As if reading my mind, Prakash flashes me a knowing smile. "Don't evaluate or assess your meditation, just enjoy it," he says. "I'm 85, I work 11 hours a day, and I can't remember the last time I've been sick. It's a gift that will last your whole lifetime, but you have to give it to yourself."

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Michael McGrath had worked as a graphic designer for more than 30 years when the tech bubble burst and took most of his clients. In 2002 he suffered a near total loss, and the year after that he grossed 80 percent less than before the bust. It was during that time that he met Prakash at a networking event and hired the psychologist as his coach. Together on biweekly calls, the two designed a six-month plan to get McGrath's business back on track.

David McGee, an investment advisor, says Prakash didn’t know anything about stocks and bonds. Nevertheless, Prakash’s life coaching was a boon to productivity at McGee’s business.
Sara Kerens
David McGee, an investment advisor, says Prakash didn’t know anything about stocks and bonds. Nevertheless, Prakash’s life coaching was a boon to productivity at McGee’s business.
Graphic designer Michael McGrath says Prakash’s coaching helped McGrath rebuild his business faster after it suffered during the dot-com bust.
Sara Kerens
Graphic designer Michael McGrath says Prakash’s coaching helped McGrath rebuild his business faster after it suffered during the dot-com bust.

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Video Extra:Take a guided meditation with Dr. Om Prakash in his office. our slideshow here.

"He was instrumental in helping me develop a plan and take steps to implement it," says McGrath, a shy, soft-spoken man who recounts how Prakash helped him do things he'd been unlikely to do before, such as expanding his social circles and improving his ability to speak publicly and give presentations. While McGrath may have been able to rebuild his business without the help of a coach, he thinks Prakash helped him do it faster and, perhaps most important, prompted him to challenge himself and grow in ways he would have resisted if left to his own devices. "You're accountable to yourself," he says, "but if you have a meeting with someone every two weeks to tell them what you've done and what you haven't, there's a lot more motivation."

What has come to be known as life coaching is rooted in the personal growth movements of the '70s and '80s, which drew on psychology, philosophy, sports, business and education to create new ways to motivate people and enhance their performance and quality of life. People like W.T. Gallwey, author of The Inner Game of Tennis, and Thomas Leonard, who in the early '90s started the International Coach Federation, popularized the concept that the opponent within is more powerful than any outside and worked to help people view their lives through new paradigms and inspire them to new actions.

Since then, personal and executive coaches have proliferated. A 2006 study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the International Coaching Federation put the worldwide number at 30,000. The ICF—the largest professional coaching association and certification organization but far from the only one—has nearly 15,000 members, up from just 2,000 a decade ago.

Of the coaches working to help people change careers, up their income or repair damaged relationships, many are mental health professionals who have either switched completely to coaching or offer it along with therapy. It's difficult to know how many psychologists in the United States fall into that category, but according to a January Harvard Business Review survey that focused on 140 coaches, 20 percent said they were trained as psychologists. So, how does coaching differ from therapy? "Coaching is forward-moving and action-oriented. It's really looking at what the client wants for the future and helping them chart a path to get there," says Diane Brennan, a coach and former health care executive who last year served as president of the ICF. "Issues from the past may come up, but we don't look at them in depth; we notice it and create a new way to move on." Prakash says that while in therapy, the goal of a line of questioning is generally to determine which advice to dispense, as a coach he instead "asks questions that lead people to their own answers."

Patrick Williams, a psychologist-turned-coach who founded the Institute for Life Coach Training and wrote a book called Therapist as Life Coach, puts it this way: "Coaching is about designing your future, not getting over your past. Not everyone is self-motivated. Look at all of the great athletes and musicians; they all had coaches to hold their feet to the fire." Yet he also acknowledges that coaching and therapy can sometimes overlap, and one advantage of a psychologist coach is the ability to spot mental health issues that require therapy or counseling.

To David Ballard, a psychologist on staff with the American Psychological Association, psychologists have a more general advantage, as well. "Psychologists are really the experts in human behavior, and coaching—which is about improving people's performance and functioning—is all about behavior and behavioral change," he says.

One common criticism of coaching is that unlike more established professions like psychology, there is no single, independent regulatory body to oversee coaches or ensure they have a unified approach or code of ethics (there are some 300 coach training organizations and more than 50 credentialing systems). "You have people from a variety of backgrounds and certifications," Ballard says, "and anyone can call themselves a coach, so it's hard to know what you're getting." Both Williams and ICF's Brennan recommend consumers interview prospective coaches about their experience and request to talk to former clients. Many clients find their coaches through word of mouth.

David McBee, a managing director of investments at Wells Fargo Advisers (formerly Wachovia), came to know Prakash because he served as the psychologist's financial adviser in the late '90s. McBee, 37, quickly took a liking to the elderly psychologist, and the two grew close. When Prakash told him he was offering business coaching, McBee opted to try it, eventually recommending the coach to his partner and associates, as well. He says Prakash's input helped him to deal with employees' sometimes clashing communication styles and develop younger associates' strengths (he recommended, for example, that McBee tap a younger, more organized man to run their weekly team meetings, and McBee says they now run more smoothly). "He doesn't know anything about stocks and bonds," McBee says, "but he knows how people interact and how to make what we do more efficient and productive."

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