Apps, Health, Technology

Headspace: The App To Make Meditating Simple?

The app Headspace, (available on both iOS and Android, promises a simple but enticing result: learn how to meditate by committing just ten minutes to the app over ten days. Once the beginner’s Take Ten program is finished, users will know the basic skills and value of mindfulness and be able to take on the more advanced sessions and programs Headspace has to offer. It’s intended to be meditation for the digital age, people feeling over stressed and on the go, and Headspace certainly got me closer to a meditation believer than any other attempt I’ve made over the years.

Headspace graphics from Headspace websiteMeditation has gotten a bad rap for me over the years. It’s one of the first pieces of advice people offer when I mention my tendency toward anxiety and depression, usually right after ‘eating right’ and ‘why don’t you just get some sunshine?’. They mean well, but it’s hard not to feel frustrated with the assumption that you haven’t tried to fix yourself or can just force your brain to cooperate. I’ve tried various meditation techniques over the year, from CDs that promised to connect me with my inner self to relaxation classes that incorporate yoga with guided meditation.  The results have been mixed…my attention wandered too much with self-guided meditation like the CDs, and while the in-person class was nice, it didn’t do me much good when I was too depressed to leave my house to actually attend.  

Despite that, the idea of meditation and mindfulness still holds an appeal to me. I’m one of those people who can get entirely too caught up in her own head, and it’s easy to see the value in slowing down and reflecting mentally while reconnecting with my body. It’s trying to actually achieve that deliberate stillness and mental calm where I get into trouble. Slowing down means giving myself space to feel all the emotions and angst lurking just below my surface, and even just ten minutes of trying to stay still is a challenge to my fidgety self.  

I decided to try Headspace’s Take Ten program, which is the free beginner’s program that Headspace offers. Each ten-minute session is a blend of relaxation and a breathing guide while subtly building on the previous session’s lesson to explain the goals and techniques used in meditation. Interspersed throughout the days are several animations that build on the previous one and explain that the goals of meditation aren’t necessarily to force yourself not to think but instead to step back and examine what you’re thinking and feeling without judging yourself. That “without judging yourself” aspect is key— especially hard for those of us who are experts at self-loathing—but the way Headspace introduces the concept makes it easier to put into practice.

My favorite part about Headspace is that the makers understand that learning meditation isn’t always easy, and it gives users the space to struggle with that while still encouraging people to work through these reactions. It’s okay for users to have random thoughts or get distracted during the sessions, and over time Headspace gives you techniques to minimize that. It was the first time a meditation program anticipated and addressed the fact that people might be terrible at quieting their mind. Meditation in the media makes it seem super easy to connect with the Force or your chakras or whatever, which didn’t exactly add to my confidence. Headspace appreciates that not all of its users are going to be a Jedi and does a great job of introducing why mindfulness can be valuable even when it doesn’t come easy.  

In fact, without encouragement from the app, I’d probably have quit after the second session. My family is going through a hard time right now, and the last thing I wanted to be doing was deliberately taking time to stay still and let my brain loose, because I knew it would just bring up worries and bad feelings. The way I was keeping myself together was by keeping myself distracted from everything that was going on, and even ten minutes of making myself stop doing that was really hard. There was something really nice about how Headspace doesn’t expect its users to have a wonderful time meditating; instead, it appreciates that this can be a struggle and encourages working through the struggle in a non-judgmental way. By the time I finished my sessions, I felt serious affection for the narrator’s soothing British voice.

The app uses a subscription model to access its full array of content, which opens up dozens of different meditation options. The big draw are the themed programs, which are similar to the Take Ten beginner session except centered on a specific topic or area of focus. There are programs on health conditions like anxiety and stress that I’m particularly interested in, but there are also programs that focus on strengthening your relationships and boosting creativity. One of them is focused on bettering your balance…which, despite my initial hopes, is focused on inner balance and not on your ability to stand on one foot. For that skill, I’m still going to have to get my yoga on. There’s also the ‘Headspace Pro’ section that’s designed for people wanting to deepen their meditation practice, as opposed to the very amateur-friendly feel of the rest of the site.  

The other big perk of subscribing is access to Headspace SOS and the On-the-Go programs, which are shorter and designed to slot easily into your everyday life. The SOS series especially sounds helpful for people who struggle with anxiety, because it’s designed to providequick, calming exercises you can listen to when things are feeling overwhelming or you’re about to head into a stressful situation. I can definitely see how a two-minute SOS program could help me relax a little and re-focus when an unexpected curveball threatens to derail my day. The SOS series seem like they could be a lifeline for people prone to reactive stress or just before doing something intimidating like public speaking.  Then again, when my anxiety kicks into hyperdrive I can get so jittery that I have no idea if meditation would help or just give me a quiet opportunity to obsess over whatever worry or panic that has my thoughts racing in the first place.

It’s clear that if you really want to get the most of Headspace, you’ve got to subscribe. The free version is a great intro to meditation, but it’s limited to the initial Take Ten mindfulness series.  But if you want to explore the themed programs or longer meditation sessions, there’s no way to buy just the things you’re interested in ala carte, which is a bummer. I’d like to check out the anxiety or stress programs, but I’d rather be able to pay once for access to those programs than an on-going monthly subscription. A pretty chunk of change for the monthly subscription too—it’s $12.99 to subscribe on a month to month basis. The price goes down significantly if you commit to a yearly subscription, but that’s still higher than what I’ve seen for many subscription apps. You also don’t appear to have an option to download the programs once you’ve subscribed, which means you better hope that Headspace doesn’t change or remove your favorite sessions because that’s totally out of your control. Then again…$12.99 a month is way cheaper than any in-person meditation class.  

If you’re interested in meditation or practicing mindfulness therapy, give Headspace’s Take Ten program a shot. It’s free, and will give you a good sense of what meditation is about even if you don’t subscribe. There are a ton of meditation options online, whether it’s free podcasts, various apps, or online classes. I’m going to check out a few other meditation apps to see if I can get another positive mediation experience at a lower price point, but Headspace has definitely earned the good word of mouth it’s been getting.