How to choose a meditation app that’s right for you
March Mindfulness is an annual Mashable series that explores the intersection of meditation practice and technology. This article is the first in a two-part series that looks at choosing an app based on your personality.
So you’ve decided to download a meditation app. Maybe you’re happy to trust a friend’s recommendation or go with an employer discount. But otherwise — well, I’ve been exploring and testing meditation apps since 2017, and I can tell you it’s surprisingly difficult to make that choice.
That’s because meditation apps frequently position themselves as lifestyle and wellness products. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Bundling sleep, exercise, yoga, and meditation content into a single app with a friendly design can be a great convenience for users: one-stop shopping for wellness needs.
But all that bundling can make it challenging to navigate the crowded meditation app market. Apps can be maddeningly vague about their features, leaving you little option but to sign up for a free trial that’ll end before you know it. It helps to know what you want before you’re in that position, and that’s what this series addresses.
In the next part of the series, we’ll share our specific guide to meditation apps based on responses from seven of the market leaders, including Headspace, Calm and Simple Habit.
But ultimately, your choice may depend less on the specifics of each app, and more on finding the best match for your personality and style.
Consider the following three steps:
1. Know what you want from a meditation app.
If it feels like some of the apps are competing fiercely with each other to land the biggest celebrities, that’s because they are. Headspace hired John Legend(Opens in a new tab) as chief music officer. On Calm, Matthew McConaughey(Opens in a new tab) narrates a sleep story. Russell Brand(Opens in a new tab) shares his own guided meditations on Insight Timer. These kinds of cultural references might be exactly what you need to open your meditation app day after day.
Celebrities like Matthew McConaughey can be big draws for meditation apps.
Credit: Getty Images
Yet it’s also important to make that choice consciously. Otherwise, without clarity about your needs, it’s easy to become distracted by high-profile names, flashy features, and digital bells and whistles.
If you want your app to multitask, for example, your best choice might be products that offer various forms of movement like stretching, yoga, and “mindful” workouts. Such content is available on apps like Calm, Headspace, and Simple Habit. And while Apple Fitness isn’t a meditation app, it does include guided meditations in its content library, too.
But if your goal is to learn basic meditation techniques or deepen your practice, and you don’t need other types of functionality, apps like Ten Percent Happier, Balance, and Healthy Minds Program are likely a better fit.
Beginner meditators often go to Insight Timer, which has what it promotes as the as the largest meditation app library in the world, with over 160,000 guided meditation and music tracks in 44 languages, many of them for free. It also hosts yoga, breathwork lessons, live events, and journaling.
When making a decision about an app, the answers to questions like these matter, too:
Do you want an app with meditation resources for kids?
Are you looking for content to help you sleep?
Do you have a disability and need an app with accessibility features like closed captions?
Would you like access to live group meditations or individual coaching?
No single meditation app will meet all of your needs, but some will be better suited to you than others. Simple Habit, for example, has guided meditations for kids and lots of sleep content, but no accessibility features. Ten Percent Happier includes captions for most of its meditations and offers group meditation practice as well as individual coaching, but few in-app resources for kids.
Lastly, if you’re seeking a certain style of meditation, know that the apps typically don’t advertise which types of practices are included in guided tracks. That’s partly because meditation is a large category that describes practices for “the basic skill of cultivating inward investigation,” says Diana Winston, a meditation teacher and author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness(Opens in a new tab).
In general, Winston says common types of meditation focus on skills like awareness, concentration, guided visualizations, and cultivating certain qualities of the heart and mind, such as compassion and lovingkindness. If you want to develop a specific skill or practice, try to gauge whether the app has single tracks and courses on that topic.
Also, meditation apps often package themselves as secular to appeal to broad audiences, even if the meditation practices offered are rooted in spiritual traditions like Buddhism.
This doesn’t mean that your app is secretly religious, but it does reflect a decades-long trend of secularizing meditation for the American public — and unfortunately obscuring its roots and sources.
2. Before choosing a meditation app, take stock of your strengths and challenges.
Forming a new habit is hard for most people. It takes repetition and consistency to turn an interest or task into part of our everyday lives. Building a meditation practice comes with its own unique challenges. People tend to have high expectations, both of themselves and the benefits they’ll experience.
But there is no perfect way to practice, and meditation can be hard and unsatisfying. For some people, being present with their thoughts and the sensation of their breath can prompt severe anxiety or trigger a pre-existing trauma.
It’s helpful to reflect on these factors as you select an app. Unfortunately, making that choice is an art, not a science — at least for now. Some research suggests that mindfulness interventions can affect people differently, depending on their personal characteristics.
A British Journal of Health Psychology study that comprehensively(Opens in a new tab) looked at that effect found that participants who scored highly on tests that assessed their motivation, medical conditions, mindfulness, and interpersonal problems showed increased levels of positive meditation outcomes. A higher baseline of mental disorders or depression was linked to poorer mental health following a meditation intervention.
In other words, who you are and what you experience could influence how well meditation works for you.
This field of research is still evolving. A much smaller study, published last year in the Journal of Clinical Medicine(Opens in a new tab), found that personality traits may affect the success of mind-body interventions, too. People who are easily absorbed in experiences found meditating easier, and they meditated for longer than others without the same trait.
They also were more likely to report increased well-being and body awareness. Those with more vulnerable personality traits, like higher anxiety and lower self-compassion, also saw more benefits.
Dr. Karin Matko, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, told Mashable that she hopes to ultimately better understand who does well with which type of mindfulness approach — yoga or mantra meditation, for example — in order to help people get the most benefits.
While science may not be able to provide those answers for now, it’s worth considering that a certain app or meditation style simply might not be the right match for you, instead of believing that you’re terrible at the practice.
3. When selecting a meditation app, apply a little skepticism — and trust your instincts.
Even if you’re specifically interested in meditation, you might find some guided meditations laughably corny or well outside your comfort zone. If an app’s overall style seems too touchy-feely or too humorless, then it’s probably not for you. Not wanting guided meditations at all is also a legitimate choice.
Just because it’s been uploaded to a meditation app, doesn’t mean a guided track is a well-known practice that’s been passed down over the millennia by monks or gurus. While a meditation doesn’t have to meet that criteria to be helpful, Diana Winston also says that it’s the “Wild West of meditation out there.”
No, you don’t need a guide to meditate
People teaching meditation have come up with very creative practices that may stretch the definition of what it means to meditate. This might include using poetry, spoken word readings, storytelling, and “manifestation” techniques.
While Winston isn’t worried for people’s physical safety, she does wonder if exposure to certain types of guided tracks will discourage people from continuing with meditation.
“I do think that there are plenty [of meditations] that would be not helpful or ineffective or might turn people off to meditation if they were to get proper instruction somewhere else,” says Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.
Winston recommends that people “fall back on their own best thinking” as they assess meditations and the apps that host them.
After all, a meditation app’s marketing campaign may uniquely grab your attention, but you’re the only authority on whether the substance under the shiny surface is right for you.