Wondering if it's worth your time to download the various meditation apps you see floating around on the iTunes App store or the Google Play store? If you're anything like me, you're constantly being told about the benefits of meditation, but haven't found a lasting way to make it part of your daily routine, which is a shame. Studies at Visitacion Valley Middle School in the Bay Area have shown that two 15-minute periods of meditation each day increase academic performance, lower suspension rates, and improve attendance numbers. This is just the latest in a slew of research demonstrating the benefits of taking a quiet moment or two to reflect. Meditation paired with physical practices, like yoga, can improve thinking skills and prevent memory loss due to aging. It can even help with chronic pain. Seems almost too good to be true, right?
But I can remember that sensation of deep calm on the weeks when I did manage to meditate more days than not. My mood settled towards a comfortable baseline, my body felt a little lighter, and I dropped off to sleep faster than normal on those nights. The problem? Remembering to make meditation a fixture of my day. I'd rush to finish an essay in the morning and think to myself, "I'll just meditate this afternoon." Classes would push that 15-minute block to the evening, and then I'd feel so worn out that all I wanted to do was read or watch an episode of Bob's Burgers.
Luckily, for people like you and me, there exists a handy-dandy tool that will make meditation as simple as possible. That tool, friends, is the meditation app. I tried out some of the most popular free apps on the Google Play store, so check out my reviews and see which one is right for you!
What Calm does well: The app has a great intro that asks you to choose the top three reasons why you want to meditate. Then it invites you to take a few deep breaths and do a body scan to relax all your muscle groups, all while providing a graphic of a glassy lake so you can visually focus. If you make an account, you can save your progress every time you meditate, and change the visual to rain dripping down a leaf, sunset on a beach, a crackling fireplace, and so on. The free version provides a week-long introductory course to meditation, as well as a few other freebies. It's a great start for someone who wants to ease into meditation while using a visual focus — which is something I do whenever I meditate. And you can do the introductory exercises as often as you want.
Most of Calm's content is only available to subscribers, who pay $9.99 per month to use Calm's library of exercises. If you know you want to drop some cash on meditation, and you want a wide variety of exercises, this might be for you.
What Headspace does well: In the introductory video, a pleasant voice says, "Think of Headspace like a gym membership for the mind." And that's exactly what the app feels like. If you want to track all your stats, like average meditation time, total time spent meditating, and your "run streak," or consecutive days spent practicing mindfulness, you can do that easily. This app will work well for the person who wants to be in complete control of her meditation practice. A free membership nets you 10 meditation cycles, and a subscription unlocks several different series focused on topics like relationships, health, performance, and mental SOS moments. Plus, you get cute animations and freebie exercises.
After your 10 free exercises, you'll have to pay $7.99 per month if you sign up for the yearly plan, and more if you just want a month-long subscription. Also, Headspace has a social dimension — you can invite your friends to participate, and see when they're using the app. It's sort of like meditation meets Facebook.
3. Guided Journey Meditation
What GJM does well: The narrator of GJM has maybe the most calming voice I've ever heard. She invites you to follow her voice through a series of imaginative exercises, prompting you to feel the gentle breeze and warm sun of a beach. If you want to create a kind of mental retreat through meditation — a space to revisit whenever you're feeling stressed — this app is perfect. The best part? You don't have to pay for any of this content. Meditations range from 10 to 59 minutes long, and you can choose from several themes, like a beach, a forest, a star journey, and the inner self.
This is a pretty stripped-down app. Don't expect any snazzy animations or engaging visuals, because you won't find them. There aren't that many themes to choose from.
4. Buddhist Meditation
What Buddhist Meditation does well: If you want a Buddhist dimension as part of your meditation practice, consider this app, which provides an image of the Buddha to look at as you listen to gentle ringing sounds to focus your mind. Buddhist Meditation invites you to meditate for at least three minutes a day by thinking about a quote, which it provides to you. Some of the quotes it generated for me included "Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship" and "Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water." It can be highly positive to focus on such ideas, wringing as much wisdom as you can from them in three minutes.
This is a very bare-bones meditation practice. It's not guided, and the quotes can sometimes seem a little hokey, or overly simplistic. Apparently, the app features 10 "levels of enlightenment" with "deeper quotes" to accompany each, but with such a simple structure, I'm not sure how Buddhist Meditation can really implement that.
Of course, what might work best for you is mixing and matching exercises from each app. Try exploring these to get an idea of what you want from your meditation practice, then branch out. And don't forget to leave a 10- or 15-minute block of time in your daily schedule! Happy meditating, everyone.
Images: Ashley Batz/Unsplash; Headspace; Calm; Guided Journey Meditation; Buddhist Meditation