that it would.

According to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System, there were 139 murders/manslaughters, 3,326 aggravated assaults, and 8,994 non-aggravated assaults committed against people age 24 or under in Philadelphia in 2011. While broken bones, penetrating injuries, and curbside memorials are the most visible consequences of Philadelphia's epidemic of youth violence, they are only the tip of the iceberg. A growing body of research suggests that the chronic stress and psychological trauma associated with persistent exposure to community violence causes the body to produce toxic levels of stress hormones that increase health risk and inhibit cognitive function.

Transcendental Meditation can't cure all these ills, but it could potentially help minimize their effects. According to the Maharishi Foundation, TM is not a religion, a philosophy, or a way of life — but simply a technique that helps people calm their bodies and minds. TM differs from other forms of meditation in the extent to which it is effortless, not requiring the practitioner to focus on their breath or a specific thought. The recommended dose is 15-20 minutes, twice a day.

The David Lynch Foundation was established in 2005 to promote the use of evidence-based stress-reduction techniques among high risk populations, such as inner-city school students. Transcendental Meditation is one such technique. Other proponents to TM include the Beatles, Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld, and some veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Transcendental Meditation movement, as well as the broader scientific research community, has become increasingly interested in the physiologic mechanisms that underlie the technique. The National Institutes of Health has provided over $24 million in funding to study it. So far, the verdict on its effectiveness, like that of most "complementary and alternative" therapies, is inconclusive. But there is some strong evidence to support it.

In one randomized, controlled study, a group of inner-city high school students were assigned to Transcendental Meditation, 15 minutes at school and 15 minutes at home every day, while the control group received 15 minutes of daily health education. After four months, the meditation group missed significantly less school and had fewer rule infractions and behavior-related suspensions than the control group. The same meditation intervention was also found to improve blood pressure among students in another study.

A systematic review published in the journal Pediatrics explored the effects of seated meditation interventions, not all of them TM, among youth ages 6-18. The article concluded that, while more research was needed, "sitting meditation seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth."

While research on the benefits of TM still has a ways to go, most of us can agree that kids in Philadelphia schools, and all schools for that matter, should be provided with some kind of education about how they can manage the stresses of life.

"In today's world of fear and uncertainty, every child should have one class period a day to dive within himself and experience the field of silence — bliss — the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is the way to save the coming generation," writes Lynch, a graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Schools in Detroit, San Francisco, Connecticut, and Arizona have integrated Transcendental Meditation into the school day. Should Philly be next?

Read more about The Public's Health.