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Colleges use meditation to cut rising stress among students

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By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 20, 2009

Amid the stress-inducing madness of finals, two Georgetown University seniors kick off their shoes and settle into wooden chairs. A soft gong fills the room. They close their eyes and clear their minds of everything but a four-syllable mantra.

The session, held in a tiny brick building nestled between dormitories, is part of a movement to provide college students more opportunities to relax and reflect through meditation. A study of D.C. college students published this month found the benefits can include lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety and depression.

"Stress is definitely on the rise at college campuses," said Sanford I. Nidich, the lead author of the study and a professor at Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, which was founded by the yogi who popularized Transcendental Meditation. "It's a major problem, and it's getting worse. . . . More and more we are seeing students with elevated blood pressure."

At Georgetown, students and others can attend general meditation sessions twice a day at the John Main Center for Meditation and InterReligious Dialogue. On Wednesday afternoon, the two students sat quietly along with two university employees and tried to put aside what they needed to accomplish before Christmas break.

Then a buzzer went off. The gong sounded again. Everyone opened their eyes and stretched their arms.

"It has taught me the skill of stepping back," said Bradley Pollina, 21, a senior history major from Long Island, N.Y., who started meditating a year ago. "You teach yourself to slow down."

Still, it's difficult to persuade agenda-packed, competition-driven students to take time to slow down, said Marco Svoboda, the volunteer director of the center, who quit his accounting job in California five years ago to focus on meditation. Of the half-dozen people who typically show up to the sessions, only one or two are students.

"These students have been conditioned since kindergarten to evaluate their performance. Anything they do, they're comparing to their friends and even competing with their friends," Svoboda said. "When you come in here, you don't have to do that."

Georgetown isn't the only college to offer meditation: The University of Maryland at College Park offers sessions one night a week at its recreation center. At U-Md.'s campus in Baltimore County, the women's center has a meditation room stocked with tapes and guides. George Washington University's Mindfulness Meditation group meets weekly in the counseling center.

In most cases, leaders of these groups follow common meditation techniques -- sitting quietly, clearing the mind, focusing on a mantra, breathing slowly and deeply. The style of meditation used in the study was Transcendental Meditation, a trademarked technique taught through a series of lectures and meetings with a certified teacher who presents each student with a secret, personalized mantra.

Although the 298 students in the study attended these classes for free, they typically cost $750 for college students and $1,500 for everyone else. The Maharishi University and a foundation dedicated to Transcendental Meditation have done hundreds of studies on the technique's benefits.

To recruit test subjects for this study, the researchers decided to look in the District instead of on their campus, where everyone meditates twice a day. With the help of David A.F. Haaga, a psychology professor at American University who had never meditated, they recruited nearly 300 undergraduate and graduate students.

The students were split into two groups, one that was immediately taught Transcendental Meditation and another that was taught the techniques later. After three months of practicing on their own, the students were reevaluated.

Many students reported that they enjoyed the experience and felt better, but the most substantial finding was that students who were at risk for developing hypertension often saw their blood pressure drop significantly, Haaga said.

Josh Goulding, 24, participated in the study during his junior year at Georgetown. After three months of meditating daily, Goulding said his high blood pressure dropped significantly and he was able to focus better in class.

"There's no question that it helped me," said Goulding, who continues to meditate. "It's almost like cleaning and dusting your mind on a daily basis."

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