A national survey from the American Psychological Association reports that overall stress levels have increased in recent years, and a considerable number of people in the United States think that they are not doing enough to manage their stress.
So what can we do to relax and lead healthier, more fulfilling lives? One answer may come from meditation – the ancient, holistic practice that aims to bring us into the present, soothe our worries, and improve our overall well-being.
Smartphone users can now install their own meditation trainer with a tap of the finger. With almost 1,000 apps to choose from, however, knowing which one is right for you can be challenging. To help narrow down the choice, we tried some out for ourselves.
All the apps we review here are available on both Android and iOS.
Headspace: Unlocking the universe of mindful meditation
Probably the most popular meditation app, Headspace was also ranked first in a comprehensive review of meditation apps regarding functionality and user satisfaction. We were therefore thrilled to give it a go and see what the hype is all about.
The app offers a 10-day free trial that takes you through the entire foundation level, called Take 10. Throughout, you are guided by Andy’s reassuring voice – that is, Andy Puddicombe, the former Buddhist monk, inspirational TED speaker, and founder of the app.
Image credit: Headspace
We loved how friendly this app is, with a pastel-colored interface that feels lively without being intrusive, enchanting illustrations, and an introductory video great for those who have never tried meditating before.
Take 10 is peppered with colorful animations that motivate and bring you back on track when you feel you have lost your focus, as well as creative analogies that support and sustain you in your journey: “Imagine yourself sitting by the side of a busy road. The passing cars representing the thoughts and the feelings.”
For $7.99 you can access the entire app, but only if you have completed the foundation level – a great way to ensure that users actually go through the motions and fully benefit from the training. After unlocking the first level, you are rewarded with a message of kindness and self-love: “Be kind to your mind, don’t be too self-critical.” After this, you are granted access to everything that Headspace has to offer, and it is a lot.
The app has a wide array of purpose-specific series, covering almost every aspect of life: health, relationships, sports, and performance. Each series has themed subpacks of up to 30 sessions. Add to these the one-off meditations – tailored to needs as specific as “fear of flying” or “commuting” – and the result is a vast universe of mindfulness, with hundreds of different sessions to choose from.
Whil: The meditation app for a happy workplace
With a sleek business feel to it, Whil is primarily aimed at companies wishing to bring an extra bit of focus and happiness to the workplace.
Whil provides personalized, goal-centered training programs for each employee. Companies can choose from four training options: the teen-focused “Grow,” the adult-centered “Thrive,” the Google-born “Lead” – which centers on emotional intelligence, teamwork, and leadership – and finally “Move,” a yoga program intended to exercise the mind and body.
Image credit: Whil
Each option includes tens of programs, adding up to hundreds of sessions. Additionally, individual, on-demand “Whilpower” sessions are available for relieving negative emotions or boosting positive ones, as well as for improving sleep.
A distinctive feature that we found appealing is the HIPAA-compliant analytics dashboard. Whil allows individuals to track their own progress like any good app, but in a couple of weeks, they will also be rolling out the administrator analytics dashboard, enabling companies to track the well-being of their workplace community.
The focus on quantifying the employees’ well-being with the ultimate goal of increasing productivity might seem cold and off-puttingly programmatic. But Whil grounds its approach in rich scientific data: economically, stress costs the U.S. approximately $300 billion per year in absenteeism, medical costs, or low productivity; statistically, 83 percent of people rank work as their primary source of stress; and, finally, from a neuroscientific point of view, the brain’s ability to rewire itself offers amazing opportunities for improvement.
Whil seems to have put the science to good use, as we tried out the sessions designed for individuals – which are completely free – and found them very effective. The app allows you to set very specific goals, making it easier to stay motivated. We chose “Sleep better and feel rested,” completed the breathing exercises, and started yawning within minutes. Overall, Whil comes across as an efficient and uncomplicated tool, capable of providing immediate results.
Sattva: A quantified experience for self-driven meditators
A self-titled “Meditation Timer & Tracker,” Sattva seems to be aimed at more experienced and autonomous meditators. It does not offer sessions specifically designed for beginners, and the overall experience feels less “gamified” compared with some of the other apps.
Image credit: Sattva
On iOS, Sattva integrates seamlessly with the Health app, pulling information on your heart rate and blood pressure. Apple Watch lovers will be happy to know that the app is also available on their device. You can choose to do a “Quick start,” a “Guided meditation,” or a “Chant.”
Before and after the sessions, you can have your heart rate measured with a simple tap; Sattva uses your phone’s camera to take your pulse using just your fingertip.
You can download most of the meditations and chants for free. We tried “Transforming emotions,” which starts gently with breathing exercises, transitions smoothly toward a nonjudgmental acceptance of your negative emotions, and ends with a smile. For $1.99, we found “Happiness with Sri Sri” – that is, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual leader and founder of the The Art of Living.
Sattva feels very calculated and data-driven. The dashboard counts the total number of minutes you have spent meditating, averages out your beats per minute, tells you when your last session was, your current and best streak, how many other people are meditating, the number of challenges completed, trophies achieved, and much more.
The dashboard also includes a leaderboard, which informs you where you rank among your meditating friends – a competitive approach we thought to run slightly against the ethos of mindful meditation.
Additionally, we thought that some of the stats were a touch redundant. For instance, the “Total minutes” of meditation can be found in the main dashboard screen, under the “More” button, and in the profile section, as well as under “Community.” We did enjoy the small pieces of motivational wisdom sprinkled throughout the app, however, alongside the easy-to-access recommendations.
Smiling Mind: Taking children on a journey to the Land of Mindfulness
Image credit: Smiling Mind
Every session starts by asking you to assess your mood based on three criteria: happiness, contentedness, and alertness. At the end of the session, you are sent back into the world “with a smile on your mind.”
The app offers three modules: “Smiling Mind for Wellbeing” (aimed at adults), “Smiling Mind in Education,” and “Smiling Mind in the Workplace.” The adult program offers 10 modules making up a total of 42 sessions, along with “Bite Size” sessions of between 1 and 3 minutes, “Extended Meditations”, and sessions intended to complement regular sports activities.
What we loved most about the app is the focus it places on children and teens. Smiling Mind offers programs for children of various age groups, centered around their experience of growing up.
From slowly discovering who they are and gaining a sense of independence, to learning how to interact socially and respect others, the app offers support for the potential challenges of being a child. Finally, the program for 16- to 18-year-olds aims to help teens plan for the future as they transition into being young adults.
You may wonder what mindfulness can offer to such a young audience, but the sessions are creative, imaginative, and seem well attuned to a young sensibility. Children are invited “on a journey to the Land of Mindfulness – a place inside you where you are safe and strong.” They are asked to imagine that they are seaweed that is being gently rocked by the current, or to “put a smile on their mind” by making a happy wish for themselves in a magical tree.
The app is completely free, but if you feel grateful for it, you can make a donation to help Smiling Mind bring mindfulness to all Australian schools.
Stop, Breathe & Think: A friendly guide for beginners
Simply called “Breathe” on a smartphone, this app invites you to check in by closing your eyes and dimming the screen for a few seconds. Then, it invites you to assess how you feel – but there is a twist.
What we really liked about Breathe is that it offers a much wider range of feelings to choose from, and harnesses your input more effectively than other apps.
Image credit: Stop, Breathe & Think
When checking in, you can select up to five feelings from five different categories – ranging from very happy to very sad – and each of these categories has up to 35 different emotions to choose from. Breathe makes you feel that your emotions really matter, as the selections are fed into an algorithm that then comes up with more than 25 meditations tailored to your needs.
Some of these sessions require a premium membership, which costs $4.99 per month. The sessions are a combination of meditations, breathing exercises, yoga, and even acupressure videos. We tried the “Deep Breathing” premium meditation, and we liked that it prepares you for the possibility that you might get lightheaded – something that occurs quite often when you are a beginner, but which has not been addressed by the other apps.
Overall, Breathe is an ultragamified, particularly beginner-friendly app. At the end of each session, you are asked to re-evaluate your state of mind and body, and you are rewarded with unexpected stickers and awards. The app offers a “Learn to meditate” pack that uses simple words and straightforward science to explain what meditation is and how it benefits the mind.
With its friendly interface, simple explanations, and cute illustrations, Breathe is perfect for those wishing to step down the path of mindfulness for the very first time.