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FAIRFIELD, Iowa – The followers of a meditation practice that has roots in ancient India say it's simple: Close your eyes, silently repeat a mantra and relax. But a dispute among rivals for control over its teaching is anything but peaceful, featuring personal attacks, aggressive lawyering and accusations of improper business practices.
The feud pits the Iowa nonprofit that has taught transcendental meditation for decades against Thom Knoles, a former associate who left and built his own group of followers. The outcome could decide whether the Fairfield, Iowa-based Maharishi Foundation will continue to control the teaching of U.S. transcendental meditation — or whether rivals can market similar services and its benefits without obtaining a license from the group.
The sides are fighting for customers and to protect their own reputations in a federal court case over whether the foundation can enforce its trademark rights and claims of false advertising against Knoles and other teachers of his rival Vedic Meditation. With high stakes, the litigation over a technique that supporters say can reduce stress and blood pressure is getting tense.
To the foundation, Knoles and his followers are using the credibility and positive image associated with its technique to promote themselves and mislead customers. To Knoles' backers, the foundation is unfairly seeking a monopoly on a technique that's existed thousands of years.
Supporters of transcendental meditation — which involves closing one's eyes twice daily for 20 minutes while silently thinking to reduce stress and promote health — are being warned to choose sides carefully.
"Once you've formally burned your bridges, however, I'm afraid there'll be nothing more I or anyone can do to help you," a foundation supporter wrote in 2011, advising a businessman to reconsider his commitment to Knoles, in an email included in court records.
Supporters say the technique originated with the Vedas, sacred Hindu texts. Its modern incarnation was developed in India in the 1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who later spread the technique worldwide and became spiritual guru to celebrities such as the Beatles.
Maharishi founded a university that settled in Fairfield in the 1970s. His backers manage the foundation, which teaches classes to thousands of students annually and owns trademarks for Transcendental Meditation and its TM nickname. The foundation reported $7.2 million in 2010 revenue but spent more than that advancing its mission.
Knoles, an Australia native, was a teacher in the movement 25 years. In court documents, he claims he was personally trained by the Maharishi, who died in 2008, and taught with the support of his groups. He cut ties in 1997 and has taught independently since — against the foundation's wishes.
Knoles started using the term Vedic Meditation to refer to his style. Knoles and his son offer instructional services through a company called The Veda Center, which states on its website it's not affiliated with the foundation.
The foundation argues that disclaimer isn't enough. Its lawyers have claimed that Knoles and his backers mislead customers by implying that scientific studies have found a range of health benefits for Vedic Meditation. They say studies finding benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease were done on the foundation's proprietary technique and not Knoles' offshoot.
"We don't think somebody else can say, 'Hey, I've got a shop over here, too and we can use those 600 studies to show what I'm doing is right'," said foundation lawyer Mark Zaiger. "Almost every single one of those studies was done on subjects that received training from certified TM trainers."
Knoles argues the two forms of meditation are essentially one in the same, which the foundation disputes.
In legal demand letters, foundation lawyers have accused Knoles of exaggerating his credentials. One vowed to make public his misrepresentations if Knoles did not take steps to further disassociate his teachings from TM.
But Knoles declined and largely defended his biography. His attorney said he did learn under the Maharishi, was personally awarded an honorary doctorate by him, and had become "an acclaimed teacher of yoga" by age 20.
Oddly enough, the foundation hasn't sued Knoles, for strategic reasons Zaiger said were confidential. Instead, it filed a lawsuit in 2011 against The Meditation House, an Iowa corporation owned by life coach Jules Green, who promotes Vedic Meditation on her website.
The lawsuit seeks an order preventing Green from mentioning transcendental meditation studies in her advertising, to notify customers that there is no evidence of benefits for Vedic Meditation and to pay damages for false advertising and trademark infringement.
Green is fighting the lawsuit, saying the technique cannot be controlled by a single foundation.
"I think it is incorrect, and contrary to the principles of the Vedic tradition, and does not seem to me to be the sort of thing a not-for-profit organization with spiritual goals should be doing," she said.
Green's attorney has argued the lawsuit is really a way for the foundation to gather evidence on Knoles. Its lawyers last month subpoenaed two California teachers who learned under Knoles, directing them to testify.
Knoles then filed paperwork to join the case last week, arguing the foundation's trademarks are "generic and invalid" and have been used to violate U.S. antitrust laws. He's seeking an order requiring the foundation to stop accusing him of false advertising.
Zaiger said the foundation would file a detailed response this week, saying it is simply trying to enforce its trademarks like any business would.
Jeffrey Harty, a Des Moines lawyer who has taught trademark law at University of Iowa, said the case was not the "garden variety" trademark dispute and that the "real fighting issues" appear to be false advertising claims involving statements that Vedic Meditation is the same or similar to the method taught by the Maharishi and was the subject of studies cited in promotional materials. The foundation will have to prove those statements are false and deceive consumers in order to prevail, he said.