With the summer warmth behind us, nights drawing in and stresses of the holiday season fast approaching, there's no better time to find some headspace.
Whether this means carving out 30 minutes every morning for a new meditation routine, dipping into a guided breathing app for two minutes on your commute, or playing some distraction-free background music, your smartphone is full of ways to help.
- How to meditate with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant
- Tree-growing app Forrest made me put down my phone and be more productive
It is worth noting early on that very few of these apps are entirely free. Most work on a subscription basis, or come with associated hardware, like the Withings Sleep tracker, while a couple are mostly free but included some additional paid-for content.
That said, many of these apps offer free trails that are usually one or two weeks long, giving you plenty of time to get a feel for an app and decide whether you want to stick with it, or try something else. Just remember to cancel the subscription before the first bill if you've decided the app isn't right for you.
The Headspace app offer a two-week free trialHeadspace
When it comes to de-stressing, understanding mindfulness is a good place to start. Many apps do this, but Headspace is one of the most-loved, partly due to the calming tones of app co-founder and narrator Andy Puddicombe. A British former Buddhist Monk, Puddicombe talks users through the app's Basics pack for free, introducing the concept of mindfulness and how to breathe correctly during meditation.
Headspace offers a 14-day free trial, after which it costs $12.99 a month (or $94.99 for a year). The app offers guided meditation for almost any situation. Topics addressed include self-esteem, anger, anxiety, sleep, depression, regret, relationships, focus, creativity and many more besides. Some, like breathing exercises, last just a couple of minutes, while other classes go on for 10 to 20 minutes each, giving you plenty of options depending on how much time you have available.
There are also live meditation classes, where you can join in with others. You can't speak to each other or hear anything other than Puddicombe's own voice, but the interface shows how many people are in the session with you, which we found strangely reassuring.
Even if you don't want to pay, the free content acts as a good introduction to meditation, and daily notifications (which can be switched off) provide written advice on getting through whatever life throws at you.
Calm has breathing exercises, meditation, music and audiobooksCalm via App Store
Calm comes from Michael Acton-Smith, the British entrepreneur who previously created Mind Candy and the kids' cartoon universe Moshi Monsters. The Calm company was recently valued at $1bn following a $27m funding round.
Similar to Headspace, Calm is primarily about guided meditation, but with some high-profile partners in the form of Sam Smith and Sigur Ross providing music, and Stephen Fry and Matthew McConaughey, whose dulcet tones help you fall asleep.
Calm's sleep-focused content includes bedtime stories for adults which last around 30 minutes each. There are also musical playlists designed to help you fall asleep, and stories read ASMR-style which make you feel like the narrator is right there with you, if that's your thing. Natural soundtracks are here too, including heavy rain, forest ambience, white noise, and a crackling camp fire.
Daytime listening from Calm includes meditation classes for users with specific needs, like overcoming flight anxiety, and breaking bad habits. Other classes are aimed at people looking for a moment of calm during their commute, or in the office, with some classes designed to be listened to with your eyes open instead of closed.
Calm also includes music tracks designed to increase concentration or encourage sleep, plus short audiobooks read by the likes of Stephen Fry. Calm contains enough free meditation classes to last a week or so, plus there is a one-week* free trial which unlocks the entire app. After this, it costs $60 a year or a one-off feed of $400 for lifetime access.
*At the time of writing, October 1, 2019, Calm is offering a 30-day free trial.
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Oak - iOS App Store
The Oak app is mostly free and has no subscription Courtney Circle
Oak is a meditation app from Kevin Rose, who founded Digg.com. Unlike most meditation apps like this, most of Oak's content is completely free. This includes a system where you can tailor the meditation class for you, by setting the duration (10 to 30 minutes), instructor voice (male or female), background (sounds like rainfall, fire, or silence), and warmup time (30 seconds to three minutes).
Adjusting each of these adjusts how the meditation session will sound, and what it will contain, which makes a nice change to having to stick to specific session lengths in other apps. There are three of these in the meditate section of the Oak app, plus three in the breathe section, and two in the sleep section. All in, this gives you a surprising amount of content for no cost.
If you want more, then the 10-day Mantra Meditation course costs $5.99. Although Oak doesn't have live sessions like Headspace, the app does show how many users have meditated each day, and how many are either meditating or taking a guided breathing class at this exact moment. As with Headspace, we like this as it makes us feel like we're among likeminded people, instead of being alone with our smartphone.
Smart Alarm feature wakes you up when you are least asleepSleep Better via App Store
There are a huge number of sleep apps to choose from, but the one we have used the most over the last year or so is Sleep Better. The app's simple interface asks you to note any factors which may affect the upcoming night's sleep, such as whether you have exercised, drunk alcohol or caffeine before bed, ate late, had a stressful day, or are sleeping in an unfamiliar bed.
You can then set an alarm or a 'smart alarm', which uses your smartphone's sensors to wake you up when you are least asleep, Set a time - say, 6:30am - then configure the smart alarm to wake you a few minutes either side of that.
The goal is your phone will sense you move just before your alarm, then wake you up early on the assumption you are least asleep right now. From personal experience, we can say this type of alarm works very well. Just remember to use Airplane Mode so no one disturbs you while the app is running on your unlocked phone.
Sleep Better tracks deep and light sleep each night, viewable on a graph the next day. This data is also plotted over weeks, months and years. Basic sleep-tracking is free, while the smart alarm has a one-off charge of $1.99.
A lot of meditation apps focus on improving your sleep, so we thought it would be good to include the Health Mate app and $100 Withings Sleep, a sleep monitoring device which slips under your mattress.
While phone apps like Sleep Better, or any number of apps for wearables and smartwatches, are cheaper than buying a dedicated device, we find our sleep is disturbed more when wearing something on our wrist.
The Sleep fits under any mattress and automatically tracks heart rate, breathing and sleep cycles every night. This data is then sent to the Health Mate app on your smartphone via Bluetooth when you wake up, ready for analysis. That way, you can see if the sleep-inducing meditation class you did the night before really did work, and if a few weeks of meditation has helped improve your sleep quality over time.
After all, following the classes each day is one thing - capturing your sleep data and seeing if the classes are actually working is another.
The app includes 27,000 free meditation classesInsight Network
This app also takes a free-first approach instead of pushing users towards a monthly or yearly subscription. And what sets Insight Timer even further apart is the vast amount of free content available - some 27,000 meditation classes. These are clearly named based on what they aim to achieve, such as improving sleep, managing stress, coping with anxiety, improving relationships, and boosting self-esteem.
This huge library can be filtered by topic and duration (five to 30+ minutes), and a quick scan of the most popular reveals that classes designed to improve sleep are the most listened-to among users, followed by morning meditation.
Paying $5 a month* for the premium tier gains access to over 200 'Insight Courses', which range from 10 to 30 days in length and take a deep dive into meditation. There is a course designed to help you work out which is the best type of meditation for you, one about self-love, and one aimed at helping you feel more fulfilled in your day-to-day life.
*As of October 1, 2019 this includes a one-week free trial.
The Forest app helps to improve your concentrationGearBrain
Although not a meditation app, Forest takes some of the principles taught by the apps mentioned above - namely, concentration - and puts it to good practice. The goal of the app is to stop using your smartphone for a set amount of time, If you manage to do so, and use no app for 30, 60 or 120 minutes, a virtual tree grows in your in-app forest.
If you open any other app (apart from the phone app when answering a call) before the timer ends, the tree dies, leaving a dead brown trunk behind. The aim is to grow a forest full of healthy green trees, each a visual representation of your growing ability to concentrate and ignore your phone.
You can read more on our experience with Forest - and how genuinely useful we found it - here.
Unlike its rivals, Buddhify does not have a paid subscription modelBuddhify via App Store
Unlike the subscription models of Headspace and Calm, Buddhify lets you pay for full access to the app upfront. It costs $4.99 on iOS and $2.99 on Android - and for that the whole app is unlocked and ready to use.
There are over 11 hours of guided meditation to listen to, spread across more than 80 sessions. These are split into 14 topics which are served up based on what you are doing while using the app - options here include traveling, eating, waking up, taking a break at work, dealing with pain, overcoming stress, and more. Tracks range from five to 30 minutes in length.
Withings Body+ - Smart Body Composition Wi-Fi Digital Scale with smartphone app