Thanks for the scoop on Dianetics. Now how about Transcendental Meditation? Relaxation I can see. Cleansed thought processes, sure. But levitation? –Anonymous, Greensboro, North Carolina

Little do you know, Jack. A few weeks ago somebody sent me a flier with the startling news that the Fourth Annual Continental Yogic Flying Competition was about to be held in Washington, D.C. The featured performers were the “top Yogic Flyers in the continent” competing in four events: the “50 meter dash, 25 meter hurdles, high jump, and long jump–all performed in the traditional cross-legged yogic sitting position.” It is one of the regrets of my life that I didn’t get a chance to go, but I did read the story about it in the Washington Post by my old college roommate, Steve “Li’l Stevie” T.

Naturally, being the repository of world knowledge that I am, the concept of competitive levitation did not catch me entirely by surprise. I first heard about it in a general way from another old college roommate (Cecil had a lot of roommates) named Thom, who’s been doing TM since the late 60s. Thom, who remains pretty rational despite 20 years of communing with the Maharishi, said he’d done some levitating himself, though I’ve never actually seen him in action.

None of this, however, prepared me for the 50-meter aerial dash. When I called Thom to ask about it–he was one of the 1,200 who attended the event in D.C.–he freely conceded it was “a sight to behold.” The contestants weren’t continuously airborne; rather, they proceeded by a series of hops–all this, mind you, in full lotus, the familiar yogic sitting position. A skeptic might say it’s ridiculous to call hopping levitation, but Thom says it’s merely the first stage of a three-stage process. Stage two, which apparently no one has achieved yet, is hovering, and stage three is full-scale flying. I would pay serious money to see a demonstration of the latter in full daylight, but I gather at the moment it’s pretty far down the road.

TMers see levitation not merely as a novel method of transportation but as a mighty blow in the struggle for cosmic consciousness and world peace. According to David Orme-Johnson, a researcher at Maharishi International University, “Thirty-one sociological studies conducted throughout the world document that the quality of life in society significantly improves when as little as the square root of one percent of a population practices TM-Sidhi Yogic Flying together in one place.” Orme-Johnson was one of the authors of a recent scientific paper purporting to show levitation and related techniques had reduced the violence in Lebanon.

Naturally, being the cesspool of negativity that I am, I think the whole business is totally absurd. Nonetheless I’ve been quite the little trouper in trying to get both sides of the story. I’ve had long talks with TM spokespeople to find out what scientific basis they have for thinking levitation works. While I don’t doubt these people are sincere, all they can give me is a lot of half-baked mumbo jumbo about the “quantum field theory” and the like.

The notion that one could prove yogic flying had reduced the violence in Lebanon, as Orme-Johnson claims to do, is preposterous on its face and suggests that either (1) the exotic statistical techniques used in the social sciences are far less reliable than previously believed, or (2) the techniques were improperly employed. Reviewers of the paper in question (Journal of Conflict Resolution, 32(4): 776-812) said as much. The fact that the researchers were true believers does nothing to increase one’s confidence in the results. As the recent cold fusion fiasco makes clear, scientists are as prone to self-delusion as anybody else.

That said, I don’t oppose meditation per se, TM-style or otherwise. The claimed health benefits probably are a placebo effect (i.e., if you think something is going to help you, chances are it will). But a lot of people seem to enjoy chanting mantras and at a few hundred bucks a pop the basic TM course isn’t all that expensive. Learning yogic flying, on the other hand, could set you back a stiff three grand. My feeling is, you gotta hop, go buy yourself a trampoline.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.