I’ve always been very old school—I wasn’t in favor of technology coming in the way of the real human experience of meditating in person in a group or class setting. This was mostly for reasons of consistency and the effortless energy of group meditation, which makes a subtle practice like meditation so much more enticing and enjoyable. But then, lockdown happened. I was pushed, kicking and screaming, into the new digital age.

Over 2500 meditation apps have mushroomed since 2015, raking in millions from as many users—there has to be something to it, right? Over the past couple of years, I’ve tried a bunch of meditation apps to see what the big deal is. I was also curious if my experience was going to be any different or deeper while using these apps, vis-à-vis in-person classes.

There has been interesting research on the benefits of these meditation apps on those using them—mostly people who want something handy, quick, and simple to deal with the ubiquitous stress; wish to counter their elevated anxiety levels, and find some semblance of peace and perspective in their lives at this time. Studies by researchers at the University of California showed that the app Headspace “when used daily for just 10 minutes, reduced stress in a meaningful way and the benefits lasted for two months after stopping use.”

Meditation Works

Meditation, in general, has found enough backing from researchers for its physiological and mental health benefits, from lowering cortisol levels (a stress hormone) to lowering anxiety, relieving depression, reducing hypertension, improving heart health, to making one more resilient, happier, more present in the moment, focused and productive, and yet calm and peaceful. Studies have shown that meditation helps preserve brains better as we age, by increasing the grey matter volume. And a Harvard study found that practicing meditation for eight weeks could change the structure of the brain, “increasing gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.”

Benefits of Meditation Apps

Some apps have metamorphosed into extensions of the wellness brands that run them, while integrating much more than just meditations, including workouts, music, yoga, spiritual knowledge, narrations to sleep/work/focus better, and entertainment. They use interactive technology to keep the user engaged while helping them calm their worked-up sympathetic nervous systems. Wait, isn’t the whole point of meditation to help people de-engage from technology? More on that later. But more importantly, meditation apps give you the liberty of guided meditating anywhere anytime, at the workplace, home, in your car, or school. So that eliminates some element of rigidity or austerity of traditional meditation classes.

Also, since we live in times of instant gratification, these apps are quick ways to calm down the racing mind and bring it to the present moment, with some apps that even boast of 5-second meditations. Imagine telling that to a monk who spent years training his mind in the art of being still—a gift that now many apps claim is available at the fingertips of the users.

Can Meditation Apps Help?

Meditation apps can help a user

  • Bring their mind to the present moment, at least temporarily
  • Reduce depression and anxiety, if the practice is continued sincerely
  • Better self-monitor
  • Reduce fatigue and aggression
  • Experience happier moods, more calm, and better focus.

The Apps

Here are six apps we checked out for you; available in the Google Play store or wherever you get your apps from.

The Art of Living App 
This is a well-rounded app that offers much more than meditation. It has yoga tutorials, guided meditations, spiritual radio, lifestyle tips, Ayurvedic recipes, and life hacks. There are motivational and inspiring videos to improve relationships and relieve stress, and videos on spiritual knowledge that draw from ancient timeless Vedic texts. Also included are more than 100 spiritual chants, 600 wisdom talks, and 1500 soulful and soothing melodies.

Headspace
One of the first meditation apps to capture the imagination of the new-age seeker, the app has 30+ million users in more than 190 countries. Touted as the app for beginners, it has meditations for every emotion, goal, or mood. Founded by former monk Andy Puddicombe, Headspace has guided meditations, sleep meditations, and breathing exercises to help you stress less and sleep soundly. 

Sattva
This app has a little different flavor from the crowded space of mindfulness apps as it relies on giving users a taste of traditional meditative Sanskrit chants, apart from more than 100 guided meditations with specific themes like yoga nidra, full moon meditations, healing breath, prana recharge, stress-relief, chakra meditation, five-sheath meditation, meditation of the elements, and sound-to-silence, among others. (My favorite? “Blossom In Your Smile.”) The app is also gamified—you get rewarded for your consistency in practice through trophies and badges while also competing with fellow meditators, if you so wish.

Calm
Another meditation app veteran that draws millions of subscribers for its very realistic soundscape, music, and soothing aesthetic. It has guided meditations, mindfulness tools, ambient music, and a popular feature called ‘sleep stories’ to help people fall asleep.

Insight Timer
This app has a free library of over 70,000 meditations by seasoned meditation teachers. And though it comes without the frills, users like it for the variety of choices it offers along with the educational element of ‘how to meditate.’ Its premium account offers the best experience in terms of sound quality and features like offline downloads, among other things. One downside to the app is also its biggest strength—the enormity of choices can overwhelm someone just starting on the journey of meditation.

Shine
This app was found by Marah Lidey, an African American, and Naomi Hirabayashi, of Japanese descent, with a special focus on the mental health of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community. The app has daily mindfulness meditation exercises, motivational messages, and goals. The premium account gives you access to specific self-care features including gratitude check-ins and self-care tasks.

What are your needs?

There are millions of ways we can take care of our mind and soul in these challenging times—listening to music or audio stories, being guided through emotions and moods (sometimes even in an amazingly short time—2-minute meditation was unthinkable). But, call me old school as I could not overlook my need for the right space to meditate in, the need for nature (and not just VR-generated sounds from nature), and a community of people around me to share my energy, meditations, and joys with. An LOL emoji on an app could not quite replace the dopamine rush I get from listening to a room full of real laughter that I often witness at the Art of Living Retreat Center. The urge to completely disconnect from the constant pings, notifications (no matter how well-intended), and the overall digital cacophony, is quite real.

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