Head-to-head: Meditation and Mindfulness Apps
Mindfulness is growing and growing in popularity. In a world full of hustle and bustle, stress and anxiety, mindfulness is a way of clearing your mind and focusing on your surroundings, and it can even help you achieve a range of personal goals. Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or curious beginner wanting to see if there is anything in it for you, there are a range of apps you can run from your phone or tablet. The two biggest (most popular) apps are Headspace and Calm. We look at both: to explain more about how they work and - more importantly - how they might work for you.
The best way to begin with mindfulness, says Calm in soothing tones, is through meditation. At the heart of the app are meditations that address specific areas. You might browse the list of topic areas - anxiety, sleep, focus, stress, relationships, emotions, self-care, personal growth, inner peace, and resilience - and easily decide that one or more of these are of interest, however, the best way to start is perhaps on their seven-day trial.
At the heart of the app are its Daily Calm meditations which, it is keen to stress, can be done by anyone, at any time, and in any place. The content is narrated - in soothing American tones - by in-house content creator Tamara Levett, but if you prefer, you can choose to have the narration in an American male voice too. They last around ten minutes, like an extended 'Thought for the Day' and will feature long periods of silence, where all you hear may be birdsong and the sounds of flowing streams, as your guide brings you into and out of relaxed concentration.
New meditations are added all the time, and you can adjust the volume of the background noises to suit your preference. A lovely visual part of the app is its backdrops of wonderful nature scenes like forests and lakes and although you can just sit back and listen to the meditations, the fluid, evolving animations make it a pleasure when looking at the screen.
Stories and music
Other features in Calm include Sleep Stories - short stories - read by more than forty narrators across the app, and which aim to help you transition from the hustle and bustle of daily life into deep and restful sleep. The stories include fiction and non-fiction, stories based on nature and even stories designed to create ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), a pleasurable tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine.
There's also a Music section featuring a variety of pieces of ambient music, categorised into the likes of Relax, Sleep, Focus, and Nature Melodies. The Sleep ones range from over an hour to just a few minutes duration and are suitably calming and relaxing. If you never remember hearing to the end of the very shortest ones, even after multiple nights' sleep, then you can be sure they are doing their job!
The final section on the app focuses on Calm's Masterclasses, in which you can find teachings from world-renowned mindfulness experts. These cover a wide range of areas where you might wish to learn to respond differently in certain situations. Class titles include the likes of "The Power of Rest"; Breaking Bad Habits"; "Social Media & Screen Addiction"; "Rethinking Depression"; and "The Four Pillars of Health". As with most of the content, it's all waiting for you once you "unlock premium" and new Masterclasses are added every month.
Every part of the app is nudging you toward its seven-day trial, which in order to embark on you will need to provide your bank details/payment for the yearly cost of around $69.99 (around £52). If you do sign-up just to access the premium content, don't forget to cancel should you decide not to go beyond your seven-day access to the world of Calm.
Headspace has a different feel to it, not least because it is narrated in a calm, measured and relaxing English accent by the app's English founder. He used to be a Buddhist monk, but now he's found fame, fortune and focus as a California-based mindfulness and meditation multi-millionaire - Andy Puddicombe.
A different perspective
The app sees itself as providing an opportunity to turn your attention inwards and to view the mind from a different perspective. And certainly, although the focus of the app is similar to Calm, it's a noticeably different experience. On downloading the app, you are asked to choose the main reason for doing so, perhaps wanting to sleep better, be less stressed, find calm, be more focused, manage anxiety and so on. Can't decide? Then just click the 'just checking it out' option.
Packs, minis, and singles
Once into the app, there are hundreds of meditations - with more added all the time - with a lot of the content contained in 'packs'. Packs are groups of meditation sessions united by a central theme. These include Health, Happiness, Work & Performance, Sport, Brave, Mindful Eating and even Students. Within each of the packs, there are then many further sessions e.g. thirty sessions on Self Esteem within the Happiness theme, and another thirty on Relationships. It's a similar story in the Work & Performance pack with ten sessions on Productivity and another ten on Prioritisation.
In addition to the packs, you can find 'minis' - very short exercises or meditations which you really can do at any time, since they are no longer than three minutes or so, and thus great if you truly have an ultra-hectic schedule. There are also singles, which are one-off themed meditations or exercises.
There are many other features too, including Sleep Sounds to help you drop off, and meditations and mindfulness exercises for Kids with sessions on Kindness, Calm, and Focus
Team up and nudge a friend
The app is different visually and features cute cartoon-style animations and these accompany some of the explainer videos (into e.g. core themes and techniques that you will regularly use).
You don't need to just use the app on your own. You can also team up with a friend using the Buddies feature, and you can monitor your friends' stats and progress and 'streaks' (consecutive daily meditations) and 'nudge' them if they have stopped meditating. Worth noting that though you can see if they are using the app, you cannot see what content your 'Buddy' is working on.
Whatever content you are into, if you want to progress beyond the limits you find yourself up against, then it's time to subscribe. The 'most popular' option is an annual subscription of £49.99 billed as one payment but equating to less than £4.99 a month. Take it one month at a time and it will cost £9.99.
If you want to give meditation and mindfulness a go, it probably doesn't really make a great deal of difference which one you try. Whether you choose Calm or Headspace, either will be a great way to start meditating and practising mindfulness. It might just be that you develop a feeling about one or the other, perhaps a preference over the narration voices, or graphic design.
Certainly, you can download both apps and see which one you feel most comfy with - and don't forget there are many other apps out there too. Just look for mindfulness or meditation apps in the App Store or Google Play.
Please note that prices may change and are correct at the time of publication.