How to Choose the Best Meditation App for you
A topic you’ll hear me talk about quite often is meditation. This practice is mandatory for all my private coaching clients, and simply put, there is no higher ROI you can get on 10-20 minutes of your time. There is no written word, cup of coffee or magic pill which will give you the cognitive benefits so readily available as with meditation.
You can find a deeper dive on the health benefits of mediation by reading XXXX. In this post, we’re going to assume you’re already on board with wanting to meditate or already have a practice, and you’re looking to grow in that practice.
Meditation only works if you find the time for it, you do it, and you integrate it into your life. Here we’re going to look at 6 different tools and techniques you can you to accelerate your journey into meditation, and the pros and cons of each.
Headspace – Any list of mediation tool would be woefully inadequate without Headspace front and center. SImply put, there is no more straight forward path to learning mediation than downloading Headspace and following the guided prompts. It’s dead simple, you could recommend it to a child or your grandparents.
The narrator Andy Puddicombe is incredibly knowledgeable, being the author of multiple books and a former Buddhist monk himself. That said, the teachings are not tied to any faith or religion, quite the opposite, and what really shines is his ability to break down advanced concepts into simple straightforward instructions which can work for most anyone.
If you want to get to know the voice behind the App first, then give a listen to this podcast. If nothing else on this list jumps out as your tool of choice, I would say Headspace is the safest default. For the first 2 years of my private coaching, this was the only app I recommended to my clients.
Pros: Simple, Structured, Idiot-Proof, Educational
Cons: Can get a bit repetitive, many modules are similar, app interface feels dated
Who it’s best for: Beginners to Meditation or those getting back into it after a long break
10% Happier – An app that’s been picking up a lot of steam lately is 10% Happier, a lot of clients of mine have switched to this app from Headspace, and report being upwards of 10% happier about the move. The price points are the same ($99/yr) but 10% Happier looks much more diverse, with video content, interviews and explanations for a whole myriad of different meditation techniques.
Another great feature of 10% happier is their in-app support. You can get your questions answered by a real meditation teacher, typically within 24 hours. I tested them out and asked a question I had about a specific kind of Meditation I was interested in (Transcendental Meditation) and while they didn’t have content in the app related to what I was looking for, the person helping me went above and beyond by linking me to an episode of their podcast from several months ago when they had a TM teacher on speaking about the practice. Being that Headspace has no in-app support, this felt like a pretty big step up.
The thing to be careful of here is that for a beginner, it’s easy to get lost in this app. It does have a beginner program, but beyond that it gives up a bit of structure and simplicity in exchange for the diversity and flair that come from all the different options, content and teachers in this app.
10% Happier brands itself as “Meditation for Skeptics,” which is a bit of a curious title. Basically it’s reaching out to the “what’s in it for me crowd” and makes constant effort to convince the audience that there are in fact benefits to meditation and to explain what those benefits are. I think it’s great for both the curious or the unconvinced, both of which are important things to be at times. That said, for those just starting out, all the choices and information in this app may feel a bit overwhelming.
Pros: Variety of options and teachers, clean modern interface, lots of options and education, in-app live support
Cons: Loses a bit of the simplicity and structure, practical skeptics approach can miss out on some of the “break from normalcy” inherent benefits of mediation practice. This way of framing mediation keeps the connection to the self very paramount, so it offers less in the way of going beyond the ego and connecting to something deeper or more spiritual, which paradoxically can often offer the exact practical benefits being sought after.
Who it’s best for: Skeptics, Those Bored with Headspace, People curious to learn about all the different approaches to meditation
Calm – Calm is always one of the top Meditation Apps in the App stores, however I personally feel that it’s not as conducive to building either a skill or knowledge base in mediation as other options. Calm strikes me as more symptomatic, “I want to feel calm now, so I open calm and it makes me calm.” This is the equivalent of starting your beachbody diet on the first day of summer.
Meditation is so much more than a technique to use when you’re stressed or can’t sleep. Sure if that’s the case then Calm is great, but so are most of the apps and various other techniques. We want to meditate daily so that we are less likely to become stressed or unable to sleep in the first place, and then when those situations do invariably occur, we can draw on the skills we built in our daily practice to relax ourselves.
I feel the calm lacks both the simplicity and structure of Headspace and the educational variety of 10% Happier. It’s more of an app that treats you to a meditation like it would be a massage rather than one which teaches you how to be a meditator.
That said, apps improve all the time, and Calm has a lot of money behind it. A lot of people download it, likely because a lot of people scrolling through their phones have serious anxiety and cannot be still. This situation benefits most from a new construction of habit and behaviour, which the other apps do a better job coaching you on. Calm is not a bad app perse, I just struggle to find anything compelling reason to recommend it over any other option, it feels pretty generic and uninspired.
Pros: Soothing App feel, great for immediate relief from anxiety or pleasurable mediation sessions. Slightly cheaper than other options.
Cons: Lacks Education and Structure. Caters to more of a “use it when you need it” mentality but competes for the spot of your go-to meditation aid.
Who it’s best for: Those who already have a mediation practice and just want access to a library of content for on the go, those on a budget, those who know if it’s not relaxable and enjoyable from the beginning they won’t do it.
Mindbliss – Mindbliss is a smaller mediation app than the above big 3, but it’s uniqueness earns it a special spot in this list. Mindbliss is not going to be as good as Headspace or 10% Happier for a introduction to meditation, I probably wouldn’t recommend this app to a beginner unless they already had a foundation in spiritual practice, such as Yoga.
That said, this would be my preferred app to use to go deeper, and it gets a pass for many of the things I faulted Calm for because this Mindbliss isn’t trying to be the catch all for every meditation search in the app store, a goal which comes with a certain responsibility in my eyes. Mindbliss caters to a specific audience, similar to 10% Happier, but rather than skeptics, I would say Mindbliss caters to those who are already onboard with meditation and what it can do for them.
For the already meditation faithful, Mindbliss has an incredibly inspired selection of varied meditations which allow the user to experiment with different teachers and techniques. The different options don’t have as much surrounding explanation and education as within 10% Happier, but there is some.
It does lend itself a bit more to the meditation on command like Calm rather than the structure of a daily practice (nothing matches the structure of Headspace) but for those already on their journey this is alright, and the different choices are the most varied, with Binaural Beats, Chakra Meditations, even an Ayahuasca Integration track. There’s a lot more than ocean waves and sleep aids in this one, while the app interface and choices lend itself to a greater feel of doing something deeply relaxing, out of the ordinary, and away from the practical considerations and concerns of the mind.
Pros: Probably the most enjoyable experience in terms of interface, imagery and the feeling of being transported to a different place during meditation. Deeply relaxing, great for evenings, weekends, or a feeling of a real break from the ordinary. Offers a sense of spirituality not found in the big 3 listed above. Also cheaper than most.
Cons: Not a great beginner app, could lend itself to just listening to the tracks and falling asleep much like calm. Spiritual vibe won’t resonate with some people.
Who it’s best for: Those who already have a mediation and/or spiritual practice but want to go deeper, beyond the levels of the mind. For those who are able to release the desire to understand, make sense of and explain everything.
Omvana – This is an interesting one. First off, it’s the only non-subscription app in our list, so rather than a monthly fee, you simply buy the meditations you want to use and then you own them forever. That makes this the ultimate budget option, because you can start out with the free ones for as long as you like, and then add new mediations one at a time and really get your value out of them.
Also worth mentioning is that Omvana was created by the founder of Mindvalley, Vishen Lakhiani, and comes with his 20 minute 6 Phase Meditation free. For a keep it simple approach, you could do a lot worse than just listening to that meditation for 20 minutes 5 times a week for one month, and it wouldn’t cost you a dime. It may not learn as much about why different techniques in the meditation are there as you would with a month of Headspace, but you’d still feel the benefits, and experiential learning is great also.
Another interesting this about Omvana is that it allows you to mix various guided meditations with different background music tracks, such as nature sounds or binaural beats. You can adjust the volume to get the right pitch of voice over music. This is kind of interesting, although it can be a bit more effort finding the right track than would be preferred, and you cannot import your own background music tracks.
Most of the free ones are very short loops, so if you want something cool you’re going to need to buy a background track or 2, and they are surprisingly expensive at $5+ each. The mediations are also a bit pricey, many coming in at over the $7 mark, and with very limited previews. That said, this app allows you to pay only for what you use, avoid a subscription, and this pricing model can encourage you to keep a structure, working with just the next meditation you’ve moved onto.
Pros: No recurring fee. Buy tracks and own them forever. Not a ton of free content but some is very good, like the 6 Phase Meditation. No reason not to add this app to your collection for that meditation alone. Also, good mix of types of content, everything from mindfulness, focus and practical mediation all the way to spirituality, manifestation and healing modalities.
Cons: Not much by the way of inherent structure, a lot of limited free content aiming to upsell the full version. Limited previews, cannot use your own background tracks. Interface and library search feel a bit dated relative to 10% Happier, Calm or Mindbliss.
Who it’s best for: There’s really no reason not to download this app and play with it a bit since there’s no subscription. It’s great for beginners because of the free 6 Phase Meditation, and it’s great for more advanced students who want a meditation on demand for specific topics or before bed because you can simply buy a good “drift into sleep” meditation, perhaps with a soothing background track, and then use that whenever you need it. That said, having just one app you love and use may be best, and this app probably isn’t that unless you’re starting out for free with the 6 Phase Meditation.
Muse – The last entry in this list is a bit of an oddball but really cool. Rather than subscribing to an App or buying any meditations, you purchase a Muse EEG headband which senses your brain activity while you meditate.
Basically, it connects to your phone via Bluetooth, and then within the app you can choose from about 5 options: beach, rainforest, desert, city park or ambient music. You can also choose any number of minutes to do your session for, so it’s very conducive to your schedule. At that point, the session begins and you will hear the background track, and this is where it gets really cool…
You focus on your breath and calm your mind, and as you do the music gets quieter. If you start to think, then the music gets more loud. You literally control the music with your mind. It’s hard to conceptualize until you try it, but it feels as if it teaches you how to flex and relax your neurons in order to reach that calm and relaxed state.
When you manage to reach stillness and the music is at its quietest, you will begin to hear the sounds of birds chirping, indicating that you’ve collected points. If you get too happy thinking about your new feathered friends, then the music will get louder, and then you start thinking about that, and then it’s full volume, and round and round we go.
What’s really cool about Muse is that rather than explaining to your brain with thoughts ‘how to meditate’ it directly circumvents the level of the though and teaches your brain directly, at the level of intuition and deep understanding. This is a biohack for meditation if one ever existed.
Another thing people really like about the Muse is the immediate feedback, At the end of every session, you get a graph showing for how many seconds of your session you were Active, Neutral or Calm. This allows for a feeling of progress, and also reassurance for the all to common concern ‘am I doing this right.’ Uncertainty around if you’re accomplishing anything while meditating is probably the number 1 reason that new meditators quit, and Muse quite directly solves that problem.
I was actually very skeptical at first, because I thought grading my meditation performance would limit the experience and take away from the ability to transcend the mind and get to non-judgemental awareness, but I actually found that the Muse helped me tune into that state faster and become more aware of what that state feels like with just a few weeks of sessions.
Pros: Unlike anything else on the market. Gives real-time feedback on how calm your brain was during meditation, and allows you to compare results day to day. Very simple, very easy to structure, dare I say makes starting out in mediation fun. Buy it once and use the app forever, one time expense.
Cons: One time cost of about $200 (without a protective case) for a tool that only works with a relatively basic app. You cannot use the Muse to measure your activity during any meditation, only when interacting with the Muse App, which has 5 soundscapes and 22 guided meditations currently.
Who it’s best for: This tool hits a lot of boxes. This is great for anyone with a very analytical mind, or anyone who tends to overthink. It’s also great for people who have difficulty feeling if they are meditating correctly, or who are skeptical about meditation in general. Unlike 10% Happier which tries to convince your mind that meditation works with thoughts, ideas and examples, with the Muse you just plug in and feel it immediately. There is nothing to understand, nothing to agree or disagree with, nothing to contemplate. You just do it, and it works.
You can very easily cancel subscriptions for any of these apps, so just get started with one and you can always mix it up later. The only moves that matter are the ones that you make. In order to get the benefits of meditation, you need to make it a habit. It needs to fit into your life, so at the end of the day, whatever tool or apps gets your but on a cushion each morning with your eyes closed and your mind empty and open is going to be best. You just need to decide and get started and you will find your way with it. Once you tap into your intuition via Meditation, deciding get’s a whole lot easier.
To reference a recent WSJ article talking to Elon Musk about the mental models he has used to build multiple billion dollar companies.
“Mr. Musk said his actions and rapid decision-making can be misunderstood as erratic behavior. “It is better to make many decisions per unit time with a slightly higher error rate, than few with a slightly lower error rate,” he said last weekend in a series of emails with The Wall Street Journal, “because obviously one of your future right decisions can be to reverse an earlier wrong one, provided the earlier one was not catastrophic, which they rarely are.”
Pick the app that sounds best for your personality and get started. If you have experience with any of the Apps listed or have another one worth sharing, please let me know in the comments section.