Smartphone app offers gym workout for the mind

Meditation is not just for fans of scented candles and whale music any more. The Headscape app, which allows users to listen to a 10-minute guided meditation on their smartphones each day, is being marketed as a gym membership for the mind: designed to make you smarter, happier and more productive.

Its users are just as likely to be high-powered executives who need to clear their mind in the middle of chaos as anyone who has ever spent time in an ashram in India.

I had never really meditated before I tried it, and have quickly come to depend on it to help me pull back and get some perspective in times of stress.

It is slickly designed, and intersperses short animations about the principles behind meditations with actual sessions. A male voice that manages to be soothing without sounding smarmy takes you through a process that involves focusing on your breathing, shutting your eyes, scanning your body for tension or discomfort, counting your breaths, and finally – my favourite bit – “letting go” and allowing your mind do whatever it wants to.

After the sessions, the app allows you to track your progress and share how it is going with a buddy. It is a nice, quiet antidote to a world of communication apps constantly spamming us with messages and updates, and it definitely helps to recharge my brain.

But like everything, the app is not completely free. It has a subscriber model: you get your first 10 sessions free, and just when you feel like you cannot possibly face a day without that relaxing voice in your ear, telling you to “watch your thoughts passing like cars on a road and that there is always blue sky above the clouds”, you have to sign up as a paying member.

The rates vary depending on the length of time for which you sign up, from US$12.95 for a month-to-month subscription to $6.24 a month for two years or $419.95 for a lifetime membership.

I am a notorious cheapskate when it comes to paying for software, and there are free guided-meditation alternatives out there, but this one offers such a frictionless user experience that even I am considering forking out to extend the experience.

Headspace is available for both iOS and Android; users can sign up at headspace.com or download the app on iTunes or Google Play.

q&a a proven stress-buster

Jessica Holland explains the merits of regular meditation sessions:

I don’t have time to meditate.

Really? You don’t have a spare 10 minutes in your day? I find that when I’m busiest, that’s when the time investment for meditation pays off the most, because I can get more done when my mind feels clear.

Isn’t meditation all based on new-age philosophy?

There has actually been a lot of scientific research suggesting that meditation and mindfulness can improve alertness and lower stress. Also, Headspace is agnostic when it comes to spiritual beliefs; it’s compatible with any religion.

I’ve tried meditation once and it didn’t do anything for me.

There’s a lot of encouraging talk on the Headspace app about how meditation is a skill that is honed over time. It’s OK if your mind stays busy at first, or if the experience just seems boring. Eventually, it will become much easier to access a state of mind that is both alert and profoundly calm.

How can meditation improve my productivity?

According to neuroscientists, meditation physically changes the brain. It reduces stress and anxiety, promotes creative thinking, enables more sustained focus and can help to cultivate healthier workplace relationships. My own experience has chimed with this research: I’ve found that a small investment of time spent meditating pays off, because I can manage the rest of my working hours much more efficiently with a clear mind.

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