A meditation app is a smartphone application that allows access to high-quality meditation exercises wherever and whenever you need them.
Most (not all) meditation apps leverage the ancient concept of mindfulness – a heightened sense of self-awareness that acknowledges one’s current thoughts, feelings, and surroundings. This enhanced focus on the moment clears the mind of extraneous thoughts and feelings that fuel stress and anxiety.
Breathing exercises, relaxing bedtime stories, ambient music, and more are all part of the meditation app experience. We put the current crop under the critical microscope and determined that the following are the best meditation apps of 2021.
Calm is one of the most popular meditation apps around. It provides an impressive array of meditation exercises that range in length from 3 to 25 minutes, as well as a variety of complementary features such as bedtime stories and ambient music.
What we like: Because meditation is not always enough, we love the bedtime stories. The one to three-week guided programs are ideal for more serious practitioners. It is one of the few meditation apps to emphasize breathing.
Flaws: Some of their narrator choices are questionable. And the lifetime subscription cost is likely to interfere with your ability to stay calm.
Sattva leans heavily on ancient Vedic principles, sacred chants, mantras and more. The only thing trendy about their app is the app itself. The mindfulness exercises are rooted in centuries-old traditions, and the sacred sounds are music to the ears of a stressed-out soul.
What we like: We love the beautifully considered interface that is both relaxing and practical. It’s nice to be able to set custom notifications. And the ‘sacred’ ambient sounds melt the stress away before going to sleep.
Flaws: The tracking stats are not terribly useful.
Aura brings together sacred sounds, ambient music, bedtime stories, and more that help you restore mental and emotional balance. When you open the app, you tell it what mood you are in, and it tailors content suggestions to match. Nice.
What we like: Aura offers a lot of free features including 3-minute guided daily sessions, recommended meditations, and the ability to save specific meditations for later recall. Aura can also be synced with the Apple Health app.
Flaws: Comes off as a free app, but the free trial version has virtually no functionality.
Buddhify strives to address every aspect of contemporary life and provide you with a meditative antidote. There are meditations for travel, meditations to get you back on track at work, and meditations to help you get to sleep and wake up in the right frame of mind.
What we like: Lots of exercises of different lengths. Three-minute meditations for those in a hurry. The teachers are friendly and helpful. Mindfulness exercises designed to extricate you from specific types of distressing situations.
Flaws: For an app intended to produce harmony, the interface is not in harmony with the parameters of the smartphone screen.
Wave takes a slightly different approach to meditation. The developers of Wave believe in the power of binaural beats to act as a kind of audio massage that purges your psyche of negative thoughts and emotions.
What we like: If ambient music tickles your comfort gene, you will enjoy Wave. The 80+ meditations ride a foundation of synth-based beats to reformat your stressed brain. You can upgrade to the Bolster kit and take the binaural experience to another level.
Flaws: The aggressively dark interface is more unsettling than calming.
6. Ten Percent Happier
Though aimed at meditation skeptics, the Ten Percent Happier app winds up mostly preaching to the converted. But regardless of what mindset you approach it with, it is likely to win you over with its sheer wealth of content.
What we like: They have an entire selection of meditations designed to help you get to sleep. We really appreciate that they release new content weekly so the app does not molder. Lots of quick exercises for busy schedules.
Flaws: It is pretty easy to accidentally subscribe. So be careful during the free trial period.
7. Smiling Mind
If you are unsure about meditation in general you have nothing to lose by giving Smiling Mind a try. The app is absolutely free, feature-rich, and easy to use. Makes you wonder why others need to charge so much for their apps.
What we like: Smiling Mind is one of the better free meditation apps out there. Lots of choices in both style and length of various meditations. They guide you to the best meditation for your current emotional state, which is a very nice touch.
Flaws: It does not provide targeted meditations for, say, anxiety etc. Then again it is free.
Unplug offers an array of preset, custom, or guided meditations that ensure you will find something that works for you. If you want to take meditation classes from renowned instructors, you can do that. If you want a few quiet minutes to collect your thoughts, you can do that too.
What we like: The teachers are generally talented, methodical and upbeat. The ability to unplug from the standard lessons and meditate on your own is a plus. And the curated playlists are a big help for beginners.
Flaws: The boring interface does not exactly inspire. And the price will turn some off.
Headspace aspires to teach users how to live a mindful existence. That’s a lofty goal, and not everyone will achieve it. But even if you fall short in your quest for transcendence, Headspace can still help you clear your mind and sleep better.
What we like: Headspace delivers a lot of different themes. The sleep music is very relaxing. The guided courses are well-designed and taught by competent, friendly instructors. The interface is a bit juvenile but soothing nonetheless.
Flaws: You will have to pay for those well-designed guided courses.
10. Simple Habit
Not everyone has hours to dedicate to their meditation practice. For those with no time to spare there’s Simple Habit. This app provides a wealth of short and sweet meditation exercises for people of all ages and backgrounds.
What we like: The various exercises are well-considered and easy to follow. The bedtime stories are a nice touch for those having difficulty meditating. Five-minute meditations are tailor-made for short attention spans.
Flaws: Some of the meditations seem needlessly stretched out. Does not always play nice with other apps.
Who Needs a Meditation App?
In today’s world, the answer to that question is remarkably simple: just about everyone. Meditation apps provide an easy, convenient way for people to relieve themselves of the stress and strain of the world, if only for a few minutes. In those minutes, however, they will find clarity, focus, and awareness to inform their physical and mental activity going forward.
Meditation apps take many different forms and use a variety of approaches. Most emphasize mindfulness, though some promote the intense meditative qualities of music. Some are free, others are relatively expensive, but most fall somewhere in the middle. Even so, when you consider the numerous and wide-ranging benefits of an effective meditation practice, a good meditation app is typically money very well spent.
How We Ranked
It is not easy to quantify what makes a good meditation app. What works for one person may not work at all for someone else. So, to determine which meditation apps were worthy of inclusion on our list, we had to step back and apply some cold, objective criteria to them.
With that in mind, we considered the interface and navigation. These are intended after all to promote mindfulness and relaxation, so the interface should not be jarring or off-putting in any way. Nor should it be too ‘business-like’. Likewise, navigation should be clear and intuitive and not force you to have to figure it out. Because that would not be conducive to relaxation.
Once past the interface, we considered what the different apps offered. Was there a variety of meditation programs available? Were there programs of differing lengths? Was it easy to figure out what a particular exercise was from the description? Were there complementary features like ambient music? How much content was available free of charge, and how much was sequestered behind a paywall? If the app was ‘pay-only’ was the price reasonable?
Finally, we considered technical issues. Was the app compatible with a range of platforms? Would it work on slightly older Android or iOS phones? What about tablets and iPads? Was it easy to download and install? Was it glitchy? Did it crash all the time? Would it sync with other apps, like Apple Health?
After determining which meditation apps satisfied our objective (and admittedly somewhat materialistic) criteria, we then balanced that assessment against the subjective opinions of users.
A meditation app can enhance overall wellbeing. From the very beginning, many thousands of years ago (1), the goal of meditation has been to enable people to find a better way through mindful focus. That central goal of meditation has not changed and can be realized by using a meditation app. With practice, it will be possible to reduce your stress and anxiety levels, be more positive and forward-oriented and enjoy enhanced physical and mental wellbeing.
A meditation app can help improve your relationships. The amount of sleep we get has a profound impact on the quality of our relationships (2). That is true of both domestic and business relationships. Most meditation apps provide meditations specifically designed to help you get the deep, restful sleep you need.
A meditation app is convenient. Even in the best of times you may not be able to find the time for a conventional meditation practice. This is where a meditation app can really come in handy. You do not have to adhere to any particular schedule, leave your home, or commit one minute more than you have. Many meditation programs are just a few minutes long and do not require any special equipment or instruction.
A meditation app may help reduce risk factors for some diseases. Stress is a gateway to all manner of short and long term adverse health conditions. Heart disease, insomnia, high blood pressure, and more have all been linked at one time or another to stress (3). A meditation app can help reduce your stress level and clear the way for a happier, healthier future.
A meditation app can help you navigate a topsy turvy world. The year 2020 will go down as one of unprecedented upheaval and uncertainty. Massive job losses, the disruption of daily routines for people around the world, and the threat of illness have raised the anxiety levels of countless millions. A meditation app cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can help you create a little island of tranquility to occupy.
A meditation app helps you stay emotionally grounded. Wayward or extreme emotions can be as disruptive to a person’s wellbeing as stress, anxiety, or illness (4). Achieving and maintaining emotional balance is one of the key goals of meditation. A meditation app can help you gain awareness of how emotions are affecting you. You can then use that awareness to keep those emotions in check and get on with your life.
A meditation app can enhance your career. Advancing in your chosen profession requires focus. You need to stay calm and in control regardless of what is going on around you. That is not always easy to do, especially in light of recent events. A meditation app can help a career by providing you that all-important focus, and by helping you get the restful sleep you need so that you are always at your best.
A meditation app can help relieve stress. Stress has a tendency to interfere with personal and professional relationships, to cloud judgment and undermine health (5). Fortunately, one of the principal benefits of the meditation app is its ability to relieve stress. Just a few minutes per day can improve your outlook and work performance, and help you get a good night’s sleep.
A meditation app can help you during recovery from illness or surgery. Recovering from an illness, injury, or surgery is not always a straightforward thing. There may be setbacks, months of therapy, and unforeseen complications that all need to be dealt with. A meditation app can help alleviate feelings of anxiety associated with the recovery process and help ensure it is no longer or more difficult than need be.
A meditation app can stop you from ruminating. ‘Rumination’ is a word that used to be in fairly common use. Today, about the only place you will hear it is in the psychologist’s office. Essentially, rumination is the state of being unable to let go of a recent setback or embarrassment or mistake (6). Virtually everyone will experience it to some degree at some point in their life. And a meditation app can help you transcend it.
A meditation app can help you focus. Many types of meditation emphasize the here and now. That can be extremely helpful for busy people who are being pulled in a dozen different directions by work, family, and relationship pressures and obligations. Taking a few minutes to center yourself before the work day begins or before a big family outing can make a world of difference in your experience.
A meditation app may help alleviate symptoms of depression. Meditation can provide a person with the tools they need to back away from depression triggers (7) and maintain a more positive outlook. In other cases, it may enable a person to pull themselves out of a downward spiral by promoting awareness of their feelings and surroundings. No one is saying a meditation app is a cure for depression, but it can be a valuable tool to have in your corner.
A meditation app can help you sleep better. One of the primary reasons people download meditation apps is so that they can get to sleep in a timely fashion. Nothing is worse than tossing and turning at night because you are stressed out over work or family life. A meditation app can help you put any issues in perspective, restore your focus to the here and now, and get the sleep you need to always be at your best.
A meditation app can reduce anxiety. In dangerous situations a certain amount of anxiety is normal. But in some cases, people lose perspective and anxiety threatens to overwhelm them. Anxiety disorders have many sources and take many forms (8). And while a meditation app is not a cure for anxiety disorders, it can help put things back in proper perspective and allow you to get on with your life in a calmer, more focused manner.
A meditation app may help you maintain a healthy weight. Emotions play a huge role in weight gain (9) and people’s relation to food in general. Many times when a person overeats it is because they are trying to feed a negative emotion or drown out stressful feelings. By making you more aware of your feelings in the moment, a meditation app can fend off destructive overeating episodes so you can maintain a healthy weight.
A meditation app can help you deal with chronic pain. Millions of people suffer from chronic pain, and there are few reliable ways to deal effectively with it. By leveraging mindfulness, a meditation app can help reduce the pain and relieve the associated anxiety. There is a growing movement within the psychological community called ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction’ (10) that promotes the idea of mindfulness in dealing with various pain-related issues.
A meditation app can make better students. The pressure on young people to perform academically has never been more intense. At the same time, the number of distractions available to them have never been more numerous. The net effect can be overwhelming. A meditation app can help them clear away the mental clutter and become better, more focused students.
A meditation app can help you accentuate the positive. No one’s health is well-served by sitting in front of a computer screen all day. People need to get up and move about at regular intervals for the sake of their heart and to prevent conditions like deep vein thrombosis (11). A meditation app that stresses mindful awareness can help you remember to perform this essential health maintenance act.
A meditation app can help you achieve your goals. Staying focused on your life goals is not easy to do. The contemporary world brings with it a million distractions. Before you know it, you are headed down some pointless dead end, and your plans wind up in disarray. Making meditation part of your daily routine can help you keep your eyes on the prize and see distractions for what they are.
Q: What is a meditation app?
A: A meditation app is a smartphone application that provides the user with various meditation routines they can practice on their own time. Some also offer (paid) access to online meditation classes. Most meditation apps promote ‘mindful meditation’, which emphasizes shifting awareness to your immediate surroundings and current feelings as a way to clear your mind of noise and restore emotional and mental balance.
Q: Why should I use a meditation app?
A: Let’s start with the obvious: the present is a mess, the future uncertain, and somewhere in the middle are ordinary people trying to make sense of things and provide for their loved ones. It’s enough to send stress and anxiety levels through the roof. If you are one of the millions of stressed-out people, NIH research (12) indicates meditation can play a useful role in helping reduce stress, alleviate anxiety, and help people get the sleep they need.
Q: How does a meditation app work?
A: Each meditation app has its own proprietary structure. But most follow a similar formula. They provide a range of different meditations of different lengths. Often, not always, they use different people to narrate different meditation programs. You choose the type of meditation program and the length, assume your meditation position, and start the program. Many people prefer using headphones because it helps to block out distractions.
Q: Which is the best meditation app?
A: There are at least half a dozen major types of meditation (13). As such, there is no way to state with any certainty that one meditation app is ‘the best’. The great thing is that most developers offer free versions of their app that you can download and try before you decide if you want to buy. So if you are unsure about which meditation app to use, try downloading several and comparing. You are bound to find one that works for you.
Q: What is ‘mindfulness’?
A: Mindfulness has to do with focusing on what is going on right now wherever you happen to be. It is a heightened state of awareness that also includes paying attention to your current thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is just one type of meditation, but it is the type promoted by most meditation apps because it lends itself to the cellphone delivery platform better than other forms of meditation.
Q: Is a meditation app an acceptable substitute for therapy?
A: Mindfulness has its place and helps untold numbers of people relax and calm themselves in the here and now. However, it is not a substitute for psychotherapy or professional counseling (14). Meditation apps like the ones above that promote mindfulness are designed to provide people a quick and convenient way to regroup, or to center themselves. They cannot and do not address underlying issues that often drive anxiety or other mental health disorders.
Q: Can meditation help in dealing with pain?
A: Meditation in general – and a meditation app in particular – can be a very useful tool in helping people deal with the pain associated with illness or injury. Researchers are not quite sure how it works, but there is clinical evidence to support the notion (15). If you are attempting to deal with acute pain, consider using a meditation app that emphasizes mindfulness.
Q: Is there a right way to sit when using a meditation app?
A: The classic cross-legged ‘lotus’ pose is intended to reduce physical distractions and facilitate breathing, among other things (16). But not everyone will find it comfortable, or for that matter, possible. So the right way to sit while using a meditation app is whatever way makes you comfortable. The most important thing is to sit up straight so you can breathe properly and to keep a quiet head.
Q: Why do some meditation apps use music?
A: Mindful meditation is typically done in silence. But there are entire schools of meditation that stress the meditative qualities of music and incorporate them into the practice. There is actually quite a bit of clinical research that supports the idea of the musical experience as a type of meditation (17). Of course, different types of music will produce different meditative experiences. So be selective in your musical meditation choices.
Q: Is there a learning curve for meditation?
A: Anyone who tells you that you can just strike a certain pose and slip into a meditative mindset is mistaken. Like any other discipline, it takes practice to learn how to let go. Some people will pick it up faster than others, but everyone will require some time to acclimate to the practice. It’s not a competition. So be patient and try different meditation routines until you find one that works for you.
Q: How do I begin meditating?
A: Most people experienced with meditation suggest starting slow with just a short meditation exercise. The great thing about apps is that they provide a range of meditations. Some are as short as three minutes. Others as long as an hour or more. Many also provide ambient music or sound effects. So, if you are just starting out, you can try a short meditation before bed and then follow up with some ambient music to help you get to sleep.
Q: Is meditation religious?
A: Perhaps because of its strong association with Buddhism, many people believe they need to adopt a religious affiliation to enjoy the benefits of meditation. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. While there are certainly plenty of meditation studios that promote Buddhist or Taoist (18) philosophy, most meditation apps focus simply on bringing yourself back to the moment.
Q: How long does a typical meditation session last?
A: As we mentioned, they can be just a few minutes long, or they might extend to an hour or more. It is entirely up to you. Most people start slow and then gradually ramp up the length of their meditation sessions. But again, it is up to you. The important thing is to try different meditative exercises until you find what works. If that means five minutes, so be it. If you find an hour-long session provides optimal benefits, then that is what you should do.
Q: Is it normal to fall asleep while using a meditation app?
A: Everyone reacts a bit differently, but it is not at all unusual for someone to fall asleep in the middle of a meditation program. And that is a good thing. After all, you got the meditation app to help clear your head of the day’s detritus. So if you are relaxed enough that you are falling asleep, that means it must have worked. If you wish to avoid falling asleep, avoid meditating during hours that coincide with your normal sleep patterns.
Q: Can a meditation app cure me of depression?
A: Meditation is a powerful tool that allows people to restore a calm, focused, and productive mindset. It may also help you sleep better so you can be a better student, worker, or partner. That said, depression typically has significant underlying causes (19). And a meditation app will not be able to identify and treat those causes. So use the meditation app to relax, and see a therapist for mental health issues.
Q: Where is the best place to use a meditation app?
A: The best place is wherever you feel comfortable. That might mean the bedroom. Or it might mean the local park. Or it might mean on the beach if you are near the ocean. Or it could be the break room at work. People with lots of experience meditating can do so virtually anywhere. But if you are new to the practice, you will want to find a place with minimal distractions.
A meditation app can help reduce stress and anxiety levels, improve focus and concentration, enable better sleep and improve your overall quality of life. It will take practice and patience on your part, but all those goals are attainable.
Key to your success will be finding the app that dovetails with your particular sensibilities. All of the meditation apps that populate the above list have proven their worth to countless users worldwide. They are easy to obtain, easy to use, and most offer free trial periods.
Achieving true peace of mind is more important than ever today. A meditation app offers the chance to attain mental and emotional tranquility by means of a simple, easy to use smartphone application. Use the above information to make an informed decision about which meditation app is right for you.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended meditation app, click here.