High blood pressure contributes to as many as 200,000 deaths nationwide each year. Conventional therapy includes diet modification and medication.

But in addition, several studies suggest that something as simple as relaxation, practiced as a technique known as transcendental meditation, or "TM," can also lower blood pressure and the accompanying risk of heart disease.

Chinelo Haney, of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles, was the project director for the latest of these studies that analyze the effect of TM on blood pressure. Below are answers to questions he's frequently asked about this therapy:

Q: What is transcendental meditation?

A: Despite its fancy name, TM is a simple, natural mental technique characterized by the repetition of a word or phrase - a mantra - while seated in a comfortable position with the eyes closed for about 20 minutes twice daily.

A quiet environment would be ideal; however, it is not required for success of the practice. Studies suggest TM might lower blood pressure better than other relaxation techniques, lifestyle modification, or even medication.

Q: How can TM actually lower blood pressure?

A: Previous studies found TM to reduce systolic blood pressure. This may be because TM compared to other stress-reduction techniques deeply relaxes both mind and body. In fact, initial studies suggest that the body reaches a deep state of rest twice that of deep sleep.

Researchers speculate that this deep rest triggers biochemical changes that help move the body toward homeostasis, or a more balanced state of the body and mind. In other words, the TM technique appears to be triggering the body's own self-repair mechanism.

Q: How do I know if TM is right for me? Can it replace my medication?

A: There are a couple reasons why people might try TM to treat high blood pressure: either side effects from conventional medications may be problematic, or maybe traditional treatment simply hasn't been successful.

While you should never just stop taking your high blood pressure medication, many practitioners of TM in our study were able to reduce their medication and some were even able to discontinue taking their medication under their doctor's guidance. Everyone practicing TM, however, is positively affected whether they are on medication or not, since there are no side effects.