Transcendental Meditation Combating Diabetes in Indian Country
Transcendental Meditation (TM) has come a long way from its introduction in the United States in 1960s, when its most famous teacher-practitioner, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, was a pop icon hailed by celebrities such as the Beatles, Mia Farrow and others.
TM is practiced by sitting comfortably with the eyes closed for 15 to 20 minutes twice a day. The technique is based on a huge body of sacred texts that form the basis of Hinduism, knowledge handed down by Vedic masters from generation to generation for thousands of years. The Maharishi began teaching the technique in India in 1955. He founded the Spiritual Regeneration Movement Foundation in Los Angeles in 1959 that he later named the TM Program, the current organization that accredits teachers and oversees its network of TM classes. After training others to teach TM, he popularized it by embarking on the first of a series of world tours beginning in the early 1960s. Subsequent endorsements by celebrities helped gain popularity for the Maharishi and his technique. He said that he wanted to make TM “available to the average householder.” His ultimate goal was to bring peace to the world through TM.
Once viewed as primarily the pursuit of the rich and idle, TM is now being used to combat the high rates of type 2 diabetes among Native peoples. Ahmed Mohammed, medical director at the Winnebago Indian Hospital in Nebraska, estimates that up to 66 percent of the Winnebago served by the facility are either type 2 diabetic or pre-diabetic. He knows that the right diet and exercise can diminish diabetes symptoms but notes that stress is often the precipitating factor for those losing the battle with the disease. To change that, some tribal members began practicing TM.
Warner Earth of the Winnebago Tribe says that his blood glucose level would sometimes climb to over 500 mg/dL. (Doctors say that normal levels are between 70 and 120 mg/dL.) After practicing TM for several months, his blood glucose levels are normal. “I am sold on TM,” he says.
A 2006 study at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that people practicing TM experienced significantly lower blood pressure and improved blood glucose and insulin levels. The study, conducted by C. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Women’s Heart Center, also found a strong correlation between stress and high blood glucose levels (which are a result of insulin resistance), a hallmark of type 2 diabetes. “I’ve seen studies showing that living on the rez is more stressful than living in a ghetto. In addition to drugs, alcohol and violence, we have the stress of tribal politics,” notes Prosper Waukon.
Waukon, a member of the Winnebago Tribe, was instrumental in bringing TM instructors to the reservation. He was introduced to TM while teaching a group of gifted students from the reservation back in 2004. The students were permitted to choose one culture-related class trip; they chose to travel to the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa—about 300 miles from Winnebago—that was founded by the Maharishi in 1974.
After speaking with students and teachers at the university, Waukon and his students requested instruction in TM. In November 2005, teachers from the TM Program came to the Winnebago Public Schools and instructed more than 100 administrators, teachers and students in the meditation technique. For the next five years, more than 300 students in grades eight to 12 learned the TM technique. According to Waukon, the school reported a 25 percent drop in absenteeism among those students who practiced meditation as well as improvement in their performance on standardized tests. Funding for the TM teachers was provided by the David Lynch Foundation, which was founded in 2005 by David Lynch, the director of such films as The Elephant Man, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Blue Velvet.
The foundation is a nonprofit organization that funds TM classes for at-risk populations, including inner-city students, veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and their families, homeless people and incarcerated juveniles and adults. Many TM practitioners and teachers believe meditation can reduce violence and improve learning among youth, so the foundation funds university and medical-school research to assess the effects of its TM Program on academic performance, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and other learning disorders, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
However, after a study at the Winnebago Indian Hospital that included tribal elders, tribes have realized that the greatest need in Indian country for TM is among diabetics, according to Boncheff. During that study, Mohammed found that patients who meditated regularly showed an average drop in their hemoglobin A1c levels, which makes it easier for the body to combat diabetes. “Stress and tension increase insulin resistance so the body is unable to effectively use insulin,” Boncheff reports. This goes back to the study at Cedars-Sinai that found a correlation between stress and high glucose levels and insulin resistance.
Shortly after his first trip to the Maharishi University of Management, Waukon brought several elders to Fairfield to learn TM; the elders reported that in addition to lowering their blood glucose and blood pressure levels, they began to remember some of the traditional songs they had forgotten. “TM has helped them get in touch with the sacred again,” he says.
Waukon argues that getting in touch with the sacred is a key to healing Indian peoples, not only of diabetes but also of other ills that plague Natives. Substance abuse, violence and diabetes are symptoms that have resulted from the loss of contact with traditional spirituality, he notes.
Boncheff says, “TM helps the mind and body grow stronger by taking the mind deep within itself to make positive changes.” He adds that the goal of the TM Program is to bring this knowledge to the Indian community. “They are deciding where and how it should be used.”
According to Waukon and Boncheff, several tribes are inquiring about the possibility of bringing TM teachers to their communities. Their hope is to create a feeder organization that can bring TM to other reservations, and they are actively seeking funding to create such an entity. The David Lynch Foundation provides funding that underwrites the cost of teaching the TM Program to various underserved groups, but wants communities to choose the venue and circumstances under which classes are taught.
Currently about 50 people are regular practitioners of TM in the Winnebago community, including Earth. “I lost four family members to diabetes,” he says. “Both my parents had their legs amputated. I don’t want this to happen to my people. If TM will help us, I want it for them.”