Meditation Apps: A Review

Meditation and mindfulness practices are ancient, but they have proven to be singularly well-matched to the world of apps. Meditation is simple, portable, endlessly flexible yet deeply constrained – in short, much like a phone. So phones have proven to be ideal companions to meditation, and meditation apps have been an area of remarkable growth and innovation in recent years.

Why include meditation apps alongside reviews of other mental health apps? Meditation is an ancient practice, but a good part of contemporary interest in the West is due to its demonstrable impact on improving mental health. Given its myriad benefits, any app that can encourage and promote this practice will itself be a boon to mental health.

The apps to be considered below are wildly popular, by the standards of mental health apps – some have more than 10 million installs. Yet downloading a meditation app signals at best the intention to meditate, which is widespread, rather than the regular practice of meditating itself, which is somewhat common. So it is important to consider, in addition to the initial appeal of these meditation apps, whether they are the sort of apps that can encourage and sustain the kind of sustained meditation practice that makes the many benefits of meditation possible.

1. Headspace

Created by: Headspace Inc.

Available for: iOS, Android

Headspace is the 800-pound elephant among meditation apps. Launched by a monk and an advertising executive, Headspace has over 10 million installs and a robust subscriber base. And while the free headspace app is nice, the subscription (at $12.99/month, less with a longer subscription) is what makes the app truly useful. The app has an extensive library of content, but much of it is behind the subscription paywall.

Headspace in its current incarnation is a gorgeously designed app, back by an in-house science department. But, at its core, it is a library of guided meditations:

The focus on guided meditations makes Headspace especially appealing for beginning meditators. Users who feel they are unprepared for solo silent meditation – which, after all, can be done with out an app – can be eased into meditation via Headspace’s user-friendly introductions to mindfulness.

Among its many features are live group meditation, meditations for dealing with the stresses of being a parent or being a student, and a lovely set of meditations designed to lull the user to sleep. While its subscription model may lead users looking for free meditation elsewhere, Headspace is a tremendously good app: thoughtfully designed, fully-featured (with the subscription), and an excellent foundation for beginning – or continuing – a meditation practice.

2. Calm

Created by: Calm.com

Available for: iOS, Android

Calm is another mega-app, with over 10 million installs. Its format and business model is similar to Headspace’s: the user creates an account, which enables access to some free meditation tools and guided meditation. If the user upgrades to a monthly subscription, they get access to Calm’s full library. Calm generally seems to include slightly more free content than Headspace, including some simple but nice tools like an animated breathing guide:

It also includes, in addition to guided meditations, “Masterclasses” in various topics, some of them taught by celebrities – though here, as with Headspace, much of the content is behind the subscription paywall:

As these examples suggest, Calm is somewhat broader in its focus than Headspace, for better or worse. This is in two senses: first, it feels a bit broader in the market that it’s trying to appeal to. Second, its range extends beyond meditation proper to “lifestyle” more broadly. Some users will experience this as a feature, while others may experience it as a bug.

So Calm is naturally paired with Headspace atop the download lists, as a subscription-based, guided-meditation-focused, app for anyone curious about meditation. The differences between them are real but subtle, and a user new to meditation would do well with either.

3. Insight Timer

Created by: Insight Network Inc.

Available for: iOS, Android

Meditation is a solitary activity that is often done in groups, and Insight Timer does a wonderful job of capturing this dual nature of meditation. Its neatest feature is perhaps on its home screen, which provides a real-time maps of all the individuals all over the world meditating with Insight Timer at that moment:

That aspect of Insight Timer guides the experience of the app: users are presented with fellow meditators in the same area, with the option of “friending” them as in a social media app.

Under the hood, Insight Timer has a number of similarities with the apps discussed above. A few key differences stand out, however. First, the app prominently displays a silent meditation timer, with a selection of “chimes”:

Second, the app does feature a number of guided meditations, but these are not presented as being as essential to the user experience as they are in the two apps above. Finally, third, while Insight Timer offers a subscription, much of the features that make the app so compelling are available without a subscription.

Overall, while the two previous apps are better for introducing a neophyte to meditation, Insight Timer may be more appealing to the experienced meditator, who will appreciate its spare user experience, as well as its emphasis on the sociability of meditation.

4. Stop, Breathe & Think

Created by: Stop, Breathe, & Think

Available for: iOS, Android

Stop, Breathe, & Think is another app focused on providing an array of guided meditations to the user. The UI is friendly and low-key, and feels a bit more DIY than the highly polished apps above. Especially notable are the charming illustrations along the way. The app begins with a check-in intended to tailor an appropriate meditation to the user:

There is a progress screen where the can keep track of meditation time as well as “top emotions” and other features listed in their check-ins. If someone does actually regularly check-in with the app, this promises a real trove of useful data in a user-friendly format:

Overall, Stop, Breathe, & Think is a very likable app. It offers the benefits of guided and tracked meditation without the more elaborate trappings of some of the better-known meditation apps. It’s worth a try for the would-be meditator.

5. Simple Habit

Created by: Simple Habit, Inc.

Available for: iOS, Android

Anyone who’s used one of the apps above – especially HeadSpace or Calm – will recognize Simple Habit. It begins with a quick set of questions intended to help customize the user’s experience. Its centerpiece is a collection of handsomely curated guided meditations on topics of interest to those who are feeling stressed, unfocused, or simply discontent:

Beyond that, there isn’t much to distinguish Simple Habit from its larger competitors. If anything, it seems to lack some of richness of features of those larger apps. It also is a bit stronger in its emphasis on upselling users to the paid subscription:

Nonetheless, a fan of guided meditation apps may well want to add Simple Habit to their portfolio of choices, especially if they connect with one of the many teachers offering courses on Simple Habit.

6. 10% Happier

Created by: 10% Happier Inc.

Available for: iOS, Android

10% Happier does not have quite as many users as the apps listed above, but it deserves a mention here. Associated with the former newscaster Dan Harris and his eponymous book, this app is a simple and effective introduction to the basics of meditation.

10% Happier follows the same introductory survey > create account > offer subscription workflow that most other guided meditation apps use. It distinguishes itself in two ways: first, the UI is gorgeous, with a minimalist but polished appearance that is a notch above some of the more popular apps:

Second, and more importantly, 10% Happier features some truly amazing teachers – such as Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, both from the well-known Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

So while some of its features will be familiar, its design and content quality make 10% Happier a top meditation app, even when compared to its impressive competitors above.

Summary

It is said that how one meditates is not nearly as important as whether one meditates. That is, someone trying to start a meditation practice should worry less about which particular “style” of meditation they will use and more on simply setting aside a time to sit silently for a period of time, every day.

Something similar is true of meditation apps. All of the apps above are thoughtfully-designed instruments for meditation. The main obstacle to adopting them, for most users, will simply be failing to use them regularly. The best strategy, then, is for a user to try out these apps (in their free versions) and choose whichever one speaks to them, for whatever reason. If they do indeed find themselves using the app daily, then it may be worth upgrading to the subscriptions that these apps offer. But the particular features of the app chosen will be a lot less significant than whether the user actually, and regularly, uses it.

Note: The contents of this post are for informational purposes only. This is not professional medical advice and it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with a physician with any questions that you have about a medical condition, including a mental health condition. If you think you are in a medical emergency, call 911 or your local emergency services number immediately.

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