Meditation apps can help you carve out time in your day to meditate, and can teach you how to meditate or introduce you to new techniques. They range from simple timers to extensive series of lessons and subscription tutorials. Let's look a few, and what they can do for you. Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Like music, incense and floor cushions, apps are never necessary to meditate. You need nothing at all to get started, and we've given you a ton of ideas for simple ways to get on board. You can just count a few breaths for a mini meditation, or introduce brief pauses into your daily activities. You're even meditating when you are being mindful about washing the dishes or walking around your neighbourhood.
Depending on what you want to achieve by meditating, apps can help. Here are a few ways:
- They can help you build a habit. Apps can remind you to meditate each day, and some track stats, like your longest streak and the total time you've racked up meditating with the app.
- They can provide a timer, and a virtual home for your meditation. Any clock can help you time a meditation, but dedicated apps also give you the feeling that you are doing an important thing, and here and now is the place to do it.
- They can teach you to meditate better, or try new meditation techniques. If your mind wanders when you're meditating, or if you want to try different types of meditation, guided sessions (where a voice tells you what to do) can help you stay on track.
Some meditation apps promise to help your mental health. While meditation can have real mental benefits, a lot of apps that say they reduce anxiety or help with depression aren't based on solid science, so make sure you don't rely on empty promises when what you really need is help from a reliable source. If that's the case, contact a professional or check out a hotline or support group in addition to meditating.
Buddhify (iOS/Android) Brings Mindfulness to Everyday Situations
What you get for the money: Recordings of guided meditations for different occasions and purposes. Most of these aren't the simple "focus on your breathing" types of meditation, but more often encourage you to be mindful of what you're experiencing. For example, there is a set of meditations for eating, where you carefully notice how your food tastes. In another, for when you're feeling critical of yourself, you're asked to identify and name your thoughts ("Hello, Mister Doubt") in an effort to understand your emotions while distancing yourself from them.
Headspace (iOS/Android) Leads You Down a Path of Learning
Headspace is a popular meditation app with cute animations, available on both iOS and Android. Most of its content is locked behind the $19.99/month (or $149.99/year) subscription, but you may be able to get what you need from the 10 free sessions.
What you get for free: Ten guided meditations that must be completed in order (completing the first unlocks the second, and so on). Some of the sessions start with a video that teaches you about a concept you'll be using. For example, one uses an animation of cars on a road to represent your thoughts, with you as a bystander who just watches them go by.
Once you've done those meditations, you can go back and do any of them again, but to try anything else the app offers, you need a subscription.
You can also view some stats: The average amount of time you meditate, the total number of sessions you've done, your total time meditating with the app and how long of a streak you've kept up. You can also add up to five friends as meditation buddies, and view each other's stats.
What you get with a subscription: Lots more guided meditations. Most come in "packs" like the free series, where you have to work through them one at a time. There are packs for anxiety, self-esteem and creativity, each consisting of 10 to 30 sessions. You can't jump between packs without losing progress, and the Headspace folks give an explanation that's either profound or bullshit, I can't tell: "When we're learning to meditate it's really important that, whenever possible, we stick with the programme we've started... if it gets a bit uncomfortable or maybe even boring halfway through, then that is the time to stay in the game and complete the pack."
The subscription also gives you access to singles (which don't disrupt your pack progress): "SOS" meditations, each three minutes, for when you need to calm down in stressful situations; "On-the-go" meditations for mindfulness in everyday life, similar to Buddhify's approach; and simple timed sessions (guided or unguided) for your choice of length: From 10 minutes up to 60.
Calm (iOS/Android/Web) Takes You to Your Happy Place
Calm started life as a website that plays relaxing sounds and video, but is now a full-fledged meditation app for iOS and Android. It offers more for free than Headspace, and its subscription is a little bit cheaper: $14.99/month or $62.99/year.
What you get for free: The soothing sound of waves on a beach, for starters. All 28 scenes of nature sounds or soothing music are available in the free app. I'm partial to the falling rain on leaves.
Like Headspace, Calm has a series of guided meditations you can do for free: The Seven Days of Calm. But it also offers a free subscription-only session each day, as a sampler to entice you to subscribe. The unguided meditations are also free: You can choose a timed meditation, which will ring a gentle bell when time is up, or an open-ended meditation that will keep going until you stop (with optional bells if you prefer, every two, five or 10 minutes). You can also do two guided sessions that aren't part of a series: Either the "Body Scan" or the "Loving Kindness" meditation, in a length of your choice from three to 30 minutes.
What you get with a subscription: More of everything. If you liked the Seven Days of Calm, there's a 21-day version, plus seven other packs for managing stress, focus, sleep, and happiness. Unlike with Headspace, you can jump from pack to pack as you like. For example, I'm on day four of managing stress, and day six of the 21 Days of Calm. I can do the next session of either series whenever I like.
The subscription also unlocks a ton of guided sessions, each with its own purpose, from Inner Peace to Confidence to Deep Concentration. There are a few for mindfulness in your day, like one for commuting and several to help you sleep.
Paid subscribers also get the Daily Calm, a different meditation each day (not available elsewhere in the app) on a given theme. Today's is a ten-minute meditation on "Acceptance".
The Bottom Line
Any of these apps can help you start or sustain a meditation practice. Headspace is geared towards guiding you through a course on how to meditate, and expects you to stick with whatever series you've picked. Buddhify shines when you want to take a mindful approach to whatever you are doing at the moment, but it isn't organised in a linear journey. Calm is the hybrid, letting you work through courses or do one-off meditations. Calm is also the only one of the three that provides background sound.
Features of these apps are also available in other ways. You can stream guided meditation tracks on Spotify, as well as nature sounds and chill music. If all you need is a timer, you can use — well, a timer. It's handy to have all these features in the same place, though, with the stats to leave a lasting reminder of the time you've put in. If you appreciate those features, that makes the app worthwhile.
I started with Calm, and after trying the others, Calm is still the one I plan to stick with. I began using it when I was dealing with a lot of stress, and the soothing rain sound takes me to my little mental holiday spot. I'm too fidgety to meditate without an app giving me some structure, but Headspace's strict linear progression isn't really my style. Calm is my happy medium. (I also love narrator Tamara Levitt's voice.) I'm a subscriber for now, but I won't rule out dropping the subscription someday to just enjoy the rainfall and the simple meditations for free.