After the year we've all had, there has never been a better time to take up meditation. This doesn't have to mean hours of your day spent sitting in silence, contemplating the meaning of life. Instead it can mean putting aside just a few minutes each day to shut off the distractions of modern life and focusing on ourselves, and our own mental health.
Whether this means carving out 30 minutes every morning for a new meditation routine, dipping into a guided breathing app for two minutes between work calls, or playing some distraction-free background music, your smartphone is full of ways to help.
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It is worth noting early on that very few of these apps are entirely free. Most work on a subscription basis and/or come with associated hardware, while a couple are mostly free but include 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 seven-day free trial, after which it costs $12.99 a month (or $69.99 for a year, with a 14-day free trial). The app includes 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 is also a dedicated section of classes to help you fall asleep, daily meditation classes on new topics, mindful cardio exercises, and 'SOS' sessions to help deal with sudden onset panic, anxiety or stress.
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. Paying $12.99 a month might seem steep, but that's an awful lot of content here for the money, with more added regularly.
The Calm app is available for iOS and AndroidCalm
Calm comes from Michael Acton-Smith, the British entrepreneur who previously created Mind Candy and the kids' cartoon universe Moshi Monsters. Calm claims that 84 percent of customers who used the app at least five times a week saw an improvement in their mental health.
Similar to Headspace, Calm is primarily about guided meditation, but with some high-profile partners in the form of Harry Styles, Cilian Murphy and Sigur Ross, and Stephen Fry and Matthew McConaughey, whose dulcet tones help you fall asleep. Calm has also partnered with Disney, creating piano lullabies of the sound tracks of Aladdin, The Lion King and Moana to 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. Browsing through the Calm app feels a lot like Netflix or Prime Video, with a huge amount of content to explore, all organized into different sections.
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 give you a good feel for the app. After this, it costs $14.99 a month or $69.99 a year. There is also the option to pay a one-off fee of $400 for lifetime access.
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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 (but, as of May 2021, is currently free). 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.
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.
Muse – iOS and Android
The Muse S is a comfortable headband that reads your brain activity and connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone meditation app. Meditation classes last for between 10 and 20 minutes, with a broad range to pick from. They work in conjunction with the app, which has an interface showing your brain activity in a bid to help you recognize triggers that are causing stimulation, then ignore them and relax more deeply.
One smart feature is how the Muse encourages you to use thought alone to concentrate on the sound of birdsong. The clearer your thoughts, as measured by the headband, the more clearly the birdsong can be heard. If you become distracted and your mind drifts, then the birdsong fades away.
We have enjoyed using the Muse S, both for meditation and for sleep monitoring, which was added as a new feature in 2020. But at $350, plus a monthly $13 subscription for the app, it is an expensive product unless you
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Over 80 guided meditation classes are added to the app every dayInsight 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 $9.99 a month or $59.99 a year 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.
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 withered 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 modelMindfulness Everywhere
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 200 sessions. These are split into a dozen 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, and overcoming stress. Tracks range from five to 30 minutes in length.