If there’s one wellness trend that stands out from the last couple of years, it’s mindfulness. Not only is it wildly popular, with a legion of dedicated fans across the globe, but it has also become a billion-pound business.
So can taking time out of your day to concentrate on yourself really help to increase your health and happiness? The NHS says yes. According to its website: “Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can not only help improve mental wellbeing … but can help help you enjoy life and understand yourself better.”
Thanks to the boom, there are now dozens of apps on the market to help you start – or continue – your path to mindfulness. The vast majority are free – at least at first – and offer short, guided meditations for a range of people – from beginners to pros. But there are also plenty of extras to look out for – from nostalgia-inducing bedtime stories, to calming background noises and winsome animations to help you learn about the theory.
When searching to find the right app, it’s worth thinking about what you need as well as what you like. If you can’t stand the narrator’s voice, for instance, then you’re going to find it hard to relax. If you want motivational messages sent through when you know you’re going to be stressed, there’s an app that will do that.
To help you find the perfect one, we spent three weeks testing products from across the market. We’ve rounded up the best eight below, from those designed for “fidgety sceptics”, to another that customises the meditations offered depending on how you’re feeling. So whether you’re a total novice or a seasoned expert, we can guarantee there’s an app out there for you.
Calm: Free download
Open the Calm app and you’ll immediately be greeted with the gentle sound of the outdoors. It varies from person to person, but we loved this touch and found it helped us on the path to relaxing (if you don’t like the outdoors, you can change it to rolling waves, pouring rain, crackling firewood or crickets). As well as guided Daily Calm sessions, which help you unwind and refocus your attention, there are also programmes for intermediate and advanced users.
If you fancy something a little different, you can pick from exclusive music tracks engineered to help you focus, relax or sleep, such as Calm Body – a series of 10-minute guided videos on mindful movement – and Sleep Stories, which are calming tales narrated by celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Matthew McConaughey. We genuinely found the latter helped us unwind in the evenings and brought back the wonderful nostalgia of being read a bedtime story. With plenty of free content and at just £35.99 for a premium subscription that lasts the whole year (there’s no monthly offer but it equates to just under £3 a month), we also think this app is great value.
Headspace: Free download – Recommended by WorkWell
Headspace is one of the best-known meditation apps on the market. Following its launch in 2010, it has accrued 36 million members across 190 countries – and it’s not hard to see why. The app is a great choice if you want to learn the essentials of meditation and mindfulness, with a free 10-part “basics” course and whimsical animations to help you find your feet. The sessions, which come in three, five or 10-minute chunks, are easy to follow, focusing on breathing and scanning through the body to check in on how you feel. We found the sessions, narrated by Andy Puddicombe (one of the founders of Headspace who came up with the idea after ditching his sports science degree, travelling to Asia and becoming a Buddhist monk), more relaxing and less jargon-heavy than some others on the market. There are also bite-sized “minis”, including a one-minute breathing exercise, and themed sessions available if you want to add a little more mindfulness to your day.
If you feel the need to escape from 4G, you can also save your favourites for when you’re offline. The premium service unlocks hundreds of more specialised meditations for everything from stress to sleep (although it’s worth noting the slightly higher annual price than some of the other apps). We think Headspace is by far the best app for beginners and would recommend anyone hesitating to give it a download.
Stop, Breathe & Think: Free download
Unlike many other apps on the market, Stop, Breathe & Think asks you to “check in” before meditating. Using a choice of adjectives to describe how you’re feeling, both physically and mentally, we found this was a great way to get into the right mindset after a busy day in the office or on your feet. The app then uses this information to recommend short, guided meditations or yoga, from five-minute “joy” sessions, to longer practices to help you deal with anxiety or to relax, ground and clear your head. You get 30 free activities, with more than 100 others available if you upgrade to premium, including some acupuncture videos.
While the app describes itself as an emotional wellness platform for the under-25s, we found it was equally as effective for all ages and has all the standard features, allowing you to set reminders and track your progress. There’s a separate app for kids, while a handy “how to” guide on meditation is available if you need a little more guidance. Finally, if you want to do your bit while learning how to lead a happier and healthier lifestyle, the company supports Tools for Peace, a non-profit that teaches mindfulness skills to inner-city teens, by sharing 10 per cent of its net revenues.
10% Happier: Free to download
The 10% Happier app bills itself as “mediation for fidgety sceptics.” “Most of the meditation apps out there have a very traditional tone – very soft and gooey and loving,” co-founder Dan Harris told TechCrunch last year. “But we’re much more in the no-b******* category.” Harris, a television news anchor with the self-confessed “attention span of a three-year-old retriever” started meditating after he had a nationally televised panic attack.
For the most part, Harris has achieved what he wanted to; we liked its relaxed nature, from the simple interface to the short video lessons, which teach users more about mindfulness. The guided meditations are very much “no frills”, which we found incredibly refreshing. As well as being asked how often you’ve meditated before and why you want to meditate (do you want to be happier or is it to reduce stress?), you can also set reminders to ensure you never miss a session. Premium will get you more than 350 guided meditations (including sessions such as “tooth brushing” and “in the shower”), but there are a number of free packages, from the basics, to programmes centred on performance, relationships or – what everyone needs – how to be 10 per cent nicer. This app is great if you are keen to feel the benefits of mindfulness without wanting it to take over your daily routine – or if you’re a straight-talker who prefers no fuss.
Insight Timer: Free to download
Insight Timer is more of a social network for meditators. As well as a world map showing you how many people are meditating at any one time, it allows you to see who is nearby and to invite friends to join in with you. There are also thousands of “Insight Groups” – community groups where you are encouraged to discuss all things mindfulness and meditation (recent ones include a thread where beginners can ask any questions, a “daily gratitude” discussion and a group which posts “beautiful and meaningful quotes, no matter whose”).
As for the content, Insight Timer says it offers the largest free library of guided meditations at 15,000 and counting. These range from beginners’ flows, to sessions focused on self-love, better relationships and conquering addictions. The customisable timer feature is perfect for short meditations when on the go and you can even choose whether you want ambient background sounds or ending bells.
This is a great app with lots of content – but it can be daunting for a beginner. We recommend sticking with it, though, if you’re willing to put the time in to find out what really works for you. If you need even more content, premium gets you 150 extra courses (over 10 and 30 days), access to The Daily Insight, offline listening and Nightmode for early risers and night owls.
The Mindfulness App: Free to download
This app does what it says on the tin. With a free download, not only do you get a five-day introduction to mindfulness, but there is also a range of guided and silent timed sessions to choose from – from a three-minute refresher, to deeper half-hour sessions. There are also daily reminders and statistics, so you can stay focused on your practice and keep up to date with your progress, as well as “Mindful Notices”, which help you stay grounded throughout the day (think: “become aware of the contact your body is making with the ground” popping up on your phone around 11am).
We didn’t get on that well with the standard voice, but we did love the traditional bell sound, which chimed at the beginning and end of each session. We also liked that we could save our favourite sessions to use when we’re offline (for example, on the tube).
Upgrading to premium will get you more than 200 additional guided meditations as well as courses on relationships, your body, sleep and more. Whatever you choose, this app has a really simple interface, so it’s easy to find what you want and save your favourites for next time. Overall, a great download.
Buddhify boasts that it is the “only meditation app designed to fit into a busy modern lifestyle”. It’s certainly unique in its design, with a daily wheel divided into segments, from waking up, to going to bed. The colourful disc is designed to help you find relevant mindfulness and meditation exercises depending on the time of day, with plenty of short, spoken sessions for use on the go. We loved the “work break” exercises, which help you relax at the office, while the “travelling” segment was perfect for that dreaded journey into work.
Sessions range from four minutes to around half an hour, and there are also guided exercises if you can’t sleep or if you’re feeling particularly stressed. We liked the idea, but found that many of the other apps also had the variety we needed to fit them into our busy lives. This was also one of the only apps that makes you pay upfront – so if you’d rather try before you buy, then you might want to go for something else.
Smiling Mind: Free to download
If you’re obsessed with data and don’t want to spend ages scanning through hundreds of programmes to find what you need, then this app is a great choice. From the moment you open Smiling Mind, you start inputting information to ensure you get a customised list of guided meditations. From asking you how much experience you’ve had before, to identifying what you’re interested in – from mindfulness in sport to improving performance and sleep (who isn’t interested in that?) – we liked the customisable element and found it saved time. Like some of the other apps, we also liked being able to check in and out before and after meditations to track our progress.
The guided sessions are easy to follow and offer a good balance between silence and narration (we particularly liked the Australian twang). Our favourite was the “body scan”, which encourages listeners to identify how parts of the body are feeling. It may not be as slick as some of the other apps on the market, but we loved it all the same. Even better, Smiling Mind is completely free, as it was set up by an Australian not-for-profit organisation which wants to make mindfulness “an accessible tool for all”.
The verdict: mindfulness apps
If you are looking for the right mindfulness app, it’s reassuring to know that there are plenty of great options out there. Calm was our favourite due to its variety – from the calming bedtime stories, to the easy-to-follow meditations. Headspace was a close runner-up and by the far the best app for beginners. We also loved the sceptical 10% Happier for its refreshing nature, while Stop, Breathe & Think really makes you “check in” with yourself. As most of the apps are free to download, make sure you try before you buy and find one that makes your daily routine easier, not harder.
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