Ian Robinson doesn't mince his words when it comes to admitting his past failings. "I was a bugger for road rage," he confesses. "I'd be driving along and someone would cut me up and I could kill." Ian laughs at the admission. Other road users no longer wind him up. Their driving hasn't changed - Ian has. The 44-year-old factory worker has discovered meditation.
Ian and eight of his colleagues from Indmar Sheetmetal in Wigan, Lancashire, were taught how to meditate over a three-month period for a BBC2 documentary which will be screened on Thursday evening. The results were remarkable. According to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Umist, their mental and physical wellbeing increased by more than 300 per cent. "We took pulse rate measures before they started the course," he says. "We repeated them before and after various sessions, and then at the end to see if there was an overall improvement on pulse rate." The researchers also used psychometric stress tests at the end of the experiment. "What was very interesting was that the workers showed a massive improvement in their overall mental and physical health scores. And they were better than normative. Eight out of nine people showed substantial changes. And their heart and pulse rates improved significantly, too."
The factory workers, most of whom were initially sceptical, were taught breathing techniques and t'ai chi, and were then taken on guided meditations during which they imagined themselves in a tranquil place. "I loved it, I really did," says Ian, a systems manager. "I wasn't too keen on the t'ai chi, but the meditation - there's something in that. I felt more focused after I did it. I could meditate for 50 minutes and it would seem like five or 10 minutes. While I was doing it, all sorts of things were happening - I was flying and seeing lights. After-wards I felt relaxed and more focused." Ian has continued to practise. "I do the meditation once a week at least. Now I'm more chilled. Nothing fazes me."
Ian's colleague Elaine Walsh, 40, a press operator, says that learning to meditate has changed her life. "I was sceptical at first," admits Elaine. "But I found it very relaxing. I had mood swings before. I don't get them at all now. My husband noticed a change straight away; he made me carry on. It has changed my life. I feel more alive, awake. I suffered from asthma and I don't get it as much now. I still meditate twice a day."
Meditation has never been so popular, as more people struggle to cope with the pressures of work and home life. Celebrities such as Richard Gere, Shania Twain, Sting, Goldie Hawn and Sheryl Crow are also at it. Some forms require you to concentrate on your breathing, others on an object such as a candle, or to repeat a mantra. Some are practised while walking or dancing.
Researchers continue to find evidence of its benefits. It was recently discovered that Buddhists who meditate may be able to train their brains to feel happiness and to control aggressive instincts. According to Owen Flanagan, professor of philosophy at Duke University in North Carolina, Buddhists appear to be able to stimulate the left prefrontal lobe - the area just behind the forehead - which may be why they can generate positive emotions and a feeling of wellbeing at will.
In August, the journal Psychosomatic Medicine reported that researchers from the University of Wisconsin had found that meditation could boost the body's immune system and change brain activity in areas associated with positive emotion. Twenty-four employees took an eight-week meditation course, and found that the positive biological effects lasted for up to four months.
Meditation appears to be helpful for a wide range of health problems. Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the stress reduction programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been using a type of meditation called mindfulness (which involves paying attention to the experience of the moment) to help people cope with cancer, Aids, heart disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, anxiety and panic. In two trials by Dr Kabat-Zinn, psoriasis patients who listened to meditation tapes while receiving ultraviolet light treatments healed four times faster than those on light treatment alone.
In addition, two studies by Dr John Teasdale, a psychologist at the Medical Research Council's cognition and brain sciences unit in Cambridge, have found that, teamed with cognitive therapy, mindfulness meditation halved the risk of relapse for people who have suffered three or more episodes of clinical depression. The treatment is currently being used clinically within the NHS in a small number of places around the country.
The greatest claims, however, come from supporters of Transcendental Meditation (TM), a specific technique popularised by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was first taught here in 1960 and more than 160,000 Britons have subsequently learnt it - at a cost (currently £1,280 for the course). It is practised for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily, repeating a specific mantra while sitting comfortably with the eyes closed.
Research into the technique has been conducted at more than 200 universities, hospitals and research institutions in 27 countries, its supporters say. They claim the studies show that practising TM reduces a variety of important risk factors for diseases such as coronary heart disease and cancer, including high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, cigarette smoking, alcohol consumption, drug abuse, obesity, stress levels, anxiety and depression.
One US study on volunteers with high blood pressure, which was reported in The Lancet, found that TM could significantly reduce clogging of the arteries and cut related health risks, particularly of heart disease. Studies published in The American Journal of Cardiology and Stroke have shown that TM helps to relieve angina and reduce hardening of the arteries.
More research conducted in America found that a group of 2,000 people who practised TM had fewer than half the number of visits to the doctor and days in hospital compared with a control group over a five-year period. Jonathan Hinde, a TM teacher and spokesman for the organisation in Britain, says over the last five or so years, The National Institutes of Health, the main government funding body for medical research in the US, has put about $20m into research specifically on the connection between TM and various aspects of cardiovascular health. "What has been found is that if you practise TM for about three months, blood pressure tends to be reduced by about the same amount as taking any drug for hypertension. Hypertension is implicated in both strokes and heart attacks, two of the three biggest killers in the Western world."
There are, of course, sceptics. In an editorial in the BMJ last May, Peter H Canter, a research fellow in complementary medicine, concluded that "overall, current evidence for the therapeutic effectiveness of any type of meditation is weak, and evidence for any specific effect above that of credible control interventions even more so." He added that most of the researchers for these studies were directly involved in the organisation offering TM, and "seem keen to demonstrate its unique value".
Yet Larry Culliford, a consultant psychiatrist at a community mental health centre in Brighton, who was trained in meditation by Buddhist monks more than 20 years ago, is convinced that it works. He practises it once a day, paying attention to the rise and fall of his chest and abdomen while he breathes. "Sogyal Rinpoche, who wrote The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says that giving yourself the gift of learning to meditate is the best gift you can give yourself in this life. You could say without too much exaggeration that it has transformed me and my life.
"The evidence is that it is very good for people with a range of physical as well as mental health problems. Meditation gets the mind and body back into harmony and this allows the natural healing processes the best chance to work. Benefits are possible in every organ system of the body and every part of health disorder, including mental health disorder."
Also convinced of the benefits of meditation is Roger Chalmers, a GP working in East Anglia, who has been practising TM since 1974. "An enormous amount of what we deal with in general practice is stress-related, and TM is a really excellent method for eliminating stress.
"TM is something that anyone can do; it's completely effortless and enhances wellbeing. Everybody benefits from being more well-rested and free from stress. We all know what it feels like when we have a good rest overnight or a good holiday. Everything in your life improves, and, in a way, you can see TM as something that just gives you a very easy technique to ensure that more of life is spent in that state and less is spent feeling tired and strained."
'Everyman: Does Meditation Work?' is on Thursday at 9pm on BBC2Reuse content