In a world of digital distractions, is an app really the best way to lead us to mindful living? Christine Morgan tests three of the best: Buddhify, Headspace and Calm
In case you hadn’t noticed, mindfulness is a big deal these days. From housewives to city high-flyers, athletes to celebrities, everyone who’s anyone is at it. And thanks to developers who have flooded the market with apps for the mind, the rest of us can become blissed-out rather than stressed-out, too.
But how can you let go of distractions when you’re glued to a smartphone screen? Or have meditation apps become the digital-age equivalent of classes at the local Buddhist centre?
“Using a mindfulness app is great if you’re a beginner, if you need help practising or if you can’t get to a class,” says Leigh Eastman, author of three books on mindfulness (Mindful Living, Mindful Eating and Mindful Sex and Marriage, all available from Amazon).
The tricky part is finding an app that doesn’t put you off practising mindful meditation for good. So how should you choose?
“With mindfulness, less is more. If it’s too complicated or too long, it’s missing the point,” Leigh says. “Too many words or too much background noise or music will just add to the overload.
“The app should encourage and inspire you to sink into a calm state from the minute it’s switched on.
“Look out for apps that start you at five minutes, and then allow you to move on to ten or 20, or more. If it’s too long to begin with, it won’t hold your attention, especially if you’re stressed.”
Calm is an app and founded by Brits Alex Tew and Michael Acton Smith. You may remember Alex. He was the kid who sold a million pixels on his website Million Dollar Home Page for a dollar each to fund his university education.
Several websites later Alex and Michael launched Calm. Alex, a fan of relaxation CDs when he was a teenager, had the idea of making guided meditations available on the internet. He also practises what he preaches, claiming to zone out for 20 minutes every day.
Available for both iPhone and Android, Calm was developed with London-based meditation teacher Maggie Richards. The app includes the 7 Steps of Calm: seven introductory guided meditations spoken in a soothing female American voice, lasting between six and 10 minutes each.
You can choose one of ten natural scenes with accompanying sounds (lapping waves, bird song, rain and so on) as a background to your meditation. If you have the iPhone version, you can also meditate to music by composer Kip Mazuy.
In addition there are six body-scan meditations lasting from two to 30 minutes, plus the option to have a session of just sounds/music without the guide.
Once you’ve got the hang of the meditations you can subscribe and get access to a lot more (a year’s sub costs $9.99 (£6.39) a year). But currently this is only supported by the iPhone version.
If I had to find a drawback, it’s that there’s no option to switch off the background sound. I find the sound of a babbling brook instantly relaxing, but I know that sort of thing would drive some people mad, so avoid this if you’re one of them.
Headspace has been downloaded by more than three million people worldwide, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Watson and Davina McCall.
It was developed Andy Puddicombe and former ad man Rich Pierson. The story goes that Andy – born and bred in Bristol – dropped out of university to ‘find’ himself and ended up training to be a Buddhist monk and meditating for 18 hours a day. So he knows what he’s talking about.
Andy’s voice is extremely easy on the ear, and unlike Calm there isn’t any music or natural sounds, just the voice (though part of the meditation involves becoming aware of the sounds around you).
After each ten-minute session, I felt calm and refreshed. But once you’ve completed all ten, it’s time to cough up if you want to continue. Headspace calls it “gym membership for the mind”. Annual membership costs £4.99 a month.
For a free app, it’s easy and effective. And it might just get you into the habit of being more mindful.
Finally there’s Buddhify (or to be precise, Buddhify 2), an app created by self-confessed Buddhist geek Rohan Gunatillake.
Rohan, based in Glasgow, is a management consultant who became interested in meditation after finishing university. His mindfulness practice led him to develop urban meditation.
This boils down to meditation techniques you can do while you’re going about your day-to-day activities, whether at the office, the gym or at home. And that’s how Buddhify works: whereas Calm and Headspace require you to sit quietly with no distractions, Buddhify recognises that life just isn’t like that most of the time.
The main screen displays a wheel with rainbow-coloured segments, each of which represent an activity including walking in the city, working online, in the park, eating, exercising, feeling stressed, going to sleep and waking up.
Each segment reveals up to three different meditations (or tracks, as they are called in Buddhify), lasting from around five to 11 minutes. There are five different voices – a mix of male and female – and no background sounds or music. You can also keep track of how often you’ve been meditating and for how long.
I like all three apps, but this one’s my favourite. I’ve been using the ‘going to sleep’ and ‘waking up’ meditations for a while (the ‘good’ meditation is a wonderful way to set yourself up for the day).
I also really like the fact that it doesn’t try to hook you in to a subscription. Buddhify introduces you to urban mindfulness and meditation, and that’s it. Then when you get the hang of it, you can do it without the app.
But on the positive side, you get a lot for your money. It’s certainly the best £1.99 I’ve spent in a while.