Meditation. It’s not a New Age thing anymore, or a Buddhist thing, or even a David Lynch thing. It’s gone mainstream and secular, and now, like everything else in your life, it’s available as an app.
The catch term these days is mindfulness. This is in fact a slightly different pursuit than meditation. As Ira Israel points out, it’s sort of the opposite, since traditional meditation is a mind-emptying practice. But studies abound documenting the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness, from the obvious—stress reduction, help with anxiety and depression—to the not-so-apparent, like stronger immune systems, lower risk of heart disease, better relationships, and overall increased happiness.
Smartphone technology—too often the greatest enemy of enjoying the present moment—can help you get there. There are apps that aid with relaxation, breathing exercises, and “mindfulness-based stress reduction.” You can find screen after screen of effective methods to help people feel better and work more productively, whether in New York cubicles or NFL training rooms. (This year’s Super Bowl champs? Lotus posers.)
What you’ll find below is the best of what’s available now on iTunes and Google Play. We focused on apps that have a human feel, with voices offering instruction and guided meditation. The following apps feature real people whose experience is apparent and who have a good bedside manner. We steered clear of the cloying, the motivational-speaker-esque, and those unmotivating sleep-inducing instructors who sound like they’ve enjoyed a little too much weed and can’t pronounce their consonants.
But a lot depends on your own personality, the vibe you go in for, and the techniques that work for you. So take some time to play around with various apps; the ones here all cost $1.99 or less. (Note: most of these require additional purchases once you’ve run through the included content—from 99 cents per meditation to $10 or more for an annual subscription.)
And don’t forget one key fact: You do have time. I need to remind myself of this whenever I get too caught up in the rush. Every minute invested in resting those neural pathways will pay itself back—you’ll need less sleep, and you’ll be sharper and more efficient.
Best All-Around: Buddhify calls itself “modern mindfulness wherever you are.” It’s designed for those who’ve always been curious about meditation but haven’t known where to start. A brilliant, colorful design and wide array of situation-focused meditations make this app engaging and useful for experienced meditators as well. What sets it apart is the rainbow-hued spinning dial that asks what you’re doing now. Trying to sleep? Sitting in a park? Exercising? There are 16 such categories, and a small handful of guided meditations to choose from within each. It offers a variety of enjoyable instructors, plus a solo option, a stats page to track your progress, and the option of social sharing for those who want to feel they’re part of the community. Who knew meditation was this much fun? $1.99; iPhone only
Stop, Breathe & Think
Best for Beginners: This intuitively designed and supremely accessible app puts learning front and center, and includes a Basics page that explains some of the science behind meditation. Included are 15 no-nonsense guided meditations that focus on a single concept, like Equanimity. Best of all is the Check In screen that asks you to pinpoint your current mood and emotions, then recommends three different meditations based on your answers. A progress page tracks the time you spend meditating, your most frequent emotions, and your “Weekly Settledness” score. Best of all, the app is the work of Tools for Peace, a nonprofit that teaches kids kindness and compassion through school programs and camps. Free; iPhone only
The Mindfulness App
Best If You Already Meditate: This simple, clean app combines a lot of the best features from all the others on this list: a handful of guided three- to thirty-minute meditations led by instructor Catherine Polan Orzech, who teaches Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction; the option of self-guided silent meditations in the same increments, or in whatever length you specify; optional daily reminders to put down the mouse and get your butt on the cushion; and additional 99-cent meditations from leading teachers. A smart feature is the timer showing no numbers but only a circle of dots that slowly move around to 360 degrees, so the math part of your brain doesn’t have a chance to obsess. $1.99; Android or iPhone
Best for Those Farther Along the Path: If you already practice meditation at home or visit a Zendo, you probably want only a good cushion and a gong to mark the beginning and end of your session. For those of a Tibetan mind-set, the Shambhala app has a customizable time with a few bell or gong options. There’s also a small series of talks by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, an esteemed Tibetan teacher, author, and marathon runner. This brand-new release still has some bugs, including average sound quality, but give the company some time. The app also links to a map that helps you locate nearby Shambhala centers and get to the group’s website, which has other resources and videos. Free; iPhone only
Best for Organizations: This soothing blue-green app makes you feel good from the moment you tap it. It’s packed with features that make it great for any “skill” level, and it’s also a great resource for companies and organizations that want to promote wellness among employees. (Which benefits the company as much as the individual—corporate giants from Target to Facebook have organized mindfulness programs.) This app was created by Stephan Bodian, a psychotherapist and longtime Zen Buddhist who wrote Meditation for Dummies. A straightforward, totally secular approach gives it broad appeal, making it a no-brainer for any group wanting to bring a little more wellness to workers’ lives at very little cost. A free version, called Mental Workout, offers a taste. $1.99; Android or iPhone
Best Host: Andy Puddicombe: first off, best name among wellness practitioners. (I’m talkin’ to you, Deepak.) Puddicombe is a minor celeb in Britain, where he consults for the government and appears on BBC. A former Tibetan monk, he now preaches the merits of taking ten minutes every day for mindfulness. This Take 10 program is the centerpiece of the Headspace app. Puddicombe’s guided meditations are intelligent and thought-provoking and offer what the best teachers can—instilling enthusiasm while speaking to you at your own level. The design has a few odd, clunky moments, but it makes up for it with excellent graphics. Free; Android or iPhone
Best for Kids: “If you’re interested in introducing your children to mindfulness, the best thing you can do is practice mindfulness yourself,” says Stephan Bodian. The next best thing is a fun app. Young, developing minds can be the most prone to insecurity and anxiousness, and this well-designed program—which tailors its instruction for any of three different youth age groups, plus adults—is a great way to steer them toward “clarity, calm and contentment,” as the Australian nonprofit that developed the app says. If your kids shy away from the idea of meditation, this program may change their minds. For reasons science has yet to explain, there’s something about a gung-ho Aussie accent that young people love. Free; iPhone
These apps offer specific features for those who don’t need a guide but do want tools to facilitate their practice.
For breath training (a great skill to develop not only for relaxation but also for yoga and increased VO2 max), try Breathe2Relax, which gives you visual and aural cues to inhale and exhale. Pranayama Universal Breathing does too, though the avatar whose diaphragm serves as a visual guide looks like he wandered out of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.
Relaxing sounds can provide a great backdrop, particularly at the office or if you live in a noisy city. Apps like Deep Relax, White Noise, and, well, Relaxing Sounds offer sounds like waves on a beach or songbirds that put you in the mind of a rainforest, and you can also use them as an alarm clock if you’d rather wake up to a thunderstorm than to Apple’s default “Opening” tone (the one that sounds like that song in American Beauty).
Finally, there are meditation timers that serve one simple purpose. My favorite is Self—A Meditation Machine, an elegant design that offers just 15-, 30-, 45-, and 60-minute durations, with a Zendo-appropriate gong sound to begin and end with. What you do in between is up to you.