If you’re looking for a way to feel more centered these days, one of the best things you can do is to take up a mindfulness practice—and there’s a plethora of apps eager to help in exchange for your downloads and dollars.
More than 2,500 meditation apps have launched since 2015, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the choices. But it’s important to figure out which app will suit your needs and tastes, since we’re much more likely to keep up habits that we enjoy. And when it comes to meditating, consistency is key. “Research shows that the more consistently a person meditates, the greater impact this training can have on physically changing your brain for the better,” says Annika Rose, a researcher on mindfulness and well-being and author of a book on mindfulness.
Rose says that the right meditation app can make a big difference in our lives. As co-author of a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, she helped lead a study that ran a randomized controlled trial on 121 people, in which one group was assigned to use the meditation app Headspace for 10 days, while the control group used a list-making app. The results: “Those learning mindfulness meditation techniques were significantly happier and had higher well-being levels compared to the control intervention group,” Rose says.
Broadly speaking, there are a few ways that meditation apps try to get people engaged and coming back for more. Some apps, Rose explains, “build a sense of community into their app experience by showing [users] how many people are meditating right now, offering live meditation sessions guided by experts, encouraging you to create a profile and hosting forums where you can ask questions, seek support, and make friends.”
Gamification is another go-to, with apps encouraging users to set goals, tracking their progress, and congratulating them on streaks. And many apps allow you to customize a selection of mindfulness and meditation practices to relate to real-world scenarios, including “tracks to prepare for pregnancy, increase productivity, perform at your peak, find calm under pressure, or go for a mindful run,” as Rose notes.
A caveat: Not all meditation apps are created equal. They are not heavily regulated and “there is no quality control when it comes to the techniques they teach,” Rose says.
With that in mind, here’s a rundown of a few popular options in the app market.
If you like variety:
Cost: $69.99 annual subscription
Consider Calm the Netflix of meditation apps: It has a ton of choices to suit practically every mood and circumstance, but you may have to wade through a lot of content to figure out what resonates and what doesn’t.
In addition to meditation courses on everything from “7 days of self-esteem” to “dating courageously,” Calm’s sleep stories are especially popular. The ones for adults (including tales narrated by the likes of Mandy Moore and Harry Styles) include both fiction and nonfiction, so you can decide whether you’d rather drift off to a detailed description of Norway’s Lofoten Islands or to a modern fairy tale. Sleep stories for kids are an option, too, from classics like The Velveteen Rabbit to originals like Festival of the First Moon.
Other features include music playlists and soundscapes, masterclasses and mini-lectures on personal growth topics like vulnerability and mindful eating, and short breathing exercises.
If you’re all about health:
Cost: $69.99 annual subscription
Headspace also boasts a large library, but as the Wirecutter notes, the interface is a bit more organized. Like Calm, the app’s got meditations, storytelling and exercises meant to help you fall asleep, and music—but emphasizes its scientific, health-focused approach and Buddhist bonafides (cofounder Andy Puddicombe is a former Buddhist monk).
There are also workout videos focused on stretching and cardio, a nature video collaboration with BBC called “Mindful Earth,” and meditation courses to help you get creative juices flowing or better appreciate your daily strolls. “Our strategy is to help you build healthy routines that last a lifetime,” says CEO CeCe Morken.
If you want a global perspective:
Cost: $59.99 annual subscription
The Turkish-German startup Meditopia is the most popular meditation app outside of the English-speaking world, offering meditations not only in English but in 10 additional languages including Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Korean, and Russian. Meditopia says it varies the content according to local context as well. The app offers free beginners’ meditation courses, so you can give it a test drive before deciding if you’re ready to commit.
If you want to learn from the best:
Ten Percent Happier
Cost: $99 annual subscription
Ten Percent Happier’s guided meditations and lectures are taught by the likes of Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein—legendary figures in the Western mindfulness movement, who translate Buddhist teachings for a secular audience. There are ample structured courses on subjects like learning to focus and “loving-kindness” meditation, as well as collections of meditations geared toward timely issues like racism and the coronavirus.
If you’re a dabbler:
Cost: $5 to download app and access content; $30 annual subscription for additional features
Buddhify founder Rohan Gunatillake has a unique outlook in the mindfulness business: “We feel that the purpose of meditation app is to get you to the point where you no longer need a meditation app.” The app operates on the principle that guided meditations should be like training wheels that eventually get you to the point where you can practice on your own. In the meantime, however, there are plenty of features to keep you engaged, including meditations you can do “on the go”—during a work break, on a walk, or while traveling.
If you’re a fan of adult coloring books:
Cost: $39.99 annual subscription
Loóna isn’t so much about mindfulness as it is about relaxation. But it’s worth including in this roundup for those who are looking for a way to unwind before bedtime—particularly if you happen to be a fan of adult coloring books, another popular trend in the contemporary quest for self-soothing.
Named the best app of 2020 by Google Play, Loóna is an interactive app in which users tap their phone screens to color in images of Japanese gardens, hot-air balloons, and fairy tale castles, accompanied by a soothing narrative tied to the images. The “sleepscapes” are designed to be interactive: Paper lanterns light up with a touch of the finger, gold coins jingle, and origami cranes flutter their wings. The app, which its co-founders say is designed for “mood management,” plans to release more offerings in the coming year that will provide activities to get you in the spirit for waking up or taking a midday nap, too.
If you’re looking for free access to a huge library
Cost: Free; additional features available for $60 annual subscription
Maybe your budget doesn’t allow for another subscription, or you’re not quite ready to commit yet. In that case, your best bet may be Insight Timer, which has more than 60,000 guided meditations from 8,000 teachers. The app also hosts live, donation-based yoga classes and a huge range of daily talks. If you’re looking to practice meditating with some far-flung friends, you can form a private circle to do group meditations together—perhaps a nifty alternative to the usual Zoom happy hours.
If you want to be part of a Black meditation community:
Cost: $71.99 for annual subscription (financial assistance available)
Liberate caters specifically to Black users, offering meditations and talks from BIPOC teachers on everything from “The Dharma of Black Lives Matter” to “Body Confidence.” The series on ancestry is a crucial part of Liberate’s offering, according to founder Julio Rivera. That’s because the app’s mission is to help people remember “what is our true nature; what is this capacity for us to really love ourselves.”