As research suggests, meditation has its health benefits — and you don’t need a personal guru or a two-week retreat in India to get started. In fact, all you need is your smartphone.
Here are the best apps that can help you put mindfulness and meditation into practice.
Headspace is one of the most popular meditation apps. It provides an introductory course for free, but advanced material requires a subscription. That subscription costs $7.99 a month if you pay for a year upfront or $12.95 a month if you don’t. (Pro-tip: If you sign up for Headspace emails but don’t get a subscription immediately, it may send you a promotion for a discount.)
Like other guided meditation apps, Headspace offers a variety of spoken-word sessions with a meditation practitioner. It’s a good way to start, and it’s significantly better than just jumping into solo meditation without any experience. Headspace has guided meditations in a variety of categories, including running, cycling, cooking, eating, and more standard categories like sleeping and general meditation.
What makes Headspace different? Well, it has a buddy system that lets you compare your meditation progress to your contacts. While competitive meditation is somewhat of an oxymoron, if it means you actually stick to your practice, it’s a worthwhile activity.
The first thing you do in Calm is choose what your goals for meditation are. This sets the stage for the different suites of seven-day guided meditations that you can choose to follow.
Unfortunately, just like Headspace, everything except the beginner course requires a subscription. ($59.99 if you pay upfront for a year, $12.99 a month if you pay monthly, or a one-time $299.99 fee for a lifetime membership.)
Topics include meditation to boost your self-esteem, help you sleep, and keep you productive at work. Fundamentally, it does guided meditation in a similar way to Headspace, but the app is also beautifully designed, with soothing images of lakes and fireplaces serving as the backdrop for the different screens.
The most noticeable difference between Calm and Headspace is that Headspace is narrated by a male with a British accent, while Calm is narrated by a woman with an American accent. You’ll be listening to one of these voices a lot, so choose carefully.
If subscription apps are ruining your inner peace, look no further than Buddhify. It’s a full-featured meditation app that comes with a one-time cost of under $5.
Buddhify offers different types of guided meditations depending on how you feel and what activities you are doing. They come in categories like "Can’t Sleep," "At Home," "Difficult Emotions," "Traveling," and more. And although smartphones and computers are often seen as distractions in mindfulness, there’s even a set of guided meditations called "Being Online" to help you meditate while using your computer or phone.
Sway is a different kind of meditation app. There are no guided meditation sessions, and it doesn’t try to separate your mind from your phone. In fact, it helps you meditate by utilizing your smartphone as an integral part of the experience. Here’s how it works.
You open the app and begin a slow, calm, repetitive movement. It could be turning your phone over in your hand or holding it in your pocket as you walk. The app uses your phone’s accelerometer to track the consistency of motion. If you keep up a streak of calm movements, soothing music begins to play. But if you break the motion, the music ends and you have to start over again.
On one hand, making repetitive movements with your phone really does seem to induce a state of calm. However, the jarring end to the sessions that comes if you mess up means this app is somewhat unforgiving. Still, the game-like aspect of Sway really does induce calm — while you can maintain the correct movement — and it somehow keeps me coming back for more. Plus, at only $2.99, it has a low-entry price befitting its minimalist nature.
The best app to help you meditate is ultimately a personal choice, but I came away very impressed with the minimalism of Sway. It’s an interesting way to meditate, and because it feels more like a game than a traditional mindfulness session, it’s great for beginners.
I also loved the sheer scale of resources included in the guided meditation trifecta of Buddhify, Headspace, and Calm. Headspace and Calm are the more polished of the three, but Buddhify is significantly cheaper. If you decide to go beyond Buddhify, be sure to try the Headspace and Calm free trials to see which you like best before committing to a pricey subscription.
These days, there’s an app for everything from managing your money to surviving the New York subway. But if you’re looking to improve your social consciousness alongside your personal mindfulness, check out these apps for impact investing.