Meditation apps galore! Which one is right for you?

How to be mindful when choosing your meditation apps

Yay, you finally decided to do meditations! It seems to be what everyone is talking about these days. Not surprisingly, it has been proved to have many mental and physical health benefits like improved sleep and reduced stress.

But where do you get started? Apps are the easiest way to go: they’re portable, cheap, and the contents are in digestible pieces. In fact, there are 100+ results if you search “mediation” in the app stores. Here’s a quick breakdown of 5 popular ones that I’ve tried and liked personally.

  1. Calm

I’ll share a little about the basics of how apps work, what they cost etc, as well as the pros and cons for each. Hopefully, this helps you decide which would be the best for you. For some, I also share a bit of background of how the apps came to being, because the back stories and intentions do show through the actual apps. It doesn’t hurt to be a little mindful when choosing your meditation apps ;)

Calm

About Calm

After burning out from building 3 companies, Acton Smith decided to focus on the health realm and co-founded Calm in 2012. In fact, it seems all meditation founders experienced some personal crisis before resorting to meditation for personal help.

With Calm, you get an editor-selected “Daily Calm” given by its lead instructor Tamara Levitt. Great for having one less thing to decide in your busy morning! A distinctive feature of Calm is that as soon as you open the app up, relaxing background music starts, immediately putting you to a calmer state of mind.

Additionally, Calm is where the stars are: you can listen to how LeBron James trains his mind during pre-game prep, or doze off with a special remix of Ariana Grande’s “breathin”.

Calm

What’s great:

  1. The background music is truly something unique and makes the app useful even when you aren’t meditating. In fact, I often just open the app up to create some ambient sounds while working at home.

What’s not so great:

  1. I’m surprised (and honestly disappointed) that Calm does not have the most accessible visual design, given it being a tool for health. The low contrast between the text and the background makes it difficult for those with visual impairments to use. Do better, Calm.

2. The app is slightly pricey: $59.99 a year after 14 days of trial.

Get it here:

Headspace

About Headspace

Ah, the meditation app. From a TED talk to a Netflix series, Headspace has gained attention to become the bespoke meditation app. The app was founded by Andy Puddicombe, who spent 10 years studying meditations in the Himalayas as a monk before founding Headspace. He is also the (British) voice behind most contents on the app. The app itself is very easy to use: Headspace has a “Getting Started” series that explains the most basic things you need to begin meditation practices and common questions that people run into. To dive deeper, you can also find resources about mindful eating, parenting, and working.

In August 2021, Headspace acquired the tele-therapy company “Ginger”, becoming Headspace Health. The merge made sense — both mediation and therapies address mental wellness. In fact, Headspace had been investing in Ginger for years prior. As of now, there haven’t been notable changes on either platform, although the future certainly holds exciting possibilities.

Headspace

What’s great:

  1. The iconic warm and pleasing visual design and easy navigation inside the app

What’s not so great:

  1. Relatively small amount of free content. It costs $69.99 monthly after the free 7 days trial.

Get it here:

Waking Up

About Waking Up

Founded by Sam Harris, who initially wrote a book of the same name, Waking Up has a more philosophical and analytical vibe to it. This might be partially due to the founder having a philosophy and neuroscience background. On Waking Up, I’ve heard some of the most eccentric meditation techniques (for example, have you heard of “headless way?”). In the “Fundamentals” series, it gives a good explanation of what “mindfulness” is, common challenges, and how to measure your progress. Waking Up has definitely got its particular target of listeners.

Something unique about the content on Waking Up is that there is a series of interviews between the founder and Will MacAskill, who is researcher on “Effective Altruism” concept and co-founded the 80,000 hours non-profit organization. In the 3-hour series, MacAskill talked about choosing careers that create the most good for everyone and donating to causes that have the greatest long-term impact. Since work and money are huge aspects of our life, it’s worth being mindful about how we spend our energy and where to spend our resources.

What’s great:

  1. Waking Up blends mindfulness and philosophy, literature, philanthropy and other areas. Great if you’re curious about understanding how meditation and mindfulness in new perspectives.

What’s not so great:

  1. The theoretical approach to meditation and some loosely related topics might not be to everyone’s taste.

Get it here:

Ten Percent Happier

About Ten Percent Happier

The founder of Ten Percent Happier, Dan Harris, famously had an on-screen panic attack while he was working at Good Morning America as a reporter in 2004 (in fact, that clip is the No.1 search result if you google “on screen panic attack”). Luckily, things turned out for the better for the reporter-turned-meditator devotee-turned-entrepreneur.

To me, the design of the 10% Happier app feels “media”-y, which you can hear and see from the way Dan Harris talks. A lot of the sessions are in the formats of Dan interviewing experts in meditation and related domains. This is not necessarily a bad thing — you can tell Dan is experienced at speaking to the public and telling stories. Additionally, as its name suggests, 10% Happier’s content has a bigger focus on how to seek “happiness”, which includes topics around compassion, courage, better eating, etc.

Fun tidbit: when Dan Harris first wrote the book of the same title, his publisher tried to convince him to change it to “20%”, or more, happier, citing concerns that 10% not seeming appealing enough to potential readers. I, for one, am glad Mr.Harris didn’t follow that advice.

What’s great:

  1. There’s specifically a series on “meditation for skeptics”. It addresses concerns like “meditation is self-indulgent” and “doing meditation makes me lose the edge”.

What’s not so great:

  1. The “media”-y format might not be for everyone. Sometimes I feel like I just want to listen to the session and 10% Happier has a lot of video content. It can feel a little distracting.

Get it here:

Insight Timer

About Insight Timer

Unlike all other mediation apps listed above, Insight Timer is a more open and social platform for mediation practices. The app is known for its many live meditation sessions that happen almost 24/7 given by instructors around the world. This makes the app the largest collection of free meditations (or at least that’s what the app claims). According to the CEO, Christopher Plowman, the company had done almost no marketing but have gained more than 50 million users.

Many users are drawn to the “real-time”-ness of live sessions because it feels more engaging: during the live session, often you can hear the teachers thank their audiences, recognize some familiar names, and overall create a stronger sense of connectedness with people meditating together. With a focus on building community, you can also add “friends” on the app.

The vast amount of possibilities, however, can feel a little overwhelming to beginners when you don’t know what to start with. And the unavoidable downside of having a big platform with its current some 3000 teachers, the quality of the sessions can be a hit or miss. Still, it is a great choice with a sea of options and definitely more budget-friendly than almost all other meditation apps that require some forms of subscriptions.

What’s great:

  1. Enormous selection of free meditation sessions. It has more than any other apps listed above.

What’s not so great:

  1. Because there are so many teachers on the platform, it takes time to find the right one for you.

Get it here:

Final Thoughts

Just like physical exercise, doing some meditation is better than doing none. Going to a gym is better than going to none.

So, don’t let the decision about which meditation app to choose stop you from getting started! You can always try the free versions of the apps first, and change once the tools once you’ve gained some experience and developed your own tastes.

In the meantime, breathe, and meditate on.