Sometimes a single phone call can change the direction of your life. That happened to Alena Goldstein when she answered a call from her mother in the fall of 2012.
In the call Alena’s mother, Leslee Goldstein, shared her exciting plans to conduct her PhD research in Uganda. Her goal was to offer a group of vulnerable, uneducated women training in the Transcendental Meditation technique, a proven technique for reducing stress and improving well being, and evaluate the benefits of the TM training. The research project was made possible through the Uganda TM women’s organization, which had already launched the first phase of a TM project with UWOPED, United Women’s Platform for Empowerment and Development, which serves vulnerable women—mostly single mothers—in need of financial support and work skills.
Brenda Nakalembe, founder of UWOPED and a woman with great determination and capability, recognized the potential for the Transcendental Meditation technique to help fulfill her mission of truly empowering these women beyond job skills. After experiencing profound personal benefits from learning TM, Brenda knew her members needed relief from deep stress and anxiety and recognized that TM would be an invaluable tool to do just that.
The coincidental timing of Leslee’s research initiative with the next phase of TM training for 80 UWOPED mothers was a magical alignment. Part of the thinking was to add a video component to the project.
“When my mother asked me to be her assistant and document the research project with a short film, I knew I had to say ‘yes,’” says Alena.
The only problem was, Alena had no background in film, and had never even held a professional video camera. Undaunted, she immediately started on a journey of learning and transformation that paralleled the transformations in the lives of the women she was filming.
Getting Ready to Launch
“At the time my mom called, I had been taking a break from school for a few years, mainly because I was unsure of what I wanted to major in,” remembers Alena, who was then 22. Once she said yes to the project, Alena immediately sprang into action and moved from Boulder, CO, where she was living, back to Fairfield, Iowa, where she had grown up.
Fairfield is also the home of Maharishi University of Management (MUM), a unique university where faculty, staff, undergraduates, and graduate students like Leslee Goldstein practice the Transcendental Meditation technique for personal growth and academic achievement.
Alena enrolled in courses at MUM, to learn how to use a camera and edit film.
“I had never even considered filmmaking as a potential direction to go in school,” says Alena. “Yet with the Uganda project as a vehicle and MUM courses as my fuel, everything fell into place and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.”
At the same time that Alena was learning to film, Leslee was finalizing her research plan. She narrowed her research goals to study four things: perceived stress, mental health, physical health, and self-efficacy—which is defined as one’s perceived ability to deal with challenges in life, a critical component of empowerment. Says Alena: “Fortunately, for both my mother and myself, generous donations made the whole research project and film component a reality. We were very grateful for this.” A couple months later, in December of 2012, the mother-daughter team boarded a plane for Africa.
The First Trip: Getting Started in Uganda
According to Alena, the initial trip involved a lot of learning and uncovering. “We entered an unknown culture in Uganda,” Alena says. “My mom and I both were developing new skills, and we were excited about meeting the TM Women’s affiliate in Uganda, with National Director Judith Nassali leading the TM effort and Brenda Nakalembe coordinating the UWOPED mothers.”
Alena feels that the success of the project was a result of a wonderful partnership between the two organizations. “Brenda was an amazing organizer and brought 80 mothers into the project with a beautiful vision of validating the profound benefits of TM for Ugandan women. Judith directed the TM activities and was a very competent, dedicated, and excellent teacher. The teamwork was great and my mother and I fell easily into a groove with our new friends and colleagues.”
Before the TM instruction started, Leslee conducted pretests to measure the four parameters of her research, and Alena filmed the women as they told their stories.
“This was the first time the women were meeting us, and there was a distinct similarity between all the mothers—all were struggling to support their families and at the same time have their own basic needs met,” says Alena. “You could just feel a heavy weight on their shoulders. A lot of them had to turn to alcohol, drugs, and some even to prostitution. Going down these roads definitely affected their emotional state. I was talking to 18 year-olds who had three kids. The majority were very young and innocent girls, yet because of the challenges in their lives, they had a very hard exterior. I could tell they had been through a lot.”
One thing that worked in Alena’s favor was the openness of the Ugandan women. “These women were so willing to talk about the struggles they faced in their lives and to share their stories with us,” she says. “I think that’s something amazing about the Ugandan culture—they are friendly, want to connect and share whatever they can with you, even if it’s just their story.”
The Second Trip: Reaping the Rewards
After a very busy month in Uganda, the mother-daughter team returned home.
In the three months they were home, Leslee organized and studied her data while Alena took more film classes. Back in Uganda, the TM Women teachers continued follow up and kept the project on track. “I officially enrolled as a full-time student at that time,” says Alena. “It was great—not only was I gaining hands on video and documentary experience in Uganda, but MUM offered intern credits for my work overseas.”
On the second trip, Alena filmed post-interviews with the same women she had interviewed previously, only now they had been practicing the TM technique for three months.
“The post interviews were extremely powerful and moving,” she says. “There was something so much lighter about the mothers. At the basis, the women had the same issues—poverty and stressful lifestyles—but they were able to deal with the stress so much better. They spoke about how they were better able to accomplish what was needed in a day, and they had clear goals and resolutions to deal with challenges they were faced with. This was one of the main differences I noticed on the second visit.”
The women also recorded that they were feeling healthier, getting less headaches, thinking more clearly, and were able to make better decisions for their lives.
Alena was also inspired by the camaraderie among the women that developed in the three months since they started TM. “Something that struck me the second trip, was how connected, open and friendly these women had become with each other. Where there had often been arguing and conflicts in the neighborhoods, now, after learning TM, the community feelings and friendships were much more enlivened. That amazed me.”
The final results of the study were statistically significant, and showed that the Transcendental Meditation technique can be considered a practical program for developing empowerment in the lives of mothers in Uganda, by developing their sense of personal competency, or self-efficacy; by reducing perceived stress; and by enhancing mental and physical quality of life, specifically reporting clearer thinking and planning abilities, and improved physical energy and vitality. These results indicate improved ability to cope, take initiative, and persevere in effectively handling life’s challenges.
As Alena observed the women of Uganda going through life-changing transformations, she realized that they weren’t the only ones who were changing.
“Parallel to the transformations these mothers were experiencing were the transformations my mother and I were experiencing in our own lives,” says Alena. “We were both learning about the subjects that we’re passionate about, and about working together as a team, which we hadn’t had the opportunity to do before. While we were documenting how these Ugandan mothers were changing, at the same time we were experiencing our own relationship taking on a new and beautiful dynamic. We got to connect on a much deeper level, as friends and colleagues, not just as mother and daughter.”
Working intimately together under a deadline was not without its challenges, Alena says, and it helped to be able to decompress with TM. “We had so many things we had to accomplish each day,” says Alena. “Some days we felt like we hadn’t achieved all that we desired, thus were a little testy with each other. After meditating we’d be able to clearly assess what we’d achieved so far and what we needed for the days to come. No matter what, we were able to look to the mothers and see how they were growing and changing, and that rejuvenated us to face whatever obstacles were in our own way. “
Alena learned the TM technique at age ten, and says it centers and settles her. “I am so appreciative of my TM practice and use it to decompress any mayhem in my own life,” she says. “It’s an ideal way to start my day. Meditating makes my day flow easier and relaxes me so I’m not easily aggravated, even in high-stress situations. TM allows me to slow down and truly appreciate the world around me.”
As a result of completing the research project, Leslee Goldstein was awarded her PhD in 2014. Alena ended up studying film and education, graduating in 2015 with a BA in media and communications and a minor in education.
“Before this project, I never imagined filmmaking as a path or passion of mine,” Alena says. “But it turns out to be something I love, and I have uncovered many skills that previously hadn’t been put to use.”
After completing the film for the Uganda project, Alena went on to work as assistant director and producer of several student films as part of her undergraduate studies. Now, almost a year since she’s graduated, Alena has had the opportunity to work on a number of films, and is considering graduate school, possibly in some combination of environmental and women’s studies and video journalism.
As for the women of UWOPED, their lives have been transformed in extraordinary ways. To date, more than 600 women and 200 children have learned the Transcendental Meditation technique through the program at UWOPED.
Judith Nassali says, “UWOPED is one of our biggest projects, and the transformative results are an inspiration for all the TM teachers. These results give us great hope for empowering all women in Uganda, not just vulnerable women, but women of every age and background. The potential for improving the quality of life for everyone is great.”
Adds Brenda Nakalembe, “Before offering TM we had some success with our training programs for the mothers, but had to work hard to inspire and engage them in activities to better themselves, and often they would not continue because of being depressed or unable to function in their lives. Now, with the addition of the TM training I see that mothers are experiencing greater emotional stability, less anger, clearer thinking, happiness, and wellbeing, and they are more motivated and engaged in taking care of themselves and their children. It is quite remarkable, and they report that their families are more harmonious and that they have less conflict with their neighbors. Seeing changes in their neighbors has brought more and more women to UWOPED to take part in all of our trainings, especially the TM training.”
Read more about the research on women’s empowerment in Uganda here.
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including Super Healthy Kids: A Parent’s Guide to Maharishi Ayurveda, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.