Is the "relaxation response" an alternative to Transcendental Meditation?

from The Editors


The idea of a “relaxation response” emerged in the 1970s after the first scientific studies on the Transcendental Meditation technique were published in Scientific American and other scientific journals. Those studies found that the TM technique produces a distinct physiological state. It was hypothesized by some that all other meditation and relaxation practices would produce the same “low-stress” state and therefore the same benefits as the TM technique. Although the relaxation response theory gained widespread acceptance for decades and was even taught in medical schools, comparative data on different practices never substantiated the hypothesis and it has now been invalidated by subsequent research, including randomized controlled studies and meta-analyses showing that different relaxation and meditation techniques have different effects.

The “relaxation response technique” was developed as a practice intended to induce the same meditative state gained during the TM technique.

EEG research shows that the "relaxation response" does not produce the same brain patterns as the TM technique — during TM practice there is typically frontal alpha EEG coherence, and also intra-hemispheric coherence is often recorded as well as coherence from the front to the back of the brain (see the 2010 issue of the neuroscience journal Consciousness and Cognition).

Numerous research studies also show that the physiological state commonly gained during TM differs from the proposed physiology of the relaxation response, with the TM technique 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 the widespread alpha coherence.

Thus the TM technique provides the experience of a unique state of physiological functioning, different from ordinary waking, dreaming and sleep — a proposed fourth state of consciousness that is different from the relaxation response in many ways.

But perhaps the most fundamental difference lies in the actual cognitive activity involved in each process: 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 keeps the mind active on a “mantra” and attentive to breathing.

Hundreds of independent scientific meditation research studies support the principle that it is the experience of transcending during TM practice and not just relaxation that is responsible for the TM 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.

See "The Myth of the Relaxation Response" by meditation researcher David Orme-Johnson, PhD, for a more in-depth scientific discussion of the Transcendental Meditation technique and the "relaxation response."

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