Which leader contributed most to the fall of the Berlin wall? The obvious candidates are Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher. Some would propose Wałęsa. But according to adherents of Transcendental Meditation (TM), historians have thus far overlooked the real force behind the defeat of communism.

In 1988 in New Delhi, over three thousand miles away from Checkpoint Charlie, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi assembled 7,000 devotees to practice the “advanced techniques” of TM, including yogic flying – cross-legged hopping that allegedly culminates in levitation.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during a 1979 visit to the Maharishi University of Management campus in Fairfield Iowa

The result was what became known as the “Maharishi effect” – a wave of positivity that renders nations impervious to negative influences. It was this, rather than the inherent inefficiencies of the Soviet system or the Western policy of containment, that ultimately led to Michael Hasselhoff’s triumphant performance of “Looking for Freedom”.

No less remarkable is the apparent sixty per cent drop in the Merseyside crime rate in recent years. Credit for the reduction is claimed by a group of around three hundred TM practitioners based in Lancashire known as the Maharishi European Sidhaland.

The group is affiliated to the nearby Maharishi School, a fee-paying private school where pupils practice TM on a daily basis. It hopes to re-open as a “free school” – state-funded yet independently run – in September. The prospect of taxpayers’ money supporting a TM school has focused attention on the movement and raised some awkward questions about its beliefs and tactics.

TM was invented and popularised by the Maharishi in the 1950s, though he claimed the technique had ancient origins. It is supposedly a simple procedure, practiced for a few minutes each day, that leads to a unique state of “restful alertness” and ultimately to “bubbling bliss”.

After an individual has learned the basics of TM they may proceed to the advanced techniques and eventually the “TM-Sidhi” programme. It is at this final stage that participants develop the ability to “think and act in accord with Natural Law” – and learn how to levitate.

TM came to prominence in the 1960s when The Beatles spent time at the Maharishi’s ashram in India. Its most prominent proponent today is the film director David Lynch, who advocates it as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. TM authorities also claim that Katy Perry, Russell Brand and Clint Eastwood are practitioners.

It is necessary to give a broad brush account of TM because the technique can only be learned from approved teachers. Both “Transcendental Meditation” and “Maharishi Mahesh Yogi” are registered trade marks (TM™), making it impossible for non-approved enthusiasts to share the technique or for curious outsiders to learn much about it – unless they’re willing to part with a considerable amount of cash.

Fees for a basic course in TM start at £390 and those wishing to proceed to the advanced techniques can pay £3,584 for a residential course. The Maharishi Foundation is a registered charity so there is no suggestion that anyone in the UK is getting rich from TM, but the prohibitive cost means only a few can ever hope to reach a state of “bubbling bliss”.

The benefits of TM are seemingly boundless. The Maharishi School informs parents that TM – whose pupils have three ten-minute sessions each day – “reduces stress, improves health, enriches mental functioning, enhances personal relationships, and increases job productivity and job satisfaction”. TM organisations repeatedly cite “over 600 scientific studies” which supposedly support these claims, but sceptics say it is no more effective than everyday relaxation techniques such as listening to soothing music.

Some claim TM is not only ineffective, but also dangerous. The murder of 24-year old Levi Butler by a fellow student at Maharishi University in Iowa prompted psychologists to warn that TM – like all forms of meditation – can exacerbate mental health problems such as depression and schizophrenia.

The internet is awash with sites labelling TM a “cult”, many authored by former adherents who now described themselves as “survivors”. Their fundamental charge is that TM promises so much – nothing less than a “life free from suffering” – that practitioners are bound to feel let down. The more vulnerable then attempt to overcome that sense of disappointment through ever more TM courses, products and services, which allegedly include esoteric rituals and religious ceremonies.

Advocates insist that TM is not a religion, but rather an evidence-based psychological method – and much of the media coverage of TM repeats this assertion without question. But even if we put aside for one moment the controversial claims about falling crime rates and totalitarian regimes, it’s obvious that TM has many of the accoutrements of a religion. During the puja initiation ceremony where new members receive their personal mantra, for instance, the Maharishi’s spiritual lineage is recited, there is an offering of fruit, rice, coconut and flowers, and a hymn is sung to a portrait of Guru Dev (the Maharishi’s spiritual mentor).

Until the TM movement opens itself up to real scrutiny the speculation will continue, but the case of the Maharishi School has a much wider significance. In its rush to set up free schools the government has ignored or dismissed controversies surrounding some of the groups hoping to run them. But with free schools under such intense media scrutiny – and detractors now able to reach a huge audience via social media – those controversies are likely to resurface very publicly.

The result could be that the government’s flagship education policy goes the same way as the Berlin Wall.