WASHINGTON (AP) _ Transcendental Meditation, first popularized by the Beatles 20 years ago, is coming under fire from an anti-cult group that claims the movement actually is a religion that tries to control its followers' minds.

''We do not object to these people's beliefs,'' said the Rev. Michael G. Rokos of Joppa, Md., a member of the Cult Awareness Network. ''What we do object to is how they come to that system of beliefs - and in Transcendental Meditation, that's through brainwashing.''

A spokesman for the TM movement called the charges untrue, saying that Transcendental Meditation is ''a very simple, effortless mental technique that's practiced 20 minutes, two times a day. It doesn't involve beliefs or a lifestyle.''

The Cult Awareness Network, which held a news conference Wednesday in the same Washington hotel as a three-day Transcendental Meditation conference, alleged that some people who have practiced the meditation technique have trouble concentrating and suffer from sleeplessness, headaches and depression.

The network also claimed that the ''flying'' demonstrated by followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi actually is just a physical act and not an involuntary bodily response to exceptionally high achievement in meditation, as TM followers claim.

''You notice that there are no 250-pound people defying the laws of gravity,'' ex-follower John Teti said, before he sat down in front of the room, his legs in the yoga position, and started ''hopping'' across the floor.

''It's purely physical. But when you're involved in the movement, you really believe that you are helping world peace and making people happy when hundreds of you are 'hopping' at the same time,'' Teti added.

Dean Draznin, who teaches Transcendental Meditation in Washington and identified himself as a spokesman for the movement, said he ''never heard of TM being considered a cult. It's a mental technique. The people who take Transcendental Meditation are normal people.''

''Our goal is to bring about world peace and bring happiness,'' he added. ''We're not concerned about criticizing back.''

Draznin estimated that 1.5 million Americans have learned Transcendental Meditation techniques.

He also disagreed with statements that Transcendental Meditation involves any mind control. ''We don't force people to take courses,'' he said. ''They can take advanced courses if they choose.''

But Gerald Ragland, an Alexandria, Va., attorney, said TM does use coercion. Ragland successfully argued a federal court case earlier this year that charged the movement made false promises of reducing stress, reversing the aging process and promoting good health.

In that case, a U.S. District Court jury in Washington awarded nearly $138,000 to Robert Kropinski, a former TM instructor, who claimed he was subjected to ''fear and intimidation'' when he tried to withdraw from the movement.

The case has been appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ragland said he has filed seven similar cases in federal court in Washington and plans to file others alleging that TM was a ''precipitating factor in causing mental illness'' in some followers.

Pat Ryan, who joined the movement when he was 17 and left 10 years later, said he thought he was the only one in TM suffering from depression, getting sick constantly and having trouble focusing his attention.

Since he has left, though, Ryan said he has been in contact with other former followers who have had the same sort of troubles.

He said he hopes to start a group of former followers of the maharishi during the Cult Awareness Network's own three-day conference.