MOST children wouldn't describe their primary school as "peaceful" or all their teachers and classmates as "kind". But that's how Bridgette Nicolosi views her new school.
The year 4 student says she used to feel "confused" in her former mathematics class, but since she has learnt transcendental meditation at the Maharishi School in Reservoir, she is no longer as "scared" of maths as she was. She also feels more accepted and included.
Isabelle Coates, the year 6 captain, is not surprised. She has compared how "calm and happy" she feels with the state of mind of friends at other schools. "I seem to be more relaxed," she says. "I think if I didn't meditate I would be more stressed."
Fellow year 6 student Supreeya Bullock says meditation has helped her with schoolwork and in playing sport. Perrin Broszczyk says it has helped him relax and has improved his tennis.
These students are making big claims but their positive experiences from two 10-minute transcendental meditation sessions each day is backed by a wealth of international research.
Transcendental meditation was developed by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and was first taught in India in the 1950s. Pop group the Beatles extolled its virtues, writing almost 50 songs while studying with Maharishi at his ashram in the foothills of the Himalayas in the late 1960s Hollywood stars Mia Farrow and Shirley MacLaine also took it up. It is practised by millions world-wide, despite Maharishi's death in 2008.
Some might regard the practice as New Age or bohemian but it has become mainstream, particularly in the US where it is used in some hospitals to help chronically or terminally ill patients manage their stress.
Maharishi school founder and principal Frances Clarke says meditating in silence has profound results. Since the 1970s hundreds of research studies on transcendental meditation have been undertaken at more than 200 universities and research institutes across many countries.
These studies report benefits such as increased creativity, intelligence and learning ability, higher levels of brain function, improved memory and school behaviour. Studies have reported an increased sense of calm, decreased anxiety and reduced conflict.
When Ms Clarke founded this independent school with like-minded families in Bundoora in 1997, it had 20 students. The school gained a following since moving to Reservoir, drawing families from local suburbs such as Northcote. It now has 80 students, rising to 100 next year.
The school teaches the standard curriculum but adds a subject called science of creative intelligence, and also the meditation sessions. In the extra class, students might do maths as part of learning such principles as that every action has a reaction.
An ancient system of architecture and design known as Maharishi Vedic principles have been included in two new buildings. For example, they are entered from the east, capturing early morning sun. The principles are different but are along the lines of Feng Shui, in that they seek to maximise health and success.
Ms Clarke first learnt to meditate at age 22. She found it helpful to deal with stress when she became a secondary school teacher. When she heard that the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Iowa was getting outstanding results, she decided to visit.
The Iowa school is open entry yet it continues to record some of the top academic results in the state and its students regularly win awards for sports, science, art and problem-solving competitions. TV star Oprah Winfrey has highlighted the school's results on her program.
Some US schools that deal specifically with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have adopted transcendental meditation techniques after also witnessing its success at Detroit Middle School.
A Maharishi school in Lancashire, England, has performed in the top 2.5 per cent of schools for 25 years, despite also being open entry. As a result, the education department has fully funded it. Other Maharishi schools are being established there too.
Ms Clarke's husband Larry, who has also taught transcendental meditation for many years, says it has a following in the US, Europe, South America and Thailand but has been slower to take off in Australia, despite the established benefits.
"It's a bit of a sleepy hollow here, yet 6 million people have been trained world-wide."
Transcendental meditation differs from some other forms of meditation in that it allows the mind to effortlessly "transcend thought".
"It does not require contemplation or concentration," says Dr Clarke. He regards concentrating on breathing or an object, such as a candle flame, as an arduous practice where the mind is still active.
"In TM the mind becomes quieter and quieter until it is doing absolutely nothing. TM uses the natural tendency for the mind to move towards something more interesting or charming. It moves into subtler and subtler states until thought dissolves into silent wakefulness, or pure consciousness."
Ms Clark says meditation helps children find their passion. "Around years 3 or 4 they discover what they love, and go for it."
She says this is because children can concentrate. "Some schools spend all their time doing English and mathematics but our students focus so well they have time for everything else."
The small scale also helps. "Students don't get lost. Everyone has the opportunity to have a go at everything, whether it be a science or drama competition or to be in the school concert."
Parents pay $1300 each term to send their children to this alternative school. At least one parent must practise or learn transcendental meditation also. The school offers a four-day course for parents. On weekends children meditate with their parents.
Students up to the age of 10 meditate with eyes open, walking about. Older children are seated in comfortable spots in the classroom. Ten-minute sessions are held about 9.30am and 3pm each day, which means students head home in a calm state. "But they don't want to go home," Ms Clark says. "It's a small community and parents and students love to hang around after school."
Teacher Samantha Russell loves the strong relationship between staff and parents. "I feel really sorry for my friends in other schools who don't see the parents and don't have the same objectives as them."
She says parents talk to her about their experiences of meditating and it makes for a closer bond.
Students sometimes get a shock when they move from this environment to high school.
"They often express surprise that other students don't want to learn and spend a lot of time mucking around," says Ms Clarke.
She sees the government's recent pressure on teachers to improve what they do as misplaced. "Transcendental meditation develops the consciousness of the student so they are much more capable of learning. You can't teach a class if children aren't awake, alert or aware."