When it's time to meditate, sit comfortably, focus your attention … and reach for your smartphone?
More and more people are doing just that, ifApple's iPhoneApp Store is any indication — a search for "meditation" results in more than 1,000 possible downloads. But isn't the point to unplug?
The guidance offered in these apps "allows you just to let go and stop worrying about whether you're doing it right," says Stephan Bodian, a psychotherapist in Tucson and the developer of the Mindfulness Meditation app. "You can just relax and let yourself be led."
Plugging in to a meditation app — having turned off the phone's ringer and other functions, of course — could have a host of benefits. Researchers have found that meditation reduces stress and makes people generally happier.
There are many kinds of meditation, but a lot of attention these days is going to "mindfulness." Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the here and now — not the past or future, where stressors lurk — with an open, observant attitude, says psychologist Britta Hölzel of Massachusetts General Hospital. Frequently it involves focusing on one particular thing, like the breath.
"It helps me be more awake and alive to what's happening around me," Hölzel says.
Mindfulness can help with attention, memory and emotional control. It can help people deal with anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
The benefits of meditation aren't limited to the brain; it can also lower cholesterol, heart rate and blood pressure, says Bodian.
However, science's position on the lotus position remains incomplete. Scientists are just starting to run large studies akin to those used to test pills.
A class or app can help you get started with meditation, although eventually you can go on your own, Bodian says. Here are just five of the apps out there:
Relax & Rest Guided Meditations
For: Android, iPhone, iPad
In this Meditation Oasis app, you choose from three meditations: a five-minute break, or 13- or 24-minute deep relaxation programs. Then, customize your experience further by picking music or nature sounds — the ocean, rain or a stream. The simple narration guides you to focus on your breathing. After the voice-over ends, the background sounds continue, so you can finish whenever you wish.
For: Android, iPhone
The lighthearted Buddhify program promises "appalicious goodness for you to play with," including 32 meditations. It's all about "urban meditation," so you don't have to find a quiet mountaintop or temple. Buddhify has meditations for walking, riding the bus, working out and the home. With no music, you focus on the sounds around you. You can further customize your experience by selecting specific "flavors," such as clarity or stability.
For: Web, iPhone, Nokia
Developed by Bodian in collaboration with Mental Workout, this app offers six meditations ranging from five to 40 minutes. It's a serious starter pack with lots of tips on finding and sticking to the right meditation time, location and position — even where to rest your tongue. The narration is fairly minimal, with lots of silence to focus on your practice.
Pranayama Universal Breathing
For: Android, iPhone, iPad, Nook, Windows
Cost: Free and $4.99 versions
Saagara's program trains slow, deep, precisely timed breathing. A progress bar fills for every inhale and exhale, as does a pie chart. You can watch the lungs expanding and contracting in the illustrated, breathing man. Or listen to the tones that rise for inhale and fall for exhale. With the paid version you can access more advanced breathing techniques.
For: Android, iPhone
With a friendly, positive feeling, Headspace offers 10-minute meditations over a 10-day course. It explains meditation with cute animation of a mind that looks like a puff of cotton candy with legs. You can track your progress as the mind leaps over the hurdle of each day's program. There's no music with the instructions that lead you to focus on your breath, body and environment.