Headspace is the best meditation app out there—here’s why
This stellar app puts mindfulness at your fingertips.
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Confession time: I don’t do well with sitting still and focusing my mind. While I don’t think I’m unique in these attributes, they make meditation a challenge. So when I was tasked with testing meditation apps, I wasn’t sure how successful I’d be at picking it up as a personal practice. Nonetheless, with our top pick Headspace, I grew to enjoy the practice and even look forward to the daily content.
If Headspace can convert as skeptic like me, I’m convinced others will enjoy its effective, beginner-friendly sessions, as well as other offerings such as sleep-inducing bedtime stories and guided movement "workouts" that incorporate mindfulness in at-home strengthening and yoga poses. For people who struggle to get peace from a restless mind (or body), Headspace is a well-rounded meditation app with an abundance of diverse, high-quality content.
What is Headspace?
When you first download and open the Headspace app, it launches you right into the mindset of meditation. One of the app’s cartoon figures appears, expanding and then shrinking, with a reminder to breathe in and out. You’re then prompted to create an account or sign in, after which you’re redirected to the home screen.
There, you'll find a daily meditation, as well as the “Wake Up,” a short sequence of videos that explain concepts or answer user questions, among other things. These videos usually start with a quick intro, followed by a short meditation—usually a minute, sometimes less—then circle back to the topic of the day. At first I thought I wouldn’t like or use the videos, but I came to thoroughly enjoy them. One of the best parts is users can skip over certain clips. I usually forgo the short meditation, especially if I am opening the app with the intent of meditating anyway.
From the bottom of the main screen, users can navigate between tabs, labelled “Today,” which is the home screen, “Meditate,” “Sleep,” and “Move,” for quick access to specific content. The main page also has a search button in the upper right, allowing users to find meditations by keywords such as “stress” or “focus.”
The interface is user-friendly and intuitive. I never felt frustrated trying to find a topic or session, which is something all meditation apps should strive for, given their whole point is to help you relax.
How does Headspace help you meditate?
Headspace boasts a broad and plentiful library of meditations, ranging from work stress to anxiety, and even sessions geared toward coping with certain emotions, like loneliness and anger.
Many of the mediations are recorded separately by two voices, one male and one female. The male voice is that of the app's co-founder, Andy Puddicombe. One of my favorite things about his style of meditation, and Headspace overall, is the acceptance and positive guidance he offers. The sessions don’t make users feel bad for getting distracted, which is almost inevitable for people just starting out. Puddicombe acknowledges that it happens and gives tips on how to manage a wandering mind. (These tips are emphasized in the “Basics” course that can be accessed in the free version, so you can decide if this aspect of Puddicombe’s style speaks to you before committing.)
While other meditation apps allow users to select sessions that are longer or shorter, Headspace users can change the length of almost any session before they begin the actual meditation. So if you’re interested in the “Listening to Others Meditation” session, for example, but only have five minutes, you can select the duration (three, five, or 10 minutes) that works for you. Other meditations are as long as 20 minutes, but users can almost always choose a shorter time.
During daytime sessions, I never nodded off, something that became a problem with other meditation apps I tried. Regardless of how I meditated—lying down, sitting, on the couch—my eyes only started sliding shut on one occasion. I found that the sessions were soothing without being so relaxing (or boring) that I fell asleep.
The app teaches eight meditation techniques, ranging from body scanning to focused attention and reflection. That said, I found fewer sessions for some techniques compared to others. I was only able to locate one definitive body scan, in which you start with your focus on the head or toes and progress your attention up or down. What’s more, the maximum duration for that session was three minutes. Body scans are incorporated into some nighttime wind downs, which I discovered as I tried more sessions; I just wish they were easier to find by searching the keyword “body scan.”
The vast majority of the meditations I tried, regardless of technique, were breath-focused. This type of meditation is good for many users, as breath is a universal experience and a controllable action. However, for some, such as people with anxiety that manifests as chest tightness, these meditations could make that sensation worse.
How can Headspace help you sleep?
The sleep content on Headspace is a nice perk and provides enough variety for a casual user. It includes a handful of guided sessions to relax before you doze off, as well as sleepcasts, which are audio tours of certain (often made-up) places.
Sleepcasts start with a “wind down,” such as a short visualization or breathing exercise. Afterward, listeners hear a detailed description of an imaginary location they tour with their mind’s eye, and it's paired with white noise to match the setting. (For example, in “Rainday Antiques,” it sounds as if it’s raining outside the building.) Users are given a slider to adjust the balance of the ambiance to voice, which is a nice touch. However, you can’t change the voice on a given session, as with the meditations.
The sleepcasts provide more than enough time for most people to fall asleep, running for 45 to 55 minutes. That's well longer than the typical 10 to 20 minutes most take to doze off from when their head hits the pillow. The recordings are thoughtfully designed and slightly altered each time they're played. According to Headspace, this variation means anxious sleepers can’t memorize the exact narrative or track the passage of time by recalling when certain details or phrases emerge. The only downside, aside from lack of voice customization, is that users can’t skip forward or backward. So, if you want to bypass the relaxation exercise, for example, you're out of luck.
The app also offers about two weeks' worth of night-specific guided exercises, including “wind downs” and “nighttime SOS” sessions. Wind downs prepare you for sleep by helping you relax and let go of the day. Unlike sleepcasts, which run as you doze off, these sessions are designed as bedtime prep. For people who like to sleep in silence, these come in shorter durations, anywhere from one to 20 minutes.
There are five nighttime SOS sessions that users can turn to when their sleep is interrupted by stressors like work, nightmares, or pain. These are 10 minutes long and their length cannot be adjusted, not that you’d want to fuss with that after waking up bleary-eyed from a bad dream.
To fall asleep, users can also choose certain sounds called “sleep music” or “sleep radio,” though the latter isn’t really what you’d think. Sleep radio refers to 500-minute recordings (or more than eight hours!) of one of three categories of sound: rain, ocean, or music.
The sleep section on Headspace isn’t where the app shines. Some of the selections are too small to be noteworthy, and the overall breadth of content is somewhat limited. But if you’re like me and just want a sleep story every now and again, it will serve you just fine.
How might Headspace improve your exercise routine?
In addition to the expected meditation content, Headspace has a Move section that includes several weeks' worth of workout sessions, generally between 10 and 30 minutes, and ranging from “mindful cardio” to “rest day meditations.” One of the tenets of this content is the integration of mindfulness and breathing into exercise or general movement.
I tried one of the featured daily exercises called “Reframing Anxiety,” a 20-minute workout that required limited equipment (an optional foam roller and yoga mat). While it was labelled as a workout, it wasn’t physically taxing. Rather than getting my heart rate up, the session emphasized breathing and focusing on the movements—mainly slow full-body stretches and yoga poses. During the session, I fell behind a couple of times because I was unfamiliar with an exercise and needed to watch the on-screen guide. Fortunately, like the daily Wake Up videos, there’s an option to rewind and fast-forward, so I could easily backtrack.
While the Move section is a nice plus that I’d use on occasion, it wouldn’t be a sufficient reason for me to pay for full access.
How much does Headspace cost?
Headspace has a free version, but the content is limited to a handful of basic meditations and one guided session geared toward nighttime relaxation. Users can try the 10-session Basics course, which provides a good taste of the style and tempo of Headspace meditations. But those looking to build a daily practice will need more content, making the paid option a better bet. Headspace offers a free two-week trial of the premium version to let you dig in a bit more before buying.
Headspace recently lowered its annual fee to $69.99, from nearly $100. That breaks down to $6 a month (less than a basic Netflix subscription) and puts its cost in the midrange of the meditation apps we tested. The developers provide free access to certain groups, including K-12 educators, and it's also currently giving complimentary subscriptions to healthcare professionals.
Why you should try Headspace
Headspace offers a great array of features, from quality meditations to daily videos, as well as sleep- and exercise-specific content. The app is well-rounded, and while it could stretch itself too thin for certain users or for specific meditation techniques, the content meets a level of polish and quality. I’ve yet to be disappointed by a Headspace meditation session or sleepcast. And while the sleep and movement content wouldn’t be enough for me to download the app, I consider them a worthwhile bonus.
Headspace excels in its intended use: meditation. I found myself wanting to use it beyond the testing I did for my job here at Reviewed. For someone who was skeptical of the practice, that says something.
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